Moneybagg Yo is generally a pretty low-key guy, but when asked about his fitness regimen, of all things, he lights up like a grade-schooler describing The Super Mario Bros. Movie to his older relatives. Up until this point, he’s been cagey, even reluctant, in answering the questions posed during our Zoom interview. It’s not that he doesn’t want to do this; by all means, he often seems game for the aspects of rap stardom that many of his peers openly disdain.
Catch the Memphis rapper outside a jewelry store to quiz him on his own lyrics, and not only does he readily pose for the inevitable TikTok but he also nails it, garnering a perfect score (and a discount on his purchase). Even when he stops by UPROXX Studios to shoot this cover story and record a polished performance for UPROXX Sessions, it seems that the only reason he declines an offer to shoot hoops in the parking lot with his entourage afterward is his tight schedule.
But as genuine and level-headed as he is, he also seems wary; he’s seen too many contemporaries get caught unaware in interviews, leading to days of social media excoriation that he’d rather skip. Yet even in avoiding potential faux pas, he’s as gracious as a sovereign regent, offering polished, practiced answers that reveal just as much by what’s left unsaid. Moneybagg recognizes the importance of playing the game, he just won’t get caught up in it and lose himself.
He says as much during our interview. “You can't give everybody all of you, they won't understand,” he asserts. “People judgmental. So you can't do that. Everybody ain't going to be in your corner if you say certain stuff. Some people going to be with you, some people ain't going to be with you. So, I keep it music and keep a little bit of personality and a little bit of my family and a little bit of this and that, and friendships, and just keep it moving. It's nothing more personal that I'll share.”
Lighting Tech: Uriel Espinoza
DESIGNED BY: CARLOS SOTELO OLIVAS
APRIL 19, 2023
BY: AARON WILLIAMS
But as tightly sealed as he keeps that vault, he says his new music is going to be more personal than ever. After garnering rave reviews with his 2021 album A Gangsta’s Pain, his first ever to hit No. 1, he’s ready to peel back more layers on the affectively-titled Hard To Love. As Moneybagg’s fifth studio album, Hard To Love will arrive this year with the rapper at the height of his career – and coming off of one of the toughest years for him emotionally.
“I'm more vulnerable on this project than I ever been because of what I went through in the last two years,” he shares. “I experienced a lot and endured a lot. I went through a lot. So, this album is really personal, but I know the world is going to relate to it because of the stuff I'm saying, the subject matter, I know people going through what I went through across the globe.”
He declines to give details about what all the past couple of years have entailed but at least some of it is public record. Nuskie, another Memphis rapper signed to Moneybagg’s recently launched record label Bread Gang, was shot and killed last January at just 26 years old. Nuskie’s death prompted an outpouring of grief and condolences from the Memphis rap community, which was still reeling in the wake of the death of Young Dolph just two months before.
Since then, the Memphis community has lost no fewer than three members of its rap fraternity, including Big Scarr, 22, Gangsta Boo, 43, and Snootie Wild, 36. Prior to their deaths, Pooh Shiesty, another Memphis native, who was signed to Gucci Mane’s 1017 Records and had collaborated with Moneybagg, was arrested in connection with an armed robbery and shooting the year before and sentenced in April of 2022 to five years and three months in prison. More broadly within the rap fellowship, November 2022 saw the death of Takeoff, another Moneybagg collaborator with whom he shared a friendly relationship; Takeoff was just 28 years old.
That’s a lot of death and loss for anyone to handle, let alone someone who just a year before had celebrated his professional peak. 2021 saw the culmination of a decade’s worth of grind, which Moneybagg admitted had cost him years of important moments with family and friends. The importance of those moments is underlined by the fact that he told The New York Times about them, the vault door cracking open just enough to illustrate their impact. “I just started being able to make my kids’ birthdays,” he said at the time. “Until three years ago, I sacrificed me some birthdays, holidays, football games, doughnuts with dad.”
I know people going through what I went through across the globe.
Even so, he’s adamant that the recent struggles have not dulled his edge or his hunger for more. “It's the same process,” he muses. “I ain't nothing too much changed with the process. I had just had real personal life situations that threw me off and pushed me back during that time of making this album though, so that's the only thing.” He’s hesitant to share too much about the upcoming album, other than one feature that’s sure to pique interest both within and outside of the rap fandom: controversial country music star Morgan Wallen, who has risen phoenix-like from the ashes of a moderate foot-in-mouth situation a few years ago involving the N-word.
