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This or That? YG vs. YZ

There are tons of different ways to help your community, if you’re so inclined. Rappers might not seem like the most charitable people, but many of them have visions that extend beyond themselves — to their family members, neighbors, friends and even strangers. Sometimes they scorn the glitzy route in favor of more relatable personalities — hence “underground” rappers like Talib Kweli and MF DOOM. Others take the Robin Hood route by getting rich and giving back, because that’s a win-win. Very often, they’re about much more than money, cars and clothes – they strive for individual and collective empowerment, either through financial or intellectual means.

YG goes for self. Born in Compton, Calif., — an area in which the name alone is a signifier of crime and desolation — he was surrounded by gangsters and quickly became initiated. On his major label debut, ‘My Krazy Life,’ he replaces the letter “C” with the letter “B” on ‘Bicken Back Bein’ Bool,’ in case you doubted his Blood affiliation. In fact, the album as a whole deals with his life as a gangbanger, tracing a path that goes from parties to house robberies to, finally, prison.

The album’s sound is pioneered by the West Coast hitmaker DJ Mustard with songs you’ve surely heard by now — ‘Who Do You Love,’ ‘My N—-’ and ‘Left, Right,’ to name a few. It’s hands down one of the best albums of the year, shaking with intensity while stretching its replay value into the summer, where it’ll continue to dominate airwaves and barbecues.

Yet for all of the hit singles, ‘My Krazy Life’ is colored with a darkness that’s never too far from the surface. He kills without hesitation and robs surrounding cribs until the end of track 12, when the cops corner him and he’s arrested. The fun is over. Pain quickly sets in on ‘Thank God,’ an interlude that was actually recorded by Ty Dolla $ign’s incarcerated brother in his prison cell. The album closes with ‘Sorry Momma,’ by far one of the most heartbreaking rap songs of the year. YG is filled with regret as he ends the album with a somber look in the mirror. Who was he really helping with a life of crime? Did he make the right decisions? Did he have any other choice?

Twenty-five years ago, he might have faced the same societal obstructions that many black youths are burdened with, but he also might have taken a different musical route. Born in New Jersey, YZ wasn’t down with all that gat busting — as a rapper affiliated with both X-Clan and Poor Righteous Teachers, he predicated his approach on peace and knowledge instead of violence (though he does say he’s got the 12 gauge if you want to test him).

His first single in 1989 was ‘In Control of Things,’ a classic record produced by the prolific Tony D, who helmed the early works of the Poor Righteous Teachers. Its message is vastly different from that of the reckless ‘My Krazy Life’ — YZ has the ability to direct his own life, and he’s fueled by “wise words that are spiritual.” Like Lakim Shabazz and DJ Mark the 45 King, Tony D and YZ, collectively known as Two Tone Productions (thanks to Tony being white), crafted the classic 1990 LP, ‘Sons of the Father,’ and released it on the independent label Tuff City. A year later, he followed it up with the six-track ‘YZ EP.’

Just to be clear, YZ wasn’t above using force. In an interview with Andrew Nosnitsky, he discussed a past beef with Treach of Naughty By Nature. Treach had approached him at a Hyatt hotel during the Jack the Rapper convention in Atlanta, and flanked by goons (sorry Apache), the fellow New Jersey native seemed ready to start something. YZ recalls unzipping a bag that had his gun in it and was prepared to use it, but things never came to a head. Nonetheless, you don’t hear him flaunt pistols in many verses on his first album. He wasn’t above petty crime — as a kid he ran with a crew who would shoplift and start fights — but by 9 years old, he was writing his own songs and getting his head right. He was in his late teens when his debut album dropped.

By the age of 20, he’d gotten into beef with Tony D and Wise Intellect of Poor Righteous Teachers, claiming that Tony D was giving his songs to PRT and lending them a sound similar to the music YZ was making. He started his own label, Diversity Records, and moved to New York City to work with artists like Urban Thermo Dynamics (Mos Def’s first group), 8-Off the Assassin (better known now as Agallah), and Legion of D.U.M.E. alongside the legendary Loud Records A&R Schott Free.

For whatever reason, YZ continued to experience friction with the artists he had signed and decided to move to Atlanta, leaving most of the label operations in the hands of one Peewee Kirkland, known more for his basketball skills than his managerial prowess in the music industry. He had released a sophomore album in 1993, ‘The Ghetto’s Been Good to Me,’ on Livin’ Large, a subsidiary of Tommy Boy, but after that, he disappeared until 2002, when he dropped another album, ‘The Legend of Floyd Jones.’

YG and YZ are not, at their core, all that different. Both felt the need to get in a booth and record music. Both gained loyal followings, through either mixtapes or singles (Marley Marl’s WBLS radio show would eventually use a YZ track for a theme song). They both knew violence could be necessary at any given time, but they also wanted to achieve something outside of themselves, if not in their personal lives in the art they broadcast for the world to hear.

YG’s album will be one of the best of 2014, and YZ will be largely forgotten (unfortunately, he already is by most), but they both share the privilege of blessing the ears of those that listen closely. Play their music today. Turn up, turn down, do whatever you want, but just turn it on. We’re lucky to have them.

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