YoungBoy Never Broke Again is yet to cut a deal with Nike or top the Billboard, but you might be familiar with the name. After dropping out of the ninth grade to focus full-time on rapping, the Louisiana upstart’s public beef with local rival Scotty Cain secured him a massive online following. His YouTube channel has racked up a billion views. His subscribers total 2.2 million. He has just turned 18 years old.
However, like Kodak Black and 21 Savage, the artist’s criminal behaviour has repeatedly threatened to derail his career. This debut album, the one you now might be unsure about streaming, was moved from a March to an April 27th rollout after the teenage rapper was arrested for possible involvement in an assault/kidnapping. Security footage later emerged showing YoungBoy slamming girlfriend Jania Jackson onto a hotel lobby floor.
Whereas canonical G.O.A.T’s like Dre and 2Pac profited from successful careers despite their very real abusive relationships with women, modern interconnectivity empowers the listener to hold artists accountable. Society’s #MeToo moment is ongoing, and it remains to be seen whether Spotify will add controversial artists to their Persona Non-Grata list. What if Ike Turner was struck from the cultural register? I would miss ‘River Deep Mountain High’ like a lost leg. But how do surgeons handle gangrenous limbs? They amputate.
If only the situation was so clean cut. YoungBoy, whose real name is Kentrell Gaulden, has undeniable gifts. His nasal flow is muscular yet flexible, shifting from a mumbled autotuned drawl to rattling 100-mph rants, and unlike Rich the Kid, YoungBoy’s confessional lyrics indicate a certain weariness towards his early megastardom. On paranoid opener ‘Overdose’, he pledges to send his enemies straight to the devil by spiking their snuff, but only after he’s steadied his nerves with a Xanax.
Until Death Call My Name is an anxious, vulnerable listen, especially on ‘Traumatized’, where YoungBoy shares harrowing childhood memories with Lil Baby over a glassy synthesised beat. YoungBoy’s willingness to discuss PTSD demonstrates an uncommon sensitivity towards mental health, and it allows Baby to deliver one of the record’s most haunting couplets “It was right in front of my eyes, I couldn’t even cry/ To this day I don’t know why it’s still eating my insides”. Bitter and harsh, its realism grabs you by the heartstrings and demands you pay attention.
Whether you empathise with YoungBoy’s nervy trap blues will depend on your ability to tolerate his refusal to do anything so unhip as apologise. He comes close on melodic mid-album highlight ‘Solar Eclipse’, where he croons “I ain’t mean to break your heart, but baby, that’s what thugs do”. YoungBoy repeatedly identifies himself as a bloodthirsty demon, a vile prisoner who is too connected to their environment to change. On funky ‘Worth It’, his love of the gangsta life is a triumphant two fingers up against the system. Other times, the lifestyle isn’t so rewarding: “Forever thuggin’ on site, my heart cold at night”, he laments on the jittery ‘Right or Wrong’.
Still, the bluesy downbeats don’t overshadow the flashier cuts. Sometimes, YoungBoy sounds like he’s enjoying the moment. Between crashing on Rick Ross’s couch and showing off a passable Lil Wayne impression, there is a kid who is just thrilled to be spitting. All this toasting might have turned putrid, like a jumped-up fanboy who is convinced their Biggie worship is proof of an eclectic taste. Thankfully, the album’s relative army of producers, including frequent Young Thug accomplice Wheezy, keep the tunes nimble and tight. Thick trap hi-hats are threaded together by skittering pianos that sound imported from East Coast Rap records. If YoungBoy’s past wasn’t so questionable, a self-satisfied banger like ‘Astronaut Kid’ could have been a slow cruise classic.
A facile point. Let me level here; I admired his knotty internal rhymes. The production offers some interesting ideas but doesn’t stray too far from swampy Southern Hip-Hop blueprints. What saves the album is that YoungBoy examines the unforgivable pain he causes others. Of course, you might wonder how sorry he really is once he boasts about collapsing a homie’s face with a Glock. Is the album just a glorification of violence? The privileged answer is yes. The harder answer, and perhaps the record’s “message”, is that our childhoods will haunt us until we contrive an escape. YoungBoy isn’t an artist you need to support. But his insightful storytelling perhaps deserves a hearing.