Can Yhung T.O. Be the Bay’s Pensive New Star?

Can Yhung T.O. Be the Bay’s Pensive New Star?

“Y’all got that cinnamon shit?” asks Yhung T.O. in a soft murmur, anxious to relieve a lingering cold with a cup of hot tea. It’s late afternoon in November at a studio called The Mix Room in Burbank, Calif., where gold and platinum plaques for Beyoncé and ‘90s alt-rockers Filter line the walls, and a college football game plays silently overhead. T.O.’s evening recording session is just getting started, and the rapper and singer is giving his menu order to a studio assistant. It’s the usual studio grub—plastic trays full of chicken and fries—but no alcohol. “Nigga low-key sick and shit,” he grumbles, mindful of his fragile voice. Meanwhile, Lil Sheik, a friend and fellow rapper from T.O.’s Vallejo hometown, rolls a seemingly unending pile of blunts.

Wearing a tight red sweater, with a tuft of blonde hair augmenting his kinky afro, Yhung T.O. could pass as just another fashion-conscious street kid hustling studio time. Instead, he’s here on Interscope’s dime. As a member of SOB x RBE—who have emerged from the Bay Area as its most exciting act in years—he’s built a promising body of work at age 20. He mentions with a laugh to Lil Sheik that his birthday is on December 7: “We gettin’ old, nigga!” Indeed, his face tats belie a certain cool weariness beyond his years, and his long lashes hang in front of deep, soulful eyes.

A quartet of Vallejo friends—Yhung T.O., Slimmy B, DaBoii, and Lul G—SOB x RBE has risen to prominence by translating the hard-funkin’ style of classic Bay Area mob music for a new generation. They rap with unfettered passion about girls, guns, and cars, their sharp voices stabbing up Chaka Khan samples (“Lane Changing”) and modern post-hyphy slappers (“Made It”) with equal vigor. Sometimes, their hardcore aggression leads them astray, as on the popular “All Facts Not 1 Opinion” from last year’s Gangin II, on which Slimmy B claims “Ain’t got no sympathy for hoes, I’ll slap a bitch,” with discomfiting glee. But the quartet’s youthful insouciance and distinctly Yay Area swagger also contribute undeniably to their appeal.

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“That’s real Vallejo shit,” says Nef the Pharaoh, a rapper and friend of the group whose own Vallejo bangers include raucous mini-hits like “Big Tymin’” and “Bling Blaow” (the latter with SOB x RBE’s Slimmy B). Speaking over the phone, he explains that the quartet are inheritors of a hip-hop tradition descended from local heroes like E-40 and the Click, as well as the late, legendary Mac Dre: “It’s fly, clean-ass niggas. When niggas used to step in the room back in the day, everybody looked. I feel like it’s history repeating itself, and everybody is realizing we the flyest niggas on Earth."

Of the four SOB x RBE members, Yhung T.O. has the clearest promise as a star. He can be a “savage” just like his bandmates, as he bragged on “Anti,” a 2016 single he co-authored with Slimmy B that earned a gold sales plaque despite never reaching the Billboard Hot 100. But his flow is slightly left-of-center, rendering him distinct from the group. His wavy, midrange voice buoyed “Anti,” as well as “Paramedic!” the group’s collaboration with Kendrick Lamar for the latter’s celebrated Black Panther soundtrack.

“Every [label] was interested in signing every single member, it just made more sense for T.O. because musically he was more far advanced,” says T.O.’s manager Chioke “Stretch” McCoy, an OG in Bay Area hip-hop who helped run the clothing brand Thizz Nation for Mac Dre and now works with local stars like Sage the Gemini and Nef the Pharaoh. “With [T.O.], it was kind of clear cut, we know exactly what his sound is, he knows what he wants to do, and he wants to be able to do things on a larger scale.” Lul G signed to Def Jam last summer, but his only music for the label so far has appeared on its recent up-and-comers compilation Undisputed. As for DaBoii and Slimmy B, Stretch says, both have more music they want to release to establish themselves before it “makes sense” to sign a deal, “as opposed to just, ‘That’s the kid from SOB x RBE.’”

