Within the first five minutes of YG‘s new album Still Brazy, the Compton emcee asks, matter-of-factly, “Who shot me—motherfucker, who shot me?” Keenon Jackson doesn’t mince words—no, the plainspoken, sometimes poetically blunt rapper doesn’t let abstracts get in the way of his straight-to-the-gut (and from the gut) verses. So when he asks who shot him, YG isn’t working from some kind of extended metaphor. Last summer, he was actually shot by an unknown assailant while in the studio. He insists it isn’t gang related, though suspects have been identified as of yet, but a very literal bullet couldn’t stop Jackson from doing what he set out to do. He was back in the studio the very next day.
The anger and paranoia of being in someone else’s crosshairs—someone without a name or a face, no less—is what fuels the bulk of Still Brazy. Pivoting from the gritty yet celebratory gangsta rap narratives of 2014’s My Krazy Life, YG is justifiably perturbed. He’s resilient, even defiant, but fully sober about the realities of where gangster and celebrity intersect, and how sometimes that means having a target on your back. “Why everybody want a piece of my pie?!” he asks on “Still Brazy,” succinctly summarizing the double-edged sword of success without backing down from the new peak he’s reached.
The atmosphere that YG builds on Still Brazy is one rife with chilling hazards—predatory criminal narratives on “Don’t Come to LA,” police brutality and corruption on “Police Get Away Wit Murder,” and jealousy and envy from those around him on “Gimmie Got Shot.” Production-wise, the sounds that accompany these moments are suitably unsettling, from the eerie keyboards of “LA” to the dark synth pattern of “Police.” It isn’t all gloom and terror; the g-funk of “Twist My Fingaz” and “Word Is Bond” feel like vintage West Coast rap bangers, their synth-laden grooves backed with observational dismissals of those who’d talk the talk without walking the walk: “Why all these rap niggas want to be bloods/Never see ’em in the hood, only see ’em in the club.”
YG occasionally turns to socio-political material on Still Brazy, and when it works, like on “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)”, it’s hard not to get behind his righteous anger. When it doesn’t, on the lazy and offensive “She Wish She Was,” a needless four minutes of cringeworthy sexism, he just continues some of gangsta rap’s worst stereotypes. Jackson is much stronger when speaking from a personal narrative, one that reflects his own, honest experience. The bulk of Still Brazy comes straight from this perspective, YG neither apologizing for nor endorsing his decisions. He’s also not about to let anyone stand in his way. The album offers a real sense that shit is bad, maybe getting worse, but that’s never going to be enough for YG to change course. “I’m the only one that made it out the west without Dre,” he raps on “Twist My Fingaz,” both as a point of pride and mission statement. “I’m the only one that’s about what he say.”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.