When the New Jersey group P.M. Dawn came along in 1991, rap didn’t know what to do with them. Here were these guys who seemed proud of being soft. They broke out with a song that sampled ’80s new-romantics Spandau Ballet. They dressed in ways that were deeply, distinctively goofy — the dashikis, the John Lennon granny glasses, the tiny fountains of dreads. They sang more than they rapped, and when they did rap, they still sort of sounded like they were singing. They espoused a vague, floaty form of positivity and never even tried to seem tough. They made hits, but people from within their own scene looked at them like they were aliens, and KRS-One famously booted the group off stage during a show at New York’s Sound Factory in 1993. (In my mind, KRS gorilla-pressed Prince Be over his head like the Ultimate Warrior and then threw him out into the crowd, but the real thing was probably at once more boring and chaotic than that.) But P.M. Dawn had a great little run, largely because they made pop music so full of personality and so good — “I’d Die Without You” is pretty much a perfect song — that they still kept an audience.
In retrospect, P.M. Dawn weren’t complete outliers. Instead, they were the furthest extension of a bunch of things that were already happening in rap at that time: the hazy Native Tongues leather-medallion consciousness, the New Jack Swing R&B-crossover wave, the melodic warmth that non-New York rappers were increasingly bringing to the genre. They took all those things and made their own aesthetic out of them, becoming starry-eyed mystics in the process.
The same thing, I guess, is what’s happening with Lil Yachty, the confoundingly popular Atlanta teenager whose music has been confusing the shit out of me all year. Lil Yachty looks weird and distinctive and silly. He sings — or, in any case, emotionally warbles through Auto-Tune — more than he raps. He talks a lot about positivity. And he represents what might be the logical extreme of a whole lot of things happening in rap right now: antic Young Thug-style gibbering, Future-esque Auto-Tune emoting, ADD fashion-consciousness, gooey Atlanta post-trap production, Instagram-ready graphic sensibilities. In a lot of ways, he functions today the same way P.M. Dawn functioned in 1991. The big difference is that Prince Be probably never would’ve rapped, “She suck me like a push-pop / She love cock.”
If I hear Lil Yachty when I’m in the wrong mood, I get actively angry. It’s the sort of reaction I don’t get too often. Over the years, I’ve prided myself on being the type of listener who can roll with rap music as it evolves, as all these new stylistic and melodic ideas emerge and fade. It’s a lot more fun to listen that way than to hold onto some lost golden age. But with Yachty, I don’t just get lost; I get pissed off about it. I turn into a spluttering YouTube commenter: “What the fuck is this?” I’m not alone in that either. On Yachty’s new mixtape Summer Songs 2, there’s a song called “For Hot 97,” and it’s explicitly directed at Ebro, the Hot 97 morning host who’s carved himself a career lane by becoming rap’s self-appointed old-man gatekeeper. (Yachty attempts to really rap on “For Hot 97,” just to prove he can do it. He sort of can, in a post-Migos type of way.) With the squeaky sing-rapping, the cloudy atonal self-harmonizing, and the dedication to ice-cream-truck melodies, Yachty sometimes seems to be actively baiting anyone old enough to remember being sad when the cartoon version of Optimus Prime died in Transformers: The Movie. But you can’t just build a career on the sentiment of “haha, old people, here’s something that intentionally sucks and you won’t understand it,” can you?
Well, no. Yachty has some things going for him, even if I had to dig deep into his music to hear those things. He’s got an undeniable way with a simple, sticky melody; it’s no coincidence that “1 Night” is both his simplest, catchiest song and his biggest solo hit. He has a sound that belongs entirely him to him, a gloopy fantasia built out of old Sega Genesis sounds made to melt into one another. (I absolutely do not understand where a kid born in 1997 is getting his Sonic The Hedgehog nostalgia, but there’s no reason why I should understand everything.) When Yachty’s at his bravest, he’s capable of something like “I’m Sorry,” a song that displays an openhearted vulnerability that precious few rappers would be willing to show. And while he’s his own sonic beast, he plays well with others. He’s a good collaborator. On his own “Minnesota (Remix),” he pulls one of the most gloriously unhinged verses we’ve heard from Young Thug in a long time. On Chance The Rapper’s “Mixtape,” he comes with a slippery, sophisticated, emotionally devastated verse that somehow upstages both Chance and Young Thug. On D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli,” he’s a vital part of a legitimate song-of-the-summer contender, his childlike enthusiasm meshing beautifully with D.R.A.M.’s euphoric yawp.
