by christina lee
photos by marc clennon
styled by brookelyn styles
assisted by carlos aviles
For the past year, rapper YG has been pining for the 2021 Ferrari F8 Spider. This canary yellow sports car, valued at over $300,000, goes from zero to 60 in 2.9 seconds. It’s easy to imagine such a car in front of YG’s Hollywood Hills compound. “I told myself, when I complete my album, and I feel like I got some records that’s going to be a situation,” YG says, “I’m getting me a Ferrari.”
At the start of the last decade, the almighty algorithms of streaming services threatened to break down lines between hip-hop regional identities. Then came YG, one of this generation’s most trusted arbiters of West Coast gangster rap. Remember when DJ Mustard’s ratchet sound exploded in rap, R&B and pop in 2014? YG’s major label debut, “My Krazy Life,” was ground zero. In “Don’t Come to LA,” he reminds transplants that the Hollywood cliché surrounding his city is just that—a cliché. No wonder he is Suge Knight’s favorite rapper.
All five of YG’s albums have charted on Billboard’s top ten, because in YG we trust: After all, he and the late Nipsey Hussle delivered the Trump era’s most satisfying protest anthem, “FDT.” So going into his sixth album, “Pray for Me,” which drops this summer, YG has every reason to trust his own ear.
At home over Zoom earlier this spring, YG laid out all the criteria an album needs to meet in order to become a true classic. Aside from its features, which are still in the works, “Pray for Me” checks all those boxes: “The rapping is there,” YG says. “The storytelling is there. The hit records is there.” Clearly, his motivation tactic worked. “Come February, I was like, I’m damn near done with this motherfucker. I feel good.”
But when YG tried to track down that Ferrari, he learned what the rest of America faced during the pandemic. Due to chip shortages, shopping for a car was impossible, no matter his elite status. “G Wagons, everything was hard to get,” he says. And so YG reminded himself of yet another luxury he has: time.
YG usually announces each album with a memorable collaboration. Think “My N—” with Jeezy and Rich Homie Quan. “Why You Always Hatin?” featuring Drake and Kamaiyah. “FDT,” of course. “Big Bank” with 2 Chainz, Big Sean and Nicki Minaj. “Go Loko,” with Tyga and Jon Z.
“Scared Money,” featuring Moneybagg Yo and past tourmate J. Cole, is no exception. The hook’s original reference (“Scared money don’t make none”) is from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight,” a song about kids in concrete jungles being down on their luck. But with how N.O.R.E., Pusha T, Meek Mill, Lil Wayne and Jeezy have interpolated it since, the line “Scared money don’t make no money” has come to embody hip-hop’s ruthless hustle mentality. YG’s new single continues that same tradition. As his voice slinks over a suspenseful piano line, he boasts, “Fifty bitches flew to Cabo, YG a trip / YG think he Kanye West, he got his own kicks.”
The song’s next line is, “Fresh off a pandemic, I ain’t rusty.” But behind the scenes, YG was waiting until such a bar felt appropriately timed.
As he told Power 106, YG had been cranking out albums every nine months, in hopes of fulfilling a Def Jam contract as soon as he could. By the time that contract expired with 2019’s “4REAL 4REAL” and he renegotiated to own his master recordings, the pandemic was in full effect. “The whole West Coast was shut down, and my music is outside-type music,” YG says. “There was no real point of putting out a record like ‘Scared Money’ in 2021 or 2020. Once the pandemic is over, I can be at my fresh situation and get back to making timeless projects.”
YG may have felt newly inspired, but the creative process behind “Pray for Me” wasn’t without its setbacks. On day one of the “Scared Money” video shoot in December, YG tested positive for COVID-19. He delayed the song’s release by a month to deal with the fallout.
“My whole family ended up catching it from me,” he says. “My daughter, we ended up having to rush her to the hospital, in the ambulance and shit, ’cause she couldn’t breathe. She was turning purple, and I caught it at the right moment. I probably saved her life.
“Everybody caught it after that,” he continues. “My pops had caught it. My sister had caught it. My kid’s mom caught it. And then my little brother’s son caught it. This was during Christmas, so all my family be at my house. Everyone knew I had it, but everybody was like, shit, we’re not leaving. Fuck it. We’re all going to get COVID.”
When YG speaks about COVID, Slim 400’s passing and his godmother’s death in January, it aligns with a persistent theme in his music. No matter how much he’d rather revel in partying, bullshit and personal victories, he is also simply trying to survive.
On “Still Brazy”’s title track, he raps, “Lady problems, family problems / Homies problems, all this drama / On my mama, this the type of shit you sweat out in the sauna / Grandma pray for me, devil keep away from me.” He sprints through this list of grievances as if he’s trying to outrun death.