Since that incident and his subsequent apology, Wallen has become something of a lucky charm for rappers of a certain bent, appearing on Lil Durk’s 2021 single “Broadway Girls.” Moneybagg says they met at a show in Nashville, “and we just been cool ever since then.” Wallen, he says, is just as excited about the collaboration as Moneybagg is; “He called me yesterday,” he chuckles. “He always just hitting me, ‘Is the song mixed yet? Is it done?’” If Wallen seems like an odd choice for street-bred rappers like Bagg and Durk, it’s one that likely makes sense because they share checkered histories; they were given second and third chances, so why not pay it forward – especially if it has a chance to grow their own fan bases outside of their established lanes.
The goal, according to Moneybagg, is to set an example with his latest effort. The point of Hard To Love isn’t to win over doubters or air out his dirty laundry, it’s to allow listeners to relate. “They ain't going to feel like they know me,” he predicts, “but they’ll be like, ‘I understand him, he a human, he go through stuff like we go through stuff. He ain't no different from us. He just probably more fortunate. But other than that, he ain't no different from us. He go through the same thing. He's human too.’”
Moneybagg Yo started his human journey 31 years ago as DeMario DeWayne White Jr. Born to a single mother, he often describes the part of Memphis in which he grew up as “the gutter.” Pushed to elaborate, he again does so reluctantly, but as eloquently as he depicts his experiences in song.
“The gutter [is] the bottom,” he proposes. ”I mean, it's cliché but everybody has they own side to it. Everybody has they own story. Probably half of the entertainment, half of hip-hop, half of the rappers nowadays, they all come from that because it's so easy to make it in rap. All you got to do is really have one good song and then TikTok and all that stuff made it easy. Everybody come from that same area, that same environment, but it's like how do you stand out? What makes your story different from everybody else? I just feel like I'm one of those individuals that's very different and I just dug into it a lot with the music. So when the project come out you are really hearing what I went through. So, I feel like that's going to set me aside right there.”
Like many young men confronted with the realities of life in the circumstances he found himself surrounded by, DeMario found his way into hustling, prompting him to drop out of high school. Having his first child at the age of 18, he realized that his job at the chicken shack wasn’t going to cut it, and at first, he pursued the promise of fast money. But that life comes with a high price; a brush with death and a subsequent stint behind bars were all it took to convince him that the price might just be too high. He turned to other pursuits – namely, music.
“I feel like I got stuck in the rap game because I really was just trying to rap to get money, figure out another hustle after I caught my first charge when I was 18 and I had had my little girl,” he explains. “I was trying to find something else to do besides just sell dope.” He noticed that some of his friends who rapped seemed to be doing brisk business, making a tidy sum for local shows. “I got some homeboys, they was getting $2,500 a show. So I feel like if they could do it, I could do it, or maybe even better. Not in competition with them, but it was just a motivation thing. But actually when I did it, I shot past the moon, I got out of there, you feel me? I went from $2,500 a show to $10,000 to $25,000 a show to now... And I just climbed up the ladder.”
While Bagg released music at a frantic pace from 2011 to 2015, the death of his best friend Elo in 2015 prompted him to increase his output; in 2016 alone, he put out four mixtapes, catching the eye of local rap hero Yo Gotti, who immediately eyed the hungry young talent for his label, Collective Music Group. Convincing him to sign took some doing, though. Perhaps out of deference for Gotti’s stardom, or wanting to build up his brand on his own, Moneybagg hesitated to meet with the veteran rapper. Eventually, though, he relented.
“Actually, I had turned down the meeting with Gotti two or three times and then I finally [said], ‘You know what, I'm going to go.’ Everybody was telling me not to rock with him, and I was like, ‘How y'all know?’ And I just took the chance and he believed in me, told me since day one he just believed in me and my career was a layup and it worked out.” The thing he learned from Gotti? “Chase the dream, not the money.”
Clearly, he took that message to heart.
