After a major label bidding war, Kentrell Gaulden — better known as NBA YoungBoy — isn’t slowing down. Now with four releases in 2022 alone, Boardroom explains what makes YB better.
Here and now in 2022, hip-hop fans can try to ignore NBA YoungBoy — try and fail.
This is what the 22-year-old rapper did in August alone:
- Released his 23rd solo project since 2015 (yes, you read that right — five studio albums included)
- Reached over four billion on-demand US streams in 2022, joining only Drake among those to achieve the milestone
- Finished off his first deal with Atlantic Records
- Earned his 100th RIAA certification
- Surpassed a whopping 11 billion views on YouTube
So, what did you do last month?
It all came on the heels of the Baton Rouge, Louisiana rapper being found not guilty federal felony firearm possession case in LA in July. Since then, YoungBoy has wasted no time, delivering his final contractual commitment to Atlantic Records, the 30-track projectThe Last Slimeto, on Aug. 5. The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 after moving 108,400 equivalent album units in its first week (11 of the album’s tracks were made available to stream ahead of time).
Consummating his Atlantic deal freed him up to move on and get to work alongside the very same game-changing artists that have been increasingly throwing around his name of late. But up until last year (or perhaps 2020), you might have missed it if you weren’t, say, a 14-year-old kid hanging out in a PlayStation chat lobby hearing your friends blasting YB YouTube loosies in the background.
Specifically, the “it” you might have missed was Kentrell Gulden’s unprecedented, meteoric rise from Baton Rouge street rapper to chart-topping, the Grammy-nominated MC we know as NBA YoungBoy.
How could an artist capable of doing these numbers ever run the risk of flying under the radar? It’s a product of a term brought to my attention by former New Yorker editor, Sheldon Pearce: invisible music stardom, the notion that artists operating on the fringe of the wider pop culture scope can now realize overwhelming success and major followings whether or not the more general public has bothered to notice.
There is a number of reasons why this phenomenon is able to exist, and it begins with the music industry’s obsession with performance metrics. This plainly illuminates, as Pearce writes, “a gap between what is promoted and what is popular.”
If you ask YoungBoy however, none of that matters to him. Instead, it’s fuel. As he said on Instagram regarding his last album:
“To be honest I really don’t care about this being my last album. I finally can say I completed something. I ain’t finish school. I never finish nothing but my smoke… but nah gangster I then shedded tears from the way y’all been doing me but it’s all for the better.”
Although YoungBoy already has four No. 1 albums under his belt, 44 platinum plaques as a solo artist, and 35 gold and six 2x-platinum records, he’s received little-to-no radio play, nonexistent mainstream music press (for the most part). Additionally, his legal battle and accompanying house arrest prevented him from being able to tour or book live performances like an artist of his stature typically would.
Look at it this way: YoungBoy was literally in jail when his 2021 album, Sincerely, Kentrell, dethroned Drake from the Billboard 200. But none of this has stopped the rapper from relentlessly reaching his listeners with project after project.
Perhaps this all illuminates a growing appetite amongst fans for primarily direct-to-consumer interactions that sidestep the music industry’s typical distribution apparatus; YoungBoy has mastered this with a YouTube-first approach. According to several of the brand’s monthly reports, YB is routinely YouTube’s most popular rapper.
In the big picture, outside of his own team and dedicated fan base, NBA YoungBoy has needed little conventional support from the recording industry to push his records past the regional spaces they first occupied.
What’s his strategy for actually releasing retail music, then?
Well, it’s simple: there is none. He drops early and he drops often. A true volume shooter.
And the tides have turned quickly as a result, as the prolific rapper has now charted a total of 22 entries on the Billboard 200 since first arriving with 2017’s AI YoungBoy. This year alone, YoungBoy has earned three new top 10-charting albums in 2022 – the most of any act this year — charting at No. 2 and No. 10, respectively, with Colors and his collaborative project with DaBaby, Better Than You.
