YBN Cordae Credit: Jimmy Fontaine

Since hip-hop seized control of pop music, artists such as Juice Wrld, Lil Nas X, and Lil Tecca have rocketed to fame with little industry experience. Even among this wave of fast-breaking acts, 22-year-old Cordae Dunston—aka YBN Cordae—has cut a distinctive path. While growing up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in the mid-2010s, Cordae released a few mixtapes as Entendre, which he’d later call “the worst rap name in history.” He enrolled at Towson University in 2015, got a job at a nearby TGI Friday’s, and numbed himself on Xanax—until three years later, when he dropped out, quit the restaurant, and embraced some rappers from the YBN collective whom he’d befriended through social media. In 2018 he re-emerged as YBN Cordae, released remixes of tracks by Eminem and J. Cole, and made his live debut at popular Miami hip-hop festival Rolling Loud, appearing during a set by his crew’s figurehead, YBN Nahmir. Since then, he’s become the collective’s star: his debut full-length, July’s The Lost Boy (Atlantic/YBN), peaked at number nine on the Billboard 200 and earned two Grammy nominations, including Best Rap Album. Cordae’s clean, understated rapping elevates his intelligent writing and down-to-earth charm, giving him a broad appeal that not even milquetoast mainstream gatekeepers can resist. He’s an adaptable vocalist, and on The Lost Boy he jumps between stylistically scattered instrumentals so nonchalantly it’s like he doesn’t even notice the differences; when the vitriolic beat on “Broke as Fuck” transitions into a sumptuous soul melody, he switches gears as smoothly and flawlessly as somebody who’s been doing it since birth.   v