And when I’m in the right mood, when Yachty’s whole thing isn’t actively pissing me off, I find myself getting lost in the whole gluey soundworld that Yachty and his friends have put together. The right mood, it turns out, is so tired that I can barely think — a state that, thanks to insomnia and an enthusiastic early-riser four-year-old, I’ve been in for most of the past week. And with that in mind, it makes a lot of sense that teenagers are so into Yachty. After all, thanks to absurdly early high-school start times and the natural tendency to stay up late at night, teenagers are pretty much always sleepy. “Parents mad at my ass cuz their kids sing my song in class,” Yachty croons on the positively chillwavy “King Of Teens,” a song from Summer Songs 2. And if I was stuck in a classroom, fighting to stay awake and glancing at the clock on the wall every 30 seconds, there is a very good chance I’d catch myself absentmindedly singing “1 Night.” I might actually be singing it this very second. There’s no way to tell.
That, in any case, is the best explanation I can find for the whole Lil Yachty thing. The phenomenon remains pretty mysterious to me, to be honest. But then, maybe I’m not supposed to understand. I don’t get Pokémon Go, either, and everybody and their fucking cousin is playing that shit right now. I’m old enough to be Yachty’s literal father. (I’m not his father, though. I should probably clarify that.) Maybe Yachty is just one of those forces in pop-music evolution, one of those great generation-gap dividers where even the most well-intentioned old man is going to walk away scratching his head. That’s fine. We need those. And maybe Yachty is just a sign from the universe that I should prepare for my own pop-music obsolescence, that I should get used to grumbling about how things were so much better back when we had real music, like Crime Mob.
Or maybe Lil Yachty just sucks. That’s possible, too.
1. Noname – “Freedom Interlude”
“I had a dream I rocked my baby fast asleep / Count the toes, they’re all there, kiss the cheek / I think this is a song about redemption / Or a mother’s intuition / How my kid just sounds like church bells.” What a beautiful, restorative song.
2. Mac Miller – “Dang!” (Feat. Anderson .Paak)
I like the idea that Anderson .Paak is out here, by his mere presence, encouraging rappers to make the lush, bubbly disco songs that they’ve always had in their hearts. And I like that Mac Miller has now found the best possible way to channel his loopy, sideways charm.
3. Swet Shop Boys – “T5″
There’s a very real chance that Riz Ahmed could become a movie star and a rap star in the same year. On the acting side, he has The Night Of, Jason Bourne, and the Star Wars movie coming out. And now he and Heems have teamed up to make the clever, angry album I’ve been waiting for since they dropped that EP two years ago. All of that is great. With the scariest election of my lifetime looming, we need that guy. We need both of these guys.
4. clipping. – “Baby Don’t Sleep”
Thank fuck Daveed Diggs has finally finished dicking around with that pretentious, conceptual Broadway play, that he’s finally getting back to the nervous, twitchy, apocalyptic noise-rap that we, the public, have been demanding this whole time. This bangs, in the most enervating fashion possible. And I’m still not over the idea that a guy who won a Tony for fucking Hamilton is fast-rapping over what sounds like a Throbbing Gristle deep cut. The world is a mysterious and wonderful place.
5. T.I. & Quavo – “Baller Alert”
If only all cynical corporate tie-ins banged this hard.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
While y’all toil in Frank Ocean purgatory I’m on my 17th listen of the album of the year. pic.twitter.com/sicF6IjPnu
— Logan (@PlagueLovers) August 1, 2016