To Yo Gotti, there’s nothing more valuable than ‘Free Game’
His new project captures a philosophy of how to be successful in life
WASHINGTON — Yo Gotti is in a great space – personally, professionally and financially. About the only thing not going his way at the moment is the weather.
Days before Halloween, I’m sitting in a suite in a nearly empty Audi Field, the home of D.C. United, one of Major League Soccer’s founding franchises, waiting to talk with the team’s newest minority owner. Outside, a nor’easter is pummeling the city with heavy rain and, at times, heavier wind.
Yo Gotti is in town for a fan appreciation event the next day and he’s more than eager to chop it up about myriad topics. There’s CM10: Free Game, his new double album, which drops Feb. 4. (The album was originally scheduled to be released in November 2021.) Yo Gotti’s Collective Music Group imprint sports an impressive array of talent, including EST Gee, 42 Dugg, Blac Youngsta, BlocBoy JB and Moneybagg Yo, whose A Gangsta’s Pain album hit No. 1 in the country in 2021. He’s advocating for fair treatment of prison inmates. And now, he’s part-owner of a major league sports team. In a field that celebrates diverse portfolios, Yo Gotti deserves to be mentioned among hip-hop’s premier hustlers.
Yo Gotti strolls into Suite 25 drinking hot tea. An assistant holding an umbrella has kept Yo Gotti’s black puffer Dior jacket, black shirt and iced-out D.C. United chain dry. After pounding up those in the room — a pandemic precaution that feels safer than a dap — he starts to take his jacket off. That is, until one of the doors in the suite is blown open by an aggressive gust of wind.
“Hell nah,” Yo Gotti said with a chuckle, putting his jacket back on. “I’m good.”
Yo Gotti, 40, is eager to talk about his new project. Free Game is the 11th studio album in a career that dates back a quarter century to 1996’s Youngsta’s On a Come Up, when he went by the moniker Lil Yo. Back then, he hardly thought of himself as a rapper. He was making more money in the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, than in music. Yet, rhyming brought a particular sense of therapeutic freedom.
The activity was a neighborhood bonding exercise, too. One of Yo Gotti’s homeboys taught him how to rap. He’d write bars for everyone in the crew and each person had four to eight bars to shine. Yo Gotti quickly picked up the writing process and created his own wave. But it took a few years to get comfortable, he told XXL. “We’d have to go three or four albums down before I really started feeling like a rapper.”
Since then, Yo Gotti has not only convinced himself he’s worthy of being dubbed an MC. He’s compiled a massive body of work, including all those albums, at least 22 mixtapes and who knows how many features. At this point, he doesn’t have to say another word. Though, of course, he has plenty to say. Yo Gotti is genuinely happy.
“I’m grateful that I’m here. Doing what I love to do, doing what I want to do. Being someone that changed the trajectory from the environment I was raised in,” Yo Gotti said, referring to Memphis’ notorious Ridgecrest Apartments. “We changed the generational wealth of my family, and being one who put an impact on other artists.”
“Who’d ever thought we would’ve ever made it to where we are now?” Yo Gotti asked rhetorically. “Not me. That’s the process behind this album.”
CM10: Free Game was well over a year in the making. Almost two years at this point. Though he’s now seemingly a world away from Ridgecrest Apartments, he’s still very much connected to the city. A quick check of his Instagram shows Yo Gotti reflecting on his life and times in Grind City. One thing he can’t escape is the reality he survived, and the trauma it carries. Running in tandem with the good memories are the dangers that come with home. “Every second of my life I got a gun and I hate that,” he once rapped. “But this Memphis, if you get caught without you gon’ regret that.”
