It was New Year’s Eve and Cordae Dunston (known in rap circles today as YBN Cordae) was in the process of reinventing himself. While his friends partied to celebrate the end of 2017, the Raleigh, North Carolina-born rapper was looking ahead. “I was at my aunt’s house babysitting my little cousin,” he recalls, before she declared: “We’re making vision boards.”
To most young people, the idea of a “vision board”—manifesting one’s dreams through images—may sound lame. But Cordae is not your average millennial. “I already had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to smoke weed or drink this entire year,” he says. “I had a conversation with my man M-1 about how I gotta take this shit to a new level.”
And so he did.
“I just want to use my voice and my platform to help people whether it be political or therapeutic.”
Although Cordae was born in Raleigh, he was raised in the DMV (Fulton, Maryland to be exact). His family bounced around for work, which forced him to continually go through the process of making new friends. “I went to seven different elementary schools,” reveals Cordae, who was “outgoing” out of necessity. “It was always easy for me to adapt.”
When he wasn’t playing basketball and befriending new classmates, Cordae was reading, writing, and rapping—the three necessities. “I used to read Harry Potter and Percy Jackson like crazy,” he says laughing. “And then I started reading history [books] ’cause my mom was like, ‘Yo, if you’re reading all this fantasy shit, read about W.E.B. Du Bois, read about Thurgood Marshall.’” He eventually swapped out J.K. Rowling's modern classics for The Souls of Black Folk and never looked back.
Similarly, when it came to music, Cordae was given a historical playbook to follow. His father’s Mount Rushmore of MCs included Big L, Nas, JAY-Z, and 2Pac (Rakim rounded out his top-five), and Cordae soaked it all in. In fact, during family car rides, he would often dive into YouTube rabbit holes and get lost in their discographies. “These [artists] gave the people who have no voice a voice,” says Cordae, who shows his respect for the old school with today’s ’90s-inspired fit—a fresh Puma tracksuit capped off with a matching pair of Cell Venom sneakers. “I just fell in love with the art and culture of rap... This shit is sacred.”
Cordae’s genuine passion for hip-hop led to him writing his own songs. It wasn’t long before he stumbled across his first true supporter while walking home from middle school. “His name was OC and I think he was a drug dealer,” Cordae says. “But he used to give me three bucks to freestyle. He was like, ‘Yeah, that’s my little man. Throw him some bread every time he freestyles.’”
Although their son was a skilled wordsmith, Cordae’s parents initially disapproved of his newfound love. “They ain’t like it,” he says. “I don’t hold that against them. Rap is the most looked down upon occupation. Nobody wants their kid to come home and say, ‘I wanna be an artist.’”
With little support from his mom and dad, Cordae explored other avenues to fund his rap dreams. An opportunity eventually sprung from what many would consider a bad omen. At 14, upon moving yet again to a new town, Cordae was jumped and robbed. Believing it was set up by a kid he knew, Cordae called his cousins to rectify the situation. When he arrived home that day, almost 30 pairs of sneakers had mysteriously appeared in his living room. Unclear on the specifics of their origins, the then-teenager was rightfully cautious at first. “I didn’t even touch the shoes,” Cordae reveals. “I was so scared I just got a paper towel [to pick them up] ’cause I ain’t want my fingerprints on them.”
“Sometimes when I’m having a bad day, it’s the artists that I listen to that help me get through. I’d like to be the same thing for other people.”
That fear was short-lived as Cordae started trading the unexpected "gifts" for cash, which quickly turned a profit. It wasn’t long before the enterprising youth had enough money to book his first music studio. Under the mononym “Entendre,” he went on to release three mixtapes: Anxiety (2014), I’m So Anxious (2016), and I’m So Anonymous (2017). Uploading his songs to Soundcloud, Cordae gained some notoriety, but not enough to forsake school altogether.
To please his mother, Cordae enrolled in Maryland’s Towson University. On the side, he worked as a waiter at TGI Fridays and Texas Roadhouse. This is the point where the stories of many “aspiring rappers” tend to conclude. They take minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet, while promising (to themselves and others) that they’ll work on their craft in their free time. And then life carries on, refusing to offer that window of opportunity. There is no “spare moment.” Those pockets of “free time” have to be forged by any means necessary—and sometimes that entails spending New Year’s Eve babysitting with your aunt as your friends get blasted; creating a vision board with her and her 60-year-old friends. “I do this music shit because I love it,” Cordae says.
That undying love led Cordae to pursuing his dreams full time. Upon leaving college, he joined YBN (Young Boss Ni**az) with friends Nahmir and Almighty Jay. Along the way, he dropped the Entendre moniker in favor of his birth name, reinventing himself in the process. “What’s a better name than the name my mom or my pops gave me,” he asks, rhetorically. “It’s a blessing.”
Since May, Cordae has released a string of tracks that have catapulted his young career. Namely, unofficial remixes of songs by J. Cole (“Old Ni**as”) and Eminem (“My Name Is”), posted on WorldstarHipHop’s YouTube channel. He opens his version of Em’s classic track with, “Listen loud and clear—this is history.”
Cordae is actively mining the history of rap to create an altered future for the art form. He wants his music to have weight, like his idols Mos Def and Talib Kweli. “I just want to use my voice and my platform to help people,” he says. “Whether it be political or therapeutic.” There’s a pause in his monologue before launching into what he really means. “Sometimes, when I’m having a bad day, when some fucked up shit happens, it’s the artists that I listen to that help me get through. I’d like to be the same thing for other people.”
It's not entirely surprising to witness the same kid who studied W.E.B. Du Bois in his preteens (by his own volition, no less) grow into the dynamic artist that hopes to help people today—even at just 21 years old. Cordae understands the power he wields with his bars and has no problem taking his profession seriously. “I know the new cool thing is to say, ‘I don’t give a fuck about this rap shit, man.’ Ni**as is lying when they say that shit. Of course you take this shit serious. It’s how you pay bills,” he reasons. “They do that so when their shit is trash, they can go, ‘Oh well, I just be playing around with that shit. I’m not even a rapper for real.’”
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Cordae is in this for the long-haul. Toward the end of our sit-down, I ask him about his “five-year plan.” Before answering, Cordae ponders the question. In his eyes, like in his music, you see it all: a nomadic upbringing where ’90s rap represented salvation; a kid spitting bars for a two-bit hustler after school; the stolen shoes flipped for a recording studio session; waiting tables on customers who probably assumed he’d never amount to anything more than that. His eyes regain focus, and he says with a confident smile, “In five years, I’m going to be the biggest name in music. Period.”