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YG and the Wonders of Modest Rap Stardom

The Compton MC isn’t the biggest rapper in the world. But at any given moment on his new album, ‘Stay Dangerous,’ he sounds like the best.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The cosmos is filled with a substance called buzz, otherwise known as hype. The substance is colorless, tasteless, and quite frequently, senseless. Hype is everywhere, in overabundance, much like entertainment, such as music, itself; yet the uneven distribution of hype sorts the commercial mainstream into musical tiers, structuring the hype-fueled regime that governs fandom, criticism, and all of popular consumption. In hip-hop, there’s the very top-tier rappers — Drake, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj — who live or die by their dominant commercial standing, their musical vision, and their quality control becoming somewhat beside the point; they’re too big to fail. There’s the emergent pop-tier rappers — Post Malone, Migos, Travis Scott — who confirm broader shifts in the genre’s mood and musical outlook. There’s the genre’s true frontier, where weird kids make repulsive sounds that form new, provocative harmonies.

There’s a another tier, too. It’s hip-hop’s middle class — rappers who attain mainstream comfort and a certain level of celebrity short of unrelenting scrutiny of their music and personas. The discourse around rap music, and pop music, too, suggests that the commercial expectations game has itself become a key component of a major label album’s entertainment value. It’s fun to watch a winner win. It’s fun to watch a shaky player collapse. The game is the game.

Travis Scott released the week’s biggest rap album, Astroworld, on Friday. He’s the week’s star. In his shadow, two other major-label rappers happened to drop albums on the same day. There’s Mac Miller, a barefoot white boy who has spent the past decade traveling an odd, crunchy course toward critical acclaim. He released his fifth album, Swimming. There’s YG, the smirking Compton mascot who, having reached his commercial peak five years ago, has now settled into the rare, emeritus status that affords him the privilege of making great rap music for a living but without the advantages or burdens of top-tier hype. He released his third album, Stay Dangerous. In the cosmic hype regime, Mac Miller and YG are undoubtedly famous rappers, but they’re also, strangely, unburdened in a summer otherwise defined by high stakes rollouts and pivotal album releases.

Stay Dangerous is especially exciting. It’s YG’s great reunion with DJ Mustard, the L.A. superproducer who brought YG to mainstream prominence with the Compton rapper’s debut album, My Krazy Life, released in March 2014 — a project that ruled the previous year with its lead single, “My Nigga,” before unexpectedly ruling the subsequent summer with its entire tracklist, including “Who Do You Love?” Stay Dangerous hasn’t annexed the rap charts to the ubiquitous degree that My Krazy Life succeeded in doing four summers ago. Still, the album reanimates a duo whose unique gusto is an L.A. radio staple, perhaps, but otherwise sounds like a brilliant retreat from so much streaming-music monoculture. So much of YG’s goodwill owes to his rambunctious independence. He antagonizes Donald Trump and his supporters. He teases Travis Scott on their shared release date. He appears as a happy aberration. “I’m too much for you poo butts,” the man raps, and he means it.

As a rapper, YG’s greatest strength is his own, exceptional range in the way of flows, moods, and ethics. He plays the hard-nosed moralist, the snub-nosed bully, and the classic mack from one track to the next without breaking concentration. On “Deeper Than Rap,” YG fashions a song from disparate concerns about his street life, his sex life, and his family life, the theme being resentful self-reliance. “They told me to talk to a therapist, and I did. / But that don’t change the crazy shit I do, did, and lived.”

In all his modes, including his darkest moods, YG is excitable. So excitable that he begins “Too Brazy” by calling everyone “poo butts.” He bears down upon songs with plosive flows and quarrelsome insistence, a dusky shark with blood in his mouth. It’s a spectacular energy, short of overexertion and try-hard antics, that can make even the most low-stakes YG project, such as Stay Dangerous, sound vital. In the hedonist trap age, there are few mainstream rappers who rap as forcefully, and urgently, as YG. He, too, raps about his therapist, and he succumbs to the sort of masculine introspection that’s defined recent projects from Kanye West, Mac Miller, and the late XXXTentacion — but YG pronounces even his most anxious moments as blunt-force confidence that trends toward optimism. On “Bomptown Finest,” he transforms an elegy into a loud, proud convocation.

He’s still got the stage presence, but he’s also lost some ground on the music charts. YG recruited 2 Chainz, Big Sean, and Nicki Minaj for the album’s second, biggest single, “Big Bank,” a continental ditty that’s hanging in the bottom half of the Top 40. It was surprising enough when My Krazy Life preempted Atlanta’s total domination of hip-hop with a fonky, sizzling twin sun spinning alongside his fellow Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s contemporary albums. Four years later, YG reemerges fruitfully, but thanklessly, as trap has conquered the Hot 100. It’s true of California rap in general, really: a musical universe apart, perpetually overworked, overflowing, and underrated. Somehow, it’s this vast musical landscape whose only top-tier avatar in the commercial mainstream is Kendrick Lamar. Which isn’t to suggest that YG and music would benefit from a higher profile. “Big Bank” guest star Nicki Minaj has an album dropping later this month, and the anticipation has soured into schadenfreude; she, too, is too big to fail, perhaps, but also too overexposed to move but so gracefully on the main stage. For YG, a relatively modest rap stardom affords him, and his fans, the very most enviable sort of subsistence — as a prolific rapper whom no one outside of Def Jam intends to troll about first-week sales, chart positioning, etc.

It’s tough for me to celebrate YG without casting him in contrast with deep-fried SoundCloud sadness and the modern world beyond California. Typically, the hip-hop scold listens to contemporary rap music with an ear toward “what the game’s been missing,” with the understanding that young newcomers have forsaken some crucial, classic elements, such as urgency and lyrical style. It’s true that YG honors these elements with a loud and piercing clarity. But his music doesn’t grudge or spite anyone else. Ideally, hip-hop is no longer divided into these extreme and simplistic contrasts: blasphemous vs. reactionary, dominant vs. irrelevant, the superlyrical vs. the supposedly unintelligible. Mercifully, YG stands at a remove from the critical churn, as relaxed and unruly as his many flows.