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Lil Yachty's delightfully absurd path to 'Let's Start Here'

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 29: Lil Yachty performs on the Stage during day 2 of Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival 2017 at Exposition Park on October 29, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
Rich Fury/Getty Images
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 29: Lil Yachty performs on the Stage during day 2 of Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival 2017 at Exposition Park on October 29, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.

Lil Yachty often worked better as an idea than a rapper. The late-decade morass of grifters like Lil Pump, amidst the self-serious reign of Future and Drake (eventual Yachty collaborators, for what it's worth), created a demand for something lighter, someone charismatic, a throwback to a time in the culture when characters like Biz Markie could score a hit or Kool Keith could sustain a career in one hyper-specific lane of rap fandom. Yachty fulfilled the role: His introduction to many was through a comedy skit soundtracked by his viral breakout "1 Night," which tapped into the song's deadpan delivery and was the perfect complement for its sleepy charm. The casual fan knows him best for a pair of collaborations in 2016: as one-half of the zeitgeist-defining single "Broccoli" with oddity D.R.A.M., or "iSpy," a top-five pop hit with backpack rapper Kyle. Yachty embodied the rapper as larger-than-life character — from his candy-colored braids to his winning smile — and while the songs themselves were interesting, you could be forgiven for wondering if there was anything substantial behind the fun, the grounds for the start of a long career.

As if to supplement his résumé, Yachty seemed to emerge as a multimedia star. Perhaps you remember him in a Target commercial; heard him during the credits for the Saved by the Bell reboot; spotted him on a cereal box; saw him co-starring in the ill-fated 2019 sequel to How High. TikTok microcelebrity followed. Then the sentences got more and more absurd: Chef Boyardee jingle with Donny Osmond; nine-minute video cosplaying as Oprah; lead actor in an UNO card game movie. Somewhere in a cross-section of pop-culture detritus and genuine hit-making talent is where Yachty resides. That he didn't fade away immediately is a testament to his charm as a cultural figure; Yachty satisfied a need, and in his refreshingly low-stakes appeal, you could imagine him as an MTV star in an alternate universe. Move the yardstick of cultural cachet from album sales to likes and he emerges as a generation-defining persona, if not musician.

Early success and exposure can threaten anyone's career, none so much as those connected to the precarious phenomenon of SoundCloud rap. Yachty's initial peak perhaps seeded his desire years later to sincerely pursue artistry with Let's Start Here, an album fit for his peculiar trajectory, because throughout the checks from Sprite and scolding Ebro interviews he never stopped releasing music, seemingly to satisfy no one other than himself and the generation of misfits that he seemed to be speaking for.

But to oversell him as a personality belittles his substantial catalog. Early mixtapes like Lil Boat and Summer Songs 2, which prophetically brought rap tropes and pop sounds into harmony, were sustained by the teenage artist's commitment to selling the vibe of a track as he warbled its memorable hook. It was perhaps his insistence to demonstrate that he could rap, too, that most consistently pockmarked his output during this period. These misses were the necessary growing pains of a kid still finding his footing, and through time and persistence, a perceived weakness became a strength. Where his peers Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti found new ways to express themselves in music, Yachty dug in his heels and became Quality Control's oddball representative, acquitting himself on guest appearances and graduating from punchline rapper to respectable vet culminating in the dense and rewarding Lil Boat 3 from 2020, Yachty's last official album.

Which is why the buzzy, viral "Poland" from the end of 2022 hit different — Yachty tapped back into the same lively tenor of his early breakthroughs. The vibrato was on ten, the beat menaced and hummed like a broken heater, he rapped about taking cough syrup in Poland, it was over in under two minutes and endlessly replayable. Yachty has already lived a full career arc in seven years — from the 2016 king of the teens, to budding superstar, to pitchman, to regional ambassador. But following "Poland" with self-aware attempts at similar virality would be a mistake, and you can't pivot your way to radio stardom after a hit like that, unless you're a marketing genius like Lil Nas X. How does he follow up his improbable second chance to grab the zeitgeist?