With things moving at lightspeed for YB’s record label free agency, the word from industry insiders is that the artist has chosen a destination, and that it’s one of the most iconic, historic names in the game: Motown. It had been originally reported that YoungBoy was headed to Birdman’s Cash Money Records for an eye-popping $60million ticket — not as surprising as you might think given his reach and ROI — but pen ultimately did not hit paper.
Meanwhile, Mike Caren’s APG will retain YoungBoy’s publishing. And if you’re wondering what the next stage might look like for a rapper who’s already accomplished so much despite his age, I can tell you it’s more of the same of what has made each YoungBoy era that much more successful already.
Releasing more music.
This week, YB continued down that road, dropping his fourth project of 2022, Realer 2, a follow-up to 2018’s hard-hitting mixtape, Realer. Naturally, it debuted exclusively only onYouTube.
Looking ahead, let’s take stock of NBA YoungBoy’s unbelievably consistent trajectory so far and read between the lines about what might be coming next.
Becoming NBA YoungBoy
It was while spending time in and out of the Louisiana juvenile justice system around 2014 that Kentrell D. Gaulden decided to take on rap seriously. From there, YoungBoy declared he’d Never be Broke Again.
And he meant it.
“I been in and out the system, but every time I make it through,” he rapped on “Mr. Grim Reaper.“
NeverBrokeAgain wasn’t just a moniker Gaulden would embody; rather, it was a lifestyle choice. It was his literally stated position that there very well could be better rappers out there, but that nobody would outwork him. Right on cue, between 2015 and 2017, YoungBoy self-released six mixtapes and began to gain recognition at home and in the surrounding region for his relentless work ethic. In time, he started to develop a following on the internet, too.
Early tracks like “Murder” from Mind of a Menace 2 and “Gravity” from 38 Baby — both released in 2016 —proved his aggressive but viscerally-appealing talent true. From there, he continued flooding the streets with more music, primarily through tapes and YouTube-exclusives tracks, realizing his main community and fanbase tended to lean in those directions.
Between YouTube’s lenient upload limits and the ability to make money on both video and audio streams, the fit was natural.
In 2017, however, the momentum leveled up. It didn’t even matter whether YoungBoy was a free man or presently incarcerated; his interest never stopped peaking. In fact, so much of the appeal for fans was how very real it all was with all things YB. From the pain he laid bare through his music all the way down to his alleged rap sheet in the streets making the rounds, fans were absolutely spellbound.
The realer the music got, the more the masses streamed it. They wanted more and more from YoungBoy. And they would get it.
Prime example: When YoungBoy was arrested immediately following his Rolling Loud performance in 2019, his streaming volume went up, and he remained the No. 1 artist on YouTube for almost the entire three months that followed despite not releasing any new music.
In time, he would arrive at his industry breakthrough moment though with the likes of “Untouchable,” and “No Smoke” from the AI YoungBoy tape. Around this time, he signed his first record deal with Warner-backed Atlantic Records through an existing publishing deal with Mike Caren’s, APG.
This also marked the point at which his imprint label, Never Broke Again Entertainment, was born. Today, it’s also home to Alabama’s own NoCap and Louisiana rapper, Quando Rondo.
YoungBoy would solidify himself for good in 2019 and ’20, taking his immutable place in the game by sheer force with songs like “Outside Today,”(peaking at No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100), “All In,” “Bad Bad” and “Make No Sense.” He would collaborate with the late rapper Juice WRLD on the single “Bandit” in October of 2019, which currently has almost 375 million views on YouTube, and went on to become his first top-10 single. This surge would lead to the release of AI YoungBoy 2, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
This would become a pattern of sorts. The next year, he’d release, 38 Baby 2, his second chart-topping project on the Billboard 200. Midway through 2020, YB dropped his second official studio album, Top, his third chart-topping project.
All this happened in less than a full year.