The titles of the songs show Yo Gotti’s mental tug of war between the realities of his early years and the one he currently resides in. Some were written and recorded while Yo Gotti, like most Americans in 2020 and even parts of 2021, sat by himself with his thoughts and emotions. Then, as restrictions slowly began to loosen, the tone of the music changed. (Yo Gotti’s physique did as well. He’s lost more than 50 pounds in the last year.) Hence songs like the marching band-inspired “Amazing.” He’s particularly excited about a graphic lyrical exhibition with Moneybagg Yo. As it plays, the room is obviously feeling the gangsta duet. Yo Gotti smiles and nods in approval. (Just last week, Yo Gotti announced he’d be putting a new artist on his album by launching a contest to allow artists to upload verses to a record appearing on the project. The winner would be featured on the album and possibly signed to CMG.)
Next, he plays “I Just Left The Hamptons,” which comes with a quick backstory. Here, Yo Gotti raps about attending Michael Rubin’s star-studded “White Party” and how it upped the ante on not just his financial aspirations, but other power plays as well. “It’s the people that’s in the room,” Yo Gotti said of attendees such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Robert Kraft, J Balvin, James Harden, Jon Bon Jovi, Winnie Harlow and others. “We may not even know they name. It’s like the head of TikTok there. So this room is like no other room. The energy alone and the self-reliance. The s— I’m doing is going in the right direction and leading me to be invited to the right places. It makes you want to keep doing what you’re doing.”
When he was hustling, Yo Gotti had one rule he operated by: Don’t get outworked. Well, that and don’t get jammed up by the police. He’d be the first one out on the block and, as long as the block didn’t get too hot, he’d be the last one to clock out, too. The title Free Game is about more than just a common phrase in the culture. Yo Gotti, he explained, is an avid listener. Some of the most important lessons he’s ever received — how to move in the streets, music industry and life in general — has been free game. The album, he notes, is part of his responsibility to pay it forward.
“I’m not one of those people who be like, ‘Oh, nobody wanted to help me. Nobody did this.’ That’s not my story,” Yo Gotti said. “I had a lot of help from my team, my homies in the street. They believed in my dreams more than me early on. They pushed me to stay on the right track. When I wanted to say, ‘Forget music, I’m getting money in the street.’ They was like, ‘Nah, you should do this.’ ”
Yo Gotti credits people such as the late Chris Lighty, 50 Cent, Cash Money’s Birdman and Slim, and Jay-Z. They took time to pour into him as he matriculated in the music business.
“I feel like those guys always seen that in me. They allowed me to be in the room with the senior staff conversations. I never been one of the guys not paying attention,” he said. “They gave me valuable information, and allowed me to be around close enough to study what’s happening.
“I ain’t one of these lil’ dudes that’s just infatuated by what chain you got on. I really wanna know how you built this.”
Yo Gotti, in his own words, would be hustling backward if he didn’t apply those lessons to his own career. He made headlines in 2020 when he released his final album on Epic Records, the aptly titled Untrapped. The move allowed him to achieve a holy grail for musicians: independence and ownership of all of his masters.
“If you ever get to a space where you don’t feel you can do exactly what you want to do, you don’t have freedom,” he said. “From an artist standpoint, if you ever feel you can’t put out the type of music you wanna put out in a timely manner, that’s a bad space. So that’s one thing about our company. We never want to do that with our artists.”
Yo Gotti’s referring to CMG, short for Collective Music Group. Last year, Yo Gotti announced a partnership with Interscope Geffen A&M to bolster an already impressive array of talent. Thus far, the union has proven beneficial. Moneybagg Yo, 42 Dugg and EST all reached the Top 10 on the Billboard 200 with their respective debuts.
His CMG cohorts are featured heavily on Free Game. But it’s not just music that binds him to the artists on his label. It’s living in the belly of the beast and coming out with a plan for a better life.
“We all come from [a similar] childhood. We all was faced with that neighborhood, project survival skills before we was in music. We all took the same risks to different levels,” Yo Gotti said. “We not telling them to change your music. Or change your appearance or your chain. [At CMG], we allow that. We advocate for it.”
Though he’s still focused on his own career, something about seeing those around him achieve success hits differently. Something about seeing someone from the streets change their life in a way that doesn’t require breaking the law to secure a bag. Yet, if there is something Yo Gotti can do better at, it’s taking time to bask in the glory of what they achieved. A hit record isn’t easy and a No. 1 album like Moneybagg Yo’s isn’t something that happens by luck. (Yo Gotti’s highest-charting album is The Art of Hustle, which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 in March 2016.)
