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Moneybagg Yo Went Through Hell to Get Back in the Studio

Photo: Ivan Apfel/Getty Images

Until recently, Moneybagg Yo was one of the most frequent presences in hip-hop, his bursts of confessional club rap meted out at reliable intervals. The South Memphis native has a family connection to the city’s most famous group (Three 6 Mafia’s Crunchy Black is his cousin) but his approach is decidedly modern, blurring the lines between the openly emotive, melodic rap emanating from Atlanta and propulsive, drum-led tracks that recall the genre’s roots in dance music. The titles of his songs and albums (Heartless, “Thug Cry,” A Gangsta’s Pain) always seemed to underline the first half of that equation, while the cadence of their release mirrored the latter.

But after 2021’s A Gangsta’s Pain, Bagg slowed down, a break he partially explained last month when he announced a new record, Hard to Love. The project is one of a pair he finished during an interregnum marked by the deaths and incarceration of friends and another, unspecified “tragedy that would affect my kids and me forever.” The since-deleted Instagram post was captioned with a long, deeply personal message to his fans. “When I came up with the title Hard 2 Love I was referring to myself,” he wrote, “but when I started working more on the project, I realized that it’s more than me being hard to love. It’s hard to love people because a lot of them don’t have good intentions.”

Bagg has called Hard to Love a mixtape in contrast with a forthcoming album. This has less to do with how much he’s prioritized this first batch of material than how close it cuts to the bone. “This is to my core fans,” he says. “Some of my new base are going to say, ‘We want “Said Sum”; we want “Wockesha.”’ I ain’t got none of that on here.” In its place are records like opener “They Say,” where a litany of unflattering rumors about Bagg give way to his response, delivered in an unconventional syncopation over a breakneck, nearly gothic beat.

The 31-year-old rapper spoke to Vulture about returning to the booth and the pressure to consistently reveal his darkest experiences on record.

You begin Hard to Love with a flood of things that people say about you — online, in person, behind your back. Are those all external annoyances, or are they voices you hear in your own head?
They’re just comments — stuff that I see online, or what my cousin keeps hearing in the streets. With me moving around, I’ll always have people be like, “You know what somebody said?”

In the letter you wrote announcing the record, you said music was “a safe outlet for all the emotions and dark thoughts.” But when you release something, I imagine those same people start talking again. Does that ever kill your enthusiasm to drop new music?
Not really; that’s motivating. It motivates me. When I was going through that situation over the past two years, I just laid down for a minute. I wasn’t doing nothing — I went into a crazy place, a dark place. But then I just shook back and started working through that process, doing little songs, and they came together.

Well, this is the largest gap between releases since your career really took off, and I was going to ask if you had a time when you weren’t writing or recording at all. What’s the longest break you took without getting in the booth?
Probably like a month or two. It took me a minute to shake back. I slowly, gradually, got back into it.

When you did get back into it, after that period of loss and grief, did the process feel different — was it harder to write? Easier because it wanted to flow out of you?
I just felt like I had to do it for the people who are no longer with me. That’s what they would’ve wanted me to do, so I had to go hard. And I built up the motivation to do it by looking at my kids, looking at a lot of things. My life had to still go on: That’s the hardest thing — we don’t want to accept that. When something happens in your life, you have to still go on, no matter what.

That’s something else you wrote about in that letter. Your music then and now can get very personal. Do you ever feel pressure to keep topping yourself in that sense, to get more and more revealing? That must be draining.
I let listeners know certain things. With the interviews and everything that I’m doing now — I ain’t finna make it no habit. I’m really very selective with these things. I speak on stuff I feel like needs to be spoken on. I feel like my fans, my core fans, needed a reason: “Why it took you so long? Why?” So I had to let them know.

