YG: LA’s Hometown Hero Doesn’t Need a Grammy to Feel the Love
“First off, this beat bang. Ask around I’m the motherfuckin man,” YG announces on “I’m Good,” the quintessential DJ Mustard-produced track off his 2011 mixtape Just R’ed Up. An LA native who began rapping for fans on Myspace and who built his core fanbase performing at Southern Californian house parties and nightclubs, YG has long been regarded in LA as the “motherfuckin man” he’s always claimed to be. Following his first commercial hit single, the lighthearted hookup anthem “Toot It and Boot It,” YG released a series of independent mixtapes filled with Mustard beats that made people move. Their music together became known as one of the best ways to ignite a party in LA, soundtracking many special occasions and creating a sense of intimacy between YG and his audiences. People are really thankful for music that makes them need to dance, want to rap, and feel hook-up ready. YG’s music has always fulfilled all three, solidifying his status as an official hometown hero way before 2014 even began.
In 2014, YG gave audiences outside of LA a major chance to catch up with the West. First came his game-changing studio debut album My Krazy Life. Executive produced by Jeezy and released last March, My Krazy Life traces a single day in the life of YG, complete with an opening interlude from the rapper’s own mother. My Krazy Life marked YG’s public transition from the turn-up rapper who once made simplistic, if addictive, music for LA kids to jerk to, into a distinct storyteller utilizing prized rap conventions to share his own experiences as an artist. While on the My Krazy Life tour, YG continued writing. He wrote until he ended up with a movie and its music. Blame it on the Streets, YG’s thirty minute short film and its accompanying nine-song soundtrack, were released in December–just in time for a reminder to audiences of who rap’s real “new classic” of 2014 is. Even if he doesn’t feel that new to some of us.
“My day one fans, I love them. I f*** with them. Without them, I ain’t shit. They’re part of the reason I’m doing this,” YG told me the day Blame it on the Streets was released. “And all the new people hearing my shit? I f*** with them too. I love them all, God damn it.”
The fans love him back. At the Blame it on the Streets premiere at Hollywood’s Chinese Theater, the mood was proud and celebratory. The room was packed with characters from both the movie and YG’s real life, and the distinctions between his business associates, friends, family, and fans all seemed to blur within the democratic space of the theater. Everyone was excited to see the movie YG made.
After Blame it on the Streets screened, YG excitedly declared into the mic, “I wrote that!” It was clearly a moment the 24-year old had been looking forward to.
“I’ve wanted to do a movie since day one,” YG later told me, saying there simply wasn’t enough time to prepare one to come out with My Krazy Life. Instead, Blame it on the Streets picks up and expands upon where the My Krazy Life songs left off. The movie opens with a new, live version of “BPT,” the My Krazy Life song that introduces listeners to the city of Compton and the “400” block made famous by his signature shoutout–”YG 400!” Blame it on the Streets visualizes the core of YG’s existences–his relationships out on the streets of Compton and the practical knowledge him and his friends picked up as youth there. Knowledge that can only be acquired, or blamed on, the streets themselves. Most memorably, his song “Meet the Flockers” becomes a nerve-inducing robbery scene, in which the original track’s powerful interior monologue is heightened by the circumstances on screen: “If the police come you gonna find out who your friends now / That ain’t them talking, that’s your mind playing tricks on you /You’re conscious cause you know you got nines with two clips on you”.
But despite the movie’s many moments of crime, the most shocking scene has nothing to do with violence One of its greatest successes is the sex scene between YG and his “side bitch,” Nisha. In today’s era of mobile porn and graphic cum shots, most audiences are desensitized when it comes to seeing sex on screen. But when the camera enters Nisha’s bedroom, viewers are given an alarming, highly energetic dose of reality that somehow validates all the sexual bravado found in YG’s music. When the hookup is interrupted by the arrival of YG’s friends, who need his help dealing with the movie’s antagonists, Nisha offers to drops YG off at home and as he approaches his house, she delivers a legendary sidepiece sentiment–”Tell yo bitch I said hi.”
Lines like this bring levity to the movie’s high-stakes drama, where life and death are constantly dangled in front of the characters in a sort-of verite directed by YG’s longtime collaborator Alex Nazari.
