Moneybagg Yo delivers on the promises of his recent projects with a star-studded debut.
For nearly a decade now, Moneybagg Yo has been an understated staple of Memphis hip-hop. And in the past two years, since signing with Yo Gotti’s Collective Music Group (CMG) in the fall of 2016, the tireless rapper has revved up in an extraordinary fashion, releasing half a dozen mixtapes and collaborative projects brimming with effective world-building that places him in conversations alongside some of the regions most talented contemporary artists. As we continue to see the lingering impact of regional acts such as Three 6 Mafia, and the current sphere of influence projected by those such as fellow CMG signee Blac Youngsta, or independent role model Young Dolph, Moneybagg Yo appears to be intent on carving out his own lane of confident, motivational hip-hop.
Moneybagg’s raps aren’t as gritty as a Three 6, nor are they as celebratory as Blac Youngsta’s. His tone is similar to Young Dolph’s, but his content isn’t nearly as autobiographical. This middle-of-the-ground amalgamation of multiple styles has often got him lost in the shuffle. However, in recent years, as he’s worked with Gotti, collabed with NBA Youngboy, and enlisted features from the likes of Lil Durk, Quavo, Young Thug and Gunna, he’s exhibited a chameleon-like capability to play off any given style. This has led him to embrace a more melodic approach to his music, decidedly distinguishing himself from the aforementioned stars of his region. With a solid grip on his distinctive tonal inflections and a newfound fearless approach to experimentation, Yo has been able to deliver multi-faceted projects such as 2017’s Heartless and Federal 3X.
He continued to build on this new foundation with this past year’s 2 Heartless - an entertaining, if bloated, sequel to what may be his best mixtape - and Bet On Me - an EP-sized appetizer that may be one of the most fun listens of the year. Despite minimal press, he’s continued to amass a legion of regional fans, much like Kevin Gates prior to his studio debut, Islah. And, as it turns out, these string of projects were indeed all in preparation for his long-awaited debut album: RESET.
Unlike Gates, Yo didn’t have a “Really Really” or “2 Phones” heading into his debut. However, the landscape of streaming has changed significantly over the past three years and the concern for a lead single seems to have dwindled. Instead of fretting about landing a chart-topper, Moneybagg Yo teased the album with a revelation of its ambitious roster of features: Future, Kodak Black, YG, Jeremih and J Cole. On paper, this gang of characters may seem out of place. But in context of Moneybagg’s often disarmingly unique music, they make perfect sense.
Through the process of commercialization, both the Memphis and Atlanta trap scene have become formulaic, in blatant and subtle ways alike. Blac Youngsta often toes the line between innovation and caricature; Migos have become afraid to experiment, afraid to let down their newfound pop core. Moneybagg’s music showcases an attention to detail that seems to be missing from a lot of the copy & paste releases of these past two years. From his eerily sentient call and response ad-libs, ones that are as humorous as they are integral to a given verse’s structure, to the relentlessly great beat selection, Yo is clearly intent on crafting a high-octane spectacle that invites multiple listens. The producers he chooses to work with are all on their A-game as he blends close collaborators such as newcomers Javar Rockamore and DrumGod, with the likes of Wheezy, Southside, Ben Billions, and Tay Keith, allowing for a seamless front-to-back run through. “They Madd” might be one of Tay Keith’s best beats in a year full of breakout moments. (In regards to his ad-libs, they may be best exemplified by a moment towards the end of the intro where he raps, “Fuckin bitches left to right, I play patty cake,” before slyly quipping, “Baker man”).
The respect for craft is evident even in the way he seems to bring out the best in all of his chosen features: “Lower Level” is a touching reflection on penitentiary pains that sees Yo deliver two of his best verses on the album, prompting Kodak Black to tap into a haunting, anxious, delivery that utilizes his slurred singing to provide a stylistic contrast to Yo’s prideful delivery. In contrast, the following cut, “Curry Jersey,” is a tightly-wound collaboration that sees YG deliver a knife-sharp verse that falls right in line with Yo’s own boastfulness. Future sounds absolutely ethereal on “Chanel Junkie.” And, on a Moneybagg Yo track, J. Cole finally gets a chance to flex the more playfully lyrical side of Young Simba that has long-since been weighed down by the burden of his position as a rap elitist. Even when it’s a high-stakes collab like “Fall Down,” his highly anticipated first-time outing with Kevin Gates, the results are undeniably impressive. On this one, produced by dancehall and Latin pop producer Rvssian, Moneybagg is disarmingly funny (“Rubbin' on her cat now she call me Doctor Evil” is quickly followed up by the equally silly couplet, “A couple off ugh-ughs in your eye-eye/Love when them lips suck on me like a ba-ba”) and Gates hook and verse is equally animated, seeing him stretch his vocals in an exhilarating manner.
RESET is less of a do-over and more of a well-deserved moment of evolution as it sees Moneybagg Yo builds on all that he’s established since 2016. It’s a bit long-winded, leaning heavily on the high-profile features, but it’s well sequenced for the most part, avoiding fatigue until the last run of songs. The placement of “Industry” - a great, necessary song in it’s own right - after the intoxicating “Fall Down” was an odd, momentum-curbing choice and the second Future collab is unnecessary, even if it ends up making a bid for consistent strip club rotation. Remove “OKAY” and switch the Jeremih collab, “Tryna Do” with “Industry,” and the album would’ve truly been captivating from beginning to end. “Tryna Do” could have been the perfect downtempo follow up to “Fall Down,” and “Industry” could’ve been a perfect lead in to the 2pac sampling closer, “7even.”
On the aforementioned closing track, Moneybagg raps: “I was depressed, poppin' pills/But that’s long gone, couple years/My whole career I faced fears/It's divine, God placed me here.” Moments of off-the-cuff revelations such as this can be found all throughout the album, on tracks such as “Jungle” or "Lower Level," and they are ultimately what make his music captivating for so many. He’s got his fair share of simple yet effective punchlines (“I’m presidential can’t trump me”), but Yo’s greatest strength as a writer is his straightforward storytelling. He’s not the most colorful lyricist, but his honest recounts of past loves or current industry hurdles prove to be quite disarming. “In Her Voice” sees him present such a tale from both points of view, his own and that of his ex. Not only does he not let his ego prevent him from plainly documenting his shortcomings, he’s reflected enough to know he wants progress-- if not in this relationship, then the next. “Industry” is a sincere sub at seemingly real-life encounters, an honest letter to an industry full of disappoints.