Let's Start Here is Lil Yachty's reinvention, a born-again Artist's Statement with no rapping. It's billed as psychedelic rock but has a decidedly accessible sound — the sun-kissed warmth of an agreeable Tame Impala song, with bounce-house rhythms and woozy guitars in the mode of Magdalena Bay and Mac DeMarco (both of whom guest on the album) — something that's not quite challenging but satisfying nonetheless. Contrast with 2021's Michigan Boy Boat, where Yachty performed as tour guide through Michigan rap: His presence was auxiliary by function on that tape, as he ceded the floor to Babyface Ray, Sada Baby and Rio Da Yung OG; it was tantalizing curation, if not a work of his own personal artistry. It's tempting to cast Let's Start Here as another act of roleplay, but what holds this album together is Yachty's magnetic pull. Whether or not you're someone who voluntarily listens to the Urban Outfitters-approved slate of artists he's drawing upon, his star presence is what keeps you engaged here.

Yachty has been in the studio recording this album since 2021, and the effort is tangible. He didn't chase "Poland" with more goofy novelties, but he also didn't spit this record out in a month. Opener (and highlight) "The Black Seminole" alternates between Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix-lite references. It's definitely a gauntlet thrown even if halfway through you start to wonder where Yachty is. The album's production team mostly consists of Patrick Wemberly (formerly of Chairlift), Jacob Portrait (of Unknown Mortal Orchestra), Jeremiah Raisen (who's produced for Charli XCX, Sky Ferreira and Drake) and Yachty himself, who's established himself as a talented producer since his early days. (MGMT's Ben Goldwasser also contributed.) The group does a formidable job composing music that is dense and layered enough to register as formally unconventional, if not exactly boundary-pushing. Yachty frequently reaches for his "Poland"-inspired uber-vibrato, which adds a bewitching texture to the songs, placing him in the center of the track. Other moments that work: the spoken-word interlude "Failure," thanks to contemplative strumming from Alex G, and "The Ride," a warm slow-burn that coasts on a Jam City beat, giving the album a lustrous Night Slugs moment. "I've Officially Lost Vision" thrashes like Yves Tumor.

Yet the best songs on Let's Start Here push Yachty's knack for hooks and snaking melodies to the fore and rely less on studio fireworks — the laid-back groove of "Running Out of Time," the mournful post-punk of "Should I B?" and the slow burn of "Pretty," which features a bombastic turn from vocalist Foushee. That Yachty's vaunted indie collaborators were able to work in simpatico with him proves his left-of-center bonafides. It's a reminder that he's often lined his projects with successful non-rap songs, curios like "Love Me Forever" from Lil Boat 2 and "Worth It" from Nuthin' 2 Prove. That renders Let's Start Here a less startling turn than it may appear at first glance, and also underlines his recurring talent for making off-kilter pop music, a gift no matter the perceived genre.

At a listening event for the record, Yachty stated: "I created [this] because I really wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. Not just some SoundCloud rapper, not some mumble rapper. Not some guy that just made one hit," seemingly aware of the culture war within his own genre and his place along the spectrum of low- to highbrow. To be sure, whether conscious of it or not, this kind of mentality is dismissive of rap music as an artform, and also undermines the good music Yachty has made in the past. Holing up in the studio to make digestibly "weird" indie-rock with a cast of talented white people isn't intrinsically more artistic or valid than viral hits or a one-off like "Poland." But this statement scans less as self-loathing and more as a renewed confidence, a tribute to the album's collective vision. And people like Joe Budden have been saying "I don't think Yachty is hip-hop" since he started. So what if he wants to break rank now?

Lil Yachty entered the cultural stage at 18, and has grown up in public. It adds up that, now 25, he would internalize all the scrutiny he's received and wish to cement his artistry after a few thankless years rewriting the rules for young, emerging rappers. Let's Start Here may not be the transcendent psychedelic rock album that he seeks, but it is reflective of an era of genreless "vibes" music. Many young listeners likely embraced Yachty and Tame Impala simultaneously; it tracks he would want to bring these sounds together in a genuine attempt to reach a wider audience. Nothing about this album is cynical, but it is opportunistic, a creation in line with both a shameless mixed-media existence and his everchanging pop alchemy. The "genre" tag in streaming metadata means less than it ever has. Credit to Yachty for putting that knowledge to use.

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Matthew Ramirez
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