Thursday, August 1, 2019

album review: 'the lost boy' by ybn cordae

I'll admit I'm a little surprised I'm choosing to cover this project.

See, I try to keep my ear to the ground when it comes to certain rap crews, but there are others that I've missed the boat on. One of them in the early 2000s was A$AP Mob, but in recent years it feels like it's been the YBN crew. Part of this is another sprawling lineup that seems to be more hype than with credible music to back it up, but another part was the YBN Nahmir song 'Rubbin Off The Paint' which was fine, but not all that interesting. And given that he was considered one of the leaders, I didn't have a ton of incentive to check out YBN Cordae if that was what the crew was going to deliver.

But then he kept showing up - and spitting his ass off. One of the sole saving graces on the last Logic album, a few other scattered features, nabbing enough buzz to hit the XXL Freshman list this year and with a freestyle good enough to drive momentum into an upcoming album on a major label deal with Atlantic, I figured why not - could wind up interesting, so what did we get from YBN Cordae on The Lost Boy?

So here's the thing: I understand why this album is getting a lot of hype in some hip-hop circles, because YBN Cordae is laying a good foundation with this project but also because I'm already seeing folks describe this as having the sort of sound and vibe they were hoping from that contentious Chance The Rapper album that dropped the same day. And even if I still like that album, I certainly get why folks might dig this more: the soul vibes are tempered with a little more darkness and accessibility, it hits its comfort zone more effectively, and the flows and production deliver... but it's absolutely a project where the contrast is both blessing and curse, and it does leave me questions how YBN Cordae will develop. 

And we might as well start with that, and two comparisons that I'd argue are the first serious challenge for YBN Cordae to overcome: namely that in flow, vocal timbre, and melodic choices he reminds me a lot of both Chance The Rapper and J. Cole. And given the instrumental palette and content that YBN Cordae uses, that absolutely makes sense and might as well be a good place to start... but I find myself listening for what sets him apart in his own lane and as of now there's not much. I'd argue he's a better singer than Cole - although smoother vocal production does some lifting here in comparison with Cole's occasionally fried tone - and he's got a knack for blunter storytelling and swagger that feels natural alongside Pusha-T's sneering delivery on 'Nightmares Are Real' and even better trading bars opposite Anderson .Paak on 'RNP', by far one of the most infectious team-ups I've heard this year. But for as much as there's some good chemistry opposite Chance on 'Bad Idea', it's hard to avoid the suspicion that Chance has a level of layered refinement in his wordplay that YBN Cordae just hasn't reached yet. Now I think YBN Cordae will get there - dig a little deeper into his content and I can see the capacity for more introspection, especially as his bars and interconnected rhymes are much sharper than I expected - but I get the impression that the label has turned on the gas for his success early and he just hasn't had the chance to cut deeper yet.

Now that's not saying there aren't places where he does delve a bit deeper: the most obvious example comes on 'Thousand Words', which might at first seem to be the obvious shot at Instagram and the distortion of real life that can come through social media, but he's not about to place himself above it or highlight some legit positives from that landscape - people want to be remembered or just get dazzled by the spotlight, if only for a moment, more of the key comes through balance. And his increased focus on family is a nice touch, even if it does feel a little jarring juxtaposed against the flexing on 'Broke As Fuck' - from a deft touch in capturing the detail and awkwardness of taking a girl to meet the family on 'Thanksgiving' when he's not sure how long it's going to last, to the questions of how now seeing success contextualizes the poverty he grew up with on 'Bad Idea' and 'Been Around', to the storytelling of 'Family Matters' where he can see all the family who is trying to keep quiet and not stifle his success and inspiration but there's still real guilt that he can't do more to help them. Hell, when you proceed that track with 'Nightmares Are Real' with Pusha-T and an emphasis on that grind and follow it with 'We Gon Make It' with Meek Mill where the aspirational focus is broader that could well elevate everyone around him, there is something of an arc there. That said, there are definitely points where you can tell YBN Cordae might be getting ahead of himself or might not come across as wise as he's framed, mostly because of some jarring tonal shifts from line to line - I brought up 'Broke As Fuck' which in losing some of that connective tissue loses some impact, but 'We Gon Make It' shows his 'savior of hip-hop' angle feels thin, especially when you can draw parallels to his obvious inspirations and highlight how some of his flexing is not that different than his peers. But the real dud lines unfortunately come on the closing track 'Lost & Found', where not only does he say people are biting his sound as the brand names pile in, but he then says XXXTENTACION is the Tupac of his time and said he was speaking like Obama in his prime, which is such a wild overreach even divorced of context that it makes me question the rest of the insight on the project; should never have been the last song, and it's a really unfortunate note to end off the project.

Now all of this circles back to the production and instrumentation... and again, where I'm a little more conflicted than I would like to be. On the one hand I like the restrained soulful touches on tunes like 'Bad Idea', the guitar-backed hi-hat skitter on 'Thanksgiving', the twinkling R&B restraint on 'Thousand Words', and the terrific rounded groove of 'Family Matters', anchoring on a great hook from Arin Ray. And when he does step a little outside of his pocket, like the darker, bassy organs, pianos, and spare percussion on 'Nightmares Are Real' or the stripped back g-funk knock of 'RNP' - the latter ironically produced by J. Cole - he fits into those lanes effectively, and all of it has been given a lot of polish... maybe a bit too much, if I'm being honest. Yeah, call me a sucker for slightly scratchier samples and vintage hip-hop - go ahead, it's true - but I'm often left feeling a bit more organic crackle and grit might be able to mask how some of the percussion lines don't quite match the pickups of the groove as cleanly as they should, from the clinking trap off the keening flute of 'Have Mercy' to the oily vocal sample, runny guitar and blocky muffled stutter of the groove behind 'Back Home', which sadly comes back to bear with that clicking beat off the lead guitar on 'Been Around' and the blaring horn off the hi-hat and blocky bass of 'Lost & Found'. And while this production does have a little more regional character than your standard atonal trap clunker - again, the J. Cole influence definitely shines through here - if I'm looking for the instrumental tones that could YBN Cordae in his own class I'm not quite sure I'm hearing them just yet; his forebears cast long shadows.

But as a whole I do like this more than I expected - not quite swinging for the fences yet but getting the base hits you need as an artist getting a mainstream push. There's certainly a lot of talent here and some good artistic instincts, but the next steps do need to come with developing a more distinctive sound and digging a bit deeper to avoid some questionable direcitons; I get how he might not have had full time to go deeper, but that is absolutely the next step. But as it is... yeah, some folks might be saying I'm being generous these days, but when it's good stuff I'll recognize it, so this is netting a 7/10 and a recommendation from me. Definitely worth hearing if any of the influences I described are up your alley, but if you want to pay attention to a promising talent on the horizon... yeah, check him out.

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