Almost exactly a month before we speak, Yungeen Ace was in critical condition. The sole survivor of a shooting that left three of his closest (including his brother) dead, he was shot eight times, at least one of those times as he tried to shield one of his own with his body. The legal system, too, descended before he made it back to fresh air, placing him under arrest for probation violation before his hospital release. Betrayal and loneliness are strong emotions that are often abstracted out of meaning when they’re used as individual words, as in the title of Ace’s upcoming mixtape (Life of Betrayal)—but in this conversation, abstraction is a buffer that we’ve been robbed of. This is a missive radioed in from distant warfronts, and so it feels momentarily fitting that his words are fuzzy, obscured by the crackles of a phone call. We are just a month removed from Ace’s world being dismantled. He comes from far away.
So often, the experience of listening to musicians emote is a spectator sport, even voyeuristic—particularly with gangsta rap, the Us/Them disconnect is an inescapable undercurrent for most. A song is not a dialogical medium of emotional release; even the theater actor is able to monologue out to an audience of physical beings. The song as an mp3 is still create-product consume-product, and so the engagement demanded of us, the audience, with the song as memoir, is uncharted. This relegation to a place of observation, particularly in a genre often wrought with violent tragedy, can feel uneasy.
But Yungeen Ace’s music stands because his confessionals are intentional, woven through the words. The most relevant and the most accurate comparison is still YoungBoy NeverBroke Again, but even YoungBoy still struggles to resolve his persona’s schizophrenia; guns out or guns down, never both. For Ace, the purpose of his music is self-reflexion and catharsis—read: it is for himself—but it feels like we belong, an essential part of his equation.
In conversation he is disarmingly candid about his childhood, the death of his uncle, and his life of, yes, betrayal. The toolbox that Ace draws from for his music is unmistakable, the same one crafted by YoungBoy and drawn upon by a countless number of Baton Rouge, Florida, and Atlanta rappers crafted in his image. But his conversion of vulnerability into personal intimacy, in every song, is remarkable.
Right now, the catalog is small—six or seven songs of note that have slowly accumulated millions of views each throughout this year. Even after the release of Betrayal later this month it will still be small, and so the hum surrounding Ace (amplified by his signing with Jonny Shipes’s Cinematic Music Group, the independent behind Joey Bada$$, Mick Jenkins, and G Herbo) is prodigious. There are several excellent records but no singular ones, partially because he habitually engages in that abstraction out of his music’s most crucial throughlines by following the blueprints of others. For now, he is plagued by generic retributions for generic deceptions, chaotic pathos. But already, he feels incapable of mediocrity and when the fire flashes, as on “Jungle,” alongside JayDaYoungan—smirk, “see an opp…”—we freeze.
The equation of modern rap to poetry (or, even, rap’s relegation to a subset of poetry) is a common one in semi-academic circles, a reflection of a need to legitimize what is, apparently, illegitimate. It is generally incorrect and nearly always unnecessary. But cross-referenced against the haunting freestyles that Yungeen Ace delivers sans instrumentals on his Instagram it feels genuinely apt, a correct identification of the mindset and the tradition he rose out of. In fourth grade he was scribbling line and verse into notebooks; then, and now. When everything but his voice is stripped away, Ace finds poise. He eulogizes. It is the Dickinsonian ideal of poetry; poetry you can’t miss, poetry that takes the top of your head off—or, as Ace would say, your neck. —Sun Ui-Yum
Before I ask you any questions, I just wanted to send our best wishes and prayers to you in the aftermath of what happened last month. What has the last month been like for you, going through what you’ve been through?
Yungeen Ace:Last month…I was in hell. I lost three brothers. I was in jail, I couldn’t even…I just feel like I could’ve done something, but I couldn’t do anything. I’m in hell, but I’m getting through it, though. I’m holding my head, because I know they’re watching over me.
Is there anything you’ve been doing this last month that’s helped you get through things, anything that’s kept your head up?
Yungeen Ace:I write songs, so when I write my songs, I tend to think about them. I don’t let the high get through all my pain. That’s how I’ve dealt with my pain my whole life, I’ve put it in my songs. I don’t vent to nobody, I vent to my beats. That’s how I get through any situation I’ve been in.
