In 1999, a 17-year-old Lil Wayne released a song called "Fuck tha World" about the unforgiving cycle of life that claimed his stepfather by the gun, yet rewarded him with the birth of his first child, Reginae. By that time, Wayne had already cemented himself as rap's most exciting youngster with his nasal tone and role in ushering in the bling era. But on this song from his debut album Tha Block is Hot, he shed layers that weren't so visible at first. That openness laid the groundwork for the music he'd release as an adult, but it also helped link Wayne's narrative to young black teenagers across the country who were trapped in the quandary of contributing to their family's well-being and still trying to maintain being a kid, all while broader society strips them of their innocence with the perception of inherent guilt. You can currently see the echoes of that in another teenage Louisiana artist, Baton Rouge's 17-year-old, NBA YoungBoy.
YoungBoy's name made it into the minds of many last year, at just 16, when he released his 38 Baby mixtape. That project hoisted him up as the next teenage darling of street music—like Wayne in '99 and Chief Keef in 2011—whose marketability and appeal relied heavily on the juxtaposition of his barely broken voice and baby face with his relationship with guns and drugs. YoungBoy is a far more sophisticated storyteller than his two predecessors, though. That is more evident than ever on his recently released AI YoungBoy, which further establishes his ability to give listeners a front row seat into his innermost feelings. But this time, it's with an increased level of polish that usually doesn't happen within just one year.
In November of 2016, YoungBoy was arrested and charged on two counts of attempted first degree murder and spent nearly six months in prison before pleading down to aggravated assault with a firearm. The realizations born in that experience are conveyed through AI Youngboy not only in ways that are in plain sight—"In that cell I realized that I ain't got no friends" ("Dark Into Light")—but also in the urgency with which he views life as he enters adulthood. He faces a dilemma on "No Smoke," a song that features an improved, contagious singing voice, in which he has to stay armed not only to protect his own life, but also the ticket that his career holds for his mom, brother, and two sons' liberation. It's the type of situation he'd rather not deal with anymore. That's why at various points throughout, the dire need to get out of Baton Rouge is expressed on this project. BR elder statesmen Boosie Bad Azz echoed those sentiments when he congratulated YoungBoy on his return to freedom back in May. On just about every song on AI Youngboy, the rapper born Kentrell Gaulden pledges to not get knocked off of his focus in one way or another. Most teenagers aren't so acutely fixed on anything this much, but most don't have this much as stake either.
In that way, YoungBoy is actually working against the current, considering the output of his teenage peers. Fellow 17-year-old Florida rapper Lil Pump's main pull is the unconscious fun that it promotes. Ohio teen Trippie Redd is making a mark with quasi-Satanic aesthetics and raps that don't feel like they're tied to any particular life event. In this new world of viral fame, a rapper coming out using the blueprint of a Lil Wayne or Boosie Bad Azz isn't the smartest business move, making YoungBoy an anomaly—a teenager who's committed to letting listeners in on everything that makes him tick. In the pursuit of short term success, it's a gamble. But it's this type of content that gains loyalty over long periods of time.
There are a few tracks on AI Youngboy that perfectly center his controlled fury. The dramatic piano riffs on "GG" are a foolproof companion to punchlines like "Thunder in my clip / Fuck around get hit with light bitch." The delicate, Zaytoven-like production on "Graffiti" help frame it as the project's most emotionally effective song. There, he reflects on jail, being at odds with his mother, and the fear of an early fate. YoungBoy is his sharpest and rawest on "Murda Gang," though. With elements of vintage New Orleans rap production, the foundation is set for him to get into a pocket early. At the song's start he raps "Niggas know it's dumb with me / You run up, you ain't touchin' me / Nah I swear that you can't fuck with me / My niggas they gon' bust for me / Bitch I could get you touched for free," with a rhythmic emphasis. It's also on this song that he gives a shoutout to Bobby Shmurda—whose bad boy persona and youth garnered him the adulation that YoungBoy now has a real shot at. It's an ironic tip-of-the-cap too when considering the two's parallels, but the rationale may lay within YoungBoy's teenage lack of judgement. You'd think that someone who just got off the hook for murder charges wouldn't recount the hits he's ordered on wax ("Ride On Em"). That's even more evident when considering the basis of the investigation into Shmurda's criminal activity was exclusively tied to what he disclosed in his music. Hopefully wisdom comes with age.
At the crux of the tape is NBA YoungBoy's optimism and gratitude, which gives it a dimension none of his earlier music had. Six months in prison was a wakeup call and an experience that left his margin for error nearly non existent. The urgency to get his shit straight is the one constant of the tape. Lead single "Untouchable" exclusively discusses getting on the straight-and-narrow: "I gotta make up for all them nights that my Momma cried / I'm goin' in, I'm putting everything on the line." The project's closer, "Dedicated," is an autobiographical story of rising to his current, promising situation. But it's also a pledge to never revisit predicaments that would land him in more trouble. It's these moments that move the scale for YoungBoy in comparison to earlier works. Before AI YoungBoy dropped, it was evident that his skillset was one beyond his years and that would have probably gotten him far enough, but it's the depth of emotions and introspection that add a glimmering light to what the Baton Rouge teenager may end up becoming.
Lawrence Burney is a Staff Writer at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.