by Christina Lee
photos of marc clennon
Rapper YG has been yearning for the 2021 Ferrari F8 Spider for the past year. This canary yellow sports car, worth over $300,000, goes from zero to 60 in 2.9 seconds. It’s easy to imagine such a car in front of YG’s Hollywood Hills resort. “I thought to myself, when I finish my album, and I feel like I have records that are going to be a situation,” YG says, “I’m going to get myself a Ferrari.”
At the start of the last decade, the all-powerful algorithms of streaming services threatened to break down the boundaries between regional hip-hop identities. Then came YG, one of this generation’s most trusted arbiters of West Coast gangster rap. Remember when DJ Mustard’s ratchet sound exploded into rap, R&B and pop in 2014? YG’s first major label “My Krazy Life” was zero. In “Don’t Come to LA,” he reminds transplant recipients that the Hollywood cliché surrounding his town is just that — a cliché. No wonder he’s Suge Knight’s favorite rapper.
All five of YG’s albums are in Billboard’s top 10 because we trust YG: After all, he and the late Nipsey Hussle delivered the most satisfying Trump-era protest anthem, “FDT.” So, entering his sixth album, “Pray for Me,” which will be released this summer, YG has every reason to trust his own ear.
At home on Zoom earlier this spring, YG laid out all the criteria an album must meet to become a true classic. Aside from its features, which are still in the works, “Pray for Me” ticks all of these boxes: “The rap is here,” says YG. “The storytelling is there. The hit records are there. Clearly, his motivational tactic worked. “In February, I was like, I’m almost done with this motherfucker. I feel good.”
But when YG tried to track down that Ferrari, he learned what the rest of America was facing during the pandemic. Due to the shortage of chips, buying a car was impossible, regardless of its elite status. “G Wagons, everything was hard to get,” he says. And so YG remembered another luxury he has: time.
YG usually announces each album with a memorable collaboration. Think “My N—” featuring Jeezy and Rich Homie Quan. “Why do you always hate? with Drake and Kamaiyah. “FDT”, of course. “Big Bank” featuring 2 Chainz, Big Sean and Nicki Minaj. “Allez Loko”, with Tyga and Jon Z.
“Scared Money,” featuring Moneybagg Yo and his former touring mate J. Cole, is no exception. The original hook reference (“Scared money don’t make none”) is from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight”, a song about kids in concrete jungles who are out of luck. But with the way NORE, Pusha T, Meek Mill, Lil Wayne and Jeezy have interpolated it since, the “Scared money don’t make no money” line has come to embody the cutthroat mentality of hip-hop. YG’s new single continues the same tradition. As his voice glides over a suspenseful piano line, he boasts, “Fifty female dogs flew to Cabo, YG a trip / YG think he Kanye West, he got his own kicks.”
The next line from the song is, “Fresh out of a pandemic, I’m not rusty. But behind the scenes, YG was waiting for such a bar to feel like the right time.
As he told Power 106, YG released albums every nine months, hoping to fulfill a Def Jam contract as soon as he could. By the time that contract expired with 2019’s “4REAL 4REAL” and he renegotiated to own his master recordings, the pandemic was in full force. “The whole West Coast has been shut down, and my music is outdoor-type music,” YG says. “There really wasn’t much point in releasing a record like ‘Scared Money’ in 2021 or 2020. Once the pandemic is over, I can be in my new situation and start doing timeless projects again.”
YG may have felt newly inspired, but the creative process behind “Pray for Me” was not without setbacks. On the first day of shooting the “Scared Money” video in December, YG tested positive for COVID-19. He delayed the song’s release for a month to deal with the fallout.
“My whole family ended up catching it from me,” he says. “My daughter, we ended up having to rush her to the hospital, to the ambulance and all that, because she couldn’t breathe. She was turning purple, and I caught her at the right time. I gave her probably saved his life.
“Everyone caught it after that,” he continues. “My pops had caught it. My sister had caught it. My son’s mother caught him. And then my little brother’s son grabbed it. It was Christmas, so my whole family was home. Everyone knew I had it, but everyone was like, shit, we’re not leaving. Whore. We are all going to catch COVID.
When YG talks about COVID, the passing of Slim 400, and the death of his godmother in January, it aligns with a persistent theme in his music. No matter how much he prefers to revel in partying, bullshit, and personal victories, he’s also just trying to survive.
On the title track of “Still Brazy,” he raps, “Lady trouble, family trouble / Boy trouble, all that drama / On my mama, that’s the kinda shit you sweat in the sauna / Grand- mother pray for me, devil keep away from me.” He sprints through this list of grievances as if trying to outrun death.
