Label: Def Jam
Released: March 18

At this time last year, YG was struggling to get anyone excited about his debut album. A former teen rapper from L.A.’s jerkin’ scene who blew up on MySpace, he was picked up by Def Jam in 2009 and quickly scored the minor hit “Toot It & Boot It.” But by early 2013, his major-label debut seemed doomed, already three-plus years in the making with no sign of release. And yet somehow, here we are: YG has made the undisputed best album of the first half of 2014; a modern gangsta rap classic.

Released during the first week of spring, My Krazy Life felt like a gust of fresh air. It’s a loose concept album that follows a day in the life of YG as he navigates the highs and lows of his Compton—excuse me, Bompton—experience. He opens the album by narrating his initiation into the Tree Top Pirus on “BPT,” a scene where he was forced to fight back after getting jumped by four gang members: “'Hamad threw a right—duck—hit him with the left—bop-bop!/Two to the chin—bop!—one to the chest/One to the ribs, the haymaker didn't connect/Dropped him but didn't stomp him ’cause that's disrespect.” From there, he’s off.

YG isn’t the most flowery MC, but he’s got a dark sense of humor, an audacious attitude, and an eye for detail that make him an engaging rapper. For example, on the step-by-step home invasion lesson “Meet the Flockers,” he advises the listener/robber-in-training to “find a Chinese neighborhood, ’cause they don’t believe in bank accounts.” And while he mentions that his own “Bank of America account got six figures” (on the Drake duet “Who Do You Love?”), YG generally avoids grandiose boasting about wealth, focusing instead on the struggle and life’s simple pleasures. He’s even working the angles on his strip club anthem “Left, Right,” where he jokes, “I ain't trippin' baby girl, make that money!/Cause if I fuck her right, she just might give some to me!”

Speaking of women, YG spends much of the album reflecting on his relationships with them—mostly sexual, but sometimes emotional. On the gleeful sex jingle “Do It to Ya,” he seduces a lady by promising cunnilingus and reminding her, “I ain't the one you ask to buy you a purse/I'm the one to make your insides hurt.” Ouch. Things get more serious on “Me & My Bitch.” When his girl gets pregnant by another man, YG can’t hide his heartbreak: “She text me like ‘I love you’/I text her back like ‘fuck you.’”

But the most important woman in YG’s life—his mother—gives My Krazy Life its moral center and narrative arc. The album opens with her warning her son that he’s going to end up in jail like his “damn daddy,” and sure enough, he proves her right by the end. The pressures of life start building throughout the second half of the album, as heard on the stressful Kendrick Lamar duet “Really Be (Smokin’ & Drinkin’),” where YG worries, “My moms don't got a job, my pop's checks ain't enough/If ain't bringin' home that money, my whole family is fucked.” On the next song, “1 AM,” he gets caught by the cops while robbing a donut store, then his friends call his mom on “Thank God” to break the bad news. On album’s soulful, saxophone-laced closer, “Sorry Momma,” YG sounds sincerely embarrassed: “I'm sorry momma, I know I ain't shit/I know I lied a lot, I know I ain't slick.”

Storytelling aside, the thing about My Krazy Life that stands out the most is its nearly perfect production. YG’s longtime partner DJ Mustard became the hottest producer in black music some time last year, and he uses this project to prove that his “ratchet” sound—a fresh mix of retro West Coast genres like mob music, hyphy, and g-funk—can form the foundation of a full-length hardcore rap album, rather than just radio-friendly singles. At its best—like on the twin standouts “I Just Wanna Party” and “Bicken Back Being Bool”—Mustard’s beats have a minor-key menace, while still retaining a danceable levity thanks to hand claps and peppy “hey! hey!” samples on the upbeat. Contributions from Ty Dolla $ign, Terrace Martin, Metro Boomin, and Mikely Adam all add different colors, but fit in with the big picture.

While TDE’s excellent albums have a diverse, pan-regional sound, and Game’s music has always felt like a parody of the past, YG and Mustard have finally managed to create a big-budget West Coast album that feels directly linked with the lineage of LA gangsta rap, yet completely modern at the same time. In retrospect, taking four years to make his debut album is probably the smartest thing YG ever did. In an era when most albums feel rushed, My Krazy Life sounds like it was a lifetime in the making. —Brendan Frederick