In just three years, Cordae has received cosigns from revered hip-hop legends and earned two Grammy Award nominations. Now, he’s set to drop one of the most anticipated projects of his career. Can he deliver on the hype?
Words: Keith Murphy
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
When meeting up with one of hip-hop’s most buzzworthy young artists via Zoom, since pandemic life is still very real, the last thing one would expect is a random tutorial on the importance of skincare. And yet, that’s what the slightly cherubic-faced rapper Cordae is doing from his well-manicured Beverly Hills, Calif. home on a mild April day. “This is going to sound bourgeoisie,” he muses with a self-deprecating disclaimer, alluding to an early morning appointment he admits to being late to, “but I went to a dermatologist because I was breaking out. I’ve never been to [a dermatologist] before.”
However, as with most conversations with the Suitland, Md. native, a pedestrian discussion can quickly take a deeper turn. “I’m in a blessed position that I don’t take for granted and I thank God for it every day, just to have access to the information,” Cordae confides. “And, to just have access to the awareness of people who know things like eating healthy, taking care of your body, drinking water and staying in shape and things of that nature. Even though we are in the information age, it’s even more fruitful when you have people around you [to help].”
It’s clear that Cordae Dunston, 23, is still getting acclimated to life as rap’s soon-to-be golden child. Talk about pressure. The standout former member of the internet rap collective Young Boss Niggas, comprised of YBN Nahmir and YBN Almighty Jay, dropped his introspective debut album, The Lost Boy, in 2019. Formerly known as YBN Cordae, he was promptly hailed as hip-hop’s next great lyricist. That hyperbolic prediction was anchored by fearless ambition, witty wordplay and heart-on-the-sleeve storytelling of an old soul who seemed like he had just walked straight out of a 1990’s rhyme cypher with lyrical stalwarts Nas, André 3000, Lauryn Hill and Jay-Z.
“I know myself far too well to be a stranger to pain/Despite it all, we remainin’ the same, I’m just changin’ the game,” Cordae delivers on 2019’s “Bad Idea” featuring Chance The Rapper, which samples Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s “Be Real Black for Me” and Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where the Hatred Is.”
Since making his introduction in the game in 2018, with his signing to Art@War, a partnership between entertainment lawyer James McMillan and Rap-A-Lot CEO James Prince, via a joint venture with Atlantic Records, Cordae has been on a steady ascent. His encounter with iconic producer Dr. Dre, who invited the rising rapper to collaborate on music that same year, proved the rising artist was one to watch. A year later, he earned two 2019 Grammy Award nominations: Best Rap Album for The Lost Boy and Best Rap Song for “Bad Idea.” He also found himself fielding comparisons to Compton native and Pulitzer Prize music winner Kendrick Lamar. Plus, Eminem lauded Cordae as “dope” in a 2020 Variety interview. He also landed three gold songs—“Have Mercy,” “RNP” featuring Anderson .Paak and “Kung Fu”—and a gold mixtape, YBN: The Mixtape with YBN Nahmir and YBN Almighty Jay.
“Moments like that I know it’s nothing but God,” he recalls of the mind-blowing, 16-hour recording session with Dre, arguably hip-hop’s most storied conductor. “I just give him all the glory, man, and thank him in advance for whatever is about to come.”
Going from being raised by a 15-year-old mother in a North Carolina trailer park to kicking back in a California mansion and breaking bread with rap royalty has a way of humbling you. “Me and my mom grew up together,” Cordae says. “She was always the best mom…You’ll never hear me rap about missing a meal. We may have not had cable or WiFi, but our lights weren’t ever cut off. We never got evicted. She just made it happen… Even now, my mom is a real one. I remember when I first got signed [to Art@War/Atlantic Records] in 2018, when I first came upon a large sum of money, I sent my mom like, a big wire. And my mom was like, ‘Did you pay your taxes?’ She’s real gangster all the way.”
Everything about Cordae’s early career highlight reel seems set up for superstardom, from his cameo in Coca-Cola’s memorable 2020 Super Bowl ad headlined by actor Jonah Hill and film directing god Martin Scorsese to his head-turning, two-year romance with top ranked tennis global phenom Naomi Osaka, who is now the highest paid sportswoman, earning a reported $55 million.
