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The release timing of YBN Cordae‘s debut album, The Lost Boy, just weeks after the release of the remake of Disney’s The Lion King seems almost prescient. In the film, the protagonist, a young lion cub, is presented his legacy, his eventual regency over “everything the light touches,” but runs away after suffering a devastating loss. He spends time in the jungle, lost to the world, dead to his family and friends, before he rediscovers himself and returns to The Pridelands to reclaim his right to rule.
On Cordae’s startlingly precocious debut, the young rapper imagines himself in the titular Lost Boy phase of the movie, finding out who he really is. In reality, he ends up reminding himself and the listener that he knows exactly where he came from and where he’s going. Despite his humble beginnings, he is destined for greatness.
YBN Cordae has an old soul. Despite arriving in the rap game along with a rambunctious group of party rappers which included YBN Nahmir and YBN Almighty Jay, Cordae has a more weathered, sagacious outlook at times than his YBN brethren. It’s evident in his early run of pre-fame mixtapes, with titles like I’m So Anxious and I’m So Anonymous, and on his breakout freestyle, “Old N*ggas,” on which he took issue with J. Cole’s “1985” depiction of young rappers. When he smartly pointed out the similarities between the old heads tut-tutting young rappers like Lil Pump and their own frictions with their elders and bad examples from R Kelly to Kanye West, Cordae set himself apart from his Soundcloud-raised peers and established his potential: “I’ll be the greatest ever, n—a, just watch.”
The danger in setting such a lofty goal off the bat is that Cordae would be forced to eventually live up to it — a problem many of those crowned as young rap saviors have stumbled over. Once upon a time, Cordae’s friendly rival/influential mentor J. Cole was bound for coronation but abdicated his throne early on in his career, letting his own hero Nas down in the process. Joey Badass brought back the feeling on his throwback-sounding mixtape 1999 but was determined to be too precious in his reliance on old-school tropes and beats. By the time he broke away from the constrained, late-90s sound he’d cultivated on 2017’s All-Amerikkkan Badass, the rap establishment has already moved on to its next hope for a messiah.
On any debut album, a new artist faces two challenges: They must introduce themselves, establishing why they belong, and they must also distinguish themselves, proving they aren’t just a carbon copy of a previous artist. YBN Cordae faces additional problems to solve. He must balance the mainstream appeal of his YBN cohorts, who arrived with bass-heavy, youthful zeal, and the expectations established by “Old N*ggas.” He must appeal to old heads without pandering, but keep his peers from falling asleep on the soulful, introspective beats he loves to use but which have appeared to be anathema to a generation raised on the raw energy of the Lil Uzi Verts and Playboi Cartis of the modern rap game. It turns out to be a tightrope that Cordae traipses along with relative ease.
Family provides the waypoints that allow this lost boy to remain headed in the right direction. On autobiographical tracks “Wintertime,” “Thanksgiving,” “Way Bay Home,” and “Family Matters,” Cordae paints vivid pictures of a home filled with love and hope, even as they struggle with issues like abuse, addiction, infidelity, and prostitution. “We all got skeletons in our closet from a shady past,” he says on “Wintertime,” “Made me brag about my Mercedes, Jag.” If he’s going to stunt, he wants the listener to know why: “Was just waitin’ tables, gave customers extra fries / Maya Angelou with accounts, I just let it rise.” The soul samples that permeate the tracks give them warmth and depth, making Cordae sound as relatable and real as the idols of days past.
Likewise, his smart choice of collaborators — Anderson .Paak on the uptempo “RNP,” Chance The Rapper on the nostalgic “Bad Idea,” Pusha T on the menacing “Nightmares Are Real,” and Meek Mill on the ruminative “We Gon Make It” — show that not only can he trade rhymes with more experienced predecessors but that he’s earned their respect and deserves that same respect from elder generations, as well. For those who would question his temerity to rhyme over a Slim Shady classic with his breakthrough “My Name Is” freestyle, “Have Mercy” quickly puts their skepticism to rest with a display of lyricism that even the notoriously grumpy Marshall Mathers would have to give an approving nod.
The balance that Cordae finds on The Lost Boy is impressive, especially when contrasted with the polished quality of the beat choices, song sequencing, and restrained application of skits that tie it all together. This is the sort of album that many artists struggle to craft years into their career, but Cordae nails on his first attempt. Ultimately, he doesn’t really need to find himself at all. If anything, The Lost Boy is a sepia-toned collection of snapshots functioning as both his road map and his reminder of what he already knows: Who he is, where he’s going, and exactly how to get there.
The Lost Boy is out now via Atlantic Recording Corporation. Get it here.
YBN Cordae is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.