Smells Like Teen Spirit

Teen Atlanta Rapper Lil Yachty Disengages With Tradition and Pisses off Oldsters

On Oct. 27, Atlanta rapper Miles Park McCollum—better known as Lil Yachty—sent out a fairly typical missive to his 588.2 K (or so) Twitter followers: "Everyday I wake up it's a new old person giving there [sic] comments on me in an interview nobody will watch lol."

Among the vanguard of young rappers, few have a more antagonistic relationship with the establishment—read "olds"—than Yachty. But at 19, he's the prime age for disruption. Let that sink in for a minute. He was one when Outkast released Aquemini. Six when Kanye West debuted with The College Dropout. Just hitting double digits when his future collaborator Soulja Boy dominated the radio with "Crank That (Soulja Boy)."

Yachty is 2016's enfant terrible and he's having a massive year. This summer, he signed a joint record deal with Quality Control Music, Capitol and Motown. He recently announced a fashion line for Urban Outfitters and Nautica. He appeared with LeBron James in a Sprite commercial. He's dropped two high profile mixtapes—Lil Boat and Summer Songs II—and appeared on songs with Charlie XCX, Chance the Rapper, Gucci Mane and D.R.A.M.

Yachty's youthful brashness seems at odds with any sense of tradition. His freestyle on legacy hip-hop station Hot 97 earned him scolds—"I feel like 40 years old on this verse," he laughed while fumbling. Speaking with Billboard, he stated he "honestly couldn't name five songs" by Tupac or Biggie. When he refers to himself as the "king of teens"—as he does often in his songs, peppering the phrase alongside his frequent non-sequitur "'lil boat!"—you get the sense that it's a shot at all the pissed off traditionalists in his wake as much as brand establishment.

So what is it about Yachty that annoys the over-25 set so much? Maybe it's his look, brash and bright, with red hair, which practically glows in photos. But more likely it's his flow, which can sound even more liquid than his contemporaries like Young Thug, Desiigner, iLoveMakonnen, and Migos, whose Auto-Tuned vocals have come to define rap's effects-draped landscape. Yachty opts for pure ooze, sounding utterly languid over gauzy beats and video game sparkles. And about those beats: provided mostly by producer the Good Perry (formerly Burberry Perry), they feature twinkling electronic dings and twee sugariness welded to minimalist trap templates. At their best, they suggest ambient soundscapes; at their worst, they might remind you of Owl City. Few rappers are willing to sound as pillowy as Yachty, and his processed falsetto on songs like "Minnesota" and "I'm Sorry" is striking in its unusualness.

For those placing a premium on wordplay, Yachty won't dazzle. He tends to facilitate between two extremes. On "Positivity Song," he channels the gentle inspiration of one of those "hang in there" cat posters. "Life Goes On," offers a similarly resilient outlook, with Yachty consoling, "You might be down at the moment/but stay there and you'll be up soon." His other mode is aggressively vulgar, with songs like "Not My Bro" and "Dipset" filled with filthy imagery. On D.R.A.M.'s hit song "Broccoli" he veers between these two lanes wildly and rapidly, asking "Hey lil' mama, would you like to be my sunshine?" before invoking the Combine school shooting.

Most of the time, Yachty seems amused with his own smart aleck snide—rapping in a clipped cadence just before the beat, not behind it—but when he does rev up, like on the furious "Hot 97," it's like a jolt. That direct sharpness—directed at those mocking his appearance on the station—is rare in Yachty's songs, prompting the usual question of style over substance. But to hear Yachty tell it on his guest verse in Chance the Rapper's "Mixtape," his style is his substance. "Am I the only one who really care about cover art?" he asks alongside Chance (whose Coloring Book mixtape is one of the most substantive albums of the year) and similarly the brazen Young Thug.

Aesthetic is everything for an artist like Yachty. His album covers are striking and his Instagram feed is filled with bold, artful shots. He employs a prismatic vibe, all exploding color and zest. His early songs were built around video game and cartoon samples and his wanton strangeness owes as much to Adult Swim shows (you'll recognize Tim and Eric's "Absolutely!" tag in his "Why") as it does to his lineage as a Southern rap weirdo in the line of the Dungeon Family, Goodie Mob, Lil B and other groundbreakers.

But Yachty's seemingly uninterested in engaging with any mold other than the one he's creating. It's tempting to view his Biggie/Tupac statement as a snotty shot across the bow, but on further inspection it could echo the roar of The Clash singing "No Elvis, no Beatles, or the Rolling Stones" in "1977," or Ornette Coleman's rejection of trad chord changes in favor of atonal squall. Not knowing something isn't the same actively denying it, but Yachty's tone feels like one of willful dismissal regarding what's come before in the pursuit of something new and potentially unrecognizable to the old guard.

While his records have yet to sustain the feel of his guest features, it's clear that Yachty's cultivating his hype. He's not without peers or antecedents—like Lil Wayne or T-Pain, whose electronically lifted voices created new avenues of expression in hip-hop—and his restless creativity feels like it could bloom into something truly singular, something the kids will inherently understand before the gatekeepers or other musicians are ready to grapple with it. When modern funk master Anderson .Paak—his own phenomenal work is greatly indebted to powerful soul, R&B and hip-hop traditions—criticized Yachty on Twitter for not being a "student of the game," Yachty responded, "I think it's funny how people feel like you HAVE to like something just cause everybody else does ... or like I HAVE to know something." It's a pure sentiment even if it's a messy one, the germ of an idea that could either lead absolutely nowhere or to innovative new forms. Yachty remains a question, but no matter what he does, the old heads will no doubt speculate as to its quality or authenticity. Mostly, Yachty doesn't seem like he gives a damn either way, but occasionally he makes it clear he hears the dismissals. Eloquently on his song "Why," he wondered, "Why do they hate on me? You should want me to be great, homie." But other times he moves with the undeniably rebellious spirit of youth. Like his Twitter bio less humbly proclaims, "They hate on me but they hated Jesus."

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