YBN Cordae: The 'Lost Boy' Who Finally Found Inner Peace

Jessica Xie
YBN Cordae photographed on July 23, 2019 in New York.

"You don't mind if I lay down on the couch, do you?"

After a grueling flight from Europe and being bombarded with press obligations in the last 24 hours, YBN Cordae wants to rest his head. As he tosses back and forth to find a comfortable position, within a couple of seconds, he discovers the perfect spot and is finally at ease.

Though the 21-year-old is enjoying his brief time of rest in Billboard's New York offices, he's snapped back to reality when he remembers his upcoming rehearsals for his first late-night appearance on Jimmy Fallon, alongside one of rap's brightest multi-hyphenates, Anderson .Paak.

Despite his arduous workload, the nimble wordsmith is relishing every single minute of his budding career. Less than two years ago, Cordae Dunston was a college student working at TGI Fridays. So for him, rehearsing a J. Cole-produced record for a lauded late-night show trumps sitting through lecture halls and serving mozzarella sticks to a family of four. 

"I was miserable. That was when I was really like the lost boy. I was just miserable as fuck at work. This was in Baltimore. I was working at a Fridays in Baltimore."

Though his YBN cohort, Nahmir, was blooming into a star with his hypnotic single "Rubbing off the Paint" in 2017, as luck would have it, Cordae would emerge as the collective's most cerebral lyricist, courtesy of his masterful remake of J. Cole's "1985." Even with Cordae's verbal thrashing coming at the expense of the older generation, the tracks still served as ear candy to die-hard boom-bap enthusiasts, who found his undeniable skills and gutsy delivery irresistible. It didn't end there: Cordae shined on his rendition of Eminem's "My Name Is," then excelled while dribbling his way through the Maddox and Mike Dean-produced "Scotty Pippen." 

This year, the accolades began to pour in for Cordae, as he earned his first festival appearance, performing at Broccoli Fest in his DMV hometown, and later being named a XXL Freshman. He's set to release his debut project The Lost Boy via Art@War/Atlantic Records on Friday (July 26), ahead of opening up for Logic's The Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind Tour, set to begin this October. For his debut, Cordae dazzles as a formidable storyteller, with a knack for witty punchlines. His candor gleams on the standout track "Family Matters," where he unabashedly speaks on his family's missteps, whether it be his cousin's addiction to Xanax, or his aunt going into prostitution. 

"I don't even wanna think about it because I know some people are going to say something, but I was just writing what I was inspired by," says Cordae, now laying down on the couch. "I would just go home, and I'm seeing this shit. I just had to put it down on pen and paper. It was like a self-therapeutic measure for me."

The Lost Boy is a gripping and revealing tale of Cordae's life, addressing his drug addiction as a college freshman, being kicked out of his mom's house and more. This album isn't simply a gloomy introduction to who the 21-year-old is, but also a reminder that anyone can overcome some of life's most gruesome obstacles, if you just believe you can. 

"I still have so much more shit I'm about to do, says Cordae. "So much more shit I'm about to accomplish. So many more barriers that I'm about to breakthrough. I'm just tapped into my shit."

Billboard spoke with YBN Cordae about his new project, how music saved his life, why he loves and hates Instagram, and why he considers Meek Mill to be his "big bro."

On "Wintertime," you rap something about making $80 cash for a show?

Nah, nah [laughs]. Not literally 80 bucks. Wait. [Starts rapping verse]. Not like $80 cash, for 80 bands. 

I was about to say, $80 cash versus $80k is a huge difference.

If you're getting $80 a show, then you're not getting paid. [Laughs.] No, there's no show that will pay you 80 bucks. 

I know some cats that's been there, bro. 

Nah, you either gotta perform for free or you gotta pay to perform. Yeah, I was saying like $80K.

I say all that to say you've had a crazy run this year, you did Broccoli Fest in the DMV, you're on your own headlining tour right now and then you're hitting the road with Logic. Talk about this run of touring versus when you were coming up and doing low-end shows.

It's dope. Sometimes, it can get a bit overwhelming. Right now it's a little bit [that way] because I just left Europe and you know, I just did a show last night and then I had to do press shit. So, sometimes, it can be a little overwhelming. But I love performing, man. I just love performing. You get to see the music you created be performed in front of the world. So it's really dope. 

