Mari Davies is exasperated. “Do you know all the shit we went through to get your visas? Do you know how much shit we went through?”
The ICM agent has been handling booking for the YBN crew—YBN Nahmir, YBN Almighty Jay, and YBN Cordae—and has just been informed during a photo shoot that the young rappers’ upcoming shows in China have been canceled. The exact reasons are unclear to me, the Complex writer sitting nearby, but they seem related to the fact that this shoot has been exceedingly hard to schedule; that Jay can barely remain upright as he’s photographed, preferring to collapse on the floor; and that crew leader Nahmir is not present.
“I need to know—is he burned out?” Davies asks about Nahmir, whose absence from the shoot was attributed officially to an illness in his family. She questions whether the current plan—for YBN to start a European tour at the beginning of October—is feasible. At almost the same time, the Galveston, Texas-raised Almighty Jay is joking-but-not-really about escaping back to the Lone Star State and vanishing entirely from the group’s promo run for their new project, YBN: The Mixtape.
Jay: “Let’s see you not get me out of my hotel room tomorrow.”
Mari: “You’ll get out.”
Jay: “Not if I’m gone when you come knocking on the door. I’ll be in Houston already.”
Almighty Jay’s desire to run away is easy to understand. The YBN members are young—Nahmir is 18, Jay 19, and Cordae barely 21—and they have been working nonstop since Nahmir hit internet meme-dom with his video for “Rubbin Off the Paint” last year. Since then, life hasn’t been all parties and pink backpacks. The trio has been on the road incessantly, separately and together, with everyone from Juice WRLD to G-Eazy, as well as recording music for their group mixtape and everyone’s solo albums. So when Almighty Jay says, to no one in particular, “I’m tired as a motherfucker,” it makes sense.
I ask the rappers separately, in three phone conversations a few days before meeting two-thirds of them in person, what exactly YBN—the first two letters stand for “Young Boss”—is. A crew? A label? A group? None of the above, as it turns out. All three circle back to the same idea.
“It’s a family,” Nahmir says. “We brothers. Shit, we got some sisters, too.”
“It’s a family,” repeats Almighty Jay. “We are like brothers.”
“It's a brotherhood. A movement. It's a movement of brothers,” explains Cordae.
“So many of my friends dying. N*GGas is really in the streets.” —YBN Nahmir
This movement of brothers came about in the strangest of ways—both slowly, over time, and instantly. It was formed simultaneously by real-world, in-person bonding, and over headsets while gaming.
Almighty Jay met Nahmir, who hails from Birmingham, Alabama, through playing Xbox Live in 2013, but they only connected in person for the first time last November. After Jay made “Chopsticks,” his place in YBN was cemented.
Cordae, who was living in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and studying mass communications at Towson University, was already rapping under the name Entendre (“the worst rap name in history,” he jokes). He fully won his place in the crew during February’s All-Star Weekend, and left school shortly thereafter. But even before that, he was YBN in all but his name: He just needed the social media handle.
“Nahmir was just like, ‘Yo, let's do this YBN shit. You're already YBN; just put that shit on your social,’” the rapper explains. “It was just, like, one of those things that just made sense.” Thus began the rap career of the newly rechristened YBN Cordae.
Nahmir, the first member to rise to fame, is the crew’s leader. He tells me that he’s the one who “signed” Almighty Jay and Cordae to YBN (“but they can still get a major deal,” he elaborates during our phone call.) Nahmir describes himself during the call as “cool.” But when his groupmates talk about him, one word comes up over and over again: “gangster.” Birmingham is a rough city, Nahmir tells me. “So many of my friends dying,” he says. “Niggas is really in the streets.” Those situations reflect themselves in his raps more or less uncritically, save for a few scattered moments of introspection.
“Nahmir is just an idiot. He just glorifies street life,” Cordae explains, in a way that sounds both loving and a little frustrated. “He idolizes it.”
“Nahmir's a gangster,” agrees Almighty Jay. “He does what he wants to do.”
And then there are the guns. “Nahmir, he talks about guns,” Cordae says, sighing. He’s right, of course. The group leader’s tracks on YBN: The Mixtape are heavy with talk about weaponry. Despite that, he insists that since his breakout, his elevated profile and role model status, particularly in Birmingham, mean that “I’m not doing all the violent stuff.”
Nonetheless, the stress of a violent hometown, plus sudden viral fame, is a lot to deal with for someone just out of high school. And last winter, Nahmir found himself in a new environment, abandoning Alabama for the glamour of Los Angeles. “I really fuck with L.A.,” he explains, though the city’s lack of precipitation means he can’t engage in one of his favorite pastimes.