Yet, Cordae hasn’t had much time to soak it all in. He’s too busy finishing up his much-anticipated sophomore LP, From A Bird’s Eye View. In late April, a day before this conversation, Cordae was working on tracks in Santa Monica from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. He admits dealing with the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic has turned him into a bit of a recluse, but he had to get a change of scenery. “I went to Windmark Studios yesterday because I’ve been in the house recording,” he shares. “It takes a lot for me to leave the house because I have everything here I need within the crib.”
Cordae describes the new album as “bassline heavy,” a sound he admits was cultivated from months of diving into the catalogs of soul singer Bill Withers, blues legend Muddy Waters and music icon Stevie Wonder, who Cordae gleefully name-drops as one of the contributors on From A Bird’s Eye View. Additional credits include The Lost Boy producer Kid Culture as well as fellow producers Jake One and Terrace Martin, who oversaw the sweeping jazz-inflected production of Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 critically hailed To Pimp a Butterfly album. “And I have Raphael Saadiq doing a bit of production, too,” Cordae adds. “I feel like his first album was beautiful…Cordae did his thing,” conveys Martin, who first bonded with the MC in 2018, after hearing his acclaimed J. Cole response song “Old Niggas.” “But when I hear him on that mic now, he sounds like a young prophet talking, man. And he’s not preaching at you. He’s talking with you.”
The veteran saxophonist and respected West Coast hip-hop producer says Cordae’s gifts go beyond music. “I just took Cordae over to Herbie Hancock’s house,” Martin recalls when he introduced him to the legendary jazz pianist. “Herbie loves Cordae and Cordae loves Herbie. It was deep seeing this 20-something young man hold his own in a conversation with a giant music icon who is 81 years old. A lot of these muthafuckas can’t hold a conversation with Herbie Hancock.”
A new album means he’s excited about getting back out on the road and touring. However, Cordae is on the fence when asked if he intends on receiving a COVID-19 shot. “I’m probably not going to get the vaccine,” he admits. “I don’t know. They may hit us with some shit like you can’t travel the world, you can’t do shows unless you get the vaccine.”
Yet, he is less forthcoming when asked about guest features on From A Bird’s Eye View. “I want to wait until they all clear…’til the paperwork is done,” a hesitant Cordae explains. “I look at music as a canvas. Who can add that palette? Just like with Anderson [.Paak]. I knew his voice would be perfect for ‘RNP.’ I knew his color palette is one of a kind.”
Working on a much-anticipated follow-up LP is hard enough, but for the wildly ambitious Cordae—who in 2018 told XXL that his goal was “to be the greatest artist of my generation,” a year before being inducted into the 2019 XXL Freshman Class—it’s quite natural to ponder if the young man is placing needless pressure on himself with oversized Kanye West-sized expectations. Cordae isn’t backing down.
“I have to go into the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame,” he maintains. “I would love to have an EGOT… I want to be the biggest, most influential artist. That’s my ultimate goal. The next artist in 2035 is going to say Cordae inspired them.”
Part of Cordae’s appeal is his reputation as a generational bridge builder. It’s certainly in the DNA of his Just Until…. EP, a four-song pack he released in April “to test the temperature.” Seeing respected 1990’s boom-bap innovator and A Tribe Called Quest front man Q-Tip on “More Life” and modern-day, southern rap archetype Young Thug on “Wassup,” all in the same lineup, is esthetically jarring, but Cordae dismisses any notion of pandering gestures.
“Throughout this quarantine, Q-Tip has been one of my mentors,” he expresses of his bond with the 51-year-old hip-hop legend he met through producer Statik Selektah. “And Young Thug is really the same way…We got a couple of other joints together, but a lot of times we just be in the studio just kicking it and chopping it up. It’s always real love…Fuck a song, bro. Thug is really my homie.”
Cordae, who grew up a Lil Wayne fan, was first introduced to the music of Rakim, Nas and The Notorious B.I.G. by his father. By 15, he was already pursuing a rap career, releasing the mixtapes Anxiety in 2014, I’m So Anxious in 2016, and I’m So Anonymous in 2017. He tried college, but dropped out of Towson University in Maryland in 2018. A year earlier, Cordae had met YBN’s Nahmir and Almighty Jay during an online game of Grand Theft Auto. They kept in touch and he eventually joined the YBN rap crew in L.A., dropping his first single "My Name Is” in 2018, a flip of Slim Shady’s 1999 off-the-wall classic.