That does sound overwhelming. It's crazy because on the same record, you mention how you used to take Xanax to calm your anxiety. So I can imagine with all the fame, the shows and the press, that can be a lot. 

Yeah, that was back in college. I used to be off the Xans heavy, you know what I'm saying? Like, my freshman year of college. I was poppin' Xanax like fuck, but I never really talked about it in my music before -- because I don't wanna glorify it. But I've never been able to tell my story before.

So, yeah, for sure, I used to be off acid, all that shit when I was in school -- but now, I don't be off none of that shit. I used to be a heavy weed smoker. I don't even smoke weed no more. I've been taking a break from that shit. I'm fasting right now just to focus on my spirituality. But yeah, that point in time, when I was really the lost boy, that's what I was on. 

You did a lot of unpacking on this project in terms of putting your story out there. You could have waited until your debut to unload all of that tramua. What made you decide that this was an appropriate time to let all of your skeletons out the closet this time around? 

Man, I just wanted to express myself and be vulnerable. That's just what I found myself doing, just being a vulnerable artist, person and human being. Fuck an artist, I'm a human being at the end of the day. So I'm just expressing myself and being more vulnerable. It's like just speaking my truths.

Did you really cry when you were on the plane writing your song "Family Matters"? 

Yeah, I literally did. For sure. On my way back from North Carolina flying back to LA. I literally was crying writing that shit. 

Did you let any of your family members hear the record?

Nah, none of them heard it yet. 

Are you worried about how they're going to react to it with you being so open and airing out their business?

Yeah, but I'm not saying no names, you know what I'm saying? It's funny because I even changed up like a line or two. I even changed some lines in that jawn because I was like, "Hmmm. This is like..." But I don't even know, man. I don't even wanna think about it because I know some people are going to say something, but I was just writing what I was inspired by. I would just go home and I'm seeing this shit. I just had to put it down on pen and paper. It was like a self-therapeutic measure for me. 

That reminds me of "Bad Idea" -- the record that you have with Chance. On the hook, you speak about struggling to go back home. 

Yeah, yeah! This whole album is a journey. So you noticed at the beginning, it's "Wintertime." It's like the beginning of the journey. "Have Mercy" is when you first step into that fire on your journey. So "Bad Idea" is also on that vibe. You're looking back and with home, you can still see it from a distance, like, "Nah. It wouldn't be a bad idea if I never went home again. I'm leaving the crib. I'm never going home again." And then, towards the end of the album, you noticed I got the jawn called "Way Back Home" with Ty Dolla [$ign]. So it's just that. 

Was it ever a struggle for you to go back home?

When I first left to do music full-time, I was like, "Oh, I'm not going back home." I was like, "I'm visiting my family, but I'll never live [there]." Like, my folks live in the Carolinas and I'd be like, "I'm never living in the Carolinas," but now I can't wait to go back fucking home, man -- especially for Thanksgiving, no pun intended. [Laughs.]

"Thanksgiving" is a dope record, by the way. 

But for real, though. I can't wait to go back home for Thanksgiving and just chill.

Why?

Because I get to just relax. I get to be me. Not, I get to be me, but I get to chill and get my favorite cooked meal. I get to just sit on the couch and relax. 

Has your family and friends changed their behavior since you became a star or is it still just regular Cordae from down the block?

It's the same. I still get treated the same. I still sleep on the couch when I go back home.

Is it because the couch is extra comfy?

Nah, I don't have a room at my house. Like my little brother has a room. My mom and them got a room and there's one room that's like extra storage and shit in there. So I just sleep on the couch when I go back home. 

There were a couple of times you shouted out your mom on the project, whether it was when she couldn't afford to pay for AAU basketball on "Broke as Fuck," or she was kicking you out the crib on "Nightmares Are Real." With where you're at right now, what's your current relationship with your mom and how has she been able to adjust to your success?

My mom is the best. She's the dopest. She just loves everything that's going on. She's very supportive. I'm really grateful for my mom. And my mom always raised me being a single mother. Being a single mother, a lot of stress comes with that. You gotta work, you gotta come home and do everything. 