You also wrote that “DeMario is the one who all the shit happened to, but nobody understands I gotta wake up and be Bagg every single day to provide for my family.” Can you feel yourself going from one mode to the other? Do you leave a show, leave the studio, get home and say, “Okay, I’m hanging up Bagg for the day; I’m not that guy tonight”?
I don’t ever do that — I don’t ever turn it off and turn on. I’m always who I am, but I be trying to balance them both because there’s no way possible to turn something off, especially when you’re hot, if you have a real emotion. Even when I’m with my kids, I’m getting calls about the business. The music, my career, it don’t matter. You just gotta figure out how you balance.

You grew up in South Memphis, and you have the family connection to Three 6. What was your experience like in the city?
It was kind of typical: Growing up in treacherous neighborhoods, my role models was dope boys and people that was in the streets. I wanted to get money and hustle like them, which I began to do. But then I just developed a passion for music, and in the process I found out it was legal to get that type of money.

And when you started making music, were you taking cues primarily from Memphis artists or looking outside?
Both — making noise in my city and everywhere.

A lot of rappers will make songs in a handful of different modes: These are my street joints, these are what I want played in the club. You’ve always been unique in that you can be vulnerable on up-tempo songs with these big drums. How did you develop that sort of hybrid approach? 
You gotta understand your lane, how you’re trying to get your point across. You gotta know who you is and where you’re going — what’s your end goal? Mine is I’m trying to cover all bases. When you play me, I want you to be able to get through anything you’re going through. You’re not playing this song and then changing it and hear [a different version of] the same song, changing it again and hearing something similar again. No. I want it to be to the point where it’s like, “Okay, he got a song where he’s gonna get me what I’m going through with my girl; he got a song where he gonna help me overcome the struggle.” Dealing with kids, being an entrepreneur. All bases.

Who’s a rapper whose catalogue gives you that as a listener? 
I listen to old Boosie — that’s my motivation for the struggle. Boosie and Yo Gotti, stuff like that. Beyond that, Drake does a great job being all over the place, talking about different scenarios and letting people in. Him and Future, they’re real vulnerable in their music.

You have Future on this record along with a number of other MCs, including Lil Durk and GloRilla. You’ve always been a really prolific collaborator, whether with one-off songs or over a whole tape with Blac Youngsta. Tell me about your approach to collaboration: Do you like to send an idea to someone and see where they go with it, or do you like to manage the process more closely from beginning to end? 
A lot of times, the artists I work with like to just rap. They rap all the way through the beat, and I structure it. The song will never come out how we initially cut it. I make sure this is the best way possible that we can structure this song. It’ll be like that 90 percent of the time — except for the feature with J. Cole, who’s in the studio together with me. But other than that, me and Future and Thug and Lil Durk and Lil Baby, we’ve all been in the studio on these songs, but it don’t ever come out exactly how we do it. I structure it to try to get the best response. “Time Today” was one of my biggest songs, and that song was probably on two or three beats before that beat, and it was like, structurally, totally different. You can be hard, the lyrics can be hard, but if it don’t feel right, you will always run into a problem when you got somebody saying something like, “Oh, he could have done this, I wish he would’ve put this part first.” So you gotta be real strategic when you’re doing stuff like this. It all depends how serious you take the craft too, though.

What let you know that it was time to come back — that the music itself was ready but also that you were ready to put yourself back out there? 
I don’t advise nobody to stay in a dark place, to have a dark cloud over them for that long. I just had to pop out. It was just time, like, “Bro, you got to wake up; you got to get up, get back, hustle. This is what you do. This is how you feed your kids, your family.” So I had just a pep talk with myself, motivated myself. I had so many songs from that period of time that I had to slice them down the middle, like you do a sandwich. This mixtape is really considered like the single to my upcoming album — when the world hears this, they’re gonna swear it is the album. I just wanna dedicate everything and put everything into the music. I’m not gonna let it drain me, like how it did within these two years. I’m just gonna keep pushing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

From the opening verse to “They Say”: “He only make music if it’s a social media trend/ Heard they ain’t did shit to the n—-s ‘posed to kill his friends” Moneybagg was born DeMario DeWayne White Jr.
Moneybagg Yo Went Through Hell to Get Back in the Studio