Will Hagle‘s got a more than passable fadeaway.
Good news for Memphis. For a city whose sounds have shaped the edges of hip-hop for decades, but never grown beyond sending one or two representatives to the ephemeral national stage, its time is now. In 2019, Young Dolph and Key Glock’s Dum and Dummer peaked at #4. Blacc Youngsta is a star. The legends of the city—Juicy J, Project Pat, Yo Gotti, Gangsta Boo—seem to be positioning the next wave to take over. The torch is being passed to whomever can prove they’re good enough to hold it. Accordingly, there is no better representative than Moneybagg Yo.
Moneybagg Yo’s third studio LP, Time Served has trickled out of speakers and into earlobes in unexpected places. Orangetheory played an edited version of “Pop My Shit,” making everyone on the treadmills launch into record-setting “All Out” paces. A coworker’s phone, watching IG stories, made “Protect the Brand” shake the surrounding cubicles, a fitting melodic reminder for a cadre of social media managers. A friend told me he’s producing the video for “Pistol by da Bed,” and working on a treatment for “Federal Fed,” two potential hit singles from an album rife with them. A car blew past my house, blasting Megan Thee Stallion’s verse on “All Dat.” It remains the best project with the most forward momentum for the new decade. It is music about murder occasionally, but not necessarily to be murdered by.
The near-ubiquitous nature of Time Served might just be a Baader-Meinhof product of my mind’s own creation. Or Moneybagg’s success might just stem from the fact that nothing more appealing has appeared on the suggested albums to stream list in listener’s music platforms of choice. The evidence of Moneybagg Yo’s growing prevalence, however, isn’t strictly anecdotal. The album peaked at #3 on the Billboard charts, and remains solidly ahead of Harry Styles and Billie Eilish at #7.
For a city I know relatively nothing about, other than what I’ve gleaned from the best of its culture that it exports to the rest of the country, Memphis has given me so much. I grew up a 6-hour drive away but only visited once, on a trip to Graceland, where I asked my parents, “Where is the King?” They lied and told me he was sleeping. I didn’t know Elvis was dead. In many ways he isn’t. From the Sun Records’ archives to the perfect family recipe sauce slathered on my favorite chicken sandwich at JR’s Memphis-style barbeque on La Cienega, Memphis has been satisfying my senses for a long time, theoretically even generations before I was ever born.
The uniqueness of Memphis is what makes its music, like its food, memorable. Moneybagg Yo, like many of his peers, embodies a Memphis attitude and sound without outright doing any PR for his city. He speaks with a distinct drawl. He makes liberal use of adlibs. His songs are designed to make trunks rattle—or, in the case of my Kia Soul, buzz a bit from the force of my underwhelming speakers. “Thug Cry” is a modern Memphis blues ballad. “Thinking Out Loud” has a loud, disruptive rapidfire sound effect on the hook, and gives some insight into the dynamics there. “U Played,” featuring Lil Baby, knocks as hard as only Memphis’s own Tay Keith could make it. Only DaBaby, on “Protect Da Brand,” mentions Moneybagg’s city by name. But anyone listening to Time Served would face difficulty placing his origins anywhere else.
When talking to a woman who had moved to Los Angeles within the past few months from Memphis, I asked the question that I inevitably ask everyone eventually, whether they’re from that city or not: “Do you like Young Dolph?” She told me that she’s more of a Yo Gotti fan, at which point the conversation promptly ended, and I stared at my phone to see what was going down in the DM. Later, listening to Time Served, I realized that the same him vs. him argument wouldn’t work in the case of Moneybagg Yo. Moneybagg hails from a scene that’s been plagued by unnecessary beef for the past several years, and is aligned firmly on the side of Yo Gotti, with whom he put out the collaborative 2016 mixtape 2 Federal. Yet he himself is non-divisive. It is hard to be divisive when you make songs like “Federal Fed,” and enlist Future to rap alongside you. It is hard to be controversial when are so objectively great.
Moneybagg Yo is the Tin Man of Memphis. The self-broadcasted core aspect of his character is that he is heartless. The only term he uses as often is “relentless,” and he is relentless about reminding you he is heartless. He conveys it in his music, too, rapping with more precision, less humor, and in a colder, blunter manner than many of his Memphis peers. On “U Played,” he begins, “I don’t got a heart, but fuck it I’m paid.” This is his repeated assertion. He wants us to believe it is true. It is true, in a sense, but also it is not. Because, as The Wizard might tell him, no one who lacks a heart could make music this good.
Even Blac Youngsta, a polarizing figure whose name has emerged more than once in the dramatic saga of their city, destroys his featured verse and hook on “1 2 3.” The song starts with Blac Youngsta counting those numbers, Sesame Street-style, exactly on beat. It’s inexplicable why his cadence is so captivating, but It locks his voice in perfect time to a beat that marches on consistently, or, to use Moneybagg’s other favorite word, relentlessly.
There are stumbles on the album, such as “Dem People Freestyle,” which is forgiven for the use of the word freestyle in the title, but which also doesn’t work well in the full-length album format. It contains a hook that rhymes “big bag” with “big mad,” “big sad,” and “bitch ass.” At first it’s off-putting, and by the end of the song, in Moneybagg fashion, it’s stuck in your head. “Match My Fly” and “Real Luv” are similar low points of the LP. They are two tracks tailor-made for a particular mood and audience. Like Schoolboy Q did with “Studio,” even they somehow manage to succeed, and haven’t been skipped on my repeated run-throughs.
It will be a long year and it has already proven to be a tragic one. Hip-hop, and music in general, continues to shift its focus. Newness is valued over oldness, even if the new is informed by the old and vice versa. Moneybagg Yo is by no means new. His LPs have been slowly peaking at higher notches within the Top 200 of the charts since 2017. He had been recording long before that. America, and the world, needs Memphis. Memphis doesn’t need to be divided. Memphis has Moneybagg Yo.