It’s a breezy day in late September, and YoungBoy Never Broke Again has just secured his second No. 1 album of the year. But you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the empty expression on his face as he emerges from a black SUV in Times Square.
Manhattan is rarely as still as it is on this afternoon, a bittersweet result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And on a quiet stretch of West 43rd Street, YoungBoy’s crew files out of the vehicle, looking for clues about where to go next. YoungBoy doesn’t budge, standing still for a few moments as he surveys his surroundings.
The moment of reflection is broken when the 21-year-old superstar is spotted by a group of pedestrians, motivating him to duck into the lobby of Complex’s office building. Riding the elevator a few minutes later, it’s clear YoungBoy has walls up. Protected by the physical barrier of his clique standing around him, he also shields himself by staying quiet and avoiding conversations with anyone outside his inner circle. He keeps these guards up as he walks through the building and methodically makes his way to a dressing room. By the time he sets foot in the office, he still hasn’t uttered a single word.
A small camera crew is putting the finishing touches on the set for today’s photoshoot, but a 10-minute wait quickly grows to an hour because YoungBoy hasn’t settled in just yet. He’s waiting to get a shape-up, but that plan falls apart when his barber tries to sneak a selfie without YoungBoy’s permission. He usually requires outsiders to surrender their phones before being in his presence, but the message hadn’t been relayed to the barber this time. “You can’t be doing that, man,” a member of YoungBoy’s crew whispers outside the dressing room.
YoungBoy refuses to work with the barber, so a substitute is called to take his place. While they wait, YoungBoy and his crew isolate themselves in the dressing room, only opening the door for bathroom runs and business calls. With his publicist’s blessing, he agrees to let me enter the room and sit beside him on the sofa for a quick conversation.
Keeping up with YoungBoy Never Broke Again, born Kentrell DeSean Gaulden, has always been an extreme sport. Since he entered the game in 2015, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, artist has established himself as one of the most successful and prolific rappers of his generation, garnering a cult following and more than 8 million subscribers on YouTube. He has now tallied a total of 47 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the same as J. Cole, Sir Paul McCartney, and Prince. And he’s accomplished it all without conforming to industry standards. YoungBoy constantly avoids media opportunities, awards shows, public appearances, and drawn-out album rollouts. His personal life, full of arrests and headline-grabbing controversy, has been just as eventful as his music career, but he barely speaks about it on the record.
It’s not that he doesn’t like the press, he tells me. He just isn’t “into all of that mentally.”
“I ain’t got patience,” he elaborates, his voice barely louder than a whisper.
Following the incident with the barber, YoungBoy has settled back into his status as the most stoic person in the room. As he waits for a replacement barber to arrive, he slouches on a sofa, blowing billows of weed smoke at the ceiling and occasionally looking over his shoulder to see what’s happening each time his crew bursts into laughter.
When I point out that he seems calm and patient, YoungBoy responds in a telling manner.
“Yeah, for now,” he mutters. “For now.”
When you spend any amount of time with YoungBoy, you begin to realize that, at any given moment, his peace is only seconds away from being broken. It happened with the barber, and it will continue to occur throughout my attempts at interviewing him over the next three weeks.
“I’m happier now. I’m deadlier now.”
YoungBoy is currently under investigation for allegedly assaulting a man at Texas studio. In 2018, he was arrested before a concert at a Tallahassee, Florida, nightclub over allegations of assault, weapons violations, and kidnapping. Hotel surveillance footage leaked shortly after his arrest, showing YoungBoy body-slamming and dragging his then-girlfriend Jania through the hall. In 2016, U.S. Marshals arrested YoungBoy in Texas, charging him with two counts of attempted murder for a shooting that occurred in Baton Rouge that November. District Judge Bonnie Jackson, who handled his attempted murder case, openly lectured YoungBoy in court about his criminal behavior, citing music as a vehicle for “normalizing violence.” She handed him a suspended 10-year prison term and three years of supervised probation. A judge terminated his probation in December 2019.
Though YoungBoy is clearly still dealing with his own demons, he says he doesn’t want to be a villain. Even the act of sitting down for a formal interview is a sign that he’s beginning to reconsider his relationship with the public. At one point, midway through our conversation, he turns to his publicist and asks for reassurance. “Am I doing OK?”
“I’m on to a new chapter and a new level,” he tells me. “I’m a CEO. I’m a big boss and shit. I’m happier now. I’m deadlier now.” Reflecting on how he’s changed over the past year, he adds, “I think I’m growing up. I’m just more comfortable here. I’m having a better understanding.”