Are those the first people you’ve lost around you?
Yungeen Ace:My uncle died when I was fourteen. My uncle was like my daddy, because my daddy was gone fifteen years in prison. I lost him when I was fourteen years old, and then I just lost a brother named Momu—his name was Malik but we called him Momu—this past December.
What was it like for you when your uncle passed?
Yungeen Ace:That was heartbreaking, because that was my first time ever losing something, something so big and so valuable. I was young, I was fourteen. When my uncle left, everything left. All the holidays left, all the birthdays left. I don’t care about any of that stuff. It’s not the same anymore.
I know you were born in Chicago, but obviously you’re in Jacksonville now. Were you living in Florida when he passed?
Yungeen Ace:Yeah, I was in Florida. I’ve been living in Jacksonville since I was four, five years old.
Why did your family end up moving?
Yungeen Ace:You know, it’s crazy—I guess, my uncle was in a lot of stuff out there so we moved down here. But I don’t really know.
I know you’ve said it’s just you, your mom, and ten brothers in Jacksonville. I was curious what it was like for you to grow up that way, with ten other siblings, all male.
Yungeen Ace:It’s tough. It was really tough on my momma because it was just us and her. We grew up so fast. I never got to have a childhood, we had to grow up early. We were moving in and out of houses, moving homes. It’s been a struggle my whole life.
Are you one of the younger brothers, older?
Yungeen Ace:I’m the middle child.
Loneliness is a core theme of your songs, so I’ve been wondering how that became such a big theme within your life, particularly given what your childhood was like.
Yungeen Ace:Because I’ve been betrayed my whole life. I’ve been stabbed in my back, I couldn’t go through pain, I’ve never had somebody to keep it real to me. I couldn’t keep my distance, I couldn’t fall back.
You were just talking about it too, but betrayal is also a really core theme and also part of the title of your mixtape. Was there a specific incident that really hardened you about betrayal?
Yungeen Ace:You ever shot for something so far and just fell short? That’s how I’ve been my whole life. Trust means everything to me. Loyalty is everything to me. If you’re not loyal, I don’t want you around me. I have a big heart, and I’ve been hurt so many times. I don’t know what started betrayal, but I’ve always been betrayed, I always feel betrayed. I always fall short for something. Even when I was younger, my whole life has been betrayal.
And that’s the tape. Obviously, you’re doing incredibly well, you’re very young, and you have money coming in with your deal with Cinematic. What does it feel like to be in a position to provide? It’s a really powerful thing to be able to care for the people you care about, but I’m sure it also really alters your relationships for people. I’m curious what this last year has been like for you.
Yungeen Ace:Listen, I’ve always been like that. My whole life I’ve been providing. This year, everybody new. People will reach out, like, somebody new. It’s hard to see somebody new—somebody needs love. Because if you don’t know them, sometimes they’ll feel played. But I don’t give a fuck if somebody feel played, I lost my heart, so, I don’t know. I don’t got no heart. I don’t give a fuck. I provide for my momma and my brothers and my family. I’ve been the man in the house and this is going to make me more of the man.
Can you tell me more about what your uncle was like?
Yungeen Ace:My uncle was hard-working. He was real. He was just head over heels. He did everything. He was always trying to teach us to be better, trying to point us in the right direction, do something different from what he did. Strong man.
What’s your earliest memory of him?
Yungeen Ace:I have so many memories. He was the one who taught me how to drive. He was inspirational. There was just something about him, he was a leader. He always came to our house at 6 o’clock every day, and I knew he’d be there, every day. He loved to laugh.
Thank you, I really appreciate that. I also wanted to talk to you about the music: When did you start, where did you get your name? Was rap something that was around you when you were younger?
Yungeen Ace:Like I said, when my uncle died, that’s how I vented. I don’t have anyone to vent to, so I vent through my music. When my uncle died, that’s the only thing I could do—I tried to write. I got my name from my other uncle, because he used to watch Paid in Full—he’d be like, you’re different, you’re loyal. You’re Ace. I can depend on you.
