Untouchable: NBA YoungBoy Keeps Scoring

Luke Benjamin breaks down some of the standout cuts from YoungBoy Never Broke Again's latest LP.
By    September 8, 2017

youngboy

Luke Benjamin always uses two hands.

Is YoungBoy Never Broke Again ambidextrous? “Left Hand Right Hand,” a song from his just released A.I. YoungBoy album, would suggest yes—but also maybe no. If he is ambidextrous, which he might not be, then he has a very narrow definition of what each hand is permitted to do: “Left hand doing numbers / Right hand doing work.” Can the right hand “do numbers?” In any case, “Left Hand Right Hand” is the best rap song that came out during this last, interminable, month.

We call it August, and it was certainly that, but it was also 31 days on a profoundly unsettling knife’s edge. Through this, or maybe despite this, YoungBoy was one of the little joys—voicing un-sublimated reality in brawling bursts. His tenor is malleable despite a regional drawl, and almost always urgent, lithe melodies only just softening the comparatively blunt edge of his rapping.

YoungBoy’s music is perfect for this moment because it attempts to hold onto life with whatever it has. That’s where the urgency comes from, each verse another affirmation of more breath from a kid raised where too many lives are silenced prematurely. His music is in-your-face naturalism, sometimes braggadocios, but mostly just stating realities in yelps and full throated images. Paranoia, the threat or physical presence of violence, and tenuous relationships are the main throughlines, rough sketches there to be traced.

Everything is treacherous on the edge; so when YoungBoy tells you that a dap with the wrong hand is it all takes to reach for weapons, you have to believe him. Bad faith is easy to see, or imagine, when actual conspiracies abound. His only obstacle to coming fame are the trappings of his Baton Rouge roots and the people who would contort those roots until they strangle—police and green-sickened neighbors alike. Only three months out of jail, and just 17, he’s heavy with lived experience. “38 Baby,” an allusion to his hometown, is part-paradoxical, because no one stays a baby for long in Baton Rouge.

His rise is littered with images of a maybe-fifteen YoungBoy gesticulating animatedly in early videos with many firearms. This picture is as immutable as his scarred forehead, the self-styled “boy” jarringly young to be immune to these shows of menace. It would seem surreal in the hands of another rapper, but one of the enduring qualities of YoungBoy’s work is a cold-eyed appraisal of the violence and extreme poverty around him. He doesn’t need to over-posture, just observe, the unadorned truth will do the work itself—empty stomachs and juvenile cuffs. It’s brusque, but that’s the point, none of this is sensational, just lived in.

“Left Hand Right Hand” bears the weight of a lot of this, ostensibly a knock-you-on-your-back banger, by becoming more in its minutiae. On face the mission statement is simple: YoungBoy doesn’t trust you, and you’ll know because of the tool in his right hand. But next to the rambunctiousness is a nagging paranoia and sly solemnity. Shots are fired, but the important recurring image is gun residue being washed from beneath fingernails. After the adrenaline and energy, there’s only eery silence and detritus.

It’s this relative quiet where YoungBoy does his best work, conjuring short, but lucid, retreats into interiority that grasp at the humanities still left, or not left, after gunfights and melees. On the other peak from A.I YoungBoy, “No Smoke,” he reaches this territory in three bars: No Smoke No Smoke , you n***as don’t want it / I can’t go won’t go, won’t leave my momma lonely / No smoke, no smoke but we die bout that money.These startling reflections sit next to all the rest: the boasts, accumulation of gangster tropes, and Kevin Gates-adjacent hooks, breaking through the noise to refract light onto a burdened psyche.

The urgency that keeps “Left Hand Right Hand” throttling forward at whiplash pace is mostly directed towards escape, not out of fancy, but as necessity—Baton Rouge can never be a permanent home. As noted in the New York Times, Boosie, one of YoungBoy’s only local rap elder-statesmen, stated ominously in a congratulating Instagram post, “Leave BR asap.” YoungBoy’s at least momentarily accomplished this, now sequestered in LA, and A.I. Youngboy should keep him there, and far away. It’s a precocious first move, offering plenty of promise for a, one can hope, lengthy future.