Lil Yachty’s music is bizarre, optimistic, catchy – but can it really be called ‘good’? Conrad Duncan investigates
This was meant to be an album review. I was meant to write at great length about all the strengths and weaknesses of Lil Yachty’s Teenage Emotions, in the hope of sharing some understanding of his frankly bizarre success. But to do so would be a fool’s errand. It would require me to talk about Lil Yachty like a normal artist, when his success has largely been down to being anything but normal. For around a year and a half now, the 19-year-old Atlanta rapper/singer has been infuriating and confounding hip hop’s old guard with a style of auto-tune rap that’s borrowed ideas from trap music, synth-pop and video game themes. His voice is a breathless warble that showcases none of the authority of hip hop’s greats and his lyrics often feel improvised, pairing maddening non-sequiturs with puerile metaphors. To many, he represents everything that’s wrong with modern rap music, a sign that rap in the 2010s has become obsessed with style and novelty over substance. But he’s galvanized a much younger generation, who’ve embraced him for his DIY aesthetic and unwavering optimism. This divide has seen aggressive arguments over the last year between these two sides and what has made this divide so hard to cross is the problem that Yachty’s music defies so many conventions of what good music usually sounds like.
To say that his music is bad in the traditional sense is to state the obvious. His vocals are frequently off-tempo and sometimes off-key, his songs are incredibly repetitive and comically simplistic, and he is consistently overshadowed by his guest stars. Yet, immediately writing Lil Yachty off fails to acknowledge what makes him so popular. I’m sure there are people who like his music for uncritical reasons, but there are other things at play with Yachty’s success. As if talent works on a circular spectrum, the songs on Teenage Emotions and his earlier mixtapes often stray so far from normal conventions of good music that they become almost avant-garde. Yachty’s music is adventurous and futuristic in a way that suggests that he’s a more technically gifted musician than he lets on. In a simple sense, you could call it ‘so bad it’s good’ but he hits that mark so often that it becomes hard to say he’s just been getting lucky so far. His hooks are as ridiculous as the instrumentals that he performs over but they’re likely to be stuck in your head for days. Lil Yachty is hip hop’s premier idiot savant, able to craft hooks like a master yet insisting on performing them like an amateur.
The best example of this is on ‘Bring It Back’, one of Teenage Emotions many lead singles; a song that sounds like a 80s synth-pop classic sung by a half-unconscious T-Pain at karaoke. Where you stand on the song will likely match with your feelings on karaoke in general but as an avid fan of people singing songs very badly, I can’t help but think it’s quite wonderful. For all his faults, Yachty has an oversupply of charisma when he needs it and on ‘Bring It Back’ his charm pushes the song forward when it should bomb dramatically. But Yachty’s charisma also has its limits and for every deliriously ridiculous success like ‘Bring It Back’ or the equally silly ‘All Around Me’ and ‘Harley’, there are moments when his style gets old very quickly. Usually this happens when he attempts to sound tough and win over the sort of rap fans who have always dismissed him. On songs like ‘DN Freestyle’ and ‘Dirty Mouth’, Yachty sounds clumsy and unconvincing. On the former, the whole tracks sounds so unfocussed and unfinished that you’d be hard pressed to argue that it deserves placement on a major label debut, especially as the album’s second track.
However, even if Lil Yachty is an extremely unconvincing trap artist and a surprisingly endearing singer, I can’t see him abandoning the former aesthetic any time soon. His club-orientated tracks, like recent single ‘Peek A Boo’, are now among his most popular and if there is one thing that clearly drives him, it’s commercial success. First and foremost, he’s still a 19-year-old who probably can’t believe that he’s managed to make a living for himself writing the sort of music that he wanted to hear. I highly doubt there’s anything deeper than that going on with his writing or his life in general. Anyone who’s seen interviews with the man will know that Yachty is likeable and often very funny but he’s not deep, not in the slightest sense. But none of this has had a detrimental effect on his career so far, largely because his straightforward good-times-all-the-time persona is exactly what his fans are looking for. Lil Yachty makes music for people who want to have fun, and the fact that most of his songs are poorly constructed or nonsensical does nothing to hurt his appeal.
In fact, I’d argue that it actually helps him. The improbability of Yachty’s rise to fame, due to his lack of traditional talent and eccentric persona, is what makes his rags to riches story so endearing. When he talks about ignoring haters and battling against the odds, it’s easy to believe him because we can hear exactly why you’d write him off. This means that Yachty’s shortcomings are intrinsically linked to his strengths and if he were to improve to the traditional standard of a decent rapper, he would not be the cultural novelty that makes him so entertaining. There are hundreds of other rappers on SoundCloud as ungifted as Lil Yachty who have failed to capture the public’s imagination because they fail to be original. You could therefore think of him as rap music’s Florence Foster Jenkins because, intentionally or not, Yachty has learnt that it’s okay to be bad so long as you’re entertaining with it.
This then brings us to the biggest problem for any critic who wants to cover Lil Yachty’s music – how are you meant to review his albums? That sounds at first like a stupid question – you either like them or you don’t – but deciding whether you like a record is not necessarily the end of a critic’s work. Is a critic expected to simply present their own view of an album (placing them on the same level of a fan) or are they expected to reach for something more objective, arguing for how good the record is rather than how good they think it is? Teenage Emotions is one of those albums that forces me to confront that problem between the subjective and objective critic head on and has led me to no clear conclusion over the past week. It seems to me to be completely pointless to analyse Yachty’s lyrics in the same way that I would for a Kendrick Lamar album when his fans probably waste none of their time thinking about them. It also seems churlishly po-faced to