Ever since turning heads with clever yet bold singles such as “Kung Fu” and “Old Niggas,” YBN Cordae has looked like an artist with enormous potential. But the fact that the North Carolina rapper, whose style switches from goofy to street smart to introspective at the drop of a hat, is a jack of all trades has also made some question whether he could release a truly compelling album, or if his versatility might just be too jarring.
Well, Cordae’s studio debut The Lost Boy is an emphatic response to any doubters, with this heartfelt record one of the most grown up rap releases of the year; an impressive feat given its creator is only 21 years-old.
Right from the jump, it’s clear Cordae is built differently from most of his peers. "Wintertime," with its hypnotically beautiful saxophone sample, is a riveting piece of soul searching, as Cordae ponders how Corretta Scott King must have felt when she learned Martin Luther King, Jr. had been cheating on her. And over the gentle synths of “Thousand Words,” Cordae admits the internet makes him feel worthless; a powerful message in an age where young rappers seem to live every single moment of their lives through an Instagram feed.
The beat for “Broke As Fuck” might be grimy and threatening, but the way Cordae translates the pain of young working class black males has more in common with Howlin’ Wolf singing the blues than modern trap. In one of the most passionate verses of the year, Cordae raps: “My cousin shot/ Got me paranoid on who to trust or not/ They gave my brother 25 years/ that really sucked a lot/ post traumatic stress is really building up.”
This raw honesty makes you feel like you have a personal stake in Cordae’s story; a rare skill for a rapper to possess, but one that suggests we’re dealing with an artist that will have real longevity. The rapper’s frank admissions around his mental health battles also feel important amid an industry where toxic masculinity still reigns supreme. Male artists who have experienced trauma are often expected to have a stiff upper lip, but Cordae isn’t afraid to show vulnerability, and this makes him feel more like one of us.
The euphoric neo-soul of “Family Matters” is another highlight here, with Cordae making it feel like you’re catching up with an old cousin filling you in on everything that’s been going down on the other side of the family. “I got an auntie who a prostitute, it hurts my soul / I promise you selling your body ain’t worth that gold/ reverse that role!” he urges, sounding very much like an old head on young shoulders, doing everything he can to unite a splintered family unit that's been broken by America's class system.
Yet just when things get too heavy, Cordae shows a sparkling wit, ridiculing a family member’s “bogus loafers.” The greatest compliment I can pay Cordae is his timeless soulful production (FYI: there's knowing nods to vintage Scarface and JAY-Z) and the way he’s able to quickly transition from saying something deep to making you smile reminds one of Kanye's College Dropout days.
There’s plenty of big name guests here, with some working better (Pusha-T kills it in the reflective mentor role on "Nightmares Are Real") than others (Anderson .Paak sounds like he's on autopilot on "RNP"), but the best feature comes from Meek Mill on “We Gon Make It,” which samples JAY-Z’s somber classic “This Can’t Be Life.” It’s an endearing track about coming from nothing to sitting at the top table, and both artists sound genuinely happy to have made it out of the struggle.
Mill’s vocal delivery might be a bit more emotional, but Cordae, who compares Trump to the Antichrist, has a message that hits harder. “I want to spark the movement and put an end to this garbage music,” he boldly states; a claim that doesn't sound at all ridiculous given how consistently engaging The Lost Boy sounds.
Cordae wants to bring rap away from tired Xanax and gun references and into a place where looking after your family, respecting women, and owning land are a rapper's biggest priorities. This is a record all about self-care, not just for YBN Cordae, but for young black men and women all across America.
Musically, perhaps you could say Cordae plays it safe at times, and that this record doesn’t really surprise you with its sonics. The host could also be slightly more charismatic with his vocal delivery too, but even if there’s still some creases to iron out, there’s a sense Cordae is one of the most interesting breakout stars of the year. This isn't an album for fans of chaotic trap and moshing, but one that is designed as something for you to sit back and vibe to, and understanding this will be key to how much you enjoy the journey.