With each successive release on CMG, Moneybagg’s buzz grew as he honed his skills. Already heralded locally for being a little bit sharper lyrically than the average trap rapper, Bagg’s blunt-spoken but subtly witty delivery began to pick up steam via a steady stream of collaborations with both established and fellow rising street rappers like Future, Gunna, J. Cole, Lil Durk, Megan Thee Stallion (with whom he was temporarily rumored to be romantically linked), Offset, YG, and especially Kevin Gates. Bagg credits the Baton Rouge rapper with introducing him to Islam, and he credits Islam for his sense of discipline.
Chase the dream not the money.
“It was just natural conversation,” he says of the inspiration behind both acclaimed singles. “That's how a lot of my songs get made. I actually just be having a conversation, it just be my real lingo. And it just kind of transitioned into the music.”
His latest massive crowd-pleaser is “Wockesha,” which employs a sample of the 1983 song DeBarge hit "Stay With Me" (as popularized by The Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance” and Ashanti’s 2002 hit “Foolish”; Ashanti is featured on the “Wockesha” remix). The song finds Bagg performing one of hip-hop’s favorite magic tricks: personifying an illicit substance as a paramour. This time, it’s an ode to “lean,” the combination of codeine cough syrup and clear soda, but with the melancholy undertones of someone who knows this particular relationship is no good for him. In fact, Bagg declared early last year that he was giving up the habit for good, admitting to Genius that “it’s a process getting off of it, it’s hard.”
“The point I'm making is it'll be people that will judge or making an opinion about my music and A, you don't know this environment, or B, never took the time to even listen to what I'm really saying on the album,” he says. “That happens far too many times. You wish people would really listen, but I don't even blame them because there's so much music coming out.” Does he feel as though he’s gotten overlooked or lost in the furor?
“Yes,” he agrees. “I don't think a lot of people don't know that me, Cole, and Pharrell opened for Jay-Z. We did a whole college tour... A lot of people don't know I opened for Jay before that, even in Europe… A lot of people don't know I opened for Rihanna in Europe. Because there was no Snapchat. I wasn't walking around with a cameraman for YouTube all day. It was a weird time… We got a little bit of the Mandela effect going on in this generation.” However, he says, “I might just try to do the best I can because there'll be a time when it will all connect and everybody is going to put everything together and then it'll all makes sense to some people that it might not make sense to. I would not be lying to say it wasn't frustrating, but ain't nothing to do about it but just keep pushing. It’ll be on Folarin II, where I wrote these subtle reminders all throughout the album.”
When I ask him how this album will be different from the 2012 Folarin mixtape, which featured appearances from 2 Chainz, Chinx Drugz, French Montana, Nipsey Hussle, Rick Ross, and Scarface, among others, Wale compares the project to Jay-Z’s career-defining 2001 release, calling it a “Blueprint” record. “I feel like the process on this one was pretty much, as soon as I got into the mode, it just started feeling like, ‘You know what? Where I am, how I feel, how I know who I am, regardless of what anybody's talking about,’ it started just speaking to me more. I was like, ‘This is Folarin II.’ Folarin is when I started really coming into my own. I really was in that space. I was just singing with my chest. I think that's what's happening now.”
“It's a space that I was in, this bubble,” he continues. “Some days I felt like telling the stories and some days I felt like talking about things going on back home. Some days I felt like talking about shit. The next day I felt like talking about shit. Then the next day I felt like talking about shit. Then the next day I want to do something else. It was just a moment in time, this bubble of where I'm at…. I made sure I spelled it out, it's more grandiose. I think all of them have a different thing, man. Folarin II is its own thing, but it's just the same intentions and the same feeling that I had when I made Folarin 1.”
Kicking lean was one of his tenets for pursuing the healthier lifestyle which led to the above-mentioned fitness conversation. After some commiseration about a shared self-consciousness about our respective physiques – he greatly slimmed down in 2019, losing what could generously be described as a dad bod – he turns into a motivational fitness trainer.
“I think it's just a really overall, just a mental thing,” he says of the weight loss. “You got to be disciplined. It all depends on what your goal is. My goal is when I'm performing, I want to look good. I want to be able to take my shirt off. I want to be able to jump up and down without feeling too clustered up and just sloppy. You want to put on your best thing. And then, even with the camera, with videos and different stuff, I learned that when the camera add extra weight to you, I didn't know that. I didn't know that until I got deep into this situation that certain cameras put five pounds extra pounds on you.”
