When NME catches up to Youngn Lipz, the elusive R&B star from South-West Sydney, his city is staying stoic through its hardest lockdown in the pandemic yet. But nothing, not even the virulent Delta variant, can halt the roll-out of ‘Area Baby’, the singer’s debut album. “It’s going all right,” the man most call YL says breezily over Zoom. “It’s a bit of a hassle, but we’ll make sure we can get through, you know. We’re still moving, man.” For the down-to-earth YL, gracing the NME cover is surreal. “I used to mock shit like that!” But now that he has a “message”, YL welcomes the visibility.
YL commands an underground mystique that would even impress Kerser, the Campbelltown gutter rap pioneer notorious for zealously guarding his privacy. The 22-year-old shields his birth name and coyly deflects when asked where he’s living presently: “I’m everywhere, I’m everywhere, I’m everywhere.” YL says he isn’t intentionally cultivating a persona: he’s just “shy”. But, as he contemplates the empowering potential of his ascent and self-growth, words spill out. He is warm and mirthful, habitually repeating phrases like song refrains. Endearingly, he apologises for swearing with a series of bashful “sorry”s. YL exhibits zero pretence.
Amid the pandemic, the New South Wales state government has been criticised for targeting marginalised ethnic communities in Sydney’s South-Western suburbs such as Fairfield with harsh restrictions and heightened police presence. On ‘Area Baby’, YL shows a different side of the West: its strong sense of community, and burgeoning creativity and entrepreneurialism as a cultural hotspot.
YL has Samoan heritage and was brought up in Cabramatta, the working-class suburb known affectionately as Cabra. Home to successive generations of new migrants, notably Vietnamese, Cabramatta is often subjected to postcode prejudice arising from a historic association with disadvantage and crime. A loud and proud ‘Area Baby’, YL values his roots. “I wear that on my chest and that’s to the grave,” he says. “I’m very proud of where I’m from and will always represent.”
Western Sydney has long been an incubator for pop, R&B and hip-hop. In 1992, the R&B/hip-hop group Sound Unlimited released an album on the major label Sony. Two years later, the Sydney-based R&B quartet Kulcha enjoyed a mega-hit in ‘Shaka Jam’, a Top 20 album, and ARIA nominations.
Today YL could be bracketed with a wave of Pacific Islander superstars from the same hub, joining the likes of Lisi and Hooligan Hefs. YL confesses to having negligible knowledge of his Australian R&B or hip-hop forebears, bar Kerser, whom he listened to in high school. “I don’t know if I’m a part of a movement as such, but I know what I’ve done and what I’m doing has made an impact on the music scene right now. But, yeah, Polys are definitely putting it on for the music here in Australia.”
As a kid, YL was sporty, playing footy and pursuing athletics generally. But he had a soundtrack, having been born into a gospel-loving family. “Music was always in the family, so it’s been there from the start,” YL relates. “During my childhood, there was a lot of old-school R&B playing.” He remembers hearing Michael Jackson and Boyz II Men, and subsequently discovered acts on the trap and drill tip, citing the US artists Future, Roddy Ricch, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, and Lil Durk, in addition to that ‘rappa ternt sanga’ T-Pain.
“There was a lot going on back home so I could relate to everything that they were talking about and what was going on,” YL says. “It’s just the difference was my pockets are empty and theirs weren’t.” And YL realised he had it in him to follow in their footsteps. “If I’m keeping it real, I always knew I had something special deep down,” he reveals. “I’ve been freestyling since early high school, but only started writing in the last few years – around 2016, 2017.”
But, his home life fracturing, YL was drawn into the street life. “My head was all over the place,” he rues. YL’s experiences of social disadvantage and juvenile legal issues now afford his lyrics an authenticity, though he is understandably disinclined to provide details. “I’m grateful to have gone through all of that,” he reflects. “I feel like that played a massive role in my life, my music, and who I am today. Yeah, big learning lessons growing up in the area.”
At one point YL meant to visit Samoa to explore his roots. “I’m spewing, aye,” he sighs. “As I was planning to go to Samoa – like the first time I planned to go to Samoa – I copped a charge, I copped a felony, so I couldn’t go. I couldn’t leave the country. After that, I went to juvie. Then, yeah, nah, there was no going back. So they didn’t let me leave the country after that. So I’m not too sure if I can go now. Everything’s clean – nah, nah, I’m a good boy now, everything’s straight now… I need to go, man.”
