Music

YG: Still Brazy (take 2)

On Still Brazy, unresolved tensions tug at YG.


YG

Still Brazy

Label: Def Jam
US Release Date: 2016-06-17
UK Release Date: 2016-06-17
Amazon
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There is tension everywhere in YG’s second studio album, Still Brazy. It is the fundamental tension of gangster rap—between lyrics that are shaped by violence, misogyny, fatalism, and emotional numbness, and music that makes these things sound desirable.

This tension is not new, but it is becoming rare in modern hip-hop, which, is generally more interested in exploring vulnerability than hiding or justifying it, and it runs right through the center of YG’s music.

Two years ago, YG released his debut album, My Krazy Life, after dropping mixtapes at a steady clip for the previous five years. Much of the album was produced by DJ Mustard, who specializes in a sort of minimalist bounce, driven by sounds with a distinctly physical character. It’s not texture so much as mass, the feeling of a dense, weighted presence.

YG used these sounds to simulate the adrenalized rush of a life lived on the edge, and his voice mirrored Mustard’s bounce, expanding and contracting syllables in rapid bursts. His lyrics are heavy on impulse and light on reflection; they are charged by the heat of the moment.

Two things happened after My Krazy Life: first, YG became famous. The album reached number two on the Billboard 200 album chart, and its lead single, re-titled for radio airplay as “My Hitta,” cracked the top-20 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Second, YG was shot three times at a Los Angeles recording studio in the summer of 2015. He has been candid about his gang affiliation (with the Compton Piru Bloods), and it’s not much of a reach to speculate that the two are connected.

In the wake of the shooting, YG was defiant. “I’m hard to kill”, he proclaimed in his first interview after the attack.

But Still Brazy tells a different story.

The pressures of celebrity and the threat of violence created a conflict within him. On one hand, he is paranoid, unable to trust even his friends or family. On the other, he is enamored by the social hierarchies celebrity and gang culture create, and his elevated positions within them. This is not a unique conflict, but it is notable here for the way it consumes everything around it.

The percussive popping and bubbling remain in the beats, which echo DJ Mustard’s but were created without his involvement. (YG and Mustard had a temporary feud over compensation for work on My Krazy Life during the recording of Still Brazy.) But what they signify has shifted. Here, the percussive sounds imply power and control in response to oppression. I will not be quiet. I will not be scared. I will let you know I am here, they say.

But the melodic sounds are unstable, colored by fear and uncertainty. YG may have escaped economic hardship, but the physical and emotional threats have amplified in the wake of his success. He has trouble finding solid ground.

He is at his most frantic on the title track, struggling to untangle the knots in his head—and stomach—without losing his breath. He installs cameras in his home, wears a bulletproof vest when he ventures outside, and is unable to distinguish friends from the vultures circling his fortune. At times, his voice slides to the back of his throat and cracks, matching the quivering, melodic tone behind him. The whole thing is a little queasy, tightening with each verse.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the three tracks that follow “Still Brazy” and close the album—“FDT”, “Blacks & Browns”, and “Police Get Away wit Murder”—move outside YG’s head to address politics, racism, social stratification, and police brutality. It’s hard to dig much further into your mind without losing your sanity. There’s comfort in community, even under the worst circumstances.

“Still Brazy,” finds a counterpoint in “Twist My Fingaz”, the album’s lead single and an act of provocation. Here, YG sounds sly, confident, and sharp at the edges. He addresses his shooting directly and concisely (“I tried to pop first, got popped back / Got hit in the hip, couldn’t pop back”) and brushes off those who wish to harm him. The song is built on a more stable foundation than “Still Brazy”, the wobbling melodies pushed further to the side.

Fittingly, the album resists resolution, instead ending on an ellipsis. In its final seconds, after the music cuts out, YG says—to no one in particular—“And they wonder why I live life lookin’ over my shoulder”.

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