“Rapping is just…rapping. The acting thing is different. You have to be in character on camera,” YG told me. When I asked him about who he finds funny, he listed “Kevin Hart, Kat Williams, Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle,” all of whom share his own ability to transfigure certain harsh realities into something people can smile about–especially in regard to the black American experience. And while Blame it on the Streets is definitely not a comedy, it had the premiere laughing. I even heard Too Short, who was seated to my left, giggle in what felt like a truly circular, coming of age moment for YG.
On the phone with YG, I asked him if he’s ever surprised by how his highly autobiographical projects manage to grip people’s attention.
“No, I’m not surprised. People are attracted to this type of stuff. I know people have always been entertained by the lifestyle I live and what it consists of,” YG observed. “When I write movies and rap, I think about who’s going to watch it and hear it. The more detailed it is, the more people are going to watch.”
YG knows that everyone wants wants to feel like a gangster. He just happens to actually be one. Because of this, YG maintains an attention to detail that brings humanity to his stories, making them more than just ghetto-fantasy constructions (as heard in a lot of hip-hop today) even for his listeners far removed from BPT.
But what about those far removed listeners? Does YG ever worry about the proudly West Coast, (mostly white and affluent) sorority girls at UCLA, who after listening to his music, now affectionately ask each other, “What’s brackin?” Does Blood lingo belong in Westwood? What about the “cool” white dad I saw sporting his red “Bompton” beanie at the mall with his pre-teen daughter? Is he concerned with the white LA County sheriffs who bump his music in their cars while off-duty? (I happen to know a man who fits this bill…) Is appropriation, specifically the white appropriation of black culture, during a time when this country’s own foundation in institutional racism is becoming more and more transparent, a topic YG worries about?
“It’s ok with me. They just want to do what I do. That’s cool. When it’s time to put out a project, some classic shit, these people only f*** with me more. That’s what it’s about. I’m from the f***ing West Coast,” YG explained, bringing up a crucial point for all the critics of his audiences, myself included, to remember–you don’t have to be from the hood to proudly identify with the cultural legacy of West Coast rap.
“I relate to YG because of the extremist vibe I get from his music, and also just his vibe of always having fun. I’m extreme in my beliefs and the things I stand for, but I also just want to enjoy life, similar to how I interpret his music,” Kayla, a 17-year old, white suburban LA teenager who I’ve heard exclaim “YG 400!” more than once, explained to me. She might not know much about Compton, but she clearly does know a lot about YG.
That’s because West Coast gangster rap isn’t merely a contained sub genre of black expression, although it might be easier for some cultural critics to understand if it was. West Coast gangsters have scored the daily lives of LA kids and Californians in general since the emergence of G-Funk and Death Row Records in the early ‘90s. To emerging generations of listeners, a lot of whom grew up cherishing the specifically West Coast sounds of artists like Nate Dogg, Dr.Dre, Snoop, and Warren G, YG represents their sonic futures. He makes music that, like these greats before him, feels like home to his listeners, whether that home is in Compton, or the San Fernando Valley, or some LA spot in between. At the end of last year, The Source put YG and two of the artists he rose to the top with–pop production heavyweight DJ Mustard and musician Ty Dolla $ign–on its cover under the text “2014 Year in Review: How the West Won.” And as his recent European tour and upcoming appearances suggest, the West sounds good everywhere.
You can tell a lot about a rapper today from the way he or she acts, from the sensibility they bring to their storytelling. That’s how we know Drake is a goofy actor whose embraced the part of sensitive rap star. There’s “fashion killas” and an applaudable “pink princess,” but even after his role in Blame it on the Streets, the first movie he’s ever written (alongside friend Lucky Rodgers), YG actually seems to be one of the only popular rappers today not really acting. He’s gone from soundtracking local parties to soundtracking a movie made for the masses, and hasn’t diluted his own identity in the process. While his competitors try hard to act hard, YG still attests to living the life he raps about. A true acting challenge for YG would be to get him to not seem like the loveable gangster his fans have always known him as.
And as arguably the most successful digital native in rap, YG’s personal and professional trajectories have both unfolded in public. His development as an artist is almost fully archived online, and he’s one of few young successes who paired his Internet savviness with actual time organizing his fans into a community at home. And as the music industry mobilizes to LA for this weekend’s Grammy awards, YG is undoubtedly reminded that even after all of his recent successes, none of his music was nominated this year. But it doesn’t seem like he’s hurting too bad. YG already anticipated such politics in “BPT” : ”I brought back this West Coast shit, and this the mothafuckin’ thanks I get?”