"Stay Dangerous" doesn't quite approach the near-perfection of YG's first two albums, but his looseness and maturation make for an essential listen.
YG's first two albums, My Krazy Life and Still Brazy, are two of the most essential rap albums— or at the very least, L.A. rap albums— of the past five years. His debut surprised everyone with its skillful execution of the "day in the life" trope, which was more hard-nosed and less introspective than Kendrick Lamar's similarly-styled good kid, m.A.A.d city, but just as honest and engrossing. Still Brazy dialed back the structural ambition but saw YG stepping up his fundamentals, delivering better rapping, more thoughtful subject matter, and a more cohesive-sounding final product. For someone whose features and non-album material usually come off as more playful than serious (think BlocBoy JB's "Nike Swoosh," Cardi B's "She Bad," or Ty Dolla $ign's "Ex," to name three recent examples), YG doesn't mess around with his albums. Song titles like "I Just Wanna Party" and "Bool, Balm & Bollective" might have promised something sunny and relaxing, but instead we got tales about YG socking a dude in the mouth and a girl putting a brick though the window of his 6-4.
While Stay Dangerous may not quite measure up to its predecessors, it does offer some respite from their unflinching portrayals of life at street level in Compton. This still being YG we're talking about, the album's not exactly "relaxed"— after all, its first lyrics are, "It's 10 times harder for a real n****." More accurately, Stay Dangerous showcases a more mature artist who's less afraid of letting his guard down.
The purpose of opener "10 Times" isn't brutally depicting what it means to be "real," as YG often did on his first two albums, but rather explaining how hard it can be to lead a normal, relaxed life with that reputation forever branded on him. YG weighs his options: either stay dangerous or capitalize on his fame and protect his family. "Pops told me to change up," he raps, illustrating one side of the pressure. He continues, "But if I change up, they gon' say I changed up," capturing the push-and-pull he feels between family, fans, and the 400 set he still reps. As writer Matthew Trammell put it in a Fader cover story shortly following an assassination attempt in Fall 2015:
Up close, YG’s life is constantly cutting between A and B plots. He’s a double-platinum, critically adored rapper with momentum and career milestones left to hit, and also a Tree Top Piru Blood from 400 block with fresh gunshot wounds and faceless enemies determined to disrupt what he’s built.
This is exactly what YG's talking about on "Deeper Than Rap," Stay Dangerous' penultimate song and no doubt its weightiest. The song's name was previously used by Rick Ross for an album title, but as there's not much of his coke tycoon persona that exists behind the music, YG stakes his claim on the phrase much more convincingly. In three verses, he tackles 1) exploitation, 2) street politics, and most bracingly 3) family and mental health (the last of which he took a moment to shout out at the album listening party). It's a completely bullshit-free episode of Behind the Music. On "Deeper Than Rap," and Stay Dangerous in general, YG gives a nuanced, complex answer to Jay Z's immortal Reasonable Doubt question: "Can I live?"
In some respects, he can. Stay Dangerous offers much more in the way of breezy flexing than either of YG's previous albums, where deeply-considered consequences seemed to lurk in the shadows behind every bar. YG's always wrested humor out of grave situations (check his imitation of the groveling titular character on the cautionary Still Brazy tale "Gimme Got Shot"), but Stay Dangerous allows him opportunities for punchlines that aren't his usual brand of darkly realistic comedy. A song called "Bulletproof" might seem like the place for tough talk, but instead, YG and frequent collaborator Jay 305 make it a playground for goofy boasts like, "I don't drive no Tesla, I got too much clout" and "Sexy little vegan want it right now/She don't even eat meat but she gon' eat it now." Even a song as blatantly Bloody as "Suu Whoop" is more of an opportunity for YG to show how confident and unbothered he is than to prove anything about his credentials. How does he feel about hundred dollar bills being blue? He's making money; he couldn't care less.
Additionally, YG's removal from the day-to-day Piru concerns of his previous albums gives him space for more than just flexing and punchlines. The introspection of "Deeper Than Rap" is bolstered by meditations on substance abuse on "666" and, well, pussy, money, and fame on "Pussy Money Fame." But perhaps the biggest evidence of maturation from YG on Stay Dangerous comes on two consecutive tracks that kick off the album's final third. "Power" and "Slay" are a little too silly to pass for straight-up feminism, but especially compared to the low point of Still Brazy, the outright sexist "She Wish She Was," they represent a major step forward in YG's mentality towards women. He may still revel in physical traits above anything else— including, hilariously, pussy that reminds him of the limited edition Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer that's been a staple of L.A. rap for years— but these empowerment anthems are a huge step up from YG's previous sex jams.
Accompanying this branching out into broader material is a set of beats that also diverges from the My Krazy Life/Still Brazy formula. Crucially, YG's made up with DJ Mustard (who served as executive producer on his first album but was nowhere to be found on the follow-up after a monetary dispute), but Mustard's far from his comfort zone on a good deal of the album. He's clearly still capable of that signature ratchet sound, as he proves on tracks like "Too Cocky" and "Too Brazy." But "Suu Whoop" and "Can't Get in Kanada," for instance, effortlessly mesh with the 808 Mafia beat that precedes them, and "Slay" and "Bomptown Finest" are about the lushest compositions we've ever heard from him. Combined with YG expertly tackling a pair of Atlanta beats on "Handgun" and "666," this added breadth dovetails nicely with YG's expanding lyrical topics. Overall, YG and Mustard's work on Stay Dangerous parallel each other in terms of staying true to their roots but expanding their comfort zones.
Stay Dangerous' somewhat inconsistent, unfocused vibe is ultimately overshadowed by the strides YG makes in both his versatility and, seemingly, his personal life. There's no denying that a third near-spotless evolution of his first two albums would be a better listen, but perhaps that's not what's best for YG at this stage in his career. Stay Dangerous sets up what could potentially be an even better next chapter: an introspective YG who's capable of healthily grappling with his past and able to stay true to his Compton roots while exploring a wider range of musical expression.