Despite his old head spirit, Cordae is still plugged in with his rap peers. Last year, he recruited melodic platinum spitter Roddy Ricch for his victory lap one-off single “Gifted.” “Shit, nigga, this the shit that I asked for, remember last year I was mad poor,” Cordae recalled of his turbulent come up on the mid-tempo jam. “Seen my mama cry over homicides, now she down to fly, she got a passport.”
Yes, life has been good for Cordae, but his ongoing journey to headline status hasn’t been without its stumbles. Last August, YBN Nahmir fired off a tweet announcing the breakup of the trio. “They left this YBN shit in the gutter,” the YBN founder said in a post, seemingly placing blame on members Cordae and Almighty Jay. “Remember that. I’ll turn it up myself. #ybnNAHMIR.”
Some fans instantly zeroed in on Cordae’s solo stardom as a possible reason for the YBN’s implosion. However, Cordae claimed that the group simply grew apart. In March, Jay went further and accused YBN’s manager and lawyer James McMillan of alleged questionable business dealings regarding trademarks, a possible catalyst for the clique’s demise. McMillan denied any shady trademark issues. “It’s not uncommon to trademark the name at the very beginning when we’re pouring resources into it to make value,” McMillan told XXL. “We trademark a name to protect it for them because if we hadn’t, anybody could trademark it and we’d be chasing the name trying to get it back, or have to change the name.”
Cordae reveals he is still on great terms with his former YBN brothers. “I asked for Nahmir’s blessing because I wouldn’t be able to live with myself and sleep if I didn’t get his blessing,” he explains of his departure. “I can’t be out here preaching ownership to these kids if me, Nahmir and Jay were building this brand that we don’t have ownership in…I was just at Nahmir’s 21st birthday party. Jay is one of my closest homies. I talk to [him] a couple times a week a minimum…I can only speak about those cats in the highest level of admiration and love.”
Then there’s the pushback Cordae received when lyrics bragging about his relationship with Naomi Osaka on his recent single “More Life” featuring Q-Tip hit social media. “My girl a tennis star, you niggas out here marryin’ hoes,” he boasted. While some fans on Twitter applauded the line, others felt it was misogynistic.
“I didn’t really think too much about it,” downplays Cordae of the controversial line. “I play [Naomi] my music. She be hearing my music before it comes out…I didn’t think it would be this at all.”
Obviously, Cordae is still learning the terrain, and his growth is apparent. The budding social activist—who was arrested last year in Louisville, Ky. while protesting the killing of Breonna Taylor by police—lights up when he points to James Baldwin’s 1963 book, The Fire Next Time, a landmark dissection of racial injustice in America during the early Civil Rights movement, as being a prominent inspiration on his songwriting for his From A Bird’s Eye View album.
When Cordae speaks about crafting his impending opus, due this summer, it’s clear that there’s an anxiousness underneath it all. “It’s always scary when I release an album because you are injecting your entire heart, your feelings, your deepest most transparent, vulnerable moments…for others to judge and listen,” he confesses. “But when I’m on this road and these kids start talking to me and telling me how my music helped them through very dark spaces within their lives, that makes me know that this is my calling.”
Check out more from XXL’s Summer 2021 issue including our Freshman Class cover interviews with 42 Dugg, Iann Dior, Coi Leray, Pooh Shiesty, Flo Milli, Morray, Rubi Rose, Blxst, Toosii, Lakeyah and DDG, producer Nick Mira's thoughts on producing the beats for the Freshman Class, an in-depth conversation with Ski Mask The Slump God about his comeback this year, Moneybagg Yo's candid discussion about his new music, family and indie label, a look at what the 2020 XXL Freshman Class has been up to since last year, Doin' Lines with Jack Harlow, Lil Tecca speaking on what to expect from his upcoming We Love You Tecca 2 album, music video director Cole Bennett gives an inside look at his Lyrical Lemonade empire, 10 in-demand hip-hop jewelers' stories of creating rap stars' icy works of art, and more.