Ironically, virtually everyone close to YoungBoy agrees that he should leave his hometown as quickly as possible: It was in South Baton Rouge where he allegedly fired a gun into a crowd of people, which led to his arrest in November 2016 and six months in Parish Prison. He eventually pled two counts of attempted murder down to aggravated assault with a firearm and was freed, given a second chance he’s determined not to squander. After YoungBoy’s release, local hero and NOLA hip-hop veteran Boosie Badazz congratulated him on Instagram -- and ended the caption with “leave Br asap.” YoungBoy will remain on probation for the next three years, and any slip-up could land him a 10-year sentence.
Even with his career on the rise, YoungBoy hasn't made it out of Red Stick just yet. The probation requires a judge’s permission for him to travel. If he could, he might relocate here to Miami. “I love it,” he says -- even more than Atlanta, where he wanted to move just a few months ago. “It makes me feel like I’m away from a lot of stuff.”
Wherever he ends up, YoungBoy is the next great hope for Louisiana hip-hop after years of cities like Atlanta and Chicago stealing the national spotlight and dictating the sound and cadence of contemporary rap music. The album promises to be a culmination of his powerful blend of his state’s various styles -- equal parts gangster, confessional and melodic -- and make YoungBoy the new torchbearer for a gritty tradition that includes Lil Wayne, Webbie and Boosie. It’s a style and persona that arguably put him in a special category, apart from many of his young contemporaries like Lil Pump, Lil Yachty and Post Malone climbing the charts with odes to opulence, prescription drugs and rock-star lifestyles.
His most recent solo mixtape, August’s AI YoungBoy, was the first to make the Billboard 200, reaching No. 24 and spawning the singsong street anthem “No Smoke,” which has peaked at No. 73 on the Billboard Hot 100. YoungBoy’s songs combine rage and self-awareness. “I got to make up for all them nights that my mama cried,” he raps on “Untouchable,” which touts a video that racked up almost 100 million views on YouTube. The next song, “Left Hand Right Hand,” paints a more brutal portrait of life in the streets: “I never dap you with the left hand, I draw down with the Glock in the right hand.” All three boast sticky hooks; like many Southern hip-hop greats, he’s got a genuine gift for songwriting and not just rhyming.
Ask him why he has struck such a chord with an audience seemingly predisposed to hype anthems, and YoungBoy shrugs: “I’m just trying to be myself -- make music how I make music.” And when he isn't recording, he’s sometimes overcome with self-doubt. “I don’t like my music,” he claims. “I’ll make a song and if I do like it, I’ll feel it, but after that 10th play, I don’t like it no more.”
YoungBoy knows he needs to get his head right for 2018, which will no doubt be the biggest year of his life. He can be surprisingly pragmatic. He changed his name from NBA YoungBoy in 2017, out of fear of a copyright dispute, just as his career began to gain footing. And he has a limited vision of his own future in hip-hop. “If I’m rapping in 10 years, that means I didn't do something right,” he says, explaining that he wants to make enough money to stop rapping, the only job he has ever known.
At the studio, he eventually tires, and his answers grow short. “You make me feel like I’m in therapy,” he groans, reclining on the couch. He rubs his thumb and forefinger across the three dents that mark his forehead, scars from a halo brace he had to wear when he broke his neck at age 4, after a wrestling move gone wrong.
Still, as his star rises and his life comes under scrutiny -- he began the year making headlines for supposedly forcing his girlfriend to sleep in the lobby of a hotel where he was staying -- YoungBoy seems ready for whatever comes. “I am what you say I am,” he allows. “If this fan says I’m a bitch, I’m a bitch. If this fan says I’m cute, I’m cute. If they say I’m the best rapper, I’m the best. Fuck it. We’re going to go with the flow and play our role.”
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of Billboard.