Soundcheck: YL Keeps the Visual Record Alive

For the latest edition of Soundcheck, Donna-Claire writes about why her favorite project by NY emcee YL is always the most recent one – on Don't Feed the Pigeons, he captures day-to-day musings...
By    October 18, 2023

Image via Waqas Ghani

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Donna-Claire knows that writing in total darkness is bad for her eyes, but she stands by the idea that it makes the writing process easier – as if she’s some sort of literary vampire.

It’s a chilly, rainy fall evening in Philadelphia. My wife and I just decorated the outside of our house for Halloween. She’s now at a birthday party themed around the Barbie movie, but goth. I’m understandably sitting in the dark in the living room at home, my face lit up by the dim glow of the laptop bluelight. My eyes hate me—I definitely need glasses.

I’m listening to the latest album from New York rapper YL, an underground phenom from Chelsea via Ecuador. He grew up on tapes pirated by his brother: Big Pun, Big L, Jay-Z. The works. I’ve spent some time walking through that part of Manhattan in a past life that often found me in the city. One old phone note I wrote in the mid-2010s reads, “it’s as if the buildings are scowling.” I won’t lie to the readers, I’ve no idea what that means, but it feels accurate on this gross day in my own city.

YL is a native of the city, but you didn’t need me to tell you that. His bars are icy, nonchalant, and remind you of the hunger, grittiness, and cool that defined classic Five Boroughs hip-hop. On Don’t Feed The Pigeons – the latest of over a dozen full-length offerings – YL’s blunted vocals mimic the soft haze of the fall sunset filtering through dying leaves. YL’s vocal tone is approachable, easy to get lost in. He bends into and seeps through the productions from his RRR label compatriots and frequent collaborators: Zoomo, Subjxct 5, Tony Seltzer. Don’t Feed The Pigeons features an even deeper turn into samples, with some Jersey club flair (thanks Sub). These nuances overlap and develop an exciting afterimage for where the soft-spoken underground scene of the city is headed. Beneath the iceberg of Wiki-lite rappers, this crop of artists spit as if their blood stopped flowing, easily unfurling dispatches of everyday life in the city. There’s an eclipse tonight. It all feels fated now.

I keep a notebook with me when I have dedicated, full-focus music listening sessions. I write down standout bars and draw arrows between lyrics and my own thoughts about the records I’m listening to. The first line off Don’t Feed The Pigeons to hit is: “I got more albums than Nas.” It’s a flippant flex, something that speaks to the prolific way YL works. He has the depth and subtlety of an NYC rapper in the 2020s, sure, but he also has the relentless ability to record and release that reminds me of the hustle of Wayne or more recently, someone like Wifigawd. But rather than being a studio rat, everything is made, mixed, and mastered, in his apartment. His laid back personality is defined by his musical lineage: artists like AZ, Jadakiss, and Styles P.

A fellow writer recently told me they ran into YL and close friend and collaborator Starker (who YL met in a Queens basement in 2012), at a show in New York. Apparently, there’s a ton more music on the way, but I didn’t need them to tell me that. The songs keep flowing because the minutiae of life keeps unspooling.

“The songs I make rarely have a solid theme or subject. I just write it down as I think,” YL told Bandcamp Daily. A real writer. A living archivist. Lately, I’ve been enamored with finding a camera I can use as a sort of diary-cam, something that can come with me everywhere I go and keep a visual record of my life. It has to be easy to use; it can’t get in the way. I have to get out of the way, too. I can’t let the concept of making art overshadow the process of actually making, actually building a visual record.

YL is similarly a concerned personal documentarian. His music captures the freshest sparks flying through his mind. Each release is a vial of quaint personal reflections of the humbly popped bottles and sharing his weed, seeing visions of “out of state plays,” having his music go global. I appreciate his DIY spirit. I appreciate the richly shifty quality of his voice. I appreciate that before rapping, he was but a cameraman for his crew, capturing the day-to-day life he would go on to rap about for years to come.

On the Roper Williams-produced “Yoke,” YL admits, “I’m underground getting industry checks,” before admitting the turbulence of trying to come up in Manhattan. So, more than anything, I appreciate the way YL presents raps as a way of cataloging the minor details of the life he knows best. I have stacks upon stacks of photobooks that try to make overwrought artistic statements, when really it’s the quiet images that capture my heart the most. I find myself wondering, if we keep searching for the “hero” image, the “hit,” the universal “banger,” will we miss the substance of life itself?

There is a photobook by Doug DuBois, perhaps the best book in my collection (apologies to great MN photographer Alec Soth) called …all the days and nights. It is a visual record unlike any other of a life lived and grieved, and there is one connective image that takes the viewer through some story beats. And you flip the page between these beats and you get a fresh set of context points for everything you’ve just seen, and everything you are about to consume, and you are—I am—brought to tears. Your heart is cut out with a grapefruit spoon and served back to you as you flip from image to image wondering, “is this right?” But that is just how life goes, and if you are unkind to yourself in the way of not giving yourself enough time, you will miss this tissue and then… Well, then you’ll miss the larger point.

YL’s greatest draw is his affinity for this connective tissue. Some headlines say it’s his “swag,” or the way he raps with an understated flair, but I disagree. Cool has nothing to do with the depth of his quick glances around life in the city. The raps are not demanding, but invite the listener to peer into a well of dashing observations about time anxiety (“Hunger Games”) and getting stoned in a Benz to escape regret (“Play Dead”). On “Illusions,” YL’s skin buzzes with discomfort: “I did this shit all by myself / I don’t owe you.” The song continues to balance the ease with which YL is finding success in his circles and the anxiety of being used by a “musty” music industry. YL is the type of artist who creates to discover something new in himself. The way I understand his process, every bar is a small revelation unto itself, the completed song a notebook sketch of the man hiding behind Gucci frames. So, a track like “Illusions” lands because it sounds like YL is discovering these unnerving dichotomies in real-time.

These musings are exploratory by design. They unknot and spread out—YL takes up space by the end of every release with the kind of unwieldy charm of the pumpkin vine a squirrel planted in our yard last winter. Said vine has completely taken over the retaining wall in the back. I hope we get pumpkins, but that’s beside the point. I will say, some of YL’s work is foamy in nature, and disappears before it can make a full impression. The song lengths are largely brief, rarely reaching beyond two minutes. It does stand to wonder what can be left with the listener in such a short time, perhaps that is by design. Perhaps it will be massaged out by the next 12 albums.

My favorite YL project is always the most recent one for this reason, because it is the most immediate and urgent release of his career. YL has a real taste for life on life’s terms. He makes the musings of a young artist appear as a dollop of caviar sitting on a small spoon with a gold leaf on top: “Living humble, but I think rich.” The jitters of making it on “Back On The Wall,” the worries over trust and ultimate happiness fade into the longest song on Don’t Feed The Pigeons, “More Life.” Here, YL balances the usual suspects of stacking up with the anxiety of achieving something special before he’s in the dirt. The simplicity of “I just gotta win / I just gotta live” feels heavy. On nearly every song on Pigeons, YL expresses fear over his budding legacy. It becomes clear to me, then, that he raps to preserve more than to impress an audience. He raps to catalog the fabric of his time on earth, and if people happen to f*ck with the cause, that is just gravy.

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