Inside this recording studio in Burbank, Calif., an extra-wide TV screen sits above the mixing board. The left half is playing reruns of Malcolm in the Middle; the right half is divided into four equal quadrants, each showing a live security feed of one of the studio’s entrances. YG — who has been recording here ever since he was shot three times in the summer of 2015 while recording at a complex in nearby Studio City — has been holed up for the past several weeks, putting the finishing touches on his fourth full-length album for Def Jam, 4REAL 4REAL, which comes out May 3.
On this afternoon in late March, no one has yet leaked the news that a record from the veteran Compton rapper, 29, is on its way. It was scheduled to drop without warning on April 12, just eight months after his third LP, Stay Dangerous — a breakneck release schedule. But it is one that YG, who’s wearing a matching gold necklace and bracelet, says he has always wanted to keep. But life kept getting in the way. “From my first album to my second album, and from my second album to my third album, it took me two years to put out each project,” he says. “That wasn’t my choice. Life was changing: I got shot, I had a daughter. It was crazy — it took a little longer.”
Just days after our interview, his life was thrown into upheaval yet again. On March 31, YG’s friend and collaborator Nipsey Hussle was shot dead in front of the clothing store he owned, at the intersection that he immortalized in his music: Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue. On April 11, YG was a pallbearer at the rapper’s Los Angeles memorial, Nipsey Hussle’s Celebration of Life.
A handful of YG-Hussle collaborations rate as L.A. staples — “You Broke,” “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” “Grindmode” — but it was “FDT” (“Fuck Donald Trump”), released during the 2016 presidential election, that became a rallying cry, playing out of portable speakers and from parked cars at protests that swept through the city in the months following Trump’s election. “To have your song playing while all that was going on,” says YG today, “that’s the power of music.”
Lost for words kuz i got so many of em —— We went thru so much shit together tryna make it out of LA with this rap shit, But we always got thru it then talked about it & after we talked. We laughed! You was a real big bro to me no kap. YOU 1 OF A KIND! I took so long to post you kuz I Kant believe this shit, I don’t wanna believe this shit. I’m not never accepting it. IDGAF what nobody say. It wasn’t yo time to go I’m lost homie. We had so much shit in the works. TV shows that was being written, A album “2 OF AMERIKKKAZ MOST WANTED” that we tried to work on twice but it never got done, If niggaz know NIP then Niggaz know bro got his own recording process. He rather start doin musik at 10am ———————— But we was 4sho gone do it 1 day, damn bro I’m sick. The shit we had is forever bro! THE WORLD DIDNT KNOW WHAT THEY HAD TILL YOU WAS GONE I BEEN KNEW! @nipseyhussle –??–??–
Since then, YG has extended his reach on other platforms, including fashion, through his label 4 HUNNID (which started out as his merchandise line and in May 2017 expanded to a lifestyle brand), and film, with a supporting role in the 2018 Matthew McConaughey crime drama White Boy Rick.
Born Keenon Jackson, YG was raised in Compton, Calif. When he was 16, his father went to jail for tax fraud; two years later, YG was arrested after a botched home invasion and served a brief sentence on residential burglary charges. At the same time, he was gaining local fame as one of the most visible members of the jerkin’ movement, which embodied playful, minimal dance music that lent itself to house parties and YouTube dance videos.
His participation in the scene landed him a deal with Def Jam, where he signed after his release in 2009. But it took nearly five years and a push from one of the label’s flagship artists at the time, Jeezy, to secure him a release date for his debut album. My Krazy Life finally dropped in 2014, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. The sound that he and his longtime friend and producer DJ Mustard concocted for the LP was spare like jerkin’, but more sinister. Similarly urgent production has consistently underlined YG’s day-in-the-life storytelling ever since, best heard on the Stay Dangerous track “Bomptown Finest”: “The past year I’ve been making all profit/My team finally got it, then somebody shot me.”
His new album is perhaps his most confident storytelling to date. YG has typically freestyled or written verses at the mic, allowing for a more focused result. But for a handful of tracks on 4REAL 4REAL, he changed up his process and wrote on his laptop alone in studio side rooms with his phone facedown to minimize distractions, best represented by the opener, “The Face.” On it, YG finally makes clear what has for so long been the subtext of his writing: that he deserves to be where he is.
He has transcended eras, informed stylistic movements and surpassed struggles to become a permanent figure in the current and future landscape of rap. And now, fresh off performing his new material at both weekends of Coachella, it likely won’t be long before he’s back in the studio to do it all over again. “If I’m not doing music, I feel depressed. I feel like I ain’t shit,” he says. “I like to create, and right now, I know where I want to be, and I know how to get there.”
On the Horizon
When YG became a local sensation, there was a vacuum at the center of L.A. rap, and the quickest road to recognition was through Myspace. Now, the region is experiencing a renaissance, with three especially promising new rappers.
A 22-year-old from Mid-City with a Benjamin Franklin face tattoo and a label deal with Cash Money West, he broke through in 2019 with “Thotiana,” which reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, thanks in part to a remix featuring YG.
A former college football star who grew up in Compton and Carson, he has made a name for himself by marrying the experimental vocal approaches that have defined Atlanta rap this decade to the funk and bass native to Los Angeles. The 24-year-old’s independent mixtape from last summer, TwoFr, suggests he may make inroads at radio.
The Inglewood native, 24, has raw neighborhood-star quality that leads to raucous and overpacked live shows; his independently released 2018 album, El Perro, mixes threats and paranoia with searing autobiographical lyrics — not too dissimilar from YG’s own approach.