I love the "RNP" record with Anderson .Paak. I thought it was such a dope full-circle moment -- with how you kind of blew up remixing J. Cole's "1985" record, and then, you later end up having him on the beat for this track. 

It was dope. Bro, that record has been in the stash for like a year. 

With Anderson?

Ok. So I did that jawn with Cole. The beat with Cole, we did it like in Raleigh a whole year ago and I did a whole completely different song to that beat. I played the song for AP [Anderson .Paak], because you know, that's my brother and we always play each other music. I know he keeps shit a buck. He was like, "Yo. I ain't gon' lie. I love this beat." He didn't even know Cole produced it. He was like, "I fucking love this beat, but the song is kind of ass."

Flat-out. [Laughs.]

Flat-out. He was like, "Yo. I don't really like the song, but the beat is dope. Man, I love this beat. Let's do something over it." I wasn't in love with the song. 

What was the initial song?

[Starts rapping] I was spittin' some shit, but it wasn't nothing crazy. It was just me on some boom-bap shit. So when I got in the lab with Anderson, we did it in the Beats 1 studio. You know how he has his .Paak House? We literally did it in the Beats 1 studio in the Apple House, and just went back and forth.

I feel like with that record, "Bad Idea" with Chance and even "Nightmares Are Real" with Pusha T -- I don't know if it's the artists that adjusted to you, or you adjusted to them and their styles, because the chemistry is pretty on-point. 

I make these records and I'm like, "Yo. This is perfect." Soon as I did "Nightmares Are Real," I was like, "Pusha T would be crazy on this." Then, he sent me the verse the same day I sent it to him. So I was like, "Oh, this is a fucking blessing." I got a fucking God MC on my shit, so it's really dope. 

You got some big boys on this album like Pusha, Meek, and Chance. Did you have to change your mindset at all when penning these verses?

It's funny because I was in the studio with Meek Mill and he laid that hook down. I was so inspired by the hook that he wrote. Once he laid that hook down -- for one, Meek works extremely fast. No pen, no pad, just straight off-top. I was so in awe by that because usually when people go off the top, their substance ain't the best, but this n---a Meek is saying the realest shit. The most realest shit that'll touch your spinal cord, you know what I'm saying? When he wrote that, I wrote my verse and it was just a perfect fit. For Pusha, I sent that to him with an open verse. I kinda had the song 70% done when I sent it to Chance. So it's just like a perfect fit. 

There was a line on "A Thousand Words" that caught me. You said something along the lines about people's desire to be Instagram famous. Is that something you still struggle with or are you over that?

I'm over that, but at a point in time, hell yeah. Everybody wanna get popping on the 'Gram. But I was like, "What's the deeper meaning to that?" I think we just don't wanna be nameless [starts rapping verse]. "We all just want to be Instagram famous / deep down inside, nobody really wanna be nameless / afraid of being forgotten." You know, I remember I was watching 300 and then the kid was like, "You wanna go fight?" And they were like, "That's why no one will know your name." [Laughs.] Nobody wants to be nameless. Nobody wanna be forgotten. So Instagram is today's way of self-validation, which sucks because it's like the most cancerous, but dopest shit at the same time. 

I mean, you know Instagram has been experimenting with taking likes out of posts so people can't see them anymore. 

I don't like that.

You'll be able to see your likes, but other people won't.

OK. I fuck with that, but as a business, I wouldn't fuck with that. 

I mean, the IG influencers and models might be upset about that.

Nah, but let's say you have a business that you curate, how can you fuck with advertisement companies? How are they going to manage how much they can pay you? I'm just being honest. I agree with the no likes shit, but I'm just looking at the other side too.

That's a good point.

Or, say you wanna pay somebody for promotion? Say you're an up-and-coming artist and you want to pay those rap pages for promotion or some shit. They have 10 million followers n---a, but you can't see their 2k likes.

Cats can just lie about their shit. 

For sure.

I remember you were in the studio a couple of months back with Puff. I think Meek was there, Fat Joe, and a bunch of veteran dudes. Talk about that experience and what you gained from that. 

