Young M.A is eating lo mein for breakfast off a plate the size of a steering wheel. She got home around 5 a.m. from an epic night that began with Power 105.1's annual Powerhouse concert at the Barclays Center, where she performed twice as a part of an A-list lineup that included Usher, Wiz Khalifa, Fat Joe, Remy Ma, and Desiigner. Afterwards, at New York City night spot Lavo, she did another show-and then yet another, at the strip club Lust. That's where she ended the night with a money carpet-when you drop enough cash to cover the floor-caught on Instagram story for her one million followers.
Only then did she head back to Brooklyn to get some rest before our 11 a.m. spa appointment. Many celebrities would send a "sorry can't make it" text or willfully sleep in. But Young M.A. shows-on time to the minute, too.
"Shout out to Keys because she made sure I was up," says the 24-year-old rapper. She's referring to her best friend and "road dog," who accompanies her to the interview. The plan was to hang out at Spa Castle in Queens, a place where cell phones are not welcome-because well, nudity-but that doesn't stop two young female fans in bathrobes from interrupting breakfast for a selfie. The recognition thing happens enough times that day that I stop counting.
Young M.A can no longer go unnoticed. She first blew up in 2014 when her "Brooklyn (Chiraq Freestyle)" went viral, and her gritty, gun-slinging bars on "Brooklyn" caught the attention of countless people on the Internet. Among them was Dr. Boyce Watkins, who took her to task for celebrating gun violence and perpetuating hip hop stereotypes. But the social commentator's public critique only generated new buzz for the relatively unknown rapper, and even Watkins couldn't deny her talent. One of his YouTube rants ends with this condescending endorsement: "Her being a woman actually causes me to want her to succeed that much more."
About the "woman" thing. Conventional labels frustrate Young M.A, who's tired of being filed under Female Rapper. "A lot of people look at me like, 'Yo, you're dope-I don't even look at you as a female or gay rapper'," she says. "I just see you as a dope artist in general.'"
"A lot of people look at me like, 'Yo, you're dope-I don't even look at you as a female or gay rapper."
Even if you don't know Young M.A by name, you've heard the addictive single she dropped earlier this year. The video for "Ooouuu" has earned over 81 million views on YouTube. Celebrities are obsessed, too: Beyoncé did an "It's my birthday!" Instagram dance to the song for her 88 million followers; 50 Cent, Remy Ma, Nicki Minaj, The Game, French Montana, and Meek Mill have all freestyled on the track. Serena Williams told Beats 1 Radio that she heard "Ooouuu" for the first time at the Rio Olympics: "I'm like, 'What's that? That sounds like that's right up my alley!' And it's kind of fun to say, too. 'Ooouuu.'"
"So many people want to collab," Young M.A. tells me. We're chilling side-by-side in reflexology chairs. "If I wanted to, I could really do so many features and be a millionaire. But I feel like it has to be right." A few weeks after we meet, one such partnership comes to fruition. She joins Alicia Keys on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon to debut a remix of "Blended Family" off of Keys' new album Here.
The Brooklyn rapper, who grew up listening to 50 Cent, Jay Z, and Dipset, is an unlikely Drake fan, but, "I always liked Drake," she tells me. "People don't understand music. It's not about him being–I guess people feel he's corny-his music is dope. You can't deny that, and he's still making himself relevant," she explains. "Drake's been out for a little while now, and he still knows how to sound like Drake, but evolve it a little bit where it's a different sound but it's still his sound, because nobody else sounds like him. He's just living his life; he's rich. I'd be corny too if I was living like that."
Spa Castle's main concourse is an airport-terminal-cum-bathhouse with an all-day buffet (hence the morning lo mein), a juice bar, a rainbow-bright color therapy room, and-best of all-Sauna Valley, a village of choose-your-own-temperature huts that promise all kinds of bodily benefits.
This time last year, Young M.A was in the studio and doing radio-"I definitely wasn't getting my feet rubbed," she says, during reflexology. Her rapid ascent from viral sensation to full-blown star is not unheard of. In late 2015 Brooklyn rapper Desiigner experienced a similar trajectory with "Panda", resulting in comparable recognition. It just takes one hit-sometimes one hook-and millions of clicks, before record deal offers roll in.