After all, his relatives often do not. Three years after “Still Brazy,” YG delayed the release of “4REAL 4REAL” for a few months, in light of Nipsey Hussle’s death. Even if the album was finished and YG was rushing to fulfill his old label deal, the timing wouldn’t have been right. Once “4REAL 4REAL” arrived, YG included the speech he gave at Hussle’s funeral as the track.
Seven years ago, YG was shot at close range in his Los Angeles recording studio. Immediately afterwards, he had the Virgin Mary tattooed on his scalp. His inspiration was Blink-182 member Travis Barker, rap’s favorite drummer, godfather of Gen-Z’s pop-punk revival. And, as YG is quick to recall, an LA fashion icon with her Famous Stars and Straps brand.
“Where I grew up we all thought Travis Barker was dope, you feel me?” he says. “He’s a white boy, but we all looked at him like he was a white black boy.”
Some of YG’s tattoos, like the Slim 400 portrait on his left leg by Tat2Nene, honor the dead. Others – the crosses, the praying hands, two portraits of Jesus – are forms of spiritual protection. “I don’t really try to believe all these stories,” YG says of how her Christian upbringing informs her current beliefs. But he will quote scripture where it counts. On her scalp, the words “No weapon formed against me shall prosper” frame St. Mary’s head like a halo.
“You know the saying, ‘What happens comes back,’ like karma?” said YG. “I think it’s a sign from God. Because every human knows that if you get bad shit out, you get bad shit back. You do good shit, the good will come back.
Her new album title is yet another form of spiritual protection. “I live two or three different lives. I’m a dad. I’m an artist. And, I don’t know, I’m an ordinary fucking human. Of all these different aspects, I give you an overview of my life and then I tell you to simply pray for me. When you hear the album and how it’s put together, you’re going to be like, OK, bet. Makes sense. It’s doping.
YG won’t divulge much else about “Pray for Me” other than this list of highlights from the album. “Remember that,” he said, reading from his laptop. “Track number two. Track number four. Runway number five. Track number seven. Track number 11. Track number 14… no, track number 13,” he laughs. “I stop here.”
By the time this issue goes to press, the second single, “Toxic,” will likely have hit the airwaves. Sampling Mary J. Blige’s “Be Happy,” YG is fascinated and then vexed by a side track “here competing with my baby mama.” It turns out that no amount of success or prayer makes romantic relationships easier.
And like in “Still Brazy,” “buddy issues” are on his mind, though they’re not all YG reckons with. “I mention the homie on the album, of course,” he says, on whether “Pray for Me” pays homage to Slim 400. “But I didn’t do a whole tribute song because I didn’t want to that she looks like I use the homie for streams and sales and stuff People probably think I named my album Pray for Me because of all that recent bullshit But no my shit calls “Pray for me”.
(This conscious decision comes after other recent moves to be conscious of his platform. In the summer of 2020, YG canceled a march he organized to instead partner with Black Lives Matter.” he said. Last year, “My Krazy Life” quietly returned to streaming services, with a new version of “Meet the Flockers” censoring a lyric about targeting “Chinatowns”.)
For now, YG is only talking broadly about the personal growth he’s experienced since his last album. “You know, when you start growing up, you start looking at shit differently and you start thinking about shit differently,” he says. “That’s all of it. I started to grow. Then the pandemic gave me more time to sit down and think.
How has the pandemic changed him, though?
“Before, I had patience, but I lost it,” he says after 15 seconds of silent contemplation. “The pandemic hit, and it’s like, fuck, bro. You don’t have to rush anything. Take your time, bro. Relax. You went through this pandemic shit for two years without living the life you had for 10 years. And you are fine.
By the time he turned 32 in March, YG was able to prove that to be true. As seen on Instagram, the sun had long since set at Bootsy Bellows nightclub in West Hollywood. YG is wearing a $10,000 suit – “a Saint Laurent that hasn’t even been released yet.” Its cashmere stitching was only visible under flashing lights. But the rest of YG’s outfit was visible a mile away: the jacket’s bolero-inspired silhouette, the shimmering black loafers, her super-thin sunglasses.
YG had also stopped in his new Ferrari, his reward for finishing his new album. Between its red gift bow on the hood and the way it shone, the car looked like YG drove it straight from the dealership.
When YG walked in, he smiled and said, “That’s how you do it, man.” But here at home he is solemn as he says otherwise. “You gotta celebrate life sometimes, feel me?”