I got to see if my shit was really dope or not. I played "Wintertime," "A Thousand Words" and "Have Mercy." N---as were fucking with that shit. So I was like, "Ok. I really got some shit." Meek really fucked with "Wintertime." He was like, "I knew you were dope, but I didn't know you were dope. That shit was crazy."

Was that when you guys chopped it about him being on "We Gon' Make It"?

Nah, we chopped it up a couple of times before, just on some homie shit. He's just on some big bro shit, you know what I'm saying? And then, Meek was in the studio one day and my brother Dallas FaceTimed me. I pulled up over there because we been chopped it up. He's just on some big bro shit. So we went to the lab and knocked it out for sure.

You caught a lot of people's attention at this year's BET Awards during your performance with H.E.R. You guys teamed up on "Lord Is Coming" and "Racks." Talk about the chemistry you guys have and why it's been so seamless every time you two put out a record together.

It's 'cause H.E.R. is just an amazing-ass artist and an amazing person. I just vibe with real people and real humans and it's always a real vibe. 

When you're in the studio with an R&B artist like a H.E.R., as a rapper, is there anything that you take away, whether it be studio habits or anything of the sort?

Yeah, because she's just so fucking musical. She can play like 13 instruments, which is crazy. So I just take the musical aspect of it and try to make my shit more musical. I have a lot of live instruments on my album.

There's a lot of soul you bring with your work. To be real, I know rappers hate comparisons, but to me, I get a baby J. Cole vibe in terms of the soul you're bringing on this project and the lyrical substance. Do you get that comparison a lot?

Nah, I don't hear that. 

Maybe it's just me. 

A lot of people be getting offended from comparisons because everybody just feel like they're so unique. But I feel like comparing is the best way to describe something.

Some people will hear comparisons and say, "Fuck you."

Exactly. Nah, it's never that. I've heard somebody compare to like Nas. I'm like, "No, bro." 

I know cats that would have taken that train and rode with it.

Nah, nah. [Laughs.] I'm saying, "No," like, "I'm not worthy." You can't compare me to the gods, you know what I'm saying? I get all types of comparisons. I feel like it's unfair to them, you know what I'm saying? They're 10, 20 years in this thing. I don't deserve those comparisons in my eyes. It's an honor, but also, I'm my own artist and my own person.

You have a skit on the album called "Grandma's House." What's the most precious moment you've had at your grandmother's house?

Ah, man. There's so many memories. I was raised by my grandma for a lot of my years. We all grew up in the same house. It's too many to count, way too many. I can't pinpoint one. Maybe that moment that became that interlude was a really dope moment because we used to always sing that song when I was younger. So that just bringing that back in was great. 

You used to work at TGI Friday's. When did it hit you that you needed to pursue rap full-time?

I was miserable. That was when I was really like the lost boy. I was just miserable as fuck at work. This was in Baltimore. I was working at a Fridays in Baltimore. 

That's some shit. 

That's some shit. N---a, so I was just miserable, you know what I'm saying? I used to just drive home on the way from college. It was like a 30-minute drive. I would just drive my way home from work and be like, "Man, this my last year of working." I used to always say that. That's kind of got me through working. I was like, "This my last year of working, so I ain't even tripping."

As clichéd as this may sound, when did the lost boy finally find himself?

It was just me doing music. That was just when I got on my journey. That's when I found my path and my journey because when you're an aspiring artist, you don't know. You start thinking back-up plans and plan BS. You're like, "If this music shit don't work, what am I gonna fucking do?"

Did you have a back-up plan?

Up until a year or two ago. That's when I was like, "Man, I ain't doing nothing but this music shit." I was in college. If you're in college and working, you have a back-up plan, without you having a back-up plan, you know what I'm saying?

If you can pick one word to title this chapter in your life, what word would that be and why?

"Prequel," because it's just the beginning of my long journey. I still have so much more shit I'm about to do, so much more shit I'm about to accomplish, so many more barriers that I'm about to break through. I'm just tapped in to my shit. 

What barriers have you broken through that you're most proud of?

The shackles of college. [Laughs.] I don't get to go to school. I get to do what I do for a living now. Being in the game is easy, staying in the game, that's the tricky part. 

Puff once said a rapper would be lucky to stretch out four to five years in this game. I think you have a shot of multiplying that by two or three.

Easy. I'm here for 20 years. 

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