YL’s professional career began serendipitously. Assuming the handle Jr Lipo, he penned 2018 drill track ‘Sacrifice’, which remains on SoundCloud. Later that year, he supplied the hook to Pistol Pete & Enzo’s ‘Mama’, generating “area fame” and further paving his journey as an R&B vocalist with a street edge.
“Polys are definitely putting it on for the music here in Australia”
The ‘youngn’ attracted the curiosity of Tom “Lowkee” Biordi, the mogul behind the Western Sydney powerhouse Biordi Music. ‘Area Baby’ is the first key release for the label, which is now partnered with Virgin Music. Speaking to NME separately, Lowkee says he recognised YL as “a natural”. While aware of ‘Mama’, he was blown away by the freestyles YL shared on Instagram. “I really heard the sauce,” Lowkee enthuses.
YL was surprised when Lowkee contacted him. “I was in the works, you know what I mean?” he says. “I wasn’t really taking music seriously. I was talking to bro, ’Kee, and then he told me to come in. We sat down and we went from there. It motivated me to want to actually do music properly. I knew if I’ve got [the attention of] someone like him, then fuck, if I kept working harder, then it’d take me other places.”
In October 2019 YL officially premiered with his summery ballad ‘Misunderstood’, produced by Sydney’s Open Till L8 (who has credits on Kerser’s LP ‘Lifestyle’ and Hooligan Hefs’ megahit ‘Send It!’). YL introduced a bespoke fusion of Pasifika rhythms, soulful R&B and bouncy hip-hop, his style closer to Bryson Tiller’s trapsoul than drill (and with little obvious Auto-Tune).
On ‘Misunderstood’, YL laments an ill-fated romance, his westside story. “I just felt like I wanted to make a song that everyone could vibe to; something that wasn’t rap, something that was different.” Certified Platinum in Australia, the single has since accrued 23 million streams on Spotify alone and won YL the 2021 APRA Award for Most Performed Hip Hop/Rap Work.
Youngn Lipz’s first body of work, ‘Area Baby’ is deeply personal. It chronicles his life and struggles as “a kid growing up in the ends”, and couldn’t have turned out any other way. “I’ll be honest, if I didn’t grow up in my area, and if I didn’t go through what I went through and grow up like I did, then I’m pretty sure I would just be singing love songs, aye,” he says. “I don’t know if I’d even be doing music. But my story wouldn’t be as interesting as it is now.”
“The thing most young people from the area need is love”
In some respects, ‘Area Baby’ is a mini ‘greatest hits to date’, encompassing the older singles ‘Misunderstood’, ‘Silent’, ‘Everyday’ and ‘Say It’. But it also demonstrates YL’s rapid progress. On the title track, YL sings fondly of how he became a man on the streets, all while acknowledging its perils. The cruisy ‘Spaceship’ is as much a self-motivational statement as a flex.
The most poignant – and pivotal – song is the tuneful ‘Broken Home’. YL delivers his rawest verses, albeit with a sense of resolution and hope for a brighter future: “I came from a broken home, a very broken home / I told my father, I told my mama I’m still pushin’ up / Please don’t get it twisted, we still got each other through the storm / Man above my witness, know the pain I’m feelin’ in the soul.” In its music video, directed by Bronson Moyle, an unsettled 10-year-old navigates domestic discord between his parents, seeking friendship and support from his community.
“I felt like the scene needed something real, something from the heart,” YL says of ‘Broken Home’. “It’s not something that everyone can relate to, but I know it’s definitely something a lot of people can. I also wanted to raise awareness, to let the youngns or anyone that’s down and out know that it is possible to overcome those situations; [it] might not be the best of times now but just not to give up.” Things are smoother-sailing for him now. “My family support everything I do, that’s a bond that can’t be broken.”
YL admits that, of all the songs on ‘Area Baby’, he is especially attached to ‘Broken Home’, along with the lilting ‘Visions’. Though he declines to go into the tale behind it, like ‘Spaceship’ it is a song about transformation and channelling energies positively. YL touches on a similar theme of gaining perspective in ‘Restart’, which, with its acoustic guitar, has a ’90s throwback vibe – very Kulcha.
‘Area Baby’ showcases YL’s unique sonic hybrid, which he’s actively trying to evolve. “As far as the sounds I’m into now, I like listening out for beats that have that new wave feel with it.” He liaises closely with music-makers, and is “very open to ideas,” suggesting that his process involves “a lot of brainstorming and co-producing”.
