L.A. rapper YG made his name with his 2014 debut, My Krazy Life, a lucid, street-level narrative of a violent day spent in his native Compton. The album, which hit Number Two on the Billboard 200, dropped listeners headfirst into the gritty world in which the artist grew up, later went to jail for home invasion and eventually became one of his city's hottest young MCs. With cinematic production from longtime friend DJ Mustard and his own engrossing, visceral delivery, YG quickly earned a legion of hardcore fans.
But the rapper born Keenon Daquan Ray Jackson, a member of the Tree Top Pirus, a branch of the Bloods, was hardly playing the part of street hustler. Less than a year after the release of his starmaking album, YG was shot three times by an unknown assailant at an L.A. recording studio. A single bullet pierced his hip in three places and nearly missed a major artery in his groin. In May, the 26-year-old rapper was once again in the headlines when a video shoot for "Thug," an AD track on which he's featured, was shot up. The rapper says that after the 2015 shooting he spent nearly all his time in the studio as well as at home with his newborn daughter, Harmony, so as to avoid the chaos. It's the most time he has spent with his family since he first broke out with the 2009 Ty Dolla $ign-featuring ratchet anthem "Toot It and Boot It." "I feel like that kept me sane," he told Rolling Stone via phone on a recent afternoon. "If I didn't have people I was going to see and who be having me stay in the house I'd be out here wild doing all types of shit. I'd be in the streets all day."
The swirl of emotions and events comprising YG's chaotic life is chronicled in vivid detail on his new album, Still Brazy, out now via Def Jam. The LP, which he recorded with a slew of producers – albeit not Mustard with whom he had a brief falling out over money in January – is every bit as hard-hitting as his debut. And with sonically adventurous tracks like "Bool Balm and Collected" and "Twist My Fingaz," the rapper expands on his sound by reaching back to the G-Funk-era West Coast sound on which he was raised. "We the ones over here shaping the culture and setting the trends," he says with supreme confidence. "This shit ain't about to stop."
How much did your real life change in the wake of My Krazy Life?
Oh, man, you know, ain't really too much change with the way I was living. But more money mean more motherfuckers be around knowing I'm successful. So it's more that motherfuckers start changing around me. That was really it.
On your new album, with the track "Gimme Got Shot," you directly address some people around you suddenly wanting a handout.
Yeah, man. Everybody feel like I owe them something. It's like, "I don't even know you like that!" They all expect shit. When I go out, certain people want to come out with me so I let them come out. And then they feel like they're owed something for being around us. It's like, "I didn't ask you to come and hang with me!"
I guess it's all a part of success.
Yeah. This shit is wild, bro. It come with it.
After My Krazy Life, a slew of other artists, like 2 Chainz and Iggy Azalea, seemed to be capitalizing on your Cali gangsta-party sound. How did you respond?
I mean that was something I've been dealing with before the album when I was on my mixtapes. I had to accept it. Motherfuckers gonna try and follow up with the same-type-sounding shit. They'll probably do it again with this album.
Your new album pushes your sound forward. Especially on tracks like "Twist My Fingaz," you pay homage to Nineties G-funk. What was your mindset going in?
I was on making my shit sound next level from My Krazy Life. It was a mix between that and the producers I was working with. I was working with Terrace Martin and all those uptempo beats that he do, they bring that old-school West Coast feel. And then my boy Swish who did the majority of the tracks on my album, his sound that he use is similar to the older shit with a new bounce. And then I got two tracks from 1500 or Nothin, and he grew up with the old West Coast shit doing beats for Snoop and all them. You feel me? So it's a mix between me trying to take my shit to the next level and then the producers I was working with and their sound.
Speaking of producers, Sicamore, who executive-produced both of your albums, seems to have helped you understand how to structure an album and create a cohesive work.
