Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

YBN Cordae is tired of rappers who sound bored on the mic, and he believes it’s something rap fans are getting sick of too.

“This art form is about having fun and expressing yourself. When it is just a job then that takes the whole kick out of it [for the fans],” the Raleigh, North Carolina native tells me on the phone while taking a break backstage in Belgium. “I dropped out of college because I was miserable as fuck and making music was my dream, so having fun is important.”

This mentality is what makes the 21-year old born Cordae Dunston’s music feel so endearing. His verses are lively, filled with youthful exuberance and a sense that the artist is enjoying every second of his moment in the spotlight rather than coldly seeing hip-hop as just a means to an end. On “Alaska (Scotty Pippen),” one of the highlights from the YBN collective’s self-titled 2018 mixtape (of which we noted: “the collective’s propensity for catchy, mindless music is enchanting”), he basically spits his mission statement as a rapper: “Eating beats for breakfast/ I’m elated”.

Top: Raf Simons, Accessories: Parachute
Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

He became a member of the Young Boss Niggaz crew after connecting with YBN Nahmir and YBN Almighty Jay online, subsequently staying at their houses whenever he made the trip to Los Angeles. The YBN collective actually started as a gaming clan, transitioning from Xbox Live lobbies to world tours, and this gives them a relatable, down-to-earth feel among their fast growing fanbase. They don’t feel like trap superheroes who are disconnected from reality, like, say, the Migos sometimes do, but rather a bunch of normal dudes who just happen to have a platform to rap.

“We linked up on some internet shit. Whenever we were in each other city we linked up,” Cordae explains. “The YBN crew works so well because we’re all individuals and just having fun with it. We don’t take ourselves too seriously!”

Yet even though the collective’s, and his own, music can be goofy and playful, Cordae is also the kind of rapper capable of swiftly taking you out of the light and submerging you into darkness. Sure, “Kung Fu” is a dizzy trap banger, but it’s also underpinned by sobering lyrics that give you a sense of how close the rapper was to becoming another statistic, as he spits: “I remember niggas got killed over Penny shoes/ where I’m from niggas dying like Kenny do.”

“I was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, and my family lives there, but I was raised a lot in South Carolina and Maryland too,” Cordae reflects. “The way I grew up influenced my music because I lived in a trailer park in South Carolina. Then I was in the trenches in Maryland, near DC, where there was a lot of guns, and I also lived in the suburbs too. Living out those three different socio-economic lifestyles means I’ve witnessed a lot of things and fucked with different people from all different walks of life. I think this means I can appeal to everybody and that’s what I want to do.”

Hoodie: MISBHV, Vest: HOMME BOY
Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch
Hoodie: MISBHV, Vest: HOMME BOY, Pants: 424, Shoes: Rick Owens
Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch
Top: 424, Pants: Fear of God, Shoes: Bond x Andrewalexanders
Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch
Jacket: 424, Top: Doublet
Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

Cordae sings the blues. On “Bad Idea,” the soulful first single from his upcoming debut full-length The Lost Boy which is a duet with Chance the Rapper (of who Cordae notes “is amazing, he cut his verse in 10 minutes. He has three Grammys and is still so humble; that’s how I wanna be! He’s my big bro!”), he sounds like an old soul, translating a difficult upbringing into melancholic bars. The song, built around a nostalgic beat that recalls Scarface’s “On My Block,” includes the stirring line: “I know myself all too well to be a stranger of pain.”

“Bad Idea” is a good reflection of how the The Lost Boy will sound. “The album will be based on the journey that I’ve been through. I am the embodiment of struggle, I am a product of struggle too,“ Cordae explains. “I represent what a lost boy is and the idea of finding your path. I like the idea that a rose can grow from concrete and that’s what I want this music to embody.”

But even though the project will deal with race and battling adversity to find yourself in a divided America, Cordae says he’s not interested in making protest music directly aimed at any one subject. Instead, he believes the new school of rappers have a duty to help young people escape from the bleakness of 2019: “I don’t get too political as it takes away from the authenticity and beauty of my music. If anything, I want to try to escape this reality. That’s what my music should do for you.”

One of the XXL Freshmen of 2019, alongside artists such as Lil Baby, Megan Thee Stallion, Tierra Whack, and Rico Nasty, Cordae is now teetering on the edge of genuine superstardom. But with more people aware of his music, he’s found more labels being placed on his artistry. In particular, he gets frustrated at the idea of being labeled a ‘backpack rapper.’ “I can’t be put in no box,” he insists. “I am an artist, a producer, I executive produce all my shit myself. I can do super introspective shit or super goofy shit so to put me in a box as a musician is just stupid.”

Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch
Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

There’s a fearlessness to YBN Cordae’s lyrics. “Old Niggas” is a bold response to J. Cole’s “1985,” where Cordae questions the age gap in hip-hop and why the older generation would rather dismiss the new rappers coming through than lend a helping hand. It also speaks to disillusionment among young people who are tired of false idols, as Cordae mocks Kanye West for being a Trump supporter. You sense Cordae isn’t afraid of confrontation or pushing content that goes against the grain. But he says this fearlessness wouldn’t be possible if he didn’t keep a tight knit group of friends: “I have a tight circle. There’s so much more I want to do in this game. I still haven’t fulfilled a lot of my dreams, and my friends keep me grounded to achieve them.”

Hoodie: MISBHV, Vest: HOMME BOY
Highsnobiety / Thomas Welch

On “Have Mercy” he raps about “needing acres, most of all we need prayer,” a message which feels radically different from a lot of his male peers, who are often weighed down by empty boasts about women, money, and defeating their enemies. “There needs to be more bars about owning property!” he agrees, sounding very much like an old head on young shoulders. “I am always thinking long term about finances and eating good.”

YBN Cordae feels like a fresh inspiring voice at a time where male rap, and its reliance on melodic trap bangers usually devoid of any social commentary, is starting to grow tiresome. The fact that Cordae is living for the future, and not just in the moment, suggests he will be one of the voices of the new rap generation you’ll actually remember in three years time. He concludes: “You’ve gotta think long term: that is how you last in this game.”

Words by Thomas Hobbs
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Thomas Hobbs is a freelance journalist / Tupac-obsessive based in London. He also writes for the Guardian, Pitchfork, NME, New Statesman, Dazed, Noisey, Time Out, and Crack Magazine.

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