(And by the end of 2020, he managed to jump up Billboard’s earnings list ahead of artists like The Weeknd, Eminem, Harry Styles, Bad Bunny and Lil Baby, coming in at No. 9 on the annual list despite a full-blown global pandemic.)
2021 gave us his third studio album, Sincerely, Kentrell. It dropped while he was serving time in prison, but nonetheless managed to pull off a smash-and-grab of the top spot on the charts at the expense of Drake’s Certified Lover Boy. It made YB the third artist ever alongside only 2Pac and Lil Wayne to score a chart-topping album while behind bars.
It only added to his growing legend. In total, YoungBoy’s songs have amassed about 28 billion US streams, 6.8 billion global streams, and 16 million monthly listeners.
King of YouTube
With so much music flooding the market, YoungBoy has nevertheless managed to cut through and make himself heard without a billion-dollar marketing machine behind him.
Only in the streaming era can an artist enjoy similar success to pop star-level artists without such a cavalry behind him. It’s simple proof that YouTube remains an underutilized tool for artists; YB is closing that gap before our eyes by showing just how eye-popping the possibilities on the platform can be.
As so many artists have shied away from the fading SoundCloud era and the independent distribution route, looking to monetize their earnings as best as possible in the streaming era, the increasingly popular rapper has instead made YouTube his fortress.
A popular contemporary like Kodak Black, who lives in the same village as YB rap-wise, doesn’t have the same strength of output and is more dependent on moving at the industry’s pace due to his Spotify-heavy fan base. Meanwhile, YoungBoy operates similarly to the best and most prolific YouTube content creators — a name like Mr. Beast comes to mind — constantly feeding the algorithm and using the platform in a way that’s conducive to stan culture without sacrificing his inner authenticity.
The numbers don’t lie, either. Earlier this year, YoungBoy officially surpassed 11 billion views on YouTube, where he’s been the platform’s No. 1-ranked artist every single week in 2022, with 11.6 million total subscribers.
It makes sense though, as the artist truly prioritizes YouTube heavily and he’s rewarded for doing so, often trending only minutes after he drops. He routinely appears atop the platform’s Top Artists chart as well, which tabulates views across official music videos, live performances, remixes, user-made videos, album songs, and collaborations.
YouTube’s low barrier to entry, built-in social sharing mechanisms, and community features that ping content directly to fans are exactly what makes the platform so perfect for controversial cult favorites like YoungBoy. The music itself has a formula to it that really works, too, splitting time between sung rap with heart-tugging hooks a-la bluesman Florida rapper Rod Wave — who also does really, really well on YouTube, by the way — and slow, drum-kicking, key-heavy bangers.
YoungBoy didn’t just sidestep the recording industry and its many rules as some sort of economic strategy; he’s completely detached from them both mentally and aesthetically. Note how good of a job he’s done in building a direct, unobstructed connection with his core audience often in tandem with nothing more than super-low-budget visuals, many featuring simply the artist by rapping directly into a camera by himself. Few MCs would even attempt this, fewer could get away with it, and almost none could even dream of getting rich doing it.
According to a tweet from DJ Akademiks, whom NBA YoungBoy will often use to get messages to his fans, YB’s YouTube page generates 292 million views a month; that translates to an estimated $1.4 million in streaming revenue. On an annual basis, that means nearly $17 million ($16.8 to be exact) generated from YouTube alone.
Ignored by the mainstream music media space? No problem. YB is perfectly at home opting out of the whole damn thing. And it works.
According to Billboard, YoungBoy makes nearly as much as Taylor Swift does in streaming revenue.
Though Spotify remains the dominant digital music platform in terms of subscriber numbers, boasting 172 million worldwide, but YouTube has a far bigger global reach, and in September of 2021, YouTube Music, the company’s music-only streaming service, passed 50 million subscribers — up 20 million from the previous year — under Def Jam and Warner veteran Lyor Cohen’s tenure as Global Head of Music. This marked a significant gain on competitors like Apple Music and Amazon Music, which respectively have more than 78 and 68 million subscribers on the books.