“That’s what makes it even more special for me,” Yo Gotti said. “Me and all my artists is partners.”
Another source of pride is his work on prison reform. Last year, Yo Gotti, Jay-Z and Roc Nation’s philanthropic extension, Team Roc, helped bring to light inhumane living conditions at Mississippi State Prison, better known as Parchman, which has been notorious for more than half a century. They secured legal representation for 227 inmates whose lawsuit led health care provider Centurion to sever its ties with the state because of inadequate funding. In August 2021, Yo Gotti agreed to pay for the autopsy and funeral of Parchman inmate Chadarion Henderson, 26, who was serving five years on a burglary charge. Henderson’s mother reportedly reached out to Parchman several times regarding the suspicious nature of her son’s death with no resolution.
Yo Gotti understands how society views prisoners. That they aren’t deserving of the bare necessities needed to survive, especially during a pandemic. When other kids were playing sports or watching Saturday morning cartoons, Yo Gotti oftentimes was going to visit incarcerated family members. Those trips still stick with him.
“People gotta remember that in prison, it’s always inmates in there that done the crime. And it’s inmates in there that didn’t do the crime,” he said. “And even if you done the thing, even if you stole a car, that still don’t justify the way you’re being treated. So we trying to shut that joint down for real because today they still have bed and water contamination issues.”
Businesswise, he’s active on a variety of fronts. What began as buying houses for himself turned into a business of rehabbing and flipping. He’s been a brand ambassador for Puma since 2017. And in 2019, Yo Gotti, along with several other high-profile investors such as Sylvia Rhone, Swae Lee, Pitbull and more, invested $40 million into FaZe Clan, an e-gaming organization. Back in Memphis, Yo Gotti’s mother is the owner of the soul food restaurant Prive.
The business venture that has made the most headlines recently is associated with the chain that is nearly blinding me. And the reason we’re sitting in an empty stadium. Following New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram, in September 2021, Yo Gotti purchased approximately 1% of D.C. United, a franchise valued at roughly $730 million.
“I actually grew up not having any knowledge of soccer,” Yo Gotti said. “I’d never seen a soccer field at my schools or in my ’hood. The first time I ever seen a soccer field was when I took my son to the best private school that was in Memphis. He joined the team and that’s the only sport he ever played.
“I ended up learning about soccer through my son,” Yo Gotti said. “So when this opportunity came on the table, funny thing is, I reached out to my son. He was telling me a couple of players on the team, and I’m like, you think we should buy into the team?”
He began attending games in Washington and Miami when talks were in the early stages. He’d fly to Washington on days when the team had no games and walk through the stadium by himself.
“I’d ask a lot of questions to the other owners like how many people come to the games on average. Because I’m thinking, what can I bring to this other than buying into the team.”
Ask any parent what their goal for their children is and often the answer will be to give them a better life than they had. Yo Gotti calls his mother and father “the best parents in the world.” But they didn’t have money from the music industry to leave to him or a professional soccer team.
“I don’t think me as a parent is no better than my parents as a parent. It’s just about the opportunity they was able to be a part of,” he said.
But when Yo Gotti talks to his kids about his expectations of them, he often thinks back to what a financial adviser once laced him with.
“It goes rags to riches, to rags. Meaning, we come up, we leave it to our kids and they f— it up,” Yo Gotti said, laughing. “It’s because they live the life of our success and they never had to struggle. So when they get it, they don’t know how to keep it going. Ever since I heard that, I talk to my kids about that all the time. So, y’all need to be thinking what y’all gon’ do with the bag! What y’all gonna do with the opportunity that I’m working hard for?”
“Free game” is a concept that takes on many forms for Yo Gotti. It’s what helped him survive in the streets of Memphis. It’s a responsibility to pass on because so many have poured it into him. And, perhaps most importantly, “free game” is a family heirloom.