[caption id="attachment_id_322710"] Can Yhung T.O. Be the Bay's Pensive New Star? Austin Hargrave for Spin[/caption]

When T.O. steps into the vocal booth, his tone is soft and melodic, capable of swishing through Auto-Tune effects and stretching into a falsetto. He freely mixes rapping and singing, taking equal inspiration from the heartfelt street poetry of Tupac and New Jack bad boy Bobby Brown, who he admires for being “on some gangsta shit but he was singing for the bitches." He sings about pain and depression, and how the cops try to brutalize him and his friends. He sings about carrying guns for protection and being suspicious of people he doesn’t know. His phrases teem with emotional and spiritual torment. “Lately I’ve been feeling drained… But I know better days coming, coming, coming,” he freestyles in the studio.

“What am I going through?” T.O. asks rhetorically. “Shit, just regular shit being an African-American in America. Everything that every young black man is going through. I’m going through it, too.” He says he can’t perform or shoot a video in his hometown anymore because the cops “are trying to lock a nigga up.” It’s a sentiment that he and DaBoii echo on SOB x RBE’s “Fuck About Us,” the doleful Tupac homage that closes Gangin II, the group’s second album. “Keep my distance from the pigs, they just wanna give me time,” Daboii raps.

For much of the night’s session, whenever T.O. takes a moment to shout out a crew, it’s not his most famous group, but OTB, a separate clique with Lil Sheik and other local rappers. Last year, some cracks began to show in SOB x RBE’s Dipset-like foundation. Days before Gangin dropped in September, Yhung T.O. announced on Instagram that he was leaving the group. “No, we not fonkin we just on different terms, crazy how you make money and create a new life wit niggas you call brother and in the end they still disloyal,” he wrote in a since-deleted post. Outlets began reporting that SOB x RBE was near breakup, nevermind that they were together on a press run for Gangin II at the time. For now, the gang soldiers on, appearing together at Rolling Loud L.A. in December, and for a scheduled stretch of dates to bookend their appearance at Coachella in April.

According to Stretch, what happened between the group was fairly banal drama. “It was a miscommunication and horrible timing. It was a miscommunication or something that happened online, and then one person going to sleep before he could talk to [T.O.],’” he says, not really revealing much at all.

Back in the studio, after a few too many pesky questions about the status of SOB x RBE, T.O. once again begins shouting out the hottest group in Northern California on a new song he's working on: “You know if I got it, with my gang I’m gonna split it," he raps. Earlier in the evening, he was even more explicit. “I fuck with my group members,” he said. “Put that specifically: I fuck with my group members. SOB x RBE. Us four and nobody else.”

***

Yhung T.O.’s solo material, which swerves adeptly between pained autobiography and macho forthrightness, often sounds markedly different from the adrenalized 80s synth-funk and Latin freestyle of SOB x RBE. He had a productive year in 2017, dropping two solo mixtapes, On My Momma and Before the Fame, as well as a collab with Sacramento reality-rapper Mozzy called Legendary Gangland, all while SOB x RBE blossomed into a local sensation.

As the best of the lot, On My Momma is filled with memorable moments like “Blame ‘Em,” a loping mob funk cut that received airplay on influential San Francisco radio station KMEL. But the tape’s highlight is “On My Own,” anchored by details about T.O. disappointing his grandmother when he dropped out of school. He had been in independent study, splitting time between Solano Community College and Jesse Bethel High School. But when he began scoring YouTube hits like 2016’s “Cautious” at age 17, he says, “I was pulling up in better cars than my teachers. I didn't want to listen to them anymore.”

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In the opening verse of “On My Own,” the emotion in T.O.’s voice is palpable as he promises his grandmother that he’ll get his diploma. “Grandma always asking why I’m never home / Why I never clean my room / ‘Cause I had a feeling I would make it soon.” He continues: “I’ma walk across that stage, but I can’t tell you when,” sounding confident in his words but uncertain in his wavering delivery. It’s a poignant contrast.

In contrast to 2017, 2018 was “gang year,” T.O. says—that is, the year of SOB x RBE as a unit, not Yhung T.O. as a solo star. The phrase comes up in a moment of idle studio chatter that percolates into an argument between T.O. and Stretch, over the release of his forthcoming solo major-label debut, Misunderstood. The album is complete, but now it’s going through the usual industry rigamarole—questions about sample clearances, promotional budget, and so on. “I know that them songs are still relevant,” T.O. says. Remembering that a reporter is in the room, he quickly cuts off discussion of his situation at Interscope: “Nevermind. This interview nigga is here.”

