At 27 years old, the rapper Young M.A has experienced more peaks and valleys than some people encounter in a lifetime. Raised by a single mother who worked 12-hour days, the young Katorah Marrero became a precocious wordsmith and the first girl ever to join her school’s football team. In 2009, her older brother was murdered by a fellow gang member, sending her into a deep depression. Fast forward to seven years later, she was on top of the hip-hop world when her song “Ooouuu” broke out as a defining single of 2016, making her a rising star and one of the few successful openly gay women in hip-hop history.
But while “Ooouuu” brought her fame and wealth, the Brooklyn rapper suffered a deluge of problems behind the scenes, including addiction, depression and interpersonal issues with her inexperienced team as they struggled to handle the withering spotlight. “The expectation leaves you in a confused position,” Young M.A tells TIME. “I really didn’t know what to do, because all of this is just coming so forceful towards me.”
Her narrative has all the makings of a film biopic—but at the moment, Young M.A is content to tell the story herself. Her debut album, Herstory in the Making, arrives Sept. 27; it’s a startlingly raw and detailed autobiography that explores her hardscrabble upbringing, mental health battles, relationship struggles, homophobia and the perils of fame. Producers including Zaytoven and Mike Zombie provide bruising launchpads for her crisp and complex cadences, which reinforce her prowess as a formidable rap classicist.
It’s been a long three years since “Ooouuu,” and Young M.A understands that the attention span for popular artists has never been shorter. But the rapper was insistent on taking her time, staying independent as opposed to signing with a label and creating a body of work that would transcend a viral moment: “I was really looking more in terms of longevity,” she said. “I’m definitely someone that believes in the classic vibe of a full-length album with so many different sounds.”
In an interview with TIME, Young M.A opened up about her past and delved into the most revealing lyrics on Herstory in the Making. Excerpts from that conversation are below.
TIME: “Ooouuu” was a huge hit in 2016. Have you been crafting this album the whole time since then?
Young M.A.: I’ve been learning since then. I didn’t want to just jump because I had a wave. I know the routine thinking when it comes to the industry: when you’re buzzing, you drop the album. The pressure is on. Everything was just changing for me.
So I almost fell back into a corner. Artistically, I’m not creative when I’m in that state of mind. Some people were like, “Man, this is it!” But I’ll second-guess it sometimes. And that’s a gift and a curse for me and that’s what prolonged things as well: having so much integrity and not just giving anybody anything because that’s what people are asking for. Had I released it before, I wouldn’t have been happy with that work.
How did your life change after the song’s success? On the new album, you rap that you “had to break up with fame because it broke my mood apart.”
I’m such a sucker for hip-hop in general, and fame was something I dreamed about since I was a kid: Everybody knowing my name, performing in front of thousands of people.
But I didn’t know about the dark side of fame. Your privacy is taken away. Certain people in your circle, your family, change: they see you in a different way. It’s not just, “This is my cousin”; It’s, “This is the superstar in the family.” It’s a depressing feeling sometimes to just be acknowledged one way—that it’s just all about Young M.A now.
Fame changes a lot of things around you. Your circle and your family become smaller. You maneuver different because you’re not too sure of anything, of the people around you.
You also rap about your struggles with drinking: “I was losing focus / Stuck on that evil potion.”
Sometimes in the studio it loosens the flow, the tension. It has you feeling more outspoken.
But it was smooth on the surface. Inside, it was broken. Dealing with life, fame, family, my brother not being here. And then getting caught up in the lifestyle. You’re in these clubs, people handing you bottles every time you turn around.
I couldn’t go nowhere without a bottle of Hennessy. It became a little addicting—a habit of drinking no matter where I went. I still battle that, even now. It’s something that kind of runs in my family as well. Sometimes I look at it as an escape, from all the pressure and BS that I deal with. I wanted to speak on it on the album because I know I’m not the only person that has that type of battle with any drug or addiction.
You’ve recently announced that you are not using a label in regards to your sexual orientation. On the album’s first song, you rap, “F-cking with the same sex, some say it’s a sin / But I’m a dyke and she a femme, it’s a synonym.” What were you trying to convey with that line?