This is the vulnerability that counterintuitively makes Moneybagg one of trap’s fast-rising stars. In a genre that values being untouchable, unfazed, and disaffected by the traumas of the illicit street pharmaceuticals industry while vouching for one’s own unfiltered realness, Bagg doesn’t just tell us about it, he shows us. He drops the veil just enough; he remains humble even as he boasts about making a hundred grand a show.
“I still have real people that go through stuff around me,” he says of his ability to keep things in perspective. “I'm still a real person, I go through stuff, but I don't broadcast it. But I still have people that's in this field that's around me that might be with me one weekend at a show, but they still have to go back home and face reality. And I hear they problems and of course I went through those problems and going through them on a different level. And I just understand, I just know this can be taken away from you at any second, so I don't take it for granted. I don't take it for granted. So, I know this stuff can be gone in a minute so you have to just be humble. You can't be just too cocky, get too big for your britches and everything gone, and you ain't got nobody to fall back on.”
So, if that means playing the game a little, it’s worth it. He’s more than willing to sit for an interview, provided he can keep things like his family and his relationship (he’s currently with social media influencer Ari Fletcher) off the record and at arm’s length from this, his job. He values his privacy just as much as he appreciates his stardom in the vehicle that allows him to provide for his family. It’s the sort of boundary-setting that you can’t help but respect; if it helps keep him sane in this crazy business – especially amid all the personal turmoil he’s suffered the past few years, you actually want him to have those firm walls. After all, Biggie made “keep your family and money completely separated” one of the Ten Crack Commandments for a reason.
"I just feel like I'm true to myself,” Bagg mulls. “I'm in my own bubble. I don't really get caught up in too much stuff, bro. I don't really get caught up in no industry. Every day I have nothing but real people around me that go through real stuff, that real-life stuff. I don't know nothing gimmick, no fake... I don't surround myself with that. I don't hang with other rappers. I mean, if they like me, I probably would. But when I get in the room and if I read the room and it ain't what I'm used to or I'm not comfortable, I ain't rocking with it, basically.”
That’s the strategy with which he’s approached building his own label, Bread Gang, which is made up of rappers in Moneybagg’s personal circle. He calls himself “picky,” saying he hand-selected the roster – Big30, Big Homiie G, Finesse2Tymes, Tripstar, and recent addition YTB Fatt – because he believes in them, the way Yo Gotti believed in him. Already, that faith is beginning to pay off; Big30 has carved out a significant fanbase while Finesse2Tymes has been receiving an invigorating boost of attention early on in 2023. The label – which was officially launched in February at an exclusive Hollywood party – is Moneybagg’s way of extending to others the same chances that were given to him.
It’s also just one of a few endeavors he’s pursuing – but true to character, he’s playing those cards close to his vest. He will say this: he’s “praying on the album, that it just be real successful. Just a whole lot of things, just straightenin’ up my life. And a lot of just other things I ain't going to speak on in this interview, but just a lot of praying and just a lot of staying focused, disciplined, and getting better with everything I'm doing.” He’s still chasing the dream… the money is already in the bag.
I just feel like I'm true to myself
In addition to video games and sneakers, Wale’s other big preoccupation is with wrestling. The appeal is obvious; in the same way rappers create characters for themselves, overcoming financial and structural obstacles, wrestlers do the same thing with physical ones. They can both become larger-than-life, exaggerating characteristics, creating their own narrative, and redefining themselves in the public eye. However, this wasn’t always the case. At one point, Wale was really the only rapper making himself such a visible fan of the sport. Just like with sneakers and livestreaming — that’s right, Wale was livestreaming himself on the now-defunct UStream, years before Instagram and TikTok allowed similar functionality to connect artists with fans — he was just a little bit ahead of his time.
“You know, now there is a little slight shift in wrestling,” he muses. “You got to look at guys like myself and Westside Gunn, Smoke DZA, Flatbush Zombies, we've been a part of that culture for a long time. And Black journalists too, Black writers are talking more about it and uplifting our Black wrestlers. And this is a special time in that culture. The conversations are happening. I work closely with Neil Lawi at the WWE, and I talked to Triple H last week on text. So there's definitely... It's an interesting time for wrestling. You got the R&C podcast, you got the WrassleRap [social media movement], you got Kaz[eem Famuyide] doing it so crazy... Media uplifting the culture, you got Westside Gunn on the crazy run right now, uplifting the culture. So we love where it's at right now. We love where it's going.”
