When YG first emerged on the scene five albums ago, certain elements of his artistry were more rough around the edges than many rap purists would have liked. But it wasn’t his gift for wordplay or emmaculate cadences that drew listeners in. It was his honesty, at times blunt, brutal, and bombastic, that set him apart from well-practiced Compton cohorts like The Game or Kendrick Lamar or even Problem. His flows lacked polish and he hewed closely to familiar concepts, but there was an edge of lived experience that made his debut, My Krazy Life, and its follow-up, Still Brazy, so electric and engaging.
Now, six years removed and with much more experience, wisdom, and practice in the game — and a lot more to lose than the scruffy, devil-may-care version of himself that once introduced the world to the concept of “flocking” and apologized to his mama for all his street-running shenanigans — YG releases his fifth studio album (and last under his Def Jam deal), My Life 4Hunnid. The new album offers few surprises and while the rougher edges have been polished off, the music provides something else in exchange: A glimpse of a veteran at work — one who has since mastered his craft and turns out to be pretty damn good at it.
While prior releases prompted some listeners to call YG’s music “one-dimensional” due to his aforementioned tendency to stick to comfortable topics, My Life 4Hunnid arrives in a completely different context — as did many other releases this year. Like the rest of us, YG has seen his plans derailed and his day-to-day existence upended by the arrival of the novel coronavirus and the resulting shutdown of his industry, both of which offered frustrating setbacks and promising opportunities for rebirth or renewal.
However, on a personal note, YG also faced turmoil, seismic upheaval, and the reevalution of his own emotional state early this year, which inform the self-effacing tone and anxieties expressed on tracks like lead single/album closer “Laugh Now Kry Later.” He began 2020 demonstrating personal growth by apologizing to the LGBTQ community for previous ignorant statements and views, a sign that his relationship with Bay Area artist Kehlani had left a positive impact on him. Unfortunately for YG, he also faced the disintegration of that relationship, which he touches on in the lyrics to multiple songs on the album, albeit in an oblique way that suggests he’s looking at things from her point of view as much as his own.
“You be wantin’ more from me,” he confesses on the melancholy “Thug Kry,” “Tryna make me strong when I’m weak / You be wantin’ more from me / But I like you more as a friend.” On “Laugh Now Kry Later,” he addresses his errors in the third person: “Baby got her heart broken, need labor / He cheated, like head, so the n*** played her / Now she anti-dick, she a dick hater / Got her in her house playin’ with the vibrator.” The flashes of his devious humor remain evident, but he’s also smiling to keep from crying, just like the title of the song — a favorite axiom among gangster types — says.
Likewise, YG has been observing the months of civil unrest directed at police who continue to abuse, harass, and murder Black people at a disproportionate rate. He’s spoken on the subject before; Still Brazy contained “Police Get Away With Murder,” a self-explanatory examination of the phenomenon. This time, though, he taps into the zeitgeist from a different angle with “FTP,” reflecting the transformation of the peoples’ exasperation with police’s invulnerability into fury and action. It’s no surprise that “FTP” has not only become the soundtrack of the movement, but reverberates that energy in its protest footage-fueled video.
With just 11 songs, not including the two “Traumatized” interludes recording his own children’s reactions at having police officers’ guns pointed at them during a raid on YG’s house early this year, there was less room for missteps. Unfortunately, the Chris Brown and Tyga-featuring “Rodeo” counts as one that started with a good idea — calling back to Tupac’s “How Do You Want It?” — and executing it poorly, speeding up the beat to an arhythmic rattle that doesn’t suit either YG or Tyga’s usually dependable flows. Meanwhile, YG does continue to stick to the usual subject matter, which limits the perception of his growth. Nothing here is particularly high-concept, although the expansive range of instrumentals will undoubtedly widen his appeal beyond the sun-soaked streets of Los Angeles.
My Life 4Hunnid isn’t quite the superstar effort that YG’s first two projects were. Back then, we were watching a rookie coming into the game and blowing us all away with highlight play after highlight play. Now, we sort of know what to expect from him, and when we get it, it’s harder and harder to feel impressed — after all, familiarity breeds contempt. But taking a step back, the timeline of YG’s development as an artist and a craftsman becomes clearer. When a rookie-of-the-year candidate doesn’t quite become the perennial all-star we all thought he’d be, it’s easy to view his career trajectory as a disappointment. But in a game where the average career doesn’t last more than two years/albums, to see him still here, still consistent, and building his business as a label owner while owning up to past mistakes, YG’s persistence and longevity reveal an artist coming into his own. That’s more than enough to satisfy.
My Life 4Hunnid is out now via Def Jam. Get it here.