But Young M.A is wary of signing on the dotted line just yet. Over the summer, she met with a slew of major league record labels-RCA, Atlantic, Universal Republic, 300, Def Jam, Epic- all eager to negotiate deals. "But nobody really said anything that we weren't already doing, so I definitely gotta big-up my team"-3D Marketing & Distribution founded by Noah Friedman and Dru Ha of Duck Down Records-"because they've put me in so many great positions, independently."
Great position: Last month Young M.A. appeared in a Beats by Dre ad with Nicki Minaj, Amber Rose, DJ Khaled, Eddie Huang, and Pharrell. Each star gets a solo vignette: Young M.A moves through scenery that looks like a New York City alley and checks out a girl in jumpsuit and Jordans. She cocks her head to catch a glimpse from behind, and with an "ooouuu" she approves. The rapper even offered casting advice for her scene. "I was like, 'if you're gonna have girls, make sure they're girls that I'm really into in real life,'" she says. "And [the producers] did it."
I was like, 'if you're gonna have girls, make sure they're girls that I'm really into in real life,' and they did it.
Seemingly great position: Last year Young M.A was approached about a spot on Empire. "At first I was excited," she says. "But I had to really think about it and just really be like, is this a good opportunity?" The character Freda Gatz, a lip-gloss-wearing Brooklyn rapper, is for all intents and purposes a shiny Hollywood rendering of Young M.A. In the end, she decided to pass on being known "as this character on Empire, and not Young M.A from Brooklyn."
The real Young M.A doesn't do makeup, even on camera. In the throwback childhood photo she chose to be her first-ever Instagram post, she wears a full football uniform and a giant smile. "Sometimes I question why I was born this way. I never wanted to wear skirts or shoes, makeup, nails, dresses, or even wear my hair a certain way," the caption reads. "I always wanted to wear sneakers, stud earrings, hair in a ponytail, and play with the boys. I never wanted to be a cheerleader, I wanted to play football. I always wanted to be the boy doll. I never understood it until I got older and realized this is just who I was meant to be and I am proud of who I am."
I always wanted to wear sneakers, stud earrings, hair in a ponytail, and play with the boys.
Her brother, Young M.A says, is the reason she gravitated towards sports from an early age. In 2009, she got a call from her great-grandmother that changed her life. "You know you're not supposed to say bad news over the phone-so she was like, 'Come home. Come home.' She told me my older brother had been killed." When Young M.A mentions her brother, she does a sign of the cross, looks up to the ceiling, and pauses: Rest in peace. Despite a conviction, the specifics of his murder are still unclear: "Somebody took his life and it was so random; it was so out of the blue," she says. "Only God knows, so I'm just trying to deal with it."
Young M.A unravels her loss on "Through the Day," off her 2015 mixtape SleepWalkin. "It really hurt me when they killed my brother/He was only twenty when they took his life from him/I was seventeen, I was happy with a dream/But when he died I realized life ain't really what it seems." Music is both a gift and a coping mechanism that she credits with saving her "from being out in the streets […] getting me into a lot of trouble, or a worse situation like my brother."
Could a younger Young M.A have predicted the life she's living now? Possibly. "I was like nine, 10 years old writing songs, and I thought I was the best. But people also used to say it in the neighborhood," she adds. "I never had no doubt in my music." Being on stage, she tells me, is the best part-"something I always dreamed of, being in front of thousands of people and performing."
It's late afternoon, and our day at Spa Castle is drawing to a close. After reflexology, Young M.A and Keys stay for massages–a brief intermission from their tour schedule. That night they'll drive to Philadelphia for round two of Powerhouse. After that it's Miami, then back to New York City. On our way out, a mother spots Young M.A and asks her to autograph a napkin: "You're my son's favorite rapper!" She obliges.
"I know my life is changing," she tells me. "Because it is."
Young M.A. is headed home to Brooklyn, where her family lives. "I plan on moving, but I'm a real homebody. I like to feel like things are still kind of the same, you know what I mean? I don't wanna get to that point where I feel like-I don't wanna feel like it's not my comfortable zone. It keeps me grateful just to be home and not forgetting where I came from." The rap game's hottest star smiles. "I know eventually I'll own two houses everywhere, but right now I'm just still comfortable and humble. I like being humble."
Photography by Ben Ritter
Styling by Shiona Turini
Jewelry worn throughout courtesy of Rafaello & Co
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