Hip-hop has always been weird. Despite the genre’s tendency to project an outward image of machismo cool, the forty odd year history of hip-hop performers has been littered with glorious freaks since the beginning. Afrika Bambaataa - a record collectin’, sound system tweakin’ teenage intellectual - managed to lay the genre’s foundation while dressed in a makeshift leather space suit. With an eye patch and a mound of gold chains, Slick Rick’s English dandy character frolicked amongst the most self-serious gangster rappers of the nineties. In the 2000s, Lil Jon’s rap game Animal from the Muppets persona guzzled Crunk Juice and eschewed all traditional lyrical standards in favour of a bevy of shouted catchphrases and body fluid centric irreverence, making him a worldwide star in the process. Not even going into the legacies of self-proclaimed Martian Lil’ Wayne and Kanye Fucking West, the real history of real hip-hop has proven time and time again to be a diverse and defiantly unclassifiable playground for the freaks.
So why are folks so upset about Lil Yachty in 2017? You could ask Joe Budden. The Love & Hip Hop New York star and former Billboard number thirty-eight “hit” single rapper has made a brand as of late out of answering that very question. We can’t blame Budden though. Over the last seven years, hip-hop has faced a steadily growing tidal wave of influence defined by a new pervasive brand of weirdness that has made it more difficult than ever for mediocre “Real Hip-Hop” rappers to eat. Birthed by Lil B The Based God, brought to critical and commercial heights by Young Thug, and currently front run by Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty, this new school of experimentally absurd rappers has proven themselves capable of infuriating, enlightening, disassembling, and re-establishing the hip-hop establishment and the genre as a whole.
Starting in 2009, Bay area outsider Lil B The Based God began a string of manic releases that established him as a lynchpin for this particular mutation of hip-hop. Lil B’s work was built upon “Based,” a self-championed style of vulgar improvisational vocal delivery that eschewed all traditional metrics of lyrical proficiency in favour of a loose off-beat non-rhyming verbal barrage centred on the power of the untrained virtuoso. B’s non-reverential Based sound rejected the established aesthetic values of the genre wholesale, called into question traditional hip-hop standards of masculinity [2011’s I'm Gay (I'm Happy), Pretty Bitch, and Tiny Pants Bitch], religious reverence (I’m God), and release packaging (2011’s 855 track mixtape). At his peak, Lil B was met with bemused curiosity from critics and violent anger from hip-hop establishment figures. Despite being ever present in the music world news cycle for years, the most visible considerations of Lil B in the mainstream determined him to be either an idiot or a meme. All the while, there was a large group of internet-obsessed kids - members of the Lil B “Task Force” who swore to protect him at all costs - who considered the rapper to be as divine as his moniker implied. Just as the punk promise of The Velvet Underground & Nico and The Ramones emboldened a generation of garage punk shit kickers to make noise regardless of talent, Lil B’s Basedworld effectively created the new wave of artists that Lil Yachty belongs to.
Lil Yachty’s success is inherently positive for hip-hop as a genre. He is the embodiment of the genre as a universal art form. Like rock & roll before it, the idealistic definition of hip-hop is completely and utterly without limit or rule; a worldwide movement defined by an un-definable yet highly influential feeling rather than any particular sound. Yachty’s debut album, this month’s Teenage Emotions, is a direct embodiment of that belief. At twenty-two songs, the thing is also a complete mess.
To know Lil Yachty is to know Lil Boat. Clearly influenced by Lil B’s tendency to fluctuate tone between extreme expressions of unconditional compassion and explosive violent vulgarity, Lil Yachty has adopted a split personality on record, performing songs via the conflicting characters of Lil Yachty and Lil Boat. Although equally smut minded, Lil Yachty croons while Lil Boat barks. In the tradition of his Lil Boat and Summer Songs 2 mixtapes, Teenage Emotions begins with a verbal coronation delivered by the raspy-voiced Uncle Darnell Boat, the Holy Ghost of Yachty’s persona Trinity, who introduces the terrible twins at the top. For Teenage Emotions, Darnell defers to Lil Yachty to begin with the woozy sweetness of album standout “Like A Star.” Throughout the album, Lil Yachty’s tracks shine far brighter than the unfocused fury of Boat. The performative aggression of “DN Freestyle” and “X-Men” are clear attempts to please Yachty’s A&Rs, taking aim at the old head approval that’s completely irrelevant to this project despite what the press cycle would have you believe. The tracks come across as faux-violent costumes of an otherwise overwhelmingly genuine teenage softie, falling short of everyone’s standards in a mess of uncomfortable misogynistic dress up.
The centrepiece of Teenage Emotions is Bring It Back a Carly Rae Jepson flavoured synth anthem that sounds like both Lil Yachty’s version of Future’s Turn On The Lights and M83’s Midnight City. The nearly five minute single is peak Lil Yachty; an irresistible treat of tone built upon lyrical repetition and the nostalgic warmth of a VHS glow that manages to be one of the best singles of the year, saxophone solo and all. This shade of Yachty is also present on the album in the bonkers ballad Lady In The Yellow, Yachty’s version of Chris de Burgh's smaltz classic Lady In Red, which opens up with a Vocoder solo that warps Yachty’s voice for a beautiful fleeting moment into a duelling saxophone/guitar solo. Combined with the ebullient Harley, these Teenage Emotions stand outs are surely the strangest hip-hop singles to be put out on a major label debut in recent memory.
Although Teenage Emotions comes short of cohesion, the fact that it exists is worthy of praise. Sure, there’s easily ten songs too many and the near complete absence of Yachty secret weapon 1 Night producer TheGoodPerry (aka Burberry Perry) is criminal. Doesn’t change the fact that Teenage Emotions is easily one of the most interesting records of the year. Like him or hate him, there’s something special about Lil Boat. We’ll never see what a Lil B major label album would sound like but at least we have Yachty shimmying around to “Bring It Back” on Jimmy Kimmel. Despite questionable first week sales and the ire of the Joe Budden’s of the world, I have a feeling Lil Boat’s career is going to last longer than a three hour tour.
Words: Nick Boyd