The Faulty Rationale For Lil Yachty’s Psych-Rock Metamorphosis
Do you remember the first time you heard a rapper say they wanted to be taken “seriously as an artist” and not just a measly rapper? Lil Yachty wasn’t the first. It’s been said so much that it’s now a cliché and, at worst, cynical — the parallel of someone getting into LSD so they can finally claim to have understood the rhythms of the progressive rock band Pink Floyd. It was said by A$AP Rocky when he made the sexless and drug-aided Testing. Tyler, The Creator and his Supreme socks said it’s a “backhanded compliment” to be called a rapper after winning a Best Rap Album Grammy for IGOR. And now, The Man Who Took The Wock To Poland himself, at a listening party for his new album Let’s Start Here., said he “wanted to be taken seriously as an artist and not just a SoundCloud rapper.”
Why do these young men reject their own culture with such banality? The melodies Yachty birthed on SoundCloud became a part of hip-hop lore; his Nickelodeon-and-bubblegum sound earned him wrath from the grown and grumpy, but he was actually driving culture. “Poland,” a song that took a simple hook and blew it up into a mark of international status and a unique expression of your own intense feelings, already cemented him as a serious artist.
This is why, despite my ambivalence toward some of Yachty’s early music, Let’s Start Here. feels inauthentic. It strikes me as an “away game” – a pivot to a market that doesn’t consume, or engage, with any kind of Black music happening today. Like Stringer Bell himself, Yachty is chasing an acceptance from people who don’t normally care for his culture, music, and style.
Let’s Start Here. is a psychedelic rock album. Despite including some aspects of Steve Lacy-like R&B and even synth-pop, it is formatted as a Pink Floyd-like album, with lyrics about consciousness and the subconscious. On “the BLACK seminole.,” Yachty sings, “A Black man with mouths to feed/ Embracing quality throughout greed, no time to joke around/ The kid is now a man.” In the midst of those postural lyrics, expansive music plays – lysergic guitars that rip for minutes. This is Dark Side Of The Moon if it was made by a Black kid who thought he was weirder than the other Black kids. “running out of time” gets funky; and Yachty is committed to the bit. Yet, like a sexless marriage, the tantalization isn’t there. It’s all too clean. Too dry. Yachty’s vocals on “WE SAW THE SUN!” aren’t legible enough — a waste of solid and compact writing.
All this is supposed to be unconventional, but Let’s Start Here. is more predictable than progressive, more light-hearted than the “serious album” Yachty wants to make. It also seems to be geared for the white consciousness — a disappointing turn from an artist who made his name on Black music for Black kids. The album offers more of the reprieve from reality that has always characterized Yachty’s work, but without the simple brilliance that made him a factor in hip-hop. That is not revolutionary. It’s just the same strategy in a different packaging – a whiter packaging.
Maybe Yachty has broadened his listenership a bit here, but no artist changes their reputation in one album. It builds up over time. Before he became a Nazi sympathizer, Kanye West’s Yeezus built on the dissatisfaction and the megalomania of all his previous music. It was a radical progression of a persona that had accrued over time – in both his distasteful view of women and his pattern of bringing the avant-garde to the hood. Like Kanye, Yachty has moved through different contexts while always retaining a distinct essence, and an outlier in his catalog that plays like a stunt release is not going to significantly alter that essence.
It isn’t even that the music on Let’s Start Here. is bad. Yachty has good ideas on this record. Midway through the album, we hear “sAy sOMETHINg,” a song that could have been in the A24 movie Waves. The drum begins, and you wonder if you’ll finally get music with a heartbeat in it — and then the flatline of Floyd and Lacy pastiche continues. Yachty has good musical instincts; the repetition of “say something” on that song is quite passionate, like he is yelling to his partner to pay attention to what he has to say. So is the switch up to “I neeeed your loovve.”
Elsewhere, finale “REACH THE SUNSHINE.” is a rousing crescendo. Yachty’s right to put the bass back in his voice on “THE zone~,” the best song on the record. “In the moonlight, escape life,” he says, understanding the best aspect of his music is its video-game-like escapism. Yachty, for himself and the listener, is a freedom, for a second, from crime and class struggles. He’s a friendly, pink-braided wonder. Everything is on the page; until the music ends, there’s not an outside world — just whatever you desire, like Pierce Patchett’s prostitution business. This is Yachty’s strength and why people should be skeptical of him.