Who was your favorite rapper when you were younger?
Yungeen Ace:I like Lil Boosie. I like Rich Homie Quan, Future. I’ve never had a favorite favorite.
Can you tell me about Yungeen Gang, how you all met? I’ve also seen online that you’re disaffiliated now, is that true?
Yungeen Ace:Us? Nah, nah, nah, those my brothers.
I knew it. That didn’t make sense.
Yungeen Ace:It was Flip (Tha Yungeen) and Trigga (Romo), they started it when they were younger. They were my big brothers. They get music, I always wanted to be in their music group. I always wanted to be in it, and as I got older I got better — they put me in it. We all got different flows, we all got a story to tell. They’re my brothers forever, we’ll never break up.
Even in the press releases, the comparisons that are going to come up are obvious. You’re going to hear a lot of people say you sound like Kodak, like YoungBoy Never Broke Again.
Yungeen Ace:[Laughs] Yeah, yeah.
What do you think about all of that? Does that feel fair? Do you listen to them?
Yungeen Ace:I don’t give a fuck about what nobody thinks. I talk to YoungBoy every day, he’s a big fan of my music. He doesn’t think I sound like him. I don’t really give a fuck, because we all came from nothing.
I think that’s the right attitude.
Yungeen Ace:If you could compare them now, they’re two of the best. That’s like being compared to 2Pac. If you get compared to 2Pac, that’s one of the greatest ever. Pretty soon, people are going to compare people to me.
How’d you meet YoungBoy?
Yungeen Ace:I don’t even know. One time he called me but I missed the phone call, and I was like, ‘damn!’ He talked to me about how he fucks with my music, but he called me in the hospital. I told him, ‘I got shot eight times, I’m fucked up.’ And he said, ‘No, don’t ever say any shit like that. You got power. You can’t hold anything back.’ I fuck with YoungBoy, we got a song together.
When I listen to your music, I really hear poetry. And rap is often made out to be poetry, but there’s something about how you write and about how you rap that feels like it is intended to be a form of poetry. And I think there are a lot of rappers who sing, but are reluctant to categorize themselves that way—but again, you’re very comfortable in that pocket. How do you see your own music?
Yungeen Ace:I can’t describe my music. Everything I say comes from the heart, and I never say anything I haven’t experienced. A lot of people rap about what they can’t talk about, I can tell. I don’t give a fuck about them. I rap about what’s real, what’s going on. No faking. And when I was younger, I used to write poetry in class.
Do you have a favorite poet, or poem?
Yungeen Ace:No, but that’s the thing—I’ve never known anyone who did. I never paid attention in class: I paid attention, but I didn’t pay attention. I only know poems by me.
You have your first mixtape coming out, and especially with a label behind you it’s going to be a lot of people listening to you for the first time, it’s your introduction. What was your goal?
Yungeen Ace:It’s called Life of Betrayal. I’ve been betrayed my whole life and everybody knows that. I can talk about everything. Why I’ve been betrayed. It comes out this month, I’ve been working on it for a little minute now. I’m done now.
You have a favorite song?
Yungeen Ace:I like that “Murder” song. I love that song.
Yeah, the one on your Twitter. I’ve seen you say in an interview that you want to channel Jay-Z and I thought that was really striking. For rappers from New York that’s a common idol, but not necessarily from Florida. That goal of wanting to be strong outside of music, especially since you’ve been vlogging, is really interesting. Where do you want to go from here?
Yungeen Ace:I don’t want to just be a rapper, I want to have my feet in everything. Everybody has different goals, but I want to be in movies, I want to be in shows, I want to be a businessman. Like Jay-Z, he’s smart. Everything he does, he’s figured out way before. And when he does it, he puts it all in—no half-stepping. I like Jay-Z’s music, but I like the way he is, the type of person he is. That’s what inspires me. That’s how I think about anybody. Like YoungBoy, I can feel everything he says. I don’t really want to listen to it if I don’t feel it. Everything Kodak says, I feel it. Everything Boosie says, everything Kevin Gates says, I feel it. It’s real.
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