On Compton rapper YG’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to 2014’s acclaimed My Krazy Life, he turns his focus inward and ventures forth without hit-making producer DJ Mustard. Chris Kelly examines the evolution of one of the West Coast’s most important rappers.
On June 12, 2015, YG was shot in the hip at a Los Angeles recording studio. The injury was not life-threatening; he was treated and released on June 13. Hard at work on what would become Still Brazy, YG hit the studio and recorded ‘Who Shot Me’ later that day. The story is a familiar one for rap fans, immediately bringing to mind the November 1994 shooting of Tupac Shakur at Quad Recording Studios in Manhattan, the incident that spawned Notorious B.I.G’s ‘Who Shot Ya’ and Shakur’s ‘Hit ‘Em Up’.
But while those songs added fuel to the fire of the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop rivalry, YG isn’t waging war against other rappers or an entire coast. He’s turned his focus inward to tell the next episode of his story: If YG’s My Krazy Life is the chronicle of a day-in-the-life of a Compton gangbanger, Still Brazy is its aftermath (no pun intended). The album is also the latest evolution of the man that, in terms of staying true to a traditional West Coast sound, has defined this decade of California rap more than anyone – even Kendrick Lamar
That late night in June looms large over Still Brazy. In interviews, YG has maintained that he doesn’t know who shot him and that the incident wasn’t gang-related, but he has described the incident as “some inside type, somebody-was-really-coming-to-get-me type shit.” On ‘Who Shot Me’, he wonders if the shooter was a “homie,” or a jealous boyfriend, or someone he fought before, and the paranoia doesn’t stop with the shooting – it creeps into every facet of his life. He’s tired of giving hand-outs (‘Gimme Got Shot’), tired of the women in his life (‘She Wish She Was’); he’s also extremely tired of the police (more on that later). “Paranoia got this Henny in my kidney,” he raps on the title track, bemoaning “lady problems, family problems / Homies problems, all this drama.”
Thankfully (for listeners), his drama-induced anxiety has only sharpened his skills as a rapper. The verse-to-verse storytelling that shined on My Krazy Life is intact, his flows are more versatile and he’s even toying with his voice and delivery to play characters (in the way that Lamar does so well). Check out his double-time raps on ‘Gimme Got Shot’ and ‘I Got a Question’, or the elastic flow that plays off the syncopated grooves of ‘Bool, Balm & Bollective’.
Mirroring his growth on the mic is an evolution of his sound. While My Krazy Life was an “album-length celebration of DJ Mustard’s ratchet revolution,” the hitmaking producer is nowhere to be found on Still Brazy. YG’s split from Mustard has nothing to do with the brief issues they had last year; their beef was reportedly squashed at Coachella. Instead, it seems as if both parties have moved on from the lightning-in-a-bottle success that marked My Krazy Life. After owning the radio and the club in 2013 and 2014 – with hits not just for YG, but for Ty Dolla Sign, Chris Brown, Jeremih, Tinashe and others – Mustard’s ratchet sound ended up being copped by the likes of Iggy Azalea and Jidenna. It was clearly time to move on, which Mustard has with his EDM-flavored singles ‘Whole Lotta Lovin’ (featuring Travis Scott) and the just-released ‘Don’t Hurt Me’ (featuring Nicki Minaj and Jeremih).
With YG in a particularly paranoid and Blood-obsessed mood, Still Brazy presents the perfect opportunity to revive G-funk for a new generation. Mustard has been replaced by a crew of producers, and it sounds as if Terrace Martin – last heard bringing a throwback touch to To Pimp A Butterfly – played a large role, with newcomer DJ Swish notching a handful of credits, as well. Martin is behind the best track on the album, ‘Twist My Fingaz’, a G-funk stomper full of funky worms and nods to Zapp and Funkadelic. (Still, it was impossible to completely avoid Mustard’s influence on contemporary rap: ‘Why You Always Hatin’ has the sawtooth bass and “heys” of peak Mustard.)
Still Brazy doesn’t just borrow G-funk from ‘90s gangsta rap – it also sees YG getting political with the same ferocity of Shakur and NWA on the trio of songs that close the album. Like he did on ‘I Just Wanna Party’, YG unites Bloods and Crips (and Mexicans, in this case) for a common cause, telling Trump to fuck off on ‘FDT’ (it appears that the Secret Service did weigh in on the album; a few particularly violent lyrics that appeared on the single have been deleted from the album). He is at his most defiant on ‘Police Get Away Wit Murder’, taking a by-any-means-necessary approach to dealing with the cops over on the album’s best beat, and he even name-drops police murder victims David Joseph, Kimani Gray and Laquan McDonald. YG is perhaps an unlikely political rapper, and these songs aren’t without growing pains: he seems to kowtow to conservative arguments (black-on-black crime, the victimization of welfare, etc.) on ‘Blacks & Browns’, but at least he’s trying.
Despite his politics and paranoia, Still Brazy is as much of a summer party soundtrack as its predecessor; perhaps everyone is a little more political and paranoid these days. The album isn’t perfect, though: up-and-comer Kamaiyah is underused on ‘Why You Always Hatin’; calling it ‘Bool, Balm & Bollective’ instead of ‘Bool, Balm & Bollected’ is a Kendrick-rapping-Mick-Romney mistake; and the less said about deliriously misogynistic ‘She Wish She Was’ the better. But YG has avoided the sophomore slump, stepped up his rap game, stepped out of the shadow of DJ Mustard and revived a beloved subgenre – all while processing how his crazy life almost came to an end one night last June. Survival has made him stronger and more confident, and no matter how much YG warns us on ‘Don’t Come To LA’, we can’t get enough of his vision for West Coast rap.
Chris Kelly is on Twitter