Lil Yee has been through some shit. And yet, he’s managed to come out on top, using music as a means to cope with adversity. His latest body of work, Unbreakable, is 38 minutes of unspoken truths and pain-filled melodies. The somber tones of “ChiAli” dwarf the atmospheric accompaniment of “Lie Together.” Combined, they act as two points of interest in Yee’s story, sparked by a venting of emotion that’s often personal, but necessary.
Stylistically, Yee incorporates an autobiographical approach into his compositions. His written work is shaped by the sounds of loss, with a rotating cast of players who are integral to his storied success as an artist. “I’ve lost a lot of people that I love,” he shares. And though death is the only guaranteed thing in life, that doesn’t mean that the absence of grief and indignation should be normalized: it’s okay to feel, that’s part of the human experience. But in Yee’s case, that’s part of who he is.
While creating keeps him going, and the looming thought of being vulnerable gives rise to inner peace, Yee is progressively working towards fulfilling his promise for the departed. For Cita’s son, music is “like therapy,” a safe haven where he can learn and let go, relinquishing his problems to 808s.
Nine times out of ten, if Yee talks it, he’s lived it. His words naturally fold into his introspection, retaining this confessional edge that allows him to grow through pain. By and large, these are the defining qualities of Lil Yee’s well-received essence. And despite the unimaginable, he’s prevailed through it all.
When did you first discover your love for music?
I’ve been in love with music since I was a kid. Me and all my brothers would turn on beats and freestyle and shit. I started making music in 2016 when my big cousin was in a rap group. He used to be at the house freestyling and shit and was like, ‘Man, you gotta start rapping bro. You got a talent, a gift that you can display to the world.’ And I didn’t ever take that shit serious, and then we started going to the studio I started doing songs. At the time, my big brother (Kid Red) was under Chris Brown. We would fuck around and go to Brown house, one day I had recorded a song and sent it to my brother and he was listening to it around the house. One day, Brown had posted it on Twitter, it was for “So Lost.” I hadn’t even dropped the song yet but it was on Twitter going up.
Did seeing people’s reaction to your unreleased music inspire you to take rap seriously?
I liked music a lot, and I listened to Kevin Gates a lot, too. He was a big inspiration for me when I was going through situations. Gates was one of the first people doing that pain rap, with the harmony and shit. When I started trying that shit, I realized I could do it. That shit was basically like singing. Once I started doing it a lil’ bit I just took off with it. Ion even really call it singing. I just tell mufuckas I’m rapping from the soul: shit be so deep with what I’m saying that I gotta sing it.
Your vulnerability in song offers a different perspective to the listener. How have you developed your sound over the years?
I’ve always been able to do it. It was really just my beat selection. If you listen to my old shit, my wordplay was overpowering the beat. I’ve always been that type of artist. Even when I’m working with new producers, they’d play beats and shit and I’d be like, ‘Bro, what you don’t know is that I can rap on anything.’ I’m not gon’ make it difficult for you, but I always ask producers, what do you hear on this beat? When I listen to a beat, it’s like that mufucka talking to me. It’s not really a process or anything like that. With this whole new project, it’s more of the newer beats going around: the Rod Wave, No Cap type.
Is it important to include an autobiographical approach with your delivery? You speak with introspection so effortlessly.
I mean yeah, shit, I’ve been through a lot. Niggas survived a lot of bullshit. I’ve lost a lot of people that I love. I lost a lot in this life. I’ve seen my people lose a lot. I’ve seen people go through certain situations where it’s just like, nine times out of ten, I’m speaking on it firsthand, but that tenth time, I might be speaking on it from my partners’ situation. When you come from the neighborhood, you got people who on crack, abandoning they kids – I have seen everything, bro. It’s not too much in life that I haven’t seen, as far as that perspective.
Musically, it seems like you’re pushing yourself further than ever before, especially following ChiAli’s untimely death. What keeps you motivated after everything you’ve experienced?
Music is like a fucking venting process for me, bro. It’s like therapy. At first, towards the end of 2016, December 30th, I dropped my first song. At the beginning of 2017, I got this deal with EMPIRE and in 2018 I had dropped a tape. 2019 until now, I hadn’t dropped no tape. I was in a… not a dark place but I was just doing music – and I have over 100 songs, maybe more recorded – I got to a point where I was making music for myself, know what I mean. I got so many songs, some good ass songs, that I haven’t even put out yet, bro. Some shit that the world needs to hear for sure. One of these days I’ma put all that shit together and probably make a lost tape or something. But it’s just like, doing music comes from me going through some shit. If something happen, it’s like fuck it, I’ma go to the studio and express my feelings on a beat and go about it that way. That shit was more like a venting process for me. Even if I never blow I’ma still make music. I’m still gon’ do it because it helps me.
When did you first realize that you were unbreakable?
