I’ve seen some confusion about the name of YN Jay’s new album. At least one major source listed it as “Life After Death” but if I had to guess they were updating their list in a hurry and confused it with Biggie’s album. Then again there are Natas and Da Brat releases by the same name. Just so nobody gets it twisted though it’s called “Life Before Death,” and because of the mix-up I actually though this was a mix-tape promoting his new album. Nope. This is the actual album.
“A lot of people don’t understand what I be tryin’ to say
You just gotta really listen to what I be sayin'”
I’m listening. Jaylien Arthur-Henry Cantrell was born in Flint but hails from Beecher, Michigan. The two cities are disproportionate in size but linked by tragedy, being the site of the 10th deadliest tornado in U.S. history, and both have a poverty rate well above the national average. Jay seems defined by both the struggle and the tragedy, having lost his brother at a young age and vowing to succeed as a rap star in his memory. He’s incredibly loyal to his roots. “Came back to Michigan in wintertime cause I like the snow/Only reason why I bought a black mink cause I like the cold.”
While the album cover of “Life Before Death” might give you one impression of Jay thanks to his ski mask and iced chain, songs like “March 21st” show a rapper who isn’t afraid to let his guard down in his music. “Wake Up” seems as much like a message to himself as his audience, vowing that he’s “just trying to maintain” while “never forget(ting) my granny dinners on Sunday.” Jay seems determined to not fall victim to the traps of success, and I appreciate his humble nature.
Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you Jay also has songs like “Percs & Sex,” which appears to be from an even newer album as it only dropped within a week of this review and isn’t featured on this album. Jay isn’t above enjoying life. He’s not putting himself on a pedestal or acting holier than thou, which is why even on a song called “Honorable” he can spit bars like “I got one many bitches, too many bitches/I got old many bitches, new many bitches.” This isn’t a rapper aiming for political correctness or preaching abstinence in any way.
I have a little bit of bias in favor of any rapper who can make it from a hard scrabble place like Beecher or Flint to rise to national recognition. Even before I reviewed “Life Before Death,” Jay had done collaborations with Louie Ray, RMC Mike and Lil Pump that had garnered millions of views on YouTube. He’s doing quite well right now and should be enjoying the fruits of his success, but I can’t help but read between the lines and get the sense he’s aware of the bigger picture too — building his wealth, giving back to the community, and trying to avoid beefs as much as possible. He could be the vanguard of a revival for a part of Michigan in need of an economic boost.