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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 8 August 2020

Grammy-nominated rapper YBN Cordae is a win for hip-hop

The young talent performed as part of Dubai’s street culture festival Sole DXB
Singer YBN Cordae performs a Sole DXB Festival at D3. Leslie Pableo for The National

A lot has been said about the Grammy Award’s stormy relationship with hip-hop.

From The Fresh Prince of Belair and DJ Jazzy Jeff boycotting the 1989 edition after it opted not to televise hip-hop associated categories, to Eminem and Kendrick Lamar being robbed for album of the year gongs for the likes of vintage jazz act Steely Dan and pop-star Bruno Mars respectively.

Fearing a mass boycott from urban artists, in 2018 the Grammy’s instituted wholesale changes within the voting process across all categories, including adding new panel of current taste-makers to ensure quality nominees are shortlisted.

The fruition of that approach is coming to bare now with a new and exciting list of nominations across all the categories. And when it comes to the hip-hop field, it has allowed for a new found diversity that actually reflects what is said on the streets rather than the charts.

YBN Cordae a win for hip-hop lyricism

A beneficiary of which is YBN Cordae, whose debut album The Lost Boy is nominated for Best Rap Album, while the track, Bad Idea, is also up for Best Rap Song.

The nomination is meaningful for both industry lovers and real hip-hop heads. For the former, it confirms the 22-year-old rapper and producer is a precocious talent verging on stardom. While for the latter, it is a sign of relief.

In a scene dominated by young rappers valuing beats over rhymes, Cordae’s nod provides hope that the genre’s penchant for wordplay has not entirely been lost by the current generation.

Cordae says such alarmism is not warranted.

“I don’t think it is totally gone,” he says before yesterday’s performance at the Puma pavilion at Sole DXB. “If you look at the big stars of today they are lyricists. I mean, look at people like Drake, J Cole and Kendrick Lamar, they are great writers, you know what I am saying? It’s solid and definitely out there.”

Cordae’s old school aesthetic also extends to his acclaimed debut album.

With streaming taking over physical sales, plenty of hip-hop artists have essentially gamed the system by releasing ludicrously long albums – such as Drake’s 25 song album Scorpion (2018) – in order to garner the most plays. The focus on quantity rather than quality resulted in a dearth of cohesive albums.

In that regard, The Lost Boy is the best kind of hip-hop throwback. With a duration of 45 minutes, the tracks wonderfully seague into together to paint a picture of an African-American youth navigating his way in a divided US society.

Lead by lamenting saxophone loop, Wintertime finds Cordae tracing his come-up to the music game, and convincing his mother he had the skills to make it: “This is lyrical exercise, told my idols to step aside/ My momma said I'm buggin', no need for the pesticide.”

“A lot of time I just respond to the music and it takes me where I need to go,” he says. “With that song, as soon as I heard the beat, I just started writing about how it made me felt. I like going to all places in my life and make sense of it.”

From trailer park to the Grammys

Some of those experiences are painful.

Born to financially struggling parents, Cordae - real name Cordae Dunston - grew up in a trailer park in North Carolina before moving to the tough neighbourhoods of Maryland. Crime and violence were never far away. In his powerful Broke As he admits to "post traumatic building up."

While over the smooth synths of Thousand Words he admits to struggling with social media: “no amount of likes can heal up all this pain that I'm feeling/ Maybe conceal it, and hide in all these problems we deal with.”

Cordae still finds the online world problematic.

“I truly don’t know on what is the best way to kind of navigate it,” he says. “You use social media as professional thing and at times you can go personal. It is a truly a balance that one has to find.”

But one thing for sure, Cordae states, is that social media has become more influential than advertising budgets in promoting an album.

“Word of mouth is still the best most powerful tool,” he says. “When people say ‘yo, I mess with this dude, you should check it out,’ people will give it a listen. That’s what’s been happening in my work and people are discovering it.”

Not that he wasn’t patient. More than bravado, Cordae says he was fully expecting the Grammy Award nomination. If he actually steps up to pick up the award in next month’s ceremony, don’t expect a surprised face either. He simply feels that his latest work is immense.

“I definitely expected all this. When we were doing the album I was saying ‘yo, we are going to get Grammy’s for this.’ And when I made some people hear it they say the same thing,” he says. “So I have been riding off all that energy, this is why I am not surprised.”

Updated: December 7, 2019 05:04 PM

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