When my uncle got murdered last year in November. My uncle, my dad’s little brother, played every role in my life: he was my big brother at times, when my dad went to the feds, he was my dad, he was my best friend. I admired him, he was the person I wanted to be like. When my uncle got murdered, that shit took a lot from a nigga. That shit had a nigga on the brink of doing some dumb shit, have a nigga throw his whole life away. But I always knew that my uncle wanted me to do some shit. He wanted me to be different so bad that he was leading the way. This nigga actually got married. We come from a family full of pimps. His dad, my granddad (Lil Butch), was a known pimp from the Bay Area. The nigga wanted to be different so bad that he went and got married. He broke our family curse. He was buying property, on some, ‘Let’s do everything that they didn’t do for us so when our kids get to be y’all age, it’ll be inevitable for what they have to do.’ We was coming up tryna buy a foreign car and a Rolex. That was our goal in life. That was in 2020. And then, my best friend, my blood cousin (Lil Haiti) got killed in September of this year. That shit was a different type of pain because this firsthand: me and this nigga peed in the same bed together. It was that type of shit.
How do you identify with pain?
I lost my mom when I was 18, she died from cancer. She died in the house that we lived in. Everyday I would walk in the room and I couldn’t do anything to help her. I couldn’t rob a bank for a million dollars to bring her back, so a nigga just sitting right there with that shit on his conscious. I cried countless nights until I couldn’t cry no more. The only thing I could do was keep it lit and take care of my sisters. I had a full plate at 18: I had to take care of my brothers and sisters, pay rent (while my dad was in the feds). I weathered a storm way heavier than the shit I’m going through now. All the shit I went through prepared me for everything. Niggas started looking death like it’s the only thing guaranteed in life, so why would I let it break me? If I’m sitting around moping about all that shit, what I’ma do in life? I used it as a motivating key in my life.
Have you always had a strong support system?
I mean, yeah, everybody support a nigga but it’s like, that shit be a gift and a curse: mufuckas supporting you until shit don’t go their way. And then a mufucka will act like you never did anything for ‘em.
But how do you separate real love from fake?
If you still around, I know your love real. If I never have to question what we’ve been through, I know that shit real. I let a mufucka do some foul shit and kick himself out. You cross game and do some shit. I ain’t gon’ do nothing to you, you my family and I love you, but I’m not gonna fuck with you. I don’t need to create problems with my family, I got enough problems with people in the world: it’s a lot of niggas that don’t like me or my cousin. My cousin stirred up a lot of shit in this world. When I be saying ‘free the home team,’ that supporting cast, my hood got indicted in 2011, 2012. I got a lot of big cousins that’s in the feds and shit, doing years. There’s good and bad to everything. Life is a two-way street so you can’t overwhelm your mind with the negative shit.
With Unbreakable, talk to me about the process behind selecting your featured verses. It’s funny that you mention “Free the Home Team” because that’s actually one of my favorite songs off of the project.
The funny shit about that, Pete my blood cousin, we got the same last name, bro. We got the same granddaddy (laughs). The only one that I been wanting to tap in with is the PnB record (“Need You”). Pete my cousin, Bean my lil’ bro: Bean used to play for my dad’s hoop team back in the day – I got major love for that lil’ nigga. Me, Bean, Pete, we all family. The Babyface Ray record, that’s bro, that’s my nigga, too. I fuck with Runtz, so a lot of people know me from that shit. A lot of people don’t even know I’ma rapper.
How is the music scene in the Bay Area? I’m hearing that it’s relatively difficult to break ground as a new artist on the West Coast.
In the Bay, there’s a lot of politics, bro. Niggas from smaller cities in the Bay will blow up before our bigger city niggas because of the politics. Oakland, San Francisco, them type of niggas, it ain’t really no nigga cracking. But it’ll be niggas that’s not from the Bay, like in Stockton or Sacramento – but even in Sac, though, there’s a lot of politics. Shit, politics is everywhere forreal. If you from the Bay, you got people that grew up in Northern California that wanna be from the Bay. The Bay is the place to be from in Northern California. It’s a big influence. The rap game in the Bay ain’t necessarily watered down but a lot of that shit is politics. Right now, that drill rap and talking shit about your opps, that’s the hottest shit going right now.
Can you bypass the street politics, though, or is that like a rite of passage?
It’s been blood shed behind a lot of shit, bro. It’s hard to bypass any situation. I’m the type of nigga that will do a song with a nigga and if he go do a song with my opps, I’m not gon’ bash ‘em about it because you not my nigga, we met on some music shit. But now, if we rocking and you in the streets with me on some shit, and then you like fuck it, I’ma do a song with you ‘cause we been thuggin’ the last year and a half, now your music career taking off and you doing songs with niggas Ion fuck with, then that’s when it’s gon’ be a problem. Some niggas get that rapper pass, though. Nine times out of ten, being a rapper is one of the most dangerous jobs right now. A nigga will kill you just because you’re a rapper.