Once radio was a king-making service for select New York rappers; now, its utility hovers somewhere between vintage and pageantry. The biggest musicians will reliably grace the offices of the city’s two major rap stations to give playfully combative but ultimately innocuous interviews. The appearances are generally watched, rather than listened to, on YouTube and Instagram and Twitter, the studio in the background like a stage. Every so often, though, a song from a local act explodes on New York City radio in a way that disturbs this trend. In 2014, it was Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga.” Last year, it was 2 Milly’s “Milly Rock.” This summer, the atmosphere belongs to Young M.A and her single “OOOUUU.”
If you’re a pedestrian in this city, or if you sit by open windows, you’ve heard the song waft up. “OOOUUU” is an unhurried boast, its earthy flow universally at home at the club, on the stoop, or in the car, traveling. The video has over 7 million views on YouTube, in addition to the rapper’s notable SoundCloud, Instagram, and Facebook followings. Unlike, say, Bed-Stuy’s Desiigner, Young M.A seems focused on sustained momentum. She doesn’t strictly rep one neighborhood, either, instead figuring herself as an ambient Brooklyn being. The 24-year-old artist, who had been smartly, gradually building an identity off her 2015 mixtape Sleep Walkin, released “OOOUUU” in May of this year, in time for outdoor weather. NYC mainstays Power 105.1 and Hot 97 made it a fixture on the airwaves.
A common stereotype holds that New Yorkers don’t know how to drive, and have no use for cars. But the summer in Brooklyn’s predominantly black and brown neighborhoods defies that generalization. Cars are speakers. Double-parked sedans become like flags, planted on streets with stereos blasting — the volume level must always be blasting — so that their music controls the environment, at least in part. At a time when emboldened non-natives are calling for noise ordinances in neighborhoods that are not theirs, pathologizing New York’s defining sounds and their producers, Young M.A’s reverberating voice feels auspicious.
Young M.A is setting herself up to control one future of Brooklyn’s voice. The rapper has played sold-out shows at busy Brooklyn venues, like Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg — this in the same year that, as the Times has noted, the NYPD is increasingly “maintaining a ubiquitous, and some would say, overwhelming presence at [rap] events.” In an interview following the release of Sleep Walkin, the rapper describes herself as a staunch, composite child of the main districts of New York City street rap. Queens: “I was nine years old listening to 50 Cent; that was my inspiration right there.” And Brooklyn: “Jay Z ... and I like Foxy, too.” Young M.A also loves the music Eve made in her Philly Ruff Ryders days, and her reasons are refreshingly astute: “I think it was ’cause they called her ‘The Pitbull in a Skirt,’ and I think I was relating at that time, ’cause I never seen [that]. Lil’ Kim and them was talking about whatever they was talking about on the sexy side or whatever, but I wasn’t into that.” Lyrically, Young M.A does rap about sex a lot — sensitively, humorously, and weighted with female masculinity. (The rapper is a diligent Aries.) “OOOUUU” has a slick blow about her ability to pilfer men’s women: “You call her Stephanie? I call her head-phanie.”
A lyricist who can turn an erstwhile nonverbal ad-lib into an engine for a hit summer song is obviously one to be reckoned with and understood. Young M.A is a storyteller, working by a steady ethos of half-disclosure. “My brother told me, ‘Fuck ’em, get that money, sis,’” on “OOOUUU,” could sound like a platitude, until you find out Young M.A’s brother died at 20 years old. Whereas the enduring flaw of contemporary New York rappers is allegiance to an imagined, classical past — think of the sometimes ridiculous and violent Troy Ave — Young M.A pushes forward. Here is a rapper unburdened by justifying the supremacy of her city’s music, one who is instead showing you evidence. She uses observational vocabulary and quick, truncated lines to relate immediate truths, unconstrained by haughty ideas of where New York is, or was, in music’s hierarchy of place. “Anything out of New York feel foreign to us,” is how she ends “Summer Story,” premiered right at the height of the season. The video features Young M.A — thick braids hanging down, the line-up new, and the teeth gold — holding court over a crowd in front of a Brooklyn building, a recognizable NYC video trope, taking up space.
Most people will come to Young M.A’s music by way of its virality online or on the radio. “OOOUUU,” “Summer Story,” and “HennyNHoes” are the de facto attention-grabbers, but it’s worth it to gauge the other work. Sleep Walkin is a thoughtful debut project, one where the rapper makes apparent her desire to embrace process. Young M.A’s “Brooklyn (Chiraq Freestyle)” annihilated her competition, and a snub from XXL’s annual “freshman” cover seemed more a harbinger of success than a setback.
In fact, Young M.A was offered a role on Fox’s Empire, presumably Freda Gatz, the character that is now played by Philly rapper Bre-Z. “They wanted me to be a character on this show,” Young M.A said when asked about why she turned the part down. “A lot of people wouldn’t have known me as me, as Young M.A.” Critical to any enduring success will be Young M.A’s insistence on circumventing labels. She has already begun — male interviewers’ questions about “being a female rapper” wither in the presence of her nonchalance. Doctor Boyce Watkins, a prominent public intellectual, called her “brilliant and creative” shortly before misunderstanding some of her swaggering lyrics as a call to “Black Genocide,” almost farcically. To that, M.A replied: “His comments made me go viral.” M.A is an outlier to the current landscape, less because of her gender and more because of her locality. Granted, I’m a black Brooklyn native, and so I am proudly biased. But M.A speaks in Brooklyn, and that exclusivity is alluring.
By 2020, Brooklyn will surpass Chicago to become the third largest “city” in the country; technically a borough in a larger city, Brooklyn dictates many strains of New York’s genius. A place that big will have borders. Real estate agents try to enforce them, creating false neighborhoods and inviting the kind of residents who will obey them, but Brooklyn youth retain the cultural power of building hard lines that people actually identify with. Already, it’s clear that Young M.A will be one of these architects.