YoungBoy doesn’t disclose exactly what is contributing to his current happiness, but a scroll through his Instagram feed prior to its deactivation would suggest his children play a big role. He has six kids, and in September, it was revealed that he’s expecting another child with Yaya Mayweather, the daughter of former professional boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. Before his account was deleted, he often posted snippets of moments with his sons, and in the music video for “Death Enclaimed,” which was released on Father’s Day, YoungBoy shared intimate snapshots of himself dancing and taking his kids to the beach. “Tired of fucking ’round with groupies/Four lil boys and two lil girls and they mine,” he raps on the record.
The biggest constant in YoungBoy Never Broke Again’s life is his habit of flooding the market with new music. On average, he drops two to three projects a year. And in 2020, even during a pandemic that has slowed releases for most artists, he has already dropped two albums, a mixtape, and a compilation project. He hints, however, that his prolific habits are beginning to change.
“I don’t record a lot—not no more,” he reveals. “I used to, though.” He says he previously recorded every day, usually making “at least five songs a day.” But now, he’s only averaging five songs each month.
“I used to have fun with it,” he explains. “It grew out of fun to kind of being like a job now. Everything in the middle, outside of making music, is fun. I started taking it serious for the money point of it.”
The appetite for YoungBoy’s music hasn’t wavered, though. Many of his core fans are “lifers” who have been on this journey with him since early mixtapes like 2015’s Life Before Fame and 2016’s 38 Baby. And a staggering percentage of them consume his music on YouTube. YoungBoy routinely uploads new music to his channel long before it makes its way to other streaming platforms, and he’s developed a bigger and more devoted audience on YouTube than any other artist in the world. He is currently the most-watched musician on YouTube Music’s chart across all genres, surpassing major recording artists like Drake, Eminem, and Justin Bieber. As of October 22, he has spent 193 weeks on the platform’s Top Artists chart in the United States, routinely accumulating over 40 million views each week.
“My fan base was established there first, and that’s where they know they can get my music first-hand,” he says, giving an astonishingly simple explanation for his record-breaking success on YouTube.
At this point in the conversation, a member of YoungBoy’s entourage jumps in and offers the word “crazy” to describe the rapper’s loyal followers.
“Watch your mouth,” YoungBoy demands with a glare. “[My fans are] very supportive, strict, protective, and amazing.”
“I used to have fun with it. It grew out of fun to kind of being like a job now.”
His friends chuckle, remembering instances in which his fans have been a little too passionate. “Watch your mouth,” YoungBoy warns again. “Because you ain’t going to say nothing about me in front of them.”
YoungBoy says he tries to avoid looking at fan reviews of his music online, but he makes a point to clarify that he makes music to feed his family and his followers. His latest album, Top, was a gift to his fans, after all. The 21-song project arrived on Sept. 11, only four months after his mixtape, 38 Baby 2. The album was recorded in just one month, although he incorporated a few records he had tucked away in the vault.
“Some of them songs I already had,” he explains. “And then, towards the end, I got to just recording more. It wasn’t just all working on it until towards the end.”
Asked to describe his creative process in the studio, YoungBoy gives a one-word answer.
Pushed to elaborate about when he actually finds time to record, his answer is similarly abrupt.
“After I wake up.”
When YoungBoy decides he doesn’t want to talk, he doesn’t talk.
He also doesn’t write, noting that instead of penning lyrics, he heads straight to the mic and lays vocals directly into Pro Tools. "Then I know when the song is finished,” he says, summing up his recording process. “I just know when I'm finished with a verse. You learn strategies. You learn to just record as you record."
Top sold over 126,000 album units in its first week, accumulating more than 153 million on-demand streams in the United States in just seven days. But YoungBoy says he doesn’t actively think about making chart-topping music when he’s in the studio.
“I don’t be trying to make hits,” he explains. “When I was little, I used to try. But it is some different shit that comes with a song being a hit now, I guess. It’s natural.” Feeling no pressure to land on the Billboard charts, YoungBoy says his only goal for releasing Top was “to be ratchet.”
“Ratchet as fuck,” he stresses. “And all the way me.”
Throughout the album, YoungBoy leans into his complicated and temperamental personality. And although he flexes his lavish lifestyle, his lyrics largely focus on his violent tendencies and the trauma he’s experienced. “Seven murders in my hometown, tell the bitch I did that,” he spits on “Dead Trollz.” On tracks like “Peace Hardly,” he takes aim at his perceived enemies, rapping, “I can barely get peace hardly/Lie like they all in/I see all these people just wanna scheme, I just wanna be.”
Everyone he raps about on Top can fit into one of two categories. You’re either a friend or a foe, and the majority of people in YoungBoy’s life end up falling into the latter group. Battling enemies on the outside and within is a constant struggle, but when I ask him if there are people in his life he can lean on as he navigates those challenges, YoungBoy puts his wall back up.
