Ride My Wave
Young M.A has been through the fire and emerged as a one-of-one rap star. 
Words: Kathy Iandoli
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

“I know I’m a girl, but goddamn!” says Young M.A, observing her face in a dusty mirror that leans against the wall of a studio space in Manhattan’s Chinatown. She runs her fingers across her cheek in disgust, displaying the Aries tattoo that lines the edge of her left hand. M.A just got laced with a fresh haircut but was hesitant to have makeup applied to her mug for today’s photo shoot. “Not too much,” she advised the on-site makeup artist, who checkered M.A’s face with concealer, blended it and then lightly applied some setting powder. She took a nervous step back for M.A to review, as if awaiting feedback from an audition. The little bit of makeup was too much. “I look like an Instagram model!” yells M.A's reflection in the mirror. She grabs a nearby washcloth and wipes her face clean. “That’s better.”

The M.A in Young M.A stands for “Me Always,” and it’s a mantra that’s stuck. As the wall-length television displays the Mr. Robot episode that features the Brooklyn rapper’s cameo, she looks over her collection of outfits and sneakers, one of which is a pair of crisp Gucci low tops. “Yerrrrr!” she yells, grabbing her Yankee fitted and slipping it on backwards. “It’s getting quiet in here. Where the music at?” The speakers start blaring the ominous opening keys of “Ooouuu.”

Young M.A’s 2016 breakout single set the marker for what would become a strong entry point in the career of the artist born Katorah Marrero. The song’s music video has racked up more than 312 million views on YouTube, as grainy footage shows the young star wielding a bottle of Hennessy and finger-gun gesturing at the camera. Sharp lyricism was M.A’s handshake, though unrelenting authenticity became her brand. While that’s remained intact, she’s finally learned the ropes of the music industry, which seems to have matured her. “I almost feel like I’ve aged 10 times the time,” she asserts, now three years removed from her introduction. “I’ve aged mentally, I’ve become even more wise in life and the understanding of the business. When I first came out, it was just about being heard. I was just moving aggressively, saying whatever came to mind, it was like, straightforward. And now, it’s more so think before I speak.”

While the 27-year-old fathomed her inevitable fame, she didn’t anticipate everything else that arrived with it. Her ascent was like lightning in a bottle. “Ooouuu” cracked the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100, a huge feat for any artist, let alone an independent female rapper. What followed was a whirlwind three years. M.A opened for Beyoncé in 2016 and landed a sold-out North American tour in 2017, complete with a surprise appearance at Hot 97’s Summer Jam during Remy Ma’s set, where she shared the stage with the likes of Queen Latifah and other female rap legends. By 2018, M.A was part of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. There was nowhere to go but up, yet her debut album had still not been released.

“I wasn’t ready,” M.A admits. Outside forces piled on. “I didn’t know how much negativity comes with the fame; the extra stuff that you don’t expect. You can say one thing and it gets twisted up, where you become the topic of discussion over something that’s not even true. I didn’t come into it trying to be a negative and controversial-type person.” She was also dealing with her own personal demons. The tragic murder of her brother in 2009 produced a ripple effect—his absence was magnified by her success. Depression, anxiety and an all-around unhealthy lifestyle trickled in. “For like a whole year straight I was eating bad and drinking bad and I wound up gaining almost 20 pounds,” she adds. “I remember, I was at like, 167, almost 170. I couldn’t believe it.” A Henny bottle was always at her side, too. There was a darkness enveloping M.A, though like her astrological sign expresses, she had a fire inside of her and simply kept going.

“We always kind of gave her space and didn’t pry too deep,” says industry veteran Dru Ha, who is part of M.A’s management team and CEO and Founder of 3D, the distribution company that’s partnered with M.A’s Young M.A Music. “Knowing M.A, it’s almost like it’s best for her to tell you what she wants to tell you. She’s not the one to kind of like, put her problems on your plate. I noticed some ups and downs with her, but for the most part she always came through. There was never a patch or stretch of time that I remember where we couldn’t do anything or we couldn’t schedule an interview or we couldn’t do a show.”

Ahmed Klink
Ahmed Klink

Young M.A pushed through. She eased up on the cognac, hit the gym and adopted a pescatarian diet, losing 30 pounds in the process. Perhaps she went too far. “The girls were like, ‘Oh no, M.A, we like the chunky you,’” says the lyricist, who corrected course by putting a bit of the bulk back on. “I was like, ‘Oh, damn! Y’all don’t like me small like this?’”

With the photo shoot wrapped, Young M.A throws on her street clothes—a navy blue sweatsuit with a Tommy Hilfiger bomber—and hops into her matte black Audi A7. It’s the same one that she manifested in her buzzworthy 2014 freestyle “Brooklyn (Chiraq)” when she raps, “But that next whip is that black Audi.” The song and music video made Dru Ha, a believer. (“That was all I needed to see,” he says.) Five years later, she pulls her dream car against the curb of Magic Jewelry, a small Chinatown spot known for providing aura scans and readings. The purpose of an aura scan is to reveal a person’s energy field, represented by colors that, according to New Age beliefs, reflect aspects of personality, life sequence and mental state. A special camera captures two images in one shot, resulting in a plain photo overlaid by vibrant color. Just before the shop’s 6 p.m. closing time, Young M.A steps up for one last snapshot for the day.

