Of all the names on the Grammys’ list of 2020 nominations for the Best Rap Album award, there was one name that particularly stood out among the nominees. While Meek Mill was a first time nominee, the other three artists had also been previously nominated for Grammy Awards: J. Cole for Best Rap Album in 2016 for 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Tyler The Creator for 2017’s Flower Boy, and 21 Savage for his appearance on Post Malone’s “Rockstar.” Only one artist, though, was nominated for Best Rap Album for his debut album. That artist, YBN Cordae, is the one who most deserves the win because his album, The Lost Boy, is an accomplishment unlike any other.
Yes, awards are subjective and obviously, a win for any of the nominated albums — Dreamville’s Revenge Of The Dreamers III, Meek’s Championships, 21 Savage’s I Am > I Was, and Tyler’s Igor — would be a win for hip-hop as a whole. They’re all innovative in some way, representative of the best rap music had to offer in 2019 (short of a few other gems which were probably just beyond the Grammy committee’s ability to grasp, like Young Thug’s So Much Fun), and incredibly well-crafted works of art that took time, effort, and focus to complete.
But The Lost Boy is just downright impressive, as close as a rap album has ever come to perfection — let alone a debut. It’s YBN Cordae’s first outing as a solo artist, yet it shows a maturity and craftsmanship beyond his 21 years. It’s polished, it’s cohesive, it’s vulnerable, it’s tough, it’s lyrical — it’s everything a rap album should be. The last time a rap artist’s debut was this tightly constructed was when Kendrick Lamar released Good Kid, MAAD City. Incidentally, that album was also a startlingly graphic coming of age story from a rapper with a penchant for dense, complex writing, intensely vivid imagery, and tongue-twisting wordplay.
More importantly, though, the album bridges the divide between the generations of hip-hop, something the genre and the culture sorely need right now. Uproxx’s own Andre Gee eloquently detailed the ways in which J. Cole’s recent musical evolution worked toward that end, but YBN Cordae’s album embodies it, which is another thing entirely. Cordae’s work on The Lost Boy exemplifies the ways in which the youth can look to the past for inspiration while forging their own, unique path toward the future.
Take “Thanksgiving.” It’s a poignant ode to family and to legacy, built smartly and concisely around the central metaphor of Thanksgiving dinner, but it’s also a clever love song that highlights Cordae’s skill as a songwriter. Ever since LL Cool J sat alone in his room and stared at his wall, the “girl song” has been a staple of hip-hop albums, especially ones aimed for the young adult demographic as squarely as Cordae’s. And the young, Maryland-reared rapper certainly had the opportunity to take the easy route with the single “Locationships,” which was released shortly before the album’s completion. But he dug deeper, something we’ve rarely seen artists his age do — as I once lamented about his contemporaries Polo G, Lil Tecca, and Lil Tjay — to find the added inspiration to break away from the generic anti-love love song.
“RNP” with Anderson .Paak is a prime example of utilizing the specific aesthetics of an elder generation — millennials like J. Cole, who produced the funky, Erick Sermon-esque beat and .Paak, who provides a smooth, Jadakiss-and-Styles P-inspired, back-and-forth counterpoint to Cordae energetic but laid-back flow — while making it appealing to members of his own. I’ve personally watched as young adults who wouldn’t be bothered to give EPMD a second glance bounce right off the ground to a style of songwriting the grumpier members of my own graduating class have lamented no longer exists. It’s heartening to see the old ways reinterpreted but it’s also encouraging that Cordae doesn’t feel the need to rehash anything that’s already been done. He even highlights his and .Paak’s age difference in the lyrics (“I was like 6,” “I was like 16”) as a way of underlining their commonalities — both were awed by the championship dominance of the Lakers tandem of Shaq and Kobe at the beginning of the millennium.
Cordae shows that he can rap his ass off on “Have Mercy” and “Broke As F*ck,” two aggressive tracks in the vein of the 808-pounding rattle of J. Cole’s “Middle Child,” then casually processes familial trauma on “Bad Idea” and “Family Matters.” He can go deep, broad, narrow, slow, fast. I praised 21 Savage’s I Am > I Was, but nothing there showcases the same level of versatility. Dreamers is an impressive display of the collaborative spirit of the posse cut, but it’s nowhere near as focused. Meek Mill’s Championships is incisive, but scattershot in places, undermined by too-obvious bids for radio and club play. And Igor, while every bit as cohesive and creative as The Lost Boy, really should be nominated for Album Of The Year, not Best Rap Album, as it barely even qualifies — according to Hip-Hop By The Numbers, it features more singing than rapping.
In fact, YBN Cordae would be only the sixth rapper in the history of the award to win for his debut album, which would put him in rarified company with household names like Puff Daddy, Eminem, Kanye West, and Cardi B. It’s where he deserves to be for this effort, but a win would also send the message that not only can youth be rewarded, but also grounded, thoughtful approaches. Strict adherence to traditionalist tropes wouldn’t be the only way to appeal to the establishment, nor would throwing away any semblance of hip-hop’s rich history and heritage. There could be a middle ground, where for once, stodgy old heads would welcome “the kids” to hang around on their lawn. A long time ago, I called Cordae a star in the making. The Grammys would do well to solidify that status with the hardware to back it up.
YBN Cordae is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.