In fact, YL and his fold recently ran their own songwriting camp, with “no distractions, no bullshit, just music and the studio”. “I think I just heard about other people doing it all over the world. So I was saying to the team, like, ‘We’ve gotta come up with something where I can be far away from everything else and just zone in and work on my craft and everything like that.’” Their sole indulgence? A personal chef.
Lowkee divulges that after YL dropped ‘Misunderstood’, he received overtures from huge labels – including Cash Money Records and Drake’s OVO Sound. “We just had A&Rs from every label reaching out and trying to connect, trying to find out who this kid was, just trying to start a conversation.” Pre-COVID, Jeff Vaughn, the President of Capitol Records, aimed to fly to Australia, Lowkee says.
“If I didn’t grow up in my area, and if I didn’t go through what I went through… then I’m pretty sure I would just be singing love songs”
YL detaches himself from hype. “In all honesty, I don’t know too much of that,” he insists. “With me, the team knows, like, don’t tell me too much when it comes to exclusive shit like that, ’cause my head goes all over the place. The last thing I’m trying to do is lose focus.” But the industry interest was “a big energy booster” for him, YL concedes. “That let me know that where I’m at and where I’m going is on the right path.”
At any rate, YL has been sought for international collabs, highlighting the virality of Australian R&B and hip-hop in the digital era. He accompanied Brisbane’s Creed tha Kid and Day1 on an all-star Aussie remix of Bronx rapper A Boogie Wit da Hoodie’s 2019 ‘Mood Swings’. YL also blazed on a remix of S1mba’s hit ‘Rover’ alongside Hooligan Hefs and Hooks. “I think it’s just love, aye,” he says of the team-ups. “We got hit up in both situations where they asked for me to jump on the tracks and no way I was going to deny an opportunity like that.”
Boogie even invited YL to perform before him at Sydney’s FOMO festival, which the singer is still starstruck about. “He’s a vibe, man – like straight out,” he raves. “He looked like he had half a million dollars on his neck and who knows how much on his wrist, but he was very humble, very laid-back.”
Now YL has completed a trifecta of link-ups: ‘Area Baby’ serves up ‘Misunderstood Pt. 2’ featuring London rapper/singer M Huncho, “an artist that I always wanted to work with”. YL credits the Brit with inspiring ‘Misunderstood’, and speaks of his admiration for the UK scene. “People mock their sound, but their sound is crazy. It’s unique, it’s them… So that’s why I fuck with them heavy, because they’re not too caught up on sounding like everyone else… They’re making sure [of] what they got, they’re sticking to that and they’re bettering that and that’s what I’m trying to do, too.”
YL is cognisant that Sydney’s South-West is stigmatised in the mainstream media, and thinks ‘Area Baby’ could offer an alternative narrative. “I feel like the thing most young people from the area need is love,” he muses. “There isn’t much love going ’round. I feel like as soon as people hear that you’re from the South-West, or the West in general, you’re automatically a target for law enforcement. [But] just like anything else, until you seen it with your own eyes, you can’t really judge.”
YL is thrilled that his music has resonated with listeners from the area and beyond, achieving a level of universalism. “I didn’t realise how much music, or my music specifically, could impact so many people. I get messages from people around the world saying that my music has saved their lives. Some people have told me that they’ve been suicidal and my music helped them. Others have told me that they’ve made friends through my music and it even helped keep relationships together. That shit is unreal to me, but I’m glad my music can do these things without me even knowing. God is good.”
YL performed his first major gig in Sydney, supporting Melbourne drillers HP BOYZ, weeks before ‘Misunderstood’ aired. Inevitably, COVID has since constrained any live activity. Last year, YL necessarily postponed his sold-out inaugural headlining tour, finally hitting the road this past May. “The shows are crazy – the atmosphere, the people, the vibes,” he exclaims. “It’s still crazy to me that people even come out of their way to come and watch a show so, yeah, mad love to all the fans. Real talk.” An album tour is “in the works”, plus festival dates, but YL has resolved to be realistic. “COVID’s stuffing us around right now,” he groans. “We don’t wanna try and solidify something and then it’s not gonna work because of COVID and shit.”
With the release of ‘Area Baby’ on the horizon, YL is freshly focussed and ambitious to do more of everything – in time. “I just want to get better every day in all aspects – in music, business, loved ones. Bigger and better. Bigger blessings and better views.”
Youngn Lipz’s ‘Area Baby’ is out August 6 via Biordi Music
Cover lettering by Jimmy Nice