Ethics and Rap are often a weird combination, resulting in a conversation that doesn’t manage to make much sense. There’s a number of issues that have been brought up within the last few years intersecting the two topics, none of which are new. The problem is, nowadays, rappers are running younger and younger, with so many of these kids becoming industry veterans before they’re even old enough to legally drink or drive. There’s an ever ramping expectation for these rappers to live up to, and more than half of the newest crop of artists are literally learning how to become an adult right before our eyes. It’s also particularly convoluted for rappers, who are not always coming from a place in life where people have given them the chance to abide by their sense of right or wrong; nor are they in an industry that particularly cares if they do, so long as they make money. And in a situation like that, it’s so easy to condemn or bemoan them, without trying to understand them, because it’s so deeply uncomfortable for some.
Within a couple of days from the writing of this piece, Kentrell DeSean Gaulden is going to turn 20 years old. Better known as Youngboy Never Broke Again, or NBA Youngboy, Gaulden’s spent close to a quarter of his life rapping about the sort of harsh reality that he endured growing up in Baton Rouge. He’s also spent a great deal of that time in and out of jail for crimes ranging from attempted murders, gun possession and from violating his parole by continuing to be involved in violent situations. Such was the case last May, when his then-girlfriend suffering a gunshot wound and another man was left dead. Worse yet is during these periods, he’s maintained a reputation on social media for not just unruly behavior but putting his partners at considerable risk of violence. This magnetic attraction to controversy and trouble has only been rivaled by his near parallel success with multiple singles, tapes and albums, garnering him one of the most loyal cult audiences in the rap game presently. It’s doubtful that he’s a household name, however, since more than a few listeners or media personalities have significantly distanced themselves from him given his chaotic behavior. None of these negative responses feel dramatic, but they suggest the only option is to avoid dealing with the conflict themselves, and likewise don’t hint at any ways of solving the issues. Furthermore, they don’t acknowledge that Youngboy himself is able to not only demonstrate awareness of his situation.
Track 11 of his recent AI Youngboy 2,"Lonely Child" (produced by Dmac, Tahj Money and TntXD), is one of the strongest offerings from this project and it's because of this very dichotomy. It’s one of those vital records in his discography where it’s not only a demonstration of his ever developing craft, it attempts to give the audience a glimpse at the person Youngboy wants to project through his music. He’s not entirely mournful or sad on the song as he is melancholy, surly, maybe even a little bit unstable. It’s definitely the work of someone who’s barely out of their teens, as his subjects and moods seem to vary from bar to bar. One minute he’s plaintive and self-serious, painting himself tragic and misunderstood, then the next he’s seething and menacing while listing off his loved ones. To say it’s a confusing statement would be putting it lightly, but that sort of instability is still much more honest than most rappers would ever be, even the ones constantly telling you about their doubts and fears. When Gaulden swings between his children, his parental figures, his lovers, you get the sense that he’s never completely sure of whom he’s supposed to trust. Meanwhile he’s supposed to travel on the road and earn the love of his fans, which probably isn't the best sort of support, given how fickle rap fan-bases can be.
Youngboy openly divulging his mistrust, fear and anxiety with allusions of going to therapy and frustration with his ‘critics’ (which, for most rappers, can range from writers to the casual person on social media being a troll) speak to his exhaustion and his desire to find peace. AI Youngboy 2 has some of his most open-hearted lyrics, but that aforementioned surliness can undermine the gravity of his content, with tantrum-like ebbs and flows of emotion. He’s proven time and time again that his situations demand you take all of what he’s saying very seriously, yet more and more it seems reactions around him in the press or general conversation become patronizing and reductive. It doesn’t matter if you object to him or if you just want to write him off, so many of the negative reactions towards him appear cheap and glib. Not to get too melodramatic, but when you think of how many rappers have had genuinely awful fates such as Lil Peep, XXXTentacion or Tay-K, and think of how many of them were similarly barely out of their teens (and often also met with mockery as a result) it starts to feel downright worrying.
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Despite becoming one of the most popular rappers of his era, Youngboy’s clearly unsatisfied and unable to find a sense of calm in his life. While his music appears to be the emotional release for his journey he so clearly needs, it’s also in the public spotlight to be scrutinized and ridiculed-- making himself more open to genuine harm from others who don’t feel any obligation to the human being behind the music. Songs like “Lonely Child” are a double-edged sword in that they’re able to paint the picture of Kentrell Gaulden that doesn’t always get projected by himself or in conversation: that he’s clearly troubled but also sensitive. His honesty is both one of his greatest strengths and an Achilles’ Heel, and it’s somehow both a communique to his mental state for some and mere entertainment for others. At the moment, it's hard to say whether this process is beneficial for him in the long run, but we can only hope that through his journey he can somehow manage to find the peace that allows him to grow and develop into the man that he claims he’s trying to be.