Yeah, he just breaks shit down to me and helps me understand shit real easy. With the first album we was going back and forth with ideas. We can go back and forth on some shit until there's nothing more to say. We argue all day long about every fucking song. I rewrite verses. I redo a lot of shit. He had me looking at movies so I understand the story line. He was really about me doing all the homework. From my first album I learned all that. So the second album wasn't really too difficult to do. It was really about finding the right producers.
Is it about finding those who share the same vision as you?
It's who I vibe with. Who I know that I can tell them where I'm trying to go and what I'm trying to do and they can deliver the shit. I'm not worried about the names or none of that. It's about who can really sit down and work. I'm all about living in the studio 24 hours a day. That's how I do my albums. That's an important part to my whole process.
On "Twist My Fingaz" you rap, "I really got something to say/I'm the only one that made it out the West without Dre." It seems you've made it a point clarify that unlike some other West Coast rappers like Kendrick Lamar no one gave you the co-sign.
That right there is a blessing. It's big. I felt like all the shit I got going on is because I'm self-made. Motherfuckers look at it like, "If YG did this by himself and they came up they own sound, they own movement, they figured out what it takes, then the next motherfucker can." Our situation right now is something that a lot of young motherfuckers in the rap game ain't got going on. I know me being self-made is the reason why I got those type of things in the works.
A lot of kids, especially those growing up in the tough areas of Los Angeles, look up to you. Is that a responsibility you take seriously?
I do. I got motherfuckers looking up to me across the world. And knowing that is why I tell myself all the time I gotta lead these people somewhere. I really be making chess moves because I don't want to mislead them. Otherwise when it's all said and done after the music and they're all grown, they be like, "Man, this nigga YG, he ain't lead us nowhere!"
Is there a part of you that feels like your music career could disappear at any moment?
That's on my conscious all the time. But then I know I put in the work. I do this 25/8. But it's life. Shit happens. I know that. So you gotta take it day by day and just keep it going.
You've had to deal with something of a double standard in the hip-hop game. On one hand, it's your honesty and rawness about the street life that's made your fame. But when you actually live that life and get into violent situations industry figures stop picking up your calls and want to keep a safe distance.
That's how it be for me, bro! That's everyday life for me. I was just talking to my homie about this: I see how people was when the album came out and I see how they is when I ain't really have too much going on and now I'm putting shit back out and they right back in front of my doorstep. "What's up, YG!" Man, fuck all that! That's how it is out here the majority of the time. I don't fuck with that shit but it is what it is so I'm gonna play the game.
A lot people listen to your music and think they understand street life when I'd venture they have no idea.
I'll be having a lot of supporters who not black and they not from the streets and they love my music. But I know what it is. It look cool. It look kinda dangerous. People want to be involved with the edgy shit.
I appreciate that you included the song "Police Get Away Wit Murder" on your album that addresses innocent young black men being murdered by law enforcement.
That shit is going on at an all-time high. Everybody talk about shit too much. Everything's that been going on in America the majority of people is just talking. That's all they doing. Ain't nobody doing nothing. Ain't nobody using their platform for no real shit. So it's like, "Fuck this. I'm about to speak up!" I really feel some type of way. I'm really the type of dude that if the police say some crazy shit to me I'm really going to say some crazy shit back and it's probably gonna turn into some other shit, you feel me? I move like that. This shit really coming from my heart.
Suffice to say, with a song like "FDT" (Fuck Donald Trump) on your album – which put you on the radar of federal law enforcement – I assume you're not supporting the presumptive Republican nominee for president?
Hell, yeah! I ain't never about to change how I feel about him.
You've said in the past that music saved your life. Do you still feel that way?
Music saved my life for sure, bro. I was in jail and when I came home I got signed [to a record label]. And I know if I wouldn't have got signed I don't know what the fuck I'd be out here doing. If I wasn't rapping I'd be out here on some bullshit. Ain't no telling what would have happened to me. Thankfully I fell in love with the rap shit. And I'm the type of dude that when I'm doing something I'm doing it hard. Me going hard with the rap shit turned into a real opportunity and I took it and ran with it.