“I kind of like rainy weather at nighttime. I used to take naps in rainy weather,” he says, sounding just the slightest bit homesick. “We don't really got rainy weather.”
The other two members of YBN now also have apartments in the same L.A. building as Nahmir, though they’re reacting to the location in very different ways. Cordae prefers to stay at home, while Almighty Jay is always out—though he is pretty tight-lipped about what he is doing, saying only, “I like going places.”
“We live together, but they don’t see me for real,” Almighty Jay tells me. “I can’t sit in the house all day.”
While he’s coy about it, readers of TMZ and The Shade Room are aware of at least a little bit of what Almighty Jay has been up to in L.A. He made the gossip rags when he started dating Blac Chyna, his elder by about a decade, back in the spring. (They have since broken up).
“We live together, but they don’t see me for real. I can’t sit in the house all day.” —YBN Almighty Jay
Jay, when he’s not lying on the floor in the middle of photo shoots, likes nothing more than having fun—especially if said fun pisses off what he calls “people that’s, like, 40 and stuff.”
“I get under their skin and make them mad,” he says of gossip blog commenters and anyone else who may have an issue with how he’s living his new-rap-star life. “That's funny to me.” Despite that, though, he professes earnestly that he only “wants to be known for the music” and goes out of his way to avoid being recognized in public. “I be trying to wear my hood,” he protests.
Both the rebellion and the circumspection make sense. Although Almighty Jay got his rap moniker from Chief Keef’s Almighty So project rather than a higher power, he was raised in a religious household. His grandfather was a preacher, so his mother in turn grew up listening to Christian music, and that was also what a young Almighty Jay heard around the house. With his dad and in his free time, though, it was all hip-hop. When he started rapping, his mother was freaked out by his lyrics about women.
“At first, when I was going crazy talking about women, she was hitting me like, why are you saying this?” Almighty Jay recalls. “But now she’s supportive of it.”
Almighty Jay’s quiet neighbor Cordae seems far more interested in the minutiae of music-making than in dating would-be Kardashians or pissing off parents. While listening to YBN: The Mixtape during the photo shoot, he’s focusing on details: how he wishes he had a verse on the project’s intro, ways he would adjust the track listing.
Even a brief conversation with the rapper formerly known as Entendre reveals a deep love of the art form. Tour isn’t just a way to meet fans (or girls)—it’s a chance to practice crowd engagement and breath control. He speaks of “perfecting my craft” and trying to make a “classic project.” And when it comes to influences, he’s quick to shout out technicians like Big L and Kool G Rap, as well as standbys like Nas, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole, excitedly spitting lines from the relatively obscure Big L track “How Will I Make It?” next to wordplay from “My Name Is.”
Cordae knows he’s an outlier in the group, cheerfully answering “No” when I ask if he has anything in common musically with the other YBN members. But he quickly spins that into a positive. “We’re not stepping on each other’s toes,” he says.
“Nahmir got smash hits. Jay, he's talking his hot shit and fly shit. And I do my own sound. I feel that's what makes it so dope—we all so different but so dope in our own way.”
“Nahmir got smash hits. Jay, he’s talking his hot shit and fly shit. And I do my own sound. I feel that’s what makes it so dope.” —YBN Cordae
Cordae isn’t the only member of the group with a reverence for aspects of rap’s past. Almighty Jay shows up to the interview wearing a chain bearing the name of Rap-A-Lot, the much-respected Houston label known for Texas heroes like the Geto Boys, Ganksta N-I-P, and Devin the Dude.
The connection isn’t only musical. Almighty Jay explains that his business partner James is tight with the label’s founder, Drake-beef-ender J. Prince. It was Prince who personally provided the group with jewelry from the label. Prince is like an uncle, they reveal. And the music business veteran’s main advice to his young charges?
“Save your money,” Cordae shares.
Nonetheless, YBN looks to have spent its share on jewelry. In addition to the Rap-A-Lot chain, Almighty Jay sports a big trophy emblem made of VVS diamonds. “This is my reward,” he says. Cordae claims, “I don’t wear jewelry. It’s not really my thing.” But he sports a diamond ring that he is nearly giddy about, asking several times during the afternoon if they can find a place to get it polished.
The seeming contradiction is not difficult to understand. The YBN rappers still young, and are meeting new situations with the same mixture of excitement and diffidence that characterizes young people everywhere. When telling me about his upcoming European tour—before its existence was temporarily called into question—Nahmir sums up the crew’s shifting attitudes perfectly. I ask him towards the end of our call if he’s looking forward to it, since it’ll be his first time overseas.
“Hell yeah, so we can get turnt,” he says. “I know I'm going to miss home, though. I ain't going to understand what everybody talking about.”