Among the current crop of rising Memphis rap stars, Moneybagg Yo stands apart. Unlike Duke Deuce, who pulls from the region’s crunk tradition, or Key Glock, who is now Young Dolph’s right-hand man, Demario DeWayne White Jr. feels indebted to cities beyond his home. Despite his distinctive Memphis drawl, his music draws more from Chicago drill and Atlanta trap than his hometown. Alongside his compatriot Blac Youngsta and under the tutelage of their shared mentor Yo Gotti, they’ve developed a weathered sound that feels isolated from the rest of Memphis.
The title of his latest mixtape, A Gangsta’s Pain, suggests opening up and deepening. But Moneybagg has rapped about trauma before: The cover to his 2019 album 43VA Heartless depicted him undergoing open heart surgery, a graphic visual metaphor for the way pain sometimes bleeds out from his tough exterior. Chicago rap breakouts Lil Durk and Polo G join him for “Free Promo,” and Moneybagg’s wearied rasp fits right into their full-throated, emotional approach. Before their falling out, Moneybagg collaborated with Baton Rouge’s YoungBoy Never Broke Again, and at his best, Moneybagg demonstrates a similar penchant for heart-on-his-sleeve, bluesy songwriting. That soulfulness comes through in the well-loved R&B samples as well: “Wockesha” revisits Debarge’s frequently flipped “Stay With Me”; “Hard for the Next” pulls from Ginuwine’s “Differences,” and “If Pain Was A Person” is built from Luther Ingram’s classic hit “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right.”
Moneybagg Yo explores duality with the contrasting “Hate It Here” and “Love It Here,” the former a dark slice of self-reflection about the fallout of a relationship, the latter a lighter pop number driven by acoustic guitar and chipmunk cooing. But even in the more luxurious, yacht rap vibe pieces, there are still clouds on the horizon and an edge of paranoia: “Trouble in paradise,” as he puts it on “Love It Here.” Moneybagg seems more comfortable working than relaxing—“Hard for the Next” recruits Future for a slice of HNDRXX-like pop, complete with electric guitar and seagull-like sound effects, but it feels at odds with Moneybagg’s strengths and is largely carried by Future. He can work with a smooth beat, but sounds a little out-of-place serenading Jhené Aiko on “One of Dem Night”—the album’s most sincere romantic intentions are expressed toward his double cup.
The beats on A Gangsta’s Pain often contain stray melodic details, glittering tones or ornate strings, but they’re usually buried under layers of preset hi-hats and pounding keys. With a Pharrell feature and Neptunes production to boot, “Certified Neptunes” is the only of the album’s tracks to fully embrace an off-kilter and unsettling sound, constructed from a distorted shard of noise. Moneybagg Yo’s assertive and chiseled flow is right at home atop a futuristic beat that would have fit in on Eternal Atake. Though Pharrell might be as big as pop gets, this collaboration is one of the album’s least overt attempts at pop, and it’s in these more experimental edges that Moneybagg finds most success. These high-profile features indicate a major bid for stardom, a process not without growing pains, but Moneybagg Yo seems most energized when he’s in the trenches.
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