After all, his loved ones often don’t. Three years after “Still Brazy,” YG delayed the release of “4REAL 4REAL” by a few months, in light of Nipsey Hussle’s death. Even though the album was finished and YG was rushing to fulfill his old label contract, the timing wouldn’t have been right. Once “4REAL 4REAL” did arrive, YG included the speech he gave at Hussle’s funeral as a track.
Seven years ago, YG was shot at close range at his Los Angeles recording studio. In the immediate aftermath, he got the Virgin Mary tattooed on his scalp. His inspiration was Travis Barker—Blink-182 member, rap’s favorite drummer, godfather of Gen-Z’s pop-punk revival. And, as YG is quick to remind, LA fashion icon with his brand Famous Stars and Straps.
“Where I grew up, we all thought Travis Barker was dope, you feel me?” he says. “He’s a white boy, but we all looked at him like he’s a white Black boy.”
Some of YG’s tattoos, like the Slim 400 portrait on his left leg by Tat2Nene, honor the dead. Others—the crosses, the praying hands, two portraits of Jesus—are forms of spiritual protection. “I’m not really trying to believe all these stories,” YG says of how his Christian upbringing informs his current beliefs. But he will quote scripture where it counts. On his scalp, the words “No weapon formed against me shall prosper” frame St. Mary’s head like an aureole.
“You know the saying ‘What goes around comes around,’ like, karma?” YG says. “I think that’s a sign of God. Because every human knows if you put out some bad shit, you get some bad shit back. You do some good shit, good is going to come back.”
His new album title is yet another form of spiritual protection. “I live two or three different lives. I’m a dad. I’m an artist. And, I don’t know, I’m a fucking regular human. From all them different aspects, I’m giving you insight into my life and then telling you to just pray for me. When you hear the album and how it’s put together, you’re gonna be like, OK, bet. That makes sense. It’s dope.”
YG won’t disclose much else about “Pray for Me”’s subject matter, aside from this list of album highlights. “Remember this,” he says, reading from his laptop. “Track number two. Track number four. Track number five. Track number seven. Track number 11. Track number 14… no, track number 13,” he laughs. “I’m stopping there.”
By the time this issue goes to press, the second single, “Toxic,” will likely have hit airwaves. Sampling Mary J. Blige’s “Be Happy,” YG is entranced and then vexed by a side piece “out here competing with my baby mother.” Turns out, no amount of success or prayer makes romantic relationships any easier.
And as in “Still Brazy,” “homie problems” are in his thoughts, though they aren’t all YG reckons with. “I do mention the homie on the album, for sure,” he says, of whether “Pray for Me” honors Slim 400. “But I didn’t make a whole tribute song because I didn’t want it to seem like I’m using the homie for streams and sales and shit. People probably think I named my album ‘Pray for Me’ due to all this recent shit. But nah, my shit’s been called ‘Pray for Me.’”
(This conscious decision comes after other recent moves to be mindful of his platform. In summer 2020, YG canceled a march he organized to instead partner with Black Lives Matter. “I’m not trying to get none of my people hurt or shot,” he said. Last year, “My Krazy Life” quietly returned to streaming services, featuring a new version of “Meet the Flockers” that censors a lyric about targeting “Chinese neighborhoods.” Def Jam didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.)
For now, YG only speaks broadly about the personal growth he’s experienced since his last album. “You know when you start growing up, you just start looking at shit different and you start thinking about shit different,” he says. “It’s all that. I started growing up. Then the pandemic gave me extra time to sit down and think.”
How did the pandemic change him, though?
“I used to have patience, but then I lost it,” he says after 15 seconds of silent contemplation. “The pandemic hit, and it’s like, damn, bro. You don’t have to rush nothing. Take your time, bro. Just chill out. You’ve sat through this pandemic shit for two years without living the life you used to live for the past 10 years. And you OK.”
By the time he turned 32 in March, YG could prove that was true. As seen on Instagram, the sun had long set at West Hollywood nightclub Bootsy Bellows. YG’s wearing a $10,000 suit—“some Saint Laurent that ain’t even come out yet.” Its paisley stitching was only visible under flashing lights. But the rest of YG’s outfit could be seen a mile away: the jacket’s bolero-inspired silhouette, the glittering black loafers, his trademark super-skinny sunglasses.
YG had also pulled up in his new Ferrari, his reward for completing his new album. Between its red gift bow on the hood and the way it gleamed, the car looked as if YG drove it straight from the dealership.
As YG made his entrance, he smiled as he said, “This is how you do it, man.” But here at home, he’s solemn as he puts it another way. “You gotta celebrate life sometimes, you feel me?”