The Gut-Level Emotions of YoungBoy Never Broke Again

The life YoungBoy Never Broke Again raps about on his new album, “AI YoungBoy 2,” is a harrowing swirl of personal trauma, treacherous relationships, murderous fantasies and ice-cold bluster. How he renders it is striking: a sing-rap drawl, sometimes emphatic and sometimes absent-minded, flecked with light touches of the blues.

For music like this, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, 20, has been one of the most popular rappers of the last two years, a phenomenon on YouTube and a growing presence in hip-hop’s mainstream.

The absorbing, vivid and at times stressful “AI YoungBoy 2” — which debuted at the top of the Billboard album chart last month — captures his gifts well. There is perhaps no rapper working who is more effective at channeling gut-level emotion. He’s not carefully calibrated or totally unhinged, but rather an astute renderer of complex and constantly shifting sentiment. He can pivot from a self-laceration to a threat on a dime, changing his delivery from scarred to tough for emphasis. Sometimes, perversely, his vocal affect and his lyrics don’t match up, which makes each verse a tricky minefield; his sadness can come off ecstatic, and his menace can be sweet.


The result is some blend of mid-period Future and late Tupac Shakur. Pointillist lyrics and structured songwriting aren’t his métiers; selling feeling is.

On “Self Control,” he heads straight for the most painful veins: “When my grandma died, I had to beat the odds and it wasn’t easy/When Boozilla died, I almost lost my mind, broke me to pieces.” (Boozilla, a fellow rapper from Baton Rouge, La., was killed in 2016.) “Carter Son,” which announces itself with triumphant horns, is seeping with melancholy: “My father left my sis and bros/to them I feel I owed it”

He also delves into heartbreak in a way that most artists not named Drake aren’t willing to. On “I Don’t Know,” he admits to his personal failings while pleading his case to someone he’s let down. “Ranada” is a disarming song about wanting to reclaim a love that’s already slipped away: “I hit you up, you said don’t call you, that was hurtful/I guess I figure after all I deserve you/Been a thug, I swear I did not mean to hurt you.”

Not every song strikes these particular notes — there is plenty of chest-puffing on this album. When he’s in this self-aggrandizing mode, YoungBoy Never Broke Again is rowdy, clipping his words into terse bursts.

But what’s consistent between his various approaches is his commitment to almost incalculably melancholy production. “Seeming Like It” marries doom and mope. Gloomy keys recur throughout the album, on “Rich as Hell,” “Time I’m On” and other songs, setting a tone of contemplative loneliness. It’s there, too, on “Lonely Child,” which begins with a brooding, resigned spoken intro: “The way I came in the game, the image that I had put out, they wouldn’t expect me to have feelings. I know it probably don’t seem like it. That’s why they talk about me like I ain’t human, but we all is.”

“AI YoungBoy 2” is YoungBoy Never Broke Again’s first release since getting out of prison in August after serving three months for a probation violation. His short career has been interwoven with legal troubles; barely any of his success has come without interruption by violence. “I feel like I’m Gucci Mane in 2006,” he croons on “Make No Sense” — that’s the year Gucci Mane’s murder charges were dropped, and the year his classic mixtape run began. A flawed hero for a flawed rising star.

YoungBoy Never Broke Again
“AI YoungBoy 2”
(Never Broke Again/Atlantic)

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