Regardless, NBA YoungBoy is the music game’s King of YouTube without a doubt, and his success on that platform alone has awarded him the freedom to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants — including dropping a new mixtape out of nowhere, Realer 2, like he did this week.
NBA YoungBoy is Better
Going to start this last section by answering a key question:
What is this whole “YB Better” meme, anyway?
The phrases “YB Better” and/or “YoungBoy Better” have become go-to responses by superfans fans to show support for the rapper. In parallel, they’re frequently used ironically by trolls to make fun of the rapper and his dedicated fanbase.
Just for fun, here’s what Google search data reveals about the popularity of the two phrases over the past year:
First popularized in 2021, the ironic use of the phrase has been criticized by YB fans.
In 2020, a precursor to the trend started on TikTok wherein users ironically attempt to act like “typical YB fans,” portraying aggressive and thuggish personas meant to mimic what some see YB to be as a result of his lyrical content. “YB Better” in this case phrase is often accompanied by an attempt at a ratio — naturally, diehard fans are often happy to oblige.
These online interactions online can go something a little like this:
News Outlet: “[Insert name of any random rapper] is dropping an all-new album tonight”
NBA YoungBoy fan in the replies: “YB Better + ratio”
Last year, while promoting his new album, the internet savant we call Lil Nas X actually used the phrase “L, ratio, YoungBoy is better” in a YouTube clip for “THE MONTERO SHOW” that logged 2.9 million views in a month.
And it made sense, boosting the pair’s existing collaboration track on Nas’s album, “Late To Da Party (F*CK BET).”
Other artists have taken to having fun with the meme, too:
On the other end though, artists like Kodak Black, a “friendly” rival to YoungBoy since 2017, has gotten fed up with “YB Better” comments from YB fans on his page. As he wrote in a since-deleted tweet, “Bra I Like YoungBoy Music ITS JUST THIS NIGGA FANS HOMIE! OR WHOEVER TF BEHIND ALL THIS #YBBETTER SHIT.”
As he continued: “THAT SHIT BE IRRITATING!”
In so many ways — some spirited, some confounding, and everything in between — YoungBoy’s influence has spread far and wide. But it all comes back to YouTube.
Streaming services are subscription-based, but YouTube remains free, and intentionally or not, it’s helped YoungBoy strike a 1-of-1 chord with what’s turned out to be a massive crowd of fans who specifically seek out the service in search of raw style.
That crowd has grown to the point where it’s been rumored that label execs have sought out group chats with the rapper’s obsessive fan pages on social media for insight on shaping or reshuffling their grassroots marketing efforts. Meanwhile, YoungBoy’s musical brain trust relies on those same loyalists to help with things like track listings.
It’s an incredibly immersive experience that these fans really can’t get anywhere else.
Looking ahead, NBA YoungBoy’s manager, Alex Junnier, recently announced that the artist is set to embark on a 30-city tour with label-mate Quando Rondo that will begin in Chicago. (He also stated that the asking price for a YoungBoy feature these days has gone up to a wild $300,000.)
It’s worth reiterating that NBA YoungBoy has released 23 distinct projects and 350 total uploads on YouTube since 2015; it’s no wonder that there are such opportunities and dollar signs thrown his way from an increasing number of directions.
Where he goes from here will be the subject of near-manic speculation among his legions of fans. In the meantime, as always, we have the music to rely on — Realer 2 arrived on YouTube as a collection of 15 songs, and as a testament to his work ethic, only one has a feature: “Poppin Shit” with partner Jaz.
Enjoy this one as frequently as you can here and now, because at his current pace, we’re due for multiple additional YoungBoy projects before 2022 is over.
It’s all of a piece, and it’s no longer a secret:
YB works harder. YB records faster. YB Better.