After Nipsey Hussle died, YG spoke at his memorial at the Staples Center, called him “black motherfucking Jesus” during an emotional Coachella set, and delayed the release of his own album. Their friendship was a close one that transcended gang ties; they spoke truth to power on the defining political protest song of our time, “FDT,” a mafioso g-funk middle-fingers-raised eruption of disbelieving rage that combined YG’s knack for agitation with Nipsey’s view that life for black folks in South Central is a marathon test of never-ending endurance.
YG dedicated his fourth studio album 4REAL 4REAL to Nipsey, and while it contains a handful of nods to his fallen comrade—on the leadoff track, he raps, “Call Dre, call Snoop, call Game and Kendrick too / When you think about the West, it’s me and Nip, red and blue”—the album isn’t fully-realized Nipsey tribute, due mainly to the fact that his death is so recent. By and large, 4REAL is an extension of YG’s last album, 2018’s Stay Dangerous, full of flexes and taunts, but without a whole lot of purpose. Kanye told him, “Fuck being humble, act a asshole,” and whether YG is using the album as an opportunity to rest on his gangsta rap laurels or pursue more ambitious impulses, he takes those words to heart.
4REAL is best when YG is drunkenly lathering dip on his chip and teaming up with his long-time partner DJ Mustard to create chest-thumping party anthems. “Bottle Service” is a thrilling, piano-driven club banger, the soundtrack to ten thousand broke boys ponying up for a bottle of Ace of Spades they can’t afford, while “In the Dark” is the soundtrack to the basement function, where Mustard’s in the corner laying down filthy, hyphy-indebted bass lines and YG’s up on the table yelling, “It’s a movie, Scorsese!” YG’s debut album, 2014’s My Krazy Life, was a day-in-the-life chronicle of doing hood rat stuff with one’s friends, and its follow-up Still Brazy (which featured “FDT”) found him wrapped up in intense internal and political matters. While 4REAL lacks the specificity and focus of those albums, it proves that he can coast by leaning into his hedonistic side and trusting his instincts, whether that means jacking Valee’s slinky flow on “I Was On The Block” (with Valee’s blessing!), cooking up unpretentious summer BBQ bops like “Do Ya Dance,” or throwing on a mariachi suit for “Go Loko.” (It’s a miracle Tyga didn’t try to rhyme “loko” with “cholo.”)
YG has proven himself to be a captivating storyteller on songs like “Meek the Flockers,” a step-by-step burglary tutorial, and “Who Shot Me,” a recollection of the 2015 attempt on his life through the lens of unshakeable paranoia. On 4REAL 4REAL, he is more interested in storytelling than ever, and these fresh ambitions result in a run of mid-album clunkers that feel low-stakes, tangential, and often unsympathetic. “Keshia Had a Baby” is not a sequel to Tupac’s Shakespearean hood tragedy “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” but a lame cautionary tale about infidelity that feels like an episode of Basketball Wives. On “Heart 2 Heart,” he places a solemn hand on the shoulder of a troubled friend and gives him boilerplate advice akin to the Nike slogan, “Just do it.” On “Play Too Much,” he takes offense when a woman with whom he’s sleeping takes his handouts and gives the money to her presumably less wealthy boyfriend. It’s the injured cry of a man who, for once, didn’t get the chance to screw over a love interest: “Usually I play a bitch, but that lil’ bitch played me.”
The only song on 4REAL 4 REAL that actually achieves the pathos of “Brenda’s Got a Baby” is its closer “Her Story,” in which Day Sulan raps dreamily over celestial Nat King Cole strings about a young girl fighting for her survival: “Mama ain’t have time for her, daddy never cared for her / Cut off from the world it was cold to her / Tried to kill herself but shit it didn’t work, mama left it broke her heart.” It’s a tender moment that puts 4REAL’s overall flatness in perspective. The album reaches a low point on “Do Not Disturb,” when YG responds to a claim that he “can’t rap” by retorting, “Bitch, I got bars!” He then immediately undermines that argument by rapping, “I’m a rich nigga, swipe the credit card / Fucking with a stripper, she a star.”
Released just nine months after Stay Dangerous, 4REAL 4REAL flies well below the lofty standard YG set with his first two albums and smells of his eagerness to get out of his label contract. YG’s world-beating flamboyance is best when tempered by a bit of self-reflection, or at least self-awareness. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much of either these days.