You’d be forgiven for thinking YBN Cordae is just another Soundcloud rapper, but despite his dyed dreads and proximity to a crew of raucous rabble rousers, YBN isn’t a typical member of the next generation. Besides, it’s 2018 and the time when rappers could be expected to only move in one lane has long passed. Epithets like “lyrical” or “party” no longer apply to today’s young rappers, who’ve outgrown broad but shallow categorizations like “underground” or “mainstream” for their diverse, all-inclusive musical styles and tastes. Cordae isn’t just a member of the burgeoning YBN collective which has broken out in the wake of YBN Nahmir’s explosively viral “Rubbin’ Off The Paint.” He’s an exemplar of the new wave in hip-hop in which fun, buoyant, radio-friendly rap and intellectual, complex lyricism are no longer mutually exclusive. He is, in short, the future of the genre, sure to be every generation’s favorite new rapper, so get familiar now.
YBN Cordae — born Cordae Amari Dunston and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina — started to blow up when his single “Old N—-s” became a Youtube sensation. The three fateful words that followed in its title, “J. Cole ‘1985’ Response,” undoubtedly enticed many to click, possibly skeptical about another potential diss track in a year that’s seen plenty of high-profile rap beef. What they heard transformed him almost overnight from background sidekick in YBN Nahmir’s rowdy crew into a formidable rising star in his own right to the tune of 9.1 million views.
The song disproved the idea that young rappers no longer care about lyrics; Cordae told XXL earlier this year that his early influences were Nas, Rakim, Jay-Z, and Big L, yet his other songs that have since cropped up, including the Cole Bennett-shot video for “Scotty Pippen,” have also become huge hits among the younger crowd — “Scotty” has 5 million views as of this writing and the song only dropped two weeks ago. Cordae is quickly proving that it’s possible to appeal to everybody.
It wasn’t always like this; for a generation of rap fans, it was either Jay-Z or Talib Kweli, with a hard line down the middle like the Berlin Wall. Rap was separated into factions that either staunchly fought for ideals like artistic integrity or chased dollars with blatant, atheistic commercialism. Then, as the delineation between the sides eroded — in part due to the efforts of Kweli and Jay showing each other mutual respect throughout the aughts — the battle lines shifted, becoming generational.
Although once-in-a-lifetime talents like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole could stand with a foot on either side, their fans have trended for the most part toward the more academic, grown-up end of the spectrum, often ending up looking down at the up-and-coming newbies as unlearned hooligans, lacking a “certain level of intelligence” to enjoy the wordier, more reflective rap music conveyed by rappers like Kendrick and Cole.
The old heads who grew up on Rawkus Records and Roc-A-Fella would sneer down their noses at internet-bred rappers who eschewed lyrical formalism for sheer showmanship, wagging their multicolored dreads as they crooned and ad-libbed along to beats that were more pummeling 808 than “Funky Drummer” samples. “Mumble rappers,” they called them, despite the fact that very few of these new-wave hip-hop artists did anything of the sort.