OOOUUU. This one, monosyllabic exclamation marks the arrival of hip-hop’s most intriguing newcomer: rapper Young M.A. Since its release in May, her single “OOOUUU” has surged from street anthem to charting hit. Currently No. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100, the gritty visual, featuring M.A. in her hometown of Brooklyn, has notched over 45 million views on YouTube.
Everyone is taking notice. Nicki Minaj flipped the track for “The Pinkprint Freestyle” (she also co-signed M.A. during a recent Breakfast Club interview) and it’s been remixed by a veritable who’s who of hip-hop, including French Montana, Jadakiss and A$AP Ferg. Young M.A. performed the hit on the 2016 BET Hip-Hop Awards and during Beyonce’s The Formation World Tour in New Jersey on Oct. 7.
M.A. (she has not revealed her given name) first rose above the Internet fray with 2004’s “Brooklyn (Chiraq Freestyle).” Following a DIY model of recording on her own with local producers — scrimping together money from working at T.J. Maxx and Shake Shack, the 24-year-old leveraged social media to gain a small following pre-“OOOUUU.”
Things are in overdrive now and happening fast but underneath the catchy track, there’s a complex, young woman challenging hip-hop’s male-dominated norms. Young M.A. is openly lesbian and she vehemently rejects being categorized — or qualified — by her sexuality or gender. She’s a dope rapper, not a dope female rapper or a dope gay rapper. She’s ostensibly a feminist but has no problem dropping slut-shaming lyrics, including labeling promiscuous women as “Stephanie.”
Below, Billboard caught up with Young M.A. via phone from her home in Brooklyn.
These past few months have been crazy and you’ve gone from relatively unknown to ubiquitous. How has life changed for you?
My life ain’t too glamorous, only the things I’ve accomplished. I’m a regular person. I don’t even want that type of attention. All I do is work, work, work. I just let the blessings come. I don’t think about what’s the ultimate goal because I don’t want to stop.
Can you still walk around your neighborhood or go to the bodega like a regular person?
Nah. I can’t do none of that. When I be driving sometimes, I put my hoodie on and they still recognize me. [Fame] is more important to the people that support you than it is to me. I just find it to be important because they believe it’s important.
You’ve crossed off a lot of things on the new artist bucket list. Was there a definitive moment in which you felt that you had arrived?
So far, I’ve had a couple moments like that. One moment, I hit a blog [called] The Shade Room and there was another blog [I was featured on where] I was in Miami, I had a girl on the back of my bike and they made a big blog about me having a new girlfriend. I was like, “Wow. This is crazy.” The other moment was when I opened for Beyonce. Seeing the amount of people in the crowd singing my song, I was mesmerized by it. Then today, [charting on] Billboard. That was a moment.
You were born in Brooklyn and raised in Virginia. When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I’ve always dreamed about since I was a kid. I would go to sleep and dream about being onstage with thousands and thousands of people. I used to be in my room, writing songs and raps. I did a couple open mics, random family events, family reunions. I just loved music. I always knew I would be a star someday. I didn’t know when. I didn’t know how it would look. I just had a feeling.
That’s a strange audience to perform for. What did you rap about at the family reunion?
It was kind of weird. I had to be like 12. I was real young. I wrote a rap specifically for the family reunion. I can’t remember it word-for-word. I referred to all of the family.
Sadly, you had a turning point in your career — and your life — following the death of your brother when you were 16.
It was the end of 2009. September 26th. That was the day everything just changed for me. My brother had died. I was actually starting my senior year of high school. It was hard to do because I had just lost my best friend, my brother, my everything. I would be in class quiet. At one point, they tried to put me in therapy. I went three times. I would skip class. My mom never knew about it. I just had a bad year. My senior year wasn’t the average senior year people had — going to dances. I didn’t do none of that. I was depressed but I made as much of it as possible because I didn’t want to drop out now. 2009 was the worst year of my life. I just looked at life totally different. I don’t want to get too detailed in what happened to my brother. He was just in a bad situation, unfortunately.
Everyone grieves differently. For you, was music a catharsis during this time?
Absolutely. Music was my escape. At one point, I didn’t want to do it no more. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to go to college. I was lost. I was in the streets and just around the wrong crowd, doing miscellaneous things and not being focused. One day, I just got it together. [At the] end of 2013, I was like, “I need to do something now before I hurt my mom or hurt myself.” Music is something I always knew to do for sure. Nobody could take it from me.
Did you know while recording “OOOUUU” that it would have such an impact?
The funny thing is, I did know. I knew it would be big. I knew it would be that record. I already had put out the Sleep Walkin mixtape last November and “OOOUUU” was supposed to be for a future project. I was just saving it for later on in the year. I was focused on promoting the mixtape and this record, I don’t know, there was something about it. I let my dogs hear it and everybody was like, “That joint is crazy.”
Once I was getting that reaction, I remember telling my manager that I would put the record out. I didn’t want no push behind it. I didn’t want it premiered on no Internet blog. I just put it out to get people’s reaction. I sneak-peeked it on my Snapchat and everyone was like, “What song is that?” At the end of my “Oh My Gawdd (Freestyle),” I put maybe 10 seconds of “OOOUUU.” I was getting comments from people like, “What’s that song at the end?” Everybody was like, “When you dropping that?” Basically, I was testing the waters because I was scared. It wasn’t crazy lyrical. It was a feel-good record. I was scared how people would react to it if I put it out.
One of the most memorable lines is, “You call her Stephanie? I call her Headphanie.” Where did that come from? Is there a real Stephanie?
No. Not a real person. It’s a metaphor. Like remember when people used to say “Becky”? It’s that girl.
Like “Becky with the good hair”?
You don’t necessarily have to be named “Becky” to be a Becky. You don’t have to be named “Stephanie” to be a Stephanie. It’s just basically a girl that’s real slutty and doing a lot of inappropriate things.
Male rappers are allowed to brag about their sexual conquests, but some get uncomfortable when a female rapper drops such sexualized lyrics.
When I was doing music before, I wasn’t being real with myself. I wasn’t as happy. I wasn’t as confident. My delivery wasn’t as strong. Once I allowed myself to be myself, my music became about me.
You’ve been very open about being lesbian, which is groundbreaking in hip-hop. Tell me about that decision.
For the sexuality thing, I really feel like the reason I speak so blunt about it is because I held it in for so long. I never told my mom. I never told my family. I kept it to myself. Now, I’m happy with who I am. Either you accept it or you don’t. There’s a lot of rappers out there that’s like that, but no one’s stepping up. I put myself on the front lines. A lot of people would have been scared to do that. I just didn’t care no more. I’m happy with me. As long as I’m happy with me, I don’t worry what other people think about me. I’m good.