T.O. has managed to drop a few solo singles through the label, including “Misunderstood,” a heartfelt open letter to his mother and grandmother, and “Down Chick,” which got a remix featuring Bay Area-based pop-rap sensation G-Eazy. “Lately I feel like my time is short, and if I don’t make it, I just wanna say that I love you,” T.O. sings with anxious feeling on the former. In October, he released a Soundcloud EP called Lamont “Young L” Davis in tribute to his late uncle, and a mixtape called Trust Issues came two months later.

But none of his projects last year gained much tractionLast week, he dropped On My Momma 2, another satisfying project on which he refines his blend of airy melodicism and street toughness, bringing pathos to rubbery, playful beats. No song has popped as a hit just yet, and the critical acclaim of SOB x RBE’s two albums has overshadowed those solo moves. Even amidst a streaming boom that has disrupted the industrialization of rap superstardom, nurturing the career of an artist on the cusp is still easier said than done. Further, T.O. hopes to crack a ceiling that has existed over the heads of Bay Area rappers in the past decade.

“See, coming from the Bay Area, bro, there’s a lot of people who are gonna listen to your shit, slap your shit, but they not gonna give you your props,” says T.O. The Bay rap scene has long complained about swagger jackers, whether it was Harlem’s Cam’ron turning Frisco rapper Don Cisco’s “Oh Boy” phrase into a top 10 hit, or L.A. producer DJ Mustard adapting hyphy style for his far-more successful ratchet formula.

“I fuck with Kendrick Lamar,” says T.O., appreciative of the Black Panther spotlight he and SOB x RBE received. “But we ain’t really had no major cosigns.” Still, despite the obstacles in front of him—an industry intrigued but not quite sold on his talent, a fan base that doesn’t quite know what to do with Bay Area artists and their fantastically unique regional style—he can’t help but be optimistic. After all, his future seems boundless.

“I can’t say how I’m going to push through,” he reasons. “I can only hope and pray that God leads me to the world’s ears.”     

[caption id="attachment_id_322711"] Can Yhung T.O. Be the Bay's Pensive New Star? Austin Hargrave for Spin[/caption]

Back in the studio, T.O. sets a goal to finish 11 songs, but he’ll end up making more than that. He builds his songs by freestyling one line at a time, as if he’s adding a brushstroke to a canvas. If he can’t think of the words right away, he’ll hum the melody he wants to use until inspiration strikes. Then he’ll shout to the engineer, “Punch me in.” When he picks a chorus he wants to use, he only sings the lines once, then tells the engineer to re-add the lines at the end of the track. “I try to figure out how I want to approach it when I first hear the beat,” he later explains. Occasionally, he finds himself sniffling and gasping for air, a consequence of recording for several hours while dealing with a cold. He even gets the hiccups at one point. But he keeps going.

While T.O. is a talented stylist with a keen socio-political lens, he’s also still a kid from the Vallejo streets. It often seems like every song he drops talks about guns. When he’s asked if he carries all that heat in real life, the entire Studio B room bursts into laughter. He calmly shakes his head. “Naw, hell naw. I don’t be having guns like that.”

He talks about bitches, too, even though he’s in a committed relationship with his fiancée and high school sweetheart. And like most rappers in the digital age—when small interactions with fans, neighborhood kids, and scene rivals can metastasize into noisily trending tempests—he lives his life openly and sometimes messily.

His formative influence is his uncle Young L, a fledgling rapper who was murdered in Atlanta last year. “He from Oklahoma City so he looked up to Lil Wayne and shit. Not emulating but that's what his style was towards,” remembers T.O., noting Young L’s output of CDs like The Streets Talk Vol. 1 in the pre-DatPiff era.

To promote his Lamont “Young L” Davis tribute, T.O. released a video for the opening track, “Lamont Intro,” filmed in part at a small restaurant corner table. “Without you ‘round, I don’t want to live, and that’s some real shit,” he sings, with ache in his voice. He’s presumably addressing Young L, but it’s his SOB x RBE comrades who surround him at the table, gripping bottles of champagne and mouthing along to the words. Whatever came between them in the past, they’re still brothers, navigating an uncertain path forward.

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