“Is this gonna snatch my soul?” the rapper asks with her eyes wide. “I don’t wanna know the future, neither. I’m all about living in the moment.” She slowly sits in the stiff wooden seat and places her hands and fingers on metal scanner panels, as a large, old-school camera stares her down. M.A looks around the room, reveals her glowing diamond grills and lets loose a nervous laugh. The camera shutter snaps and out comes a Polaroid-style picture that the aura reader swipes and slides between two thin sheets of paper.

“You’re in a creative space,” the aura reader explains, running her finger over the glossy, rectangular photograph that reveals a deep blue aura surrounding Young M.A. “Sometimes you feel anxious, but you’re focused on your work. Are you a musician?” Before M.A has time to answer, a twenty something female fan slides to the counter and expresses her love to M.A before scurrying out of the store. That was all the confirmation the aura reader needed. “You’re in a good place now in your life,” she continues, “but you still think deeply about a lot of things.”

That creative space took a while to arrive, but it did, and the product was her long-awaited debut album, Herstory in the Making, which she released in September. The project is cathartic, as M.A funneled all of that darkness, using it as a tool to heal herself and inspire others. Tackling subjects like sexuality, depression, grief and the aftershock of fame, M.A paints a vulnerable portrait of herself, one that she never knew inspired so many people until now. “The whole point of the album was to give people a way to escape and have an understanding of me,” she says. “It was also for people to have a piece of me and for me to get a lot off my chest because I don’t really talk about things just to be talking. I use my music to express that. That’s what the album was, too, a therapeutic way to express myself and also to speak out. At the end of the day, we are someone that people look up to.” Ironic—the project that she avoided making was the one that saved her.

Ahmed Klink

While the album was “late” by ordinary industry standards, its holdup didn’t compromise its success at all. Herstory hit the Top 20 of the Billboard 200, with seven singles, including “Big,” the album’s radio-friendly debut release on which M.A maintains her raw swagger. Everything from the song’s production to its video is noticeably higher budget. “She really got in the perfect pocket the entire song,” says Mike Zombie, who produced the track. “The production and her flow makes you dance; it’s contagious. I love how she has a kind of trademark thing where she talks on the track and goes back into rapping seamlessly. It’s just infectious.”

Now that her debut album is out, Young M.A wants to immediately put it behind her and look toward the future. Everything prior to this moment—from controversies to old music—is regarded by her with three words: “We off that.” From being pegged as simply a female rapper, to the mouthpiece for the LGBTQ community, to even the receiving end of beefs and weird sexual propositions from the likes of Kodak Black (“Obviously, the nigga is weird,” she said last March via Instagram Live) and battle rapper Daylyt. Young M.A is off all of that.

What she’s on is Pornhub, an unlikely stream of income that kept her afloat when the album was on hold. In 2018, M.A made her directorial debut with her adult film, The Gift, hosted by porn star Asa Akira. There’s more where that came from. “I’m just trying to put my hands into everything,” M.A shares. “I don’t care what it is, I don’t care if they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s not the right fit.’ A lot of people didn’t think I should’ve done Pornhub and that shit went crazy. I’m all over the place. I’m literally trying to be in everything; I don’t want nobody to label me at all. I’m trying to be a whole entrepreneur. Everything.”

The music is about to change, too. “I kind of want to switch it up and lighten it up a little bit and show people that I’ve got a different side of me,” she says of her next chapter, expressing an interest in dabbling in new genres. “Don’t think it’s all gangster; we can have fun, too.” Forward motion is the goal. “I can’t go backwards after making people wait for so long,” she advises. “I’ve gotta show the world that I’ve been doing well for myself independently. This is the movement, this is the brand.”

While Young M.A is in a new phase in her life and career, the darkness hasn’t completely lifted; it’s just become more manageable. “People say, ‘It’ll get better,’ but it never really gets better,” she admits. “I feel like it’s more adapting to it and getting immune to it. At the end of the day, once you go through something, the memory sticks. Our mind is over everything. So, once your mind is set to something like a tragic situation, that’s forever.”

One of M.A’s friends sits down in the aura-scanning chair, as the rapper stares and smiles at her photo. It’s blue, but it’s bright, revealing more than she imagined. Young M.A has entered a whole new chapter in her life and career, and everything looks different. Even her aura (and the spot-on reading). While her innate concern is that darkness is still waiting to strike, she remains cautiously optimistic. “There’s no perfect world. You’re gonna go through things; it’s just more so having enough sense to move through that and have an understanding of what you’re going through,” she says. “You always have that thought in your mind that when things are going too good, something is gonna go wrong. But that’s what it is, you just prepare for it. Sometimes the strongest people go through the most. I feel like that’s a gift more than a curse.”

Check out more from XXL’s Winter 2019 issue including our Travis Scott cover story, interviews with Moneybagg Yo and Doja Cat plus Show & Prove features with Pop Smoke and Lil Tjay

See Photos of Travis Scott's Winter 2019 Cover Story Photo Shoot

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