Of course, it’s spitting bars. It’s having fun, too, and letting them know, the terms they use—it don’t affect me, it don’t affect us.
I’m not a label person. Before, I used to think being a label was cool. With this industry, they didn’t welcome a person like me, what I represent. I busted some doors down, with no hesitation. But then I got to a point where it was just like, “I don’t need nobody defining me. Sometimes I don’t even know my damn self.”
No disrespect to anybody that prefers that. The LGBT community, I love them with my soul. But I’m me. We know who we are, we know what we represent, we know who we love.
Do you still face discrimination for being a gay rapper?
That’s everywhere. It ain’t just the rap community—it’s all around the world. We all struggle with some type of problems with race and identity. That’s just the world we live in. Of course, we’re trying to change it. And I’m thankful that the majority of the people are starting to accept it. But you’ll still have people who have these strong beliefs—and sometimes you just can’t change their minds. I don’t live my life worrying about how everybody else is living because I’ll lose my mind.
How do you feel the rap industry has changed since you entered it?
I feel like the talent and the craft and the love of music is starting to slowly be smothered under all the extra stuff: gossip and social media and clout chasing. Seeing how the industry is transforming into less about music and more so about just controversy—it discouraged me a little bit.
I don’t believe in being this rapper gimmick thing. Nine times out of ten, their fanbase’s majority is just bandwagoners, people that just see that, but when it’s time to really show the real you, are they still going to be rocking?
I’m me all day. And that’s why I have such a loyal fanbase because they get that from me—they feel like I’m part of their family.
You dedicated “No Love” to your brother, who was murdered a decade ago. Does it get any easier to write about him?
It’s never easy. My brother not being here is something I carry with me every day. It’s definitely an escape for me to be able to express that verbally on a track. You do have your moments where you still kind of be in denial. When I have to rap about it, it kind of puts me back into reality. All you can do is, instead of being angry inside, let it out.
Even to this day, still, you never heal. My mom, she’s still going through it, every day, probably even worse. I try my best to be there for her. Sometimes I get frustrated with her because I feel like, “Come on! Let’s get it together, it’s been so long now.” She goes to therapy but I don’t. I’m just trying to stay busy. That’s all you can do.
You call yourself bipolar on the album. Have you been diagnosed?
I’m very moody and I know that: I can be laughing with you one minute, and the next minute I ain’t saying nothing. But it’s not something I really believe I suffer from, because I don’t believe in no doctor telling me that I’m something. You can’t officially determine that: we all deal with depression and anxiety. That’s something I deal with too. But I’m not gonna let anybody tell me I’m bipolar: I’ll tell myself I’m bipolar.
Since “Ooouuu” came out, New York rappers have been blowing up one after the other, from Cardi B to A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie to Pop Smoke to Lil Tecca. Do you feel like you helped start the movement to bring the New York sound back to the mainstream?
Of course. Everybody knows I came to the gate talking all my Brooklyn sh-t. And still I’m still on that vibe. And of course I’m going to take credit for that because that’s something I initiated. Because I love New York rap and I grew up when it was on fire—with Hov [Jay-Z], 50 Cent, Dipset, DMX, Ja Rule. I love my city.
There’s also been a new generation of female rappers achieving success, from Lizzo to Tierra Whack to Megan thee Stallion to Rico Nasty. Do you credit yourself for their rise?
Shoutout to the people that be like, “I don’t even consider M.A a female rapper. She’s just a dope artist overall.” I don’t do the label thing. Shoutout to all the female rappers—I got nothing but love for them—but that’s not my competition. To be cocky, that’s not who I’m trying to go against. I’m trying to compete with these dudes, too: I’m at these dudes’ necks.
You’ve recently made headlines in connection with two other stars: Kodak Black, who referenced you in a song using a homophobic slur, and Kehlani, who you name-dropped on “Big.” Have you heard from either of them?
I never got a chance to see Kodak or speak to him. I know it became a big thing, but I’m off that.
Kehlani—that’s my people. We text every now and then have been talking about doing music together. I told her that definitely now they hear me shout you out, working together is mandatory. She’s an official dope girl.