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A Trip Home With Moneybagg Yo, Trap’s New Ambassador

MEMPHIS — Moneybagg Yo — Bagg to his friends — doesn’t get back to his Memphis hometown as much as he’d like anymore, so when he returned one Friday in July, he was primed for the occasion. His top, shorts and sneakers: Louis Vuitton. His chains and earrings: weighty and bright. His nails: freshly buffed to a shine. His Cadillac Escalade: bulletproof.

He had arrived for an appearance at the eighth annual Birthday Bash, a concert organized by the Memphis rap stalwart Yo Gotti. “I feel like Michael Jackson at home,” Bagg said of the performance at FedExForum, home of the Memphis Grizzlies. “This is who created you.”

Over the past few years, Bagg — born DeMario DeWayne White Jr. — has been steadily reaching audiences well beyond his home city. His last album, “A Gangsta’s Pain” from 2021, opened at the top of the Billboard album chart, his first No. 1, following two debuts in the Top 5. He placed five consecutive singles in the Top 20 of the Billboard rap chart, two of which, “Said Sum” and “Wockesha,” became pop hits, reaching the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100.

He’s a sneakily lyrical rapper — bursting with pugnacious talk but also wry. His flow is syrupy, often swallowing syllables but not the vérité imagery and frisky, conversational tone that make some of his best lyrics sound like direct, mettle-testing addresses. “Wockesha,” a 2021 track that samples DeBarge’s “Stay With Me” (à la the Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance”), showed that Bagg could record songs that leaned more melodic and tender, broadening his appeal.

“I’m glad ‘Wockesha’ took off and did what it did ’cause now people accept me in that melodic vibe,” he said. “Bagg can do that now, we don’t look at him crazy.”

This fall, he’ll release his fifth studio album. Even though he primarily lives in Atlanta now, the day’s itinerary encapsulated how deep his hometown roots still run. “I’m still most definitely connected around here,” he said. “When I’m not at home, I’m at home.” His first stop was the nail salon, the next an overgrown 28.8-acre plot of land bought for him last year as a 30th birthday gift by his girlfriend, Ari Fletcher, a social media influencer. Driving alongside the property, he laughed as he pointed out the property’s boundaries: “Still going. Still going. Still going! Still going!”

Eventually, he wants to host a community center, dirt bike paths, a paintball course and more there: “This for my neighborhood,” he said. After a brief meeting with a contractor to discuss the costs for the first wave of beautification, he headed to the nearby Walker Homes neighborhood in South Memphis, where he grew up, to pick up his 4-year-old son, Mari — one of his eight children — who was dressed for a day with dad in an all-white Polo outfit.

“I just started being able to make my kids’ birthdays,” Bagg said of the long, unforgiving road he faced early in his career. “Until three years ago, I sacrificed me some birthdays, holidays, football games, doughnuts with dad. Now the world know me and the money gonna come, but I was trying to get the money and provide for them the whole time. There’s no excuse now.”

Bagg has been releasing music for a decade — first, mixtapes that gained him renown locally, then beginning with “Federal” in 2015, ones that garnered much wider attention. His first major label album came in 2018. (His music is released by Interscope in partnership with Yo Gotti’s CMG Records and N-Less Entertainment.)

When he began having broader success, Bagg said he was surprised to learn that many established stars, like Future, were longtime fans: “A lot of people was really riding, listening to my music, that you wouldn’t expect.” Pharrell produced a track on “A Gangsta’s Pain.” Bagg formed a strong bond with the rapper Kevin Gates, who facilitated his conversion to Islam in 2018; he travels with an $8,000 prayer mat, a gift from Gates.

Now more than ever, regionally specific rap can make it to the top of the charts in relatively unvarnished form, and Bagg’s wins have largely been on his own terms. Even though he’s beginning to collaborate more widely, he still prefers working with his own set of producers rather than those who are better-known.

Since Bagg has grown into the biggest rap star to emerge from Memphis in a generation, he needs to be mindful, even at home. Throughout the day, he was accompanied by two oversized security guards with evident military training.

“They had to get me to understand it, like, bruh, you need that, that’s what make you a superstar,” Bagg said. “It don’t just come with you being scared, it comes with you moving smart.”

He’d just arrived at the Crystal Palace, a skating rink where a teenage Bagg and friends would while away weekend nights. The rink has been closed for years, but Bagg has been in contact with city officials about the possibility of revitalizing it. In the parking lot, Bagg asked his driver to turn the SUV so he could keep an eye on the street.

“I’m so comfortable, I could be in house shoes right now,” he said, almost giggling.

Minutes later, he headed to “the red store,” a bare-bones convenience store that’s the only retail establishment for blocks in the middle of streets dotted with rundown homes. “We gambled right there,” he said, pointing to a house up the block, then leaned in and whispered with a quick laugh, “I was selling dope right here.” He has a picture of the store tattooed on him.

He stepped into the building, greeting employees and fans and telling an associate to buy out all the Rap Snacks chips in his signature flavors (Heat vs. Hot and Dill Pickle Jalapeño), then peeled off a few $100 bills to give to the store’s owner.

Bagg’s next stop was intensely personal: visiting, for the first time, the grave of a longtime friend, Nuskie, who was killed in January at age 24. “I really ain’t snapped back,” Bagg said of wrestling with the tragedy. “I’m just dealing with it better now.”

He sat down to roll a blunt from a pouch of weed, and thought about his trajectory. “Every time I ever dropped a project, something always happen before I ever elevate, like a hardship,” he said, adding that he planned to name his plot of land after Nuskie. Then, for the only time all day, he was silent.

The show beckoned, though. By now, he was traveling with a full caravan of cars filled with old friends. They stopped at the Superior Shop, a clothing store where Bagg dropped off some Louis Vuitton pants to be tailored, and met up with the rapper EST Gee, a label mate and friend also in town for the concert.

Once the store became claustrophobically crowded, with well over 100 people filling the room, he headed to Straight Drop, a seafood restaurant in North Memphis. The building’s lobby was filled with pallets of bottles of Vior, an alkaline water Bagg is an investor in. (“It’s every day, it’s clean.”) While waiting for the catering-size platters of fish and shrimp to come out, he and EST Gee filmed some footage for a video for a new song, “Strong,” in the parking lot.

Earlier in July, he had performed to tens of thousands of people at London’s Wireless Festival, his first international show, but here he was, a platinum rapper back on his home turf, continuing to do things the old-fashioned way. He said his recent string of successes only emboldened him to double down on the specificity of his sound. The new album, he said, would be a turn back toward the energy of his “Federal” era. He recently put his permanent flawless diamond teeth back in.

“Trap taking over the world now,” he said. “It ain’t limited no more.”

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