The new wave of rap crews are more often than not led by one distinct personality. Shoreline Mafia is helmed by the laconic and ambivalent yet charming OhGeesy, while LA’s Stinc Team is propped up by Drakeo the Ruler’s ambidextrous and unpredictable flow. Even larger acts like Rae Sremmurd have distinct tiers of hierarchy, with Swae Lee providing the foundational songwriting chops above which Slim Jxmmi can go wild. The YBN crew, formed in Alabama by Nicholas Simmons — now known as YBN Nahmir — appeared destined to follow a similar trajectory, with Nahmir leading fellow emcees YBN Almighty Jay and newcomer YBN Cordae toward rap’s upper echelon. But in their developing years, the group has bucked this trend, displaying a cohesion and an equal distribution of talent that so often eludes rap’s buzziest cliques.
In typical post-millennial fashion (Nahmir is 18 years old), Nahmir and Mighty Jay linked up via XBox Live and began recording together, eventually featuring Cordae and a plethora of other YBN-ers such as Manny, Walker, and Glizzy. The group’s leader emerged seemingly fully formed in 2017 with “Rubbin Off the Paint,” a synth-drunk, bass heavy doozy of a track featuring production by Izak. In the SoundCloud era of over-distorted vocals and speaker-blasting instrumentals, “Rubbin Off the Paint” stood out as something unique and adventurous; Nahmir sounded confident, cocky, even, and immediately vaults himself to the status of one of the most exciting rappers coming out of the south, building a fanbase far larger than the YBN crew itself held — at this point still a fresh and relatively undiscovered group.
Nahmir was well on his way to isolated stardom, having been featured on the remix of Tay-K’s “The Race” and the creator of another hit with the deliriously woozy “I Got a Stick.” But amongst these singles were scattered collaborations with other YBN members (especially Almighty Jay) and these partnerships hinted at something stronger than Nahmir had established as a solo artist.
Even other YBN members began establishing themselves as independent artists rather than affiliates of Nahmir. With the exposure the latter helped foster, other talents like Almighty Jay and Cordae, and they were able to grow and establish their own sounds both different enough from Nahmir’s to stand out while still being akin musically. Almighty Jay, originally from Texas, found his own success with “Chopsticks,” an uptempo, menacing track that solidly establishes his strengths: glossy beats and street-focused lyrics delivered in a slightly-high pitch voice with a smoothness and confidence of a rapper ten years his senior. Jay also stood out featuring on Nahmir’s hit “No Hook,” finding the two bandmates trading verses with such an effortless tag team style, the premise of a YBN compilation, with the three stars trading verses throughout a record, became a tantalizing proposition.
With the release of YBN: The Mixtape, credited to Nahmir, Cordae, and Almighty Jay, the group cashes in on their equal billing and present the most cohesive vision of the YBN aesthetic to date. At 23 tracks, the tape inevitably varies in terms of quality, but as a whole—outside of a few mind-boggling features from Chris Brown and Wiz Khalifa that are intensely-obvious chart-grabbers—The Mixtape is a fascinating look at a crew in which its lesser members are catching up to the star in terms of popularity, as they’ve already caught him in terms of talent.
While the group has been raised on the internet, able to dip into a multitude of regional rapping styles, here they concoct a thoroughly cohesive blend of swampy southern sounds with biting Bay Area aggression and the occasional auto-tuned warblings of their peers. The album’s second track, “Porsches in the Rain,” is an immediate standout, all eerie electronic strings and Migos-recalling ad-libs that litter the background of these verses, giving the effect of all three rappers working at once — respective of whose particular verse is spotlit.
The YBN crew is at their best when stark beats are stripped of excess and are more springboards than active entities with which the group interacts. “Feel Like” sharpens a simple guitar-like synth and allows Almighty Jay to rapidfire deliver about haters and his own enviable ability. The deceptively straightforward melodic instrumentation allows for Nahmir’s simple chorus of “24 bitch I feel like Kobe,” to ring off the beat’s hollow walls brilliantly.
YBN: The Mixtape is an exemplary look at how cohesion and meticulous crafting between members can afford groups the sort of individual stylistic tics that often relegate certain members to the forefront and others as background extras. In the YBN crew, things weren’t always equal, but now, the talent pool is strong enough that a new YBN Nahmir track carries the same weight as an YBN Almighty Jay track, although with The Mixtape’s success, a three headed monster of a collaboration is their most appealing derivative within the YBN ecosystem. Bound by neither geography nor identical styles, the YBN crew have, despite these barriers, put communal success over individual accolades — a successful Communism in the rap group hierarchy. With YBN: The Mixtape, the name on the front finally looms larger than the one on the back.