In another life, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, the rapper also known as NBA YoungBoy, might’ve been a pastor—the fire-breathing, tunic-wearing type. He often raps with a certain gospel theatricality, especially on his latest album, The Last Slimeto, even as he often sounds rather ambivalent about religion in his songs. But I imagine he’d make a great preacher for the same reasons he makes a great rapper. He’d be stomping all over a red pulpit, sweating through four layers of polyester, his congregation whipped into a righteous racket of ad libs before the pastor has even recalled his organist to the bench.
In this life, NBA YoungBoy, born Kentrell DeSean Gaulden, is the street rapper to beat on web streaming platforms, chiefly YouTube. He’s a 22-year-old Baton Rouge native with a long rap sheet and a somehow longer discography, churning out mixtapes and music videos since the age of 15. His music is sad, wild, and defiant; he’s squarely in the tradition of agonized rappers—Scarface, DMX, Boosie, the Jacka, Chief Keef, Kevin Gates—so often reduced to overworked, oversimplified comparisons with blues music. YoungBoy has spent every other release cycle in court, in jail, or on house arrest for a variety of charges, including robbery, domestic abuse, kidnapping, and attempted murder. In a 2017 interview from prison, he told XXL, “If you got a name, [the police] know who you is, you do something, they gonna come get you, and whoever you’re with and whatever they do, you’re accountable for it just because you got the biggest name.” Just a few weeks before the release of his latest album, out last Friday, he was acquitted on one of his federal gun possession charges. At this point in his career it’s hard to imagine any judge or jury on Earth deterring him. Last year he out-charted Drake from jail. Now, his sermon continues.
The Black church has played a well-documented role in forging R&B stars from Aretha Franklin through Chris Brown. But the Black church makes its mark on hip-hop, too. Several years ago, I interviewed the trap producer London on da Track about the formative influences in his somber, piano-driven beats. London told me about his grandmother dragging him, his siblings, and his cousins to church. She put them to work, with a young London on piano, another kid on the organ, and another on the drums, overseen by their grandfather, a preacher, in the pulpit. London didn’t touch a single track on The Last Slimeto, but these songs share a sensibility with his best work. The Last Slimeto is gospel, not in the literal sense that, say, Kanye West mimics a choir director on Jesus Is King or Donda, but rather in a broader sense. YoungBoy reconstructs the Black gospel experience—the stomping, the riffing, the righteous ecstasy—on songs such as “Fuck Da Industry,” “Kamikaze,” and “Free Dem 5’s.” The Last Slimeto presents a reckless, invincible kid nonetheless filled with the fear of God. “You scared to take your ass to church,” YoungBoy raps on “Kamikaze,” “and can’t no pastor stop no headshot!”
The Last Slimeto is a sermon off the rails. YoungBoy’s voice rarely settles into a mode for longer than 20 seconds before transforming and soaring once again. Like so many street rappers, NBA YoungBoy is angry and restless, but he’s peerless in his stamina, both on a project-to-project basis and, on The Last Slimeto, from bar to bar. The Last Slimeto is 80 minutes long and split into 30 tracks, a division that turns a feature-length running time into a rush. Only seven of these songs clock over three minutes; The Last Slimeto mostly showcases YoungBoy working in anaerobic bursts of unstructured venting. That’s the emotional compromise here: YoungBoy resurfaces so many memories—some proud, some painful, sometimes both—but he doesn’t stick around to process them. That’s on you, the listener. “Since grandma died, I ain’t go to church, she a gospel woman, the past hurt,” he raps, like he’s ripping a Band-Aid off a stab wound, on “Hold Your Own.” Even the softer, brighter, slower songs (“I Know,” “Wagwan,” “Mr. Grim Reaper”) slip rather seamlessly into the whirlwind. There’s only slight and fleeting relief on this album full of fury and bounce.
YoungBoy is the sort of rapper who thrives on adversity and anti-heroism, and despite his acquittal, and despite his popularity, The Last Slimeto marks the height of his isolation. The album ends with the previously released “I Hate YoungBoy,” a diss track aimed at Lil Durk, who opposed YoungBoy in a proxy war over the murder of Durk’s friend and labelmate, King Von, a couple of years back. It’s a grim feud with no easy allegiances for most listeners; this isn’t Pusha T teasing Drake over ghostwriters. On the song, YoungBoy lets his hostilities with Durk splinter into resentments of several tangential figures—Lil Baby, Gucci Mane, Apple Music, and more—who all supposedly betrayed him at some point. The ill will doesn’t end with “I Hate YoungBoy.”
The Last Slimeto is his fourth and final album with Atlantic Records, and YoungBoy spent the past several months dissing the label (alongside his disgruntled labelmates Meek Mill and PnB Rock) and warning other rappers away from any contract offers. He’ll soon be a free agent with little inclination to sign with another major label and no love for the higher-ups supposedly suppressing his songs on YouTube. There’s no label and no platform that could easily contain YoungBoy Never Broke Again. So now it’s up to him, all on his own, to write a new testament.