YNW Melly is eating Lucky Charms. The 19-year-old rapper saunters into the room like his destiny as a successful rapper is preordained and everybody else hasn’t caught up yet. His speech is concise, clipped and hushed, which is in direct contrast to the emotional and melodic force of nature that is his latest mixtape, I AM YOU. In rare instances, the rapper you hear on record can’t help but bubble to the surface. Over the course of a half hour, Melly breaks out into song at least three times. He’ll start our conversation off singing, “In the Jungle” between bites of rainbow and horseshoe marshmallows.
Jamell Demons hails from Gifford, Florida. He disdainfully calls it a “little hoe ass place” and doesn’t waste any time mentioning the logistics of the people who aren’t fortunate enough to escape it.
One of the things that undoubtedly got Melly “out,” was his undeniable voice. Raw, emotive, and haunting, songs like “Murder on my Mind” are uncut realistic ballads about death and the places where it festers. Melly sings a lyric like, “His body dropped down to the floor and he had teardrops in his eyes/ He grabbed me by my hands and said he was afraid to die/ I told ’em it’s too late my friend, it’s time to say ‘goodbye,'” with the detachment of a narrator numb to chaos.
Much of Melly’s recent rise is inextricably linked to the criminal justice system. At 16, he was charged with firing a gun near three Vero Beach High School students, reported the TC Palm. He was charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and one count of discharging a firearm in public. Since then, he’s been in and out of jail, cobbling together a bubbling rap career along the way.
In person, the only thing that briefly makes the young man smile is the idea that his little brother can follow in his footsteps and escape the systematic trap that almost caught him. “YNW B Slime, that’s my lil’ 11 year-old brother,” he tells Billboard. “He better than me… It make me proud though like, cause I remember I used to like, ‘You trying to rap?’ He was so young then I ain’t think he was listening and he was always watching me. Now me being the first person to ever make it out of Gifford, it like motivated him strong, cause I’m his big brother.”
In an interview with Billboard, Melly discusses where he learned he could sing, describes his latest mixtape, and his influences.
Where did your rap name come from?
YNW, Young N— World, You know that’s the dynasty.
When was the first time you realized you could sing?
When I was like five on Easter Sunday.
What were you singing on Easter Sunday?
“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” no…Lion King.
Lion King? What song?
[Starts singing] ‘In the jungle the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight / Awimbawe, Awimbawe…’
What was the reception like when people heard you singing it?
I ain’t even know I could. It was like I remember my dog, Smoke, he was the lead singer for the song. It was a graduation song. I was in kindergarten. Something just made me like… I was beating on the bamboo sticks at first. Like I had to sit on the floor and beat the bamboo sticks. I’m like ‘damn, this shit ain’t for me man.’ In my head. So I was like, ‘Man, I wanna be the singer.’ And she was letting everybody else try and I ain’t wanna try out at first. And then I was like ‘I wanna be the singer. I wanna be the number one singer.’
So she was like, ‘You ain’t trying to be the number one singer. Go out there and see what you can do.’ So when I went and sang the song I fucked around and hit this note for the first time in my life. Like [starts singing] ‘Oooooohweeeooohhhhweeooo, Awimbawe.’ Then everybody in the crowd was like, ‘What the fuck?’ We was in church. They was like, ‘What the hell?’ Yeah, it just started there. I killed that bih on graduation day.
Where did the idea to interpolate Chris Brown’s “Say Goodbye” on “Slang That Iron” come from?
Shit, I was locked up when I made it. I was thinking ‘bout like how everybody like remix regular songs, you know what I’m saying? And they do it in a street song. They be like remixing popular songs and shit. They just talk about the streets and shit. I was like, ‘Don’t get me wrong I can rap about the street shit.’ I do that, but like I gotta give it to ‘em in a way where they can feel that bitch, you know what I’m saying? I was locked up. I looked out the window and was like, [starts singing again]
‘There’s never a wrong time to say goodbye.’ I said, ‘You know what fuck that I’m gonna remix that.’ Make a street song, make a love song with that same lil’ melody. It’s gonna fuck everybody up. You know what I’m saying? Females gon’ love it. Street niggas gon’ be like, ‘damn.’ It’s a win-win.
Has Chris Brown reached out to you? Has he heard the song yet?
Hell nah. Tell boy I said what’s brackalackin’.
What type of R&B and pop music were you listening to growing up?
Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Chris Brown, Usher.
What was it like growing up in Gifford, Florida?
Shit, you know what I mean? Growing up in any other little hoe ass place. You know, ain’t nobody want to do nothin’. Everybody stuck in the mud. That’s how they family tree is. They don’t even wanna do shit with they life, but get a job and live in a little house. They’ll try to move to Vero, like the good side. Try to move there and then what? Go to college, play football and other shit. Shit don’t never work out. They end up coming right back.
What’s the significance of the album title, I AM YOU?
Like I am you. Literally, I am you. I feel everything you going through. I feel you when you laugh. When you think something funny, but you don’t think nobody understand why you think it’s funny. I am you. I understand, you know what I’m saying and I feel what you feel. I am literally you. The same person. I relate to you. God bless me with that.
One of the saddest songs on the album is “Mama Cry.” When did you write that?
When I just got out, recently. For that little nine month thing, eight month. I made that, while I was locked up in there.
How many songs did you make during that stint?
I made like, maybe like 50 something songs, but I ain’t never write down none of the lyrics. I just got ‘em in my head and they’ll just come to me out of nowhere.
Is “Mama Cry” about your mom?
What does she think about it?
She be crying.
Where did the inspiration for “Murder on my Mind” come from?
The first time I got locked up. I was like 15 or 16. I woke up and I had that chorus.
Is that where the line, “When I’m all alone in my jail cell I tend to get in my feelings” came from?
Yes, certain parts came from, yeah.
You were locked up I believe for the first time when you were 15. What happened?
Lil’ after school shooting… yeah.
Was that when you started taking rap seriously?
Yeah, I took it more seriously. I was serious, but like I was still finding myself, you know what I’m saying? I was still in the streets.
Who has reached out to you? Have any of your idols that you never you’d maybe ever get to talk to, reached out and said “Good job?”
I mean, I ain’t gon’ say “’ never thought,’ ‘cause like I always like, everything I’m going through now I done spoke about, but like Thug, Future, Tee Grizzley, Durk, Uzi, have reached out to me.
You’re working on music with Tee Grizzley right?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
How’s that coming along?
We got some bangers coming through.
Are we getting one song, maybe an EP or a mixtape?
We’re doing a whole damn project, a whole project of songs.
What does the future entail, projects, things you want to accomplish?
YNW mixtape, Young N—a Waves mixtape, the majority of my artists.