Again, it feels like Wale’s interests parallel his real-life trajectory as an entertainer. He’s always on the ball before anyone else — but he rarely remains there alone for long. It just takes others a while to catch on. On being one of the first highly visible artists bigging up Nigeria before the Afrobeats genre broke stateside, he says, “It's one of them things that I feel like I knew was inevitable and it's not going to stop anytime soon. So I'm proud of all my guys and girls. I'm just grateful that I can be somebody seen as part of that culture.” Isn’t he being too humble? “Nah. I've been valid. My thing is if you know, you know. So I'm not overly concerned with that. Everybody know what I do and what I've did. And if they don't, Google is free.”
He takes the same attitude toward the world’s skeptical view of go-go, which still threads through his music like the ever-critical stitching holding together his favorite Nikes. “Go-go is a genre where you got to experience that shit live to all the way, get it for real,” he says. “After you experienced it live, you have a different appreciation for it. This is what I assumed because I think I was maybe 13 years old when I realized go-go was only local. I thought everybody back then knew what go-go was. When I was a kid, I thought everybody in the whole world knew who those people was. Now that I've learned so much about the actual music and instruments and mixing and culture from all over the world, I can understand why we never really made that leap after [Junkyard Band’s] “Sardines” and [E.U’s] “Doin’ Da Butt.”
stylist: Sam Woolf
Production Assistant: Li Liu
Photographer: Peter Donaghy
You can't give everybody all of you.
I don't take it for granted.
I'm in my own bubble.
That discipline paid off as he garnered not just one or two, but three ubiquitous viral hits since 2020. The first, "Me Vs Me" from his 2020 album Time Served, is still his most viewed video on YouTube, something he attributes to its relatability. “It's real, it's raw,” he explains. “It was during COVID. I was just back in that mode like, man, you know what? I'm fixing to go back to just me, like the raw stage of Bagg. I'm going to just do me, I'm not going to do no industry stuff. I'm not going to try to make no hits and all that different type of stuff.”
It turns out that might just be a winning strategy for him; his next two massive singles grew less from trying to get a hit than turning his day-to-day conversations into song ideals. Between albums, he teamed up with another fellow Memphian and member of CMG, Blac Youngsta, for a joint mixtape called Code Red. There lives the snarky, dismissive single “Said Sum,” which became renowned as much for being a meme as a song. “I thought a broke n**** said sum,” he intones sarcastically on the hook. The internet latched onto the phrase as the ultimate show of brushing off the haters – something everyone feels the need to do from time to time.
But when you do need to address them – when you’ve got “Time Today,” if you will – Moneybagg’s got a song for that, too. This time, he reverse-engineered the hit from an existing meme that fascinated social media users. In a viral video, a young man who identifies as a Crip – despite being whiter
than an espresso-less vanilla latte – warns another man, “Today, I got time,
cuz.” This is made in response to perceived disrespect after noting he’d previously let him slide. Moneybagg’s single borrows the same magnanimous swagger; in a particularly fitting touch of irony, the video for the single went viral as Bagg cheekily acknowledged another meme in which fans noted his resemblance to actor Reggie Hayes, who portrayed the character William on the beloved UPN sitcom Girlfriends, which the video reproduces.
I'm in my
i just feel
like i'm true
i don't take
it for granted
I knoe prople
what i went
all of you.
APRIL 19, 2023
BY: AARON WILLIAMS
Analog Video Tech: Berk Visual
Analog Video Assistant: Brittany Sabra
DESIGNED BY: DAISY JAMES
Photographer: Peter Donaghy
WRITER: Aaron Williams
look 1 - Pants and Jacket: KidSuper, Shoes: Valentino, Sunglasses: Gucci, Jewelry: Personal of Moneybagg Yo
Look 2 - Shirt: Issey Miyake, Pants: Y Project, Shoes: Prada, Jewelry: Personal of Moneybagg Yo
Look 3 -Shirt: Prada, Suit and Pants: YSL, Jewelry: Personal of Moneybagg Yo