Clad in an orange jumpsuit with his hair parted around the edges of his face to reveal a shimmering set of pearly whites, YNW Melly smiles for the camera, his head tilted to the side as if in jest. The grainy photoposted to his Instagram account last Friday, August 9, is accompanied by a caption that belies the seriousness of the steel and concrete enclosure that surrounds him: “Album on the way everybody. Y’all ready?” 

In February of this year, YNW Melly, born Jamell Maurice Demons, turned himself in to police on two counts of first-degree murder in the October deaths of his longtime friends Anthony “YNW Sakchaser” Williams, 21, and Christopher “YNW Juvy” Thomas Jr., 19. Melly stands accused of shooting his friends multiple times and staging the crime scene to look like a drive-by shooting. The incarcerated rapper pleaded not guilty and is confident that he’ll beat the case, writing “I’ll be home soon” in a July Instagram post in what has become his primary route of communication with the outside world. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Broward's Sheriff's Office via Getty Images

The harrowing reality of the double homicide case is that two young men are dead, another is staring down death row, and we may never know the true story of what happened. YNW Melly’s arrest, paired with his precocious interest in guns (he found a revolver under his uncle’s couch in fourth grade), is all the more disturbing when considered within the context of his viral single “Murder On My Mind,” a track that progresses through the first-person account of a teenager who has accidentally shot his best friend and is watching him die in his arms (“it’s too late my friend it’s time to say goodbye”). Top it off with companion piece “Mind On My Murder,” which follows the same incident but from the bloody-hazed perspective of the victim, and you’ve got one of the most horrifically-inspired narratives of 2018. The song’s music video plucks elements from the minds of both Melly and the estranged Melvin, dueling personalities that make up the rapper who may never again get the chance to roll swishers or hug his mama around Christmas. It’s an exceedingly grim and agonizing tale wherein the light at the end of the tunnel, roped off by an impenetrable barrier of yellow tape, is slinking into the distance.

Melly’s music and his life outside of the studio have the feel of an epic Greek tragedy. He’s from a small Florida town called Gifford, far removed from southern Florida's hotbed of rap talent. In an interview with The Fader, he revealed that few make it out of the “little hoe ass place” that he calls home. “We had one NFL player made it out, but he brought his ass right back. Lost souls out there… ’cept for the people I’m with.” His entire life has been tied up with the criminal justice system: at the age of 16, he was charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and one count of discharging a firearm in public, and spent a year in jail for the shootout. It was during this time behind bars that he penned the aforementioned “Murder On My Mind,” the regional hit that quickly became a national one following the headlines of his arrest. The track describes in riveting, if jarring, detail the homicidal thoughts that consume him, the firearms cart-wheeling across his consciousness like pink elephants on parade before spilling off his tongue like some misbegotten romantic interest. At its core, the track is a heartfelt gunplay fantasy, albeit one that never quite manages to shake its most sinister qualities.

Rap’s infatuation with broadcasting illicit activities is nothing new, but Melly’s situation has brought about a collision of art and real life in which the two are now inextricably linked. Melodically indebted to Atlanta stylists Young Thug and Futureas most true children of SoundCloud are, Melly boasts a melancholic charm that vocalizes itself with the help of trap gospel piano chords and infectious 808s. The extraordinarily sentimental qualities of Melly’s music reveal his darkest thoughts, making for contradictions that forever position the serenader on the verge of an identity crisis in which pain and personality are his sole antidote. The bleak subject matter unravelled through Melly’s crooning is the crux of his music’s juxtaposition. He gushes about terrors with a sweet solemnity that occasionally veers into the aggressive but more often than not is built around streaky pastels and sugary music box chimes. His writing is impassioned, every bar a gut check reminding the listener that the sobering introspection and poignant revelations are more than just musings culled from unordinary circumstances. There is a beauty to his tenderness, even when it would seem to clash with the inherent threats of violence that bubble forth. 

Indeed, Melly’s music has a peculiar childlike innocence to it that doesn’t quite add up with what’s suggested in the lyrics. And yet this whimsical quality is never at the expense of the artistic gravity. In the visuals for “Virtual (Blue Balenciagas),” the gun-toting that Melly so adores remains front and center, as designer footwear is thrown into a mix of scenes in which the slugged-up rapper and his posse pose in nun masks in some nightmarish audition for The Town. “Slang That Iron” interpolates Chris Brown’s “Say Goodbye” in a manner that speaks directly to Melly’s influences while at the same time relaying the survival of the fittest mentality that animates his every move. Other tracks like “Mama Cry,” a jail cell apology to his mother in which “225 ice cold showers” is utilized as a biting form of measurement, convey a palpable sense of regret. Melly’s gummy cadences taste like Mother Goose melodies, provided the imaginary fairy tale author took “Rock-a-bye-Baby” and flipped it into age-restricted material. On sophomore effort We All Shine,the anguish and paranoia of Melly’s lullabies are all the more bewitching. “No Heart” finds him waxing poetic about a love that wasn’t ordained to last despite his best intentions, though he confides that he no longer intends to “play fair” with his feelings. A concoction of cranberry kush, apple juice, and molly is Melly’s choice pie à la mode on bonus track “Butter Pecan,” while “Mixed Personalities” drifts into a realm where even the song’s guest, Kanye West, gets lost in the auto-tuned glee.

A murder ballad that has caught the ear of millions since it was uploaded to SoundCloud in March of 2017 now festers under the weight of its imprisoned narrator. “Murder On My Mind” experienced a massive resurgence after Melly was charged, and has since been certified triple-platinum, a twist of fate that only the reaper (and ready accomplice TikTok) could have envisioned. The mystery of the murder motive, if the gruesome complexities of the case are to be believed, further lends itself to what once seemed like surefire superstardom. Perhaps it’s merely a product of Melly’s age and his current predicament, but at just 19 years old, the aspirations that he previously extolled in his music now appear incapable of outrunning the long arm of the law. One can only hope that new music will shed some light on the shadows that Melly has taken as his bedfellows.