Is there anybody in the industry who has been really helpful or supportive of you?
Thrown off, he responds, “What makes you ask something like that?”
His tone isn’t as angry as it is confused. He retreats, turning his attention to others in the room. It’s always difficult to decipher exactly what YoungBoy is thinking, but right now he looks sad and his head is hung low.
“You’re way off with that,” he mumbles. “I don’t even know how to answer that.”
YoungBoy’s guarded reaction seems to reflect a feeling of isolation from the rest of the music industry. He’s putting up bigger numbers than almost anyone else in rap right now, but he’s always seemed to operate outside the bounds of hip-hop’s in-crowd. He famously avoids interviews and is rarely seen at awards shows or other industry events. He also has a habit of getting entangled in beefs with other rappers. In April, Kodak Black reignited his feud with YoungBoy by joking about his girlfriend at the time, YaYa Mayweather, being arrested for stabbing the mother of one of his children. Two months later, YoungBoy exchanged heated words with Rap-A-Lot Records CEO J. Prince over Twitter, after the mogul publicly claimed he helped YoungBoy retrieve stolen items after burglars broke into his home.
Now, YoungBoy says the challenges he’s experienced over the years have influenced his outlook on life, noting that ongoing “battles” he has with himself have played a role in shaping who he is today. It’s also likely hardened him to the point that he’s always on the defensive. But as we finish our conversation, he sounds hopeful.
“At first, I feel like it took a long time [to get to this point in my life], but as I really sit and think about it, it didn’t really take that long,” he says. “I always thought that I was fucking up in life, for a long time. But I had to realize that I was never fucking up. I was just always learning and growing. I was always winning. I was never losing.”
YoungBoy Never Broke Again breaks his concentration to see what his crew is talking about in the corner of the room. Ending our conversation prematurely, he joins in the discussion, which is growing louder by the second. It’s one of the few times YoungBoy really seems to unwind, revealing a sharp sense of humor as he cracks jokes at the expense of one of his friends.
The replacement barber still hasn’t shown up yet, so YoungBoy reluctantly agrees to step into the photo studio for a few test shots, although he isn’t happy with the way his hair or clothes look. He doesn’t stay long. Less than five minutes later, he exits the studio and rushes to the elevator without a goodbye.
Our 20-minute conversation was intended to be the first of several throughout the day. Prior to the interview, I had been warned that YoungBoy takes time to warm up to strangers, and it would be in everyone’s best interest if he were eased into the conversation. Keeping that in mind, I saved questions about his domestic violence charges and other ongoing criminal cases, with the intention of asking them during our second, more private sit-down, scheduled to take place at a recording studio.
The next day, YoungBoy is supposed to return to Complex’s office for a reshoot after spending the morning shopping for a new outfit. Three hours after the shoot is scheduled to begin, however, he still hasn’t arrived, and neither his manager nor publicist can locate him. Finally, his publicist returns with an update, saying that “something happened” while YoungBoy was shopping. I’m told he’s in a “bad mood” and has no interest in keeping his appointments for the rest of the day. Not long after the shoot is formally canceled, grainy footage is shared on Instagram, revealing that YoungBoy’s crew was involved in an altercation with a group of people at the mall.
YoungBoy leaves New York City and our in-person interviews and photoshoots are canceled. His publicist promises a secondary interview on Zoom, but within a week, his legal issues multiply. On Sept. 28, he was arrested on felony drug and firearm charges along with 16 other people. A representative for YoungBoy released a statement at the time of his arrest, saying, “Kentrell Gaulden is innocent of the crimes he was arrested for yesterday evening. He did not possess any firearms nor did he possess any controlled dangerous substances.”
In the coming weeks, repeated attempts at scheduling follow-up interviews fall apart, as YoungBoy continues to deal with legal concerns. As recently as Oct. 26, his name showed up in headlines again when it was revealed that he and some of his crew members are currently being investigated by law enforcement officials in Texas, following an alleged assault against a man in the garage of a studio which took place less than two weeks after we spoke.
As I think back on our day together, following a month of subsequent altercations and arrests, one memory stands out. Explaining why he was finally ready to sit down and do formal interviews, YoungBoy told me, “I’m on to a new chapter, new level, so it’s time to start a lot of things. We’re supposed to be in here and make it count.”
YoungBoy understands the opportunity that lies in front of him right now. Throughout our conversation, he showed a desire to take control of his personal life, and seemed open to participating in activities that would help his career.
Right now, though, the circumstances surrounding the controversial 21-year-old rapper stand in the way of him taking that leap.
“I ain’t got patience.”