Because of his lack of friction between himself and his class consciousness, Yachty’s music is often not frisky or intense. Even his verses on Michigan Boat Boy weren’t as severe or tense as Rio Da Yung OG’s. He’s a cotton candy rapper; this has yielded excellent results, and sometimes leaves you wishing he was more resistant to sacrificing his intensity. In this case, the credits are lined with names that will be familiar to anyone who goes to Heaven Or Las Vegas in Bushwick on the weekends — Mac DeMarco, Alex G, members of MGMT and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and so on. That’s the point: They’re there to provide fans with a different idea of Yachty. “He’s experimenting now!” exclaimed fictional Tommy, the third coolest kid in his rich Westchester town.
But rappers can be experimental without trending away from the genre of rap music. Guitars aren’t needed to move in a different direction or to gain respect as an artist. Call Me If You Get Lost is just as dynamic as IGOR, if not more. As my friend and peer Alphonse Pierre pointed out in his Let’s Start Here. review, “hip-hop is limitless.” It can sound like an oversexed Kanye West, having threesomes with his ex-wife and a French girl in Paris; it can sound like A$AP Rocky turning New York into the recipient of other cities’s swagger and culture; it can sound like Youngboy NeverBrokeAgain, who brought back the aesthetics and production of ’90s New Orleans rap on 3800 Degrees; it can be RXK Nephew and Rx Papi, both of whom are like a Reddit user with the emotional range of 2Pac; and finally, it can be Lil Yachty himself, singing “You need to stay up off the streets if you can’t take the heat,” in the least menacing way possible. Rap has changed. It will continue to. All Black music does. This is true unlimited artistry. And if a rockist critic or fan likes those albums, they’re meeting us at our doorstep for dinner, not us knocking at theirs, despite us their entire menu being based on the ingredients of hip-hop.
It wouldn’t be surprising to hear that Yachty feels that his music is now serious. But that conclusion is based on a false ideal of what kind of music matters, rooted in institutional classism and racism. It’s based on the idea that rap music is a fad, not to be taken seriously by the establishment who gives out Grammys. Don’t let the capitalist head-shrinking master tell you that your genre is lesser. Yachty is welcome to make whatever kind of music he wants to, but he doesn’t need to leave hip-hop behind to create music of value and substance. Making good rap music should be enough. In fact, it is more than enough.
SILENCERS, INFRAREDS, AND OFFICIAL SHIT
Talibando – "Deja Vu"
The best album I heard last week was Talibando’s War Lord. The Michigan rapper has Veeze and BabyTron on his album, and boy, it is a hoot. If you put a raspy voice on a Michigan rapper, it is bound to be menacing. This song ends with “I get high until my body numb and don’t know how to feel.” This is not a life you want to live.
Bic Fizzle - "Just Got Started"
Arkansas rapper Bic Fizzle doesn’t do anything better than anyone, but his new mixtape Clark Street Baby is remarkably consistent. It’s a double disc, and most of the songs are so good. Fizzle is signed to Gucci Mane’s 1017 Records imprint; Gucci has another one.
Luh Tyler – "Can't Move Wrong" (Feat. Trapland Pat)
America’s baddest 16-year-old is back at it again, this time linking with the very good South Florida rapper Trapland Pat.
Styles P - "Peaceful Crazy"
Styles is still a compelling rapper after all these years. Shout out to D-Block.
FO3 Bear – "Not One Of Them" (Feat. Fairview Huna & FV Fazo)
Alaskan rappers FO3 Bear, Fairview Huna, and FV Fazo combined to make this riotous track. Mountain View, the most dangerous hood in Alaska, is where these guys are from. You feel how isolated yet ominous they sound. The hood of Anchorage is it.
SME TaxFree & RRB Duck – "Chief Keef"
Milwaukee is on a wave, similar to Detroit, not quite Chicago, where there are so many good rappers that it is hard to keep up. RRB Duck is always good, and is especially fun on this song with SME TaxFree, who has one hell of a rap name.
Tae Dawg - "Get Out Ya Feelings"
The DMV rapper is aggressive here. I enjoyed this.
RXK Nephew - "Yeezy Boots"
People are joining into on the Nephew party a bit too late. It was at its best in 2020. But he can still reach for a Reddit-rap fastball. Kanye West is just another Nazi now.
Lil Bean & Mbnel – "Same Struggle"
San Francisco’s Lil Bean is a stalwart of pain and melody. Here he comes at people who have snitched, featuring a nimble verse from Mbnel.
Rio Da Yung OG & RMC Mike – "No Big Homie"
The world still awaits Rio Da Yung OG’s return from prison. In the meantime, he has been making excellent music. “No Big Homie” is rapturous — akin to the first steps of freedom when you leave. Until he actually does, we’ll enjoy this from Rio.
Policemen should not become mayor of New York. Fuck Eric Adams.