Moneybagg Yo performs a sold out show with Yo Gotti in Memphis in support of Interscope debut Federal 3x.
Photo: Reginald Jones

Is Moneybagg Yo Memphis Rap’s Next Big Thing?

On one side of town, in a South Memphis neighborhood that’s been valiantly battling decline and disinvestment for a generation, it’s the beginning of Elvis Week. White folks are streaming into town to that house on the hill to celebrate, and the police are out, wary of a repeat of last year’s Black Lives Matter protest.

On the other side of town, in a neighborhood flanked by new development, historic districts, ramen, condos, and fro-yo, Yo Gotti protégé Moneybagg Yo is throwing a pop-up show to celebrate his new mixtape Federal 3x. There’s one police car a block away, its occupants engaging in friendly banter with concertgoers and offering them directions. A woman is posted outside of the venue offering up tickets to the sold-out $3 surprise show for $20. Her business looks to be doing well, and everything is moving.

Movement is, in fact, the theme of the night, punctuated by the signature rolling hi-hat, snapping snare, roiling bass, and walking minor-key, quarter-note melodies that have pushed trap out of the forgotten neighborhoods of the Deep South and to the top of the pop charts. Some jookers glide across the stage and others take to the bit of empty space at the back of the hall to give themselves room beyond the packed crowd. At one point, opener BlocBoy JB eschews rapping altogether to simply dance, his infectious movement pushing the crowd to move more. In response, the crowd encourages him, shouts of “eyyyy” going up on the off beats as he dances harder. Hair swings, arms raise, hips move and feet stomp as the room twerks, jooks, buck jumps and gangsta walks. No one is still.

Despite the cavernous space, the room looks and feels and sounds like an intimate post-soul juke joint, with a diverse cross-section of black folks. The stage is plainly lit, and fog is the main production accessory. The sound starts out sketchy for the opening acts and is miraculously better by the time Moneybagg Yo, and later Yo Gotti, hit the stage.

Moneybagg Yo performs a sold out show in Memphis in support of Federal 3x.
Yo Gotti, photo by Reginald Jones

The crowd isn’t there for the stage production, though. It’s there for the rhythm. And the most interesting rhythms are the ones Yo creates, his dexterity and limberness with sixteenths, eighths, triplets, and couplets across tracks makes his often otherwise boilerplate production move. On stage, he is understated but shining, his belt, shoes, watch and jewels picking up the light. During his regional hits “Doin’ Too Much” and “Pull Up,” he lowers the mic and bids the audience to become the instrument over the beat. We raise our voices and reflect back the words, and together, our voices are a trap chorus, our bodies moving in, through and beyond the hall. The stage is full of family and the Memphis crowd is family, too, making music and movement together.

It’s difficult to imagine hip hop today without trap music. The signature misplaced and delayed 808s, rapping snares, sixteenth-note high hats, and roaming eighth-note synths gave us Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” featuring Memphis’s Juicy J, as well as Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love.” Like variations of crunk before it, trap has come to dominate mainstream music and dancefloors across the country and beyond the States.

Ask anyone in Memphis and they’ll tell you, trap music began here. Memphis rap pioneers Eightball & MJG, Gangsta Pat, Tommy Wright IIII, and later Three Six Mafia laid the groundwork for a southern rap sound inspired by the perils of a blues life, its blood and ghosts. The geographical convergence point for rural and urban cultures, in the middle of the South and the middle of the world, Memphis has always moved that work—labor, people, sound, and packages of the legal and illicit varieties. Trap is a sonic testament to survival in a transportation hub where the poorest residents must either innovate and take risks or become consigned to the hells—physical, structural and spiritual—that early Three Six Mafia rapped about.

Though he doesn’t often get mentioned in the same breath as contemporaries like T.I., Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy and, later, 2 Chainz, Yo Gotti’s foundational place in the history of trap can’t be denied. The North Memphis general was making trap music as early as 1996’s Youngsta’s on a Come Up and 2000’s From the Dope Game to the Rap Game. Just as southern hip hop has been integrated, and some say sublimated, into hip hop and pop music, the trap sound was similarly marshaled as music sales and club banger gold. Gotti’s 2016 breakthrough The Art of Hustle was a broad-reaching, city-repping reflection on trap life after 20 years in the industry. While T.I. may have given a popular name to the sound with 2003’s Trap Muzik and Jeezy’s Trap or Die trilogy signaled the rising popularity of the sound, by the time he broke through with The Art of the Hustle’s “Down in the DMs,” Gotti—who started rapping professionally as a young teenager—had been back to the kitchen, back to the basics, and back to the trap half a dozen times by then. So while his late 2016 deal with RocNation is certainly a coup, it is also reparations, given that Gotti helped make possible the sound that’s made more recent artists instant stars.

Moneybagg Yo signed to Gotti’s Collective Music Group last October, joining CMG’s solid roster of Snootie Wild, Zed Zilla, Wave Chappelle, and Blac Youngsta. The signing was not only marked by Gotti’s public delivery of $200,000 cash to the South Memphis-raised Moneybagg Yo, but also by the release of the duo’s collaborative mixtape, 2 Federal. On it, Yo and Gotti trade verses less like protégé and mentor and more like equals, as Gotti implicitly acknowledges Moneybagg Yo’s potential and prowess and opens the road for the next generation of Memphis trap artists. In the weeks before the Federal 3x release and pop-up show, Moneybagg Yo leveled up, signing a distribution deal with Interscope.

This is perhaps why CMG artist Moneybagg Yo’s Interscope debut, Federal 3x, is such an essential work. Unlike Blac Youngsta, whose 2016 single “Hip Hopper,” featuring Lil’ Yachty, remains an infectious hit (and the hilarious accompanying video is a stands testament to trap’s experimentalism), Moneybagg Yo offers up a throwback to a more archetypal trap sound that should send listeners back through the archives in search of the sound’s past and future. Where Blac Youngsta, a character all unto himself, recalls the eagerness to be different, even contrarian, that Three Six Mafia embodied, Moneybagg Yo is more immediately palpable and restrained.

Yo’s work is classic trap blues for the social media age, where, like in 2 Chainz’s work, relationships are complicated by social media, infidelities are outed on blogs, and side bitches win for compliance and good behavior. There are familiar themes of the loneliness of ascension, the survivor’s guilt of both being alive and no longer being at the bottom, of the pleasures and paradoxes of designer things, and of the violent particulars of the trap. It is the currency and present-ness of Yo’s work, its “trending” nature (not incidentally, the title of one of the project’s records), coupled with his versatile, tightly-stitched flow and Gotti’s blessing, that position Moneybagg to inherit Memphis’ trap kingdom. And in its stylistic clarity and accessible hooks, Federal 3x is a potent reminder to the industry of CMG’s movement, and to fans to pay attention, lest we miss the message, and the basics.

By the time the music stopped back in Memphis, the stage and the floor became one. With the room full to capacity, Gotti and Yo moved through the folks on stage shaking hands and nodding like a church service had ended. And in a way, it had. This was worship, not just for a sound but for its origins, and a celebration of hard-fought successes, of actual grit and grind, and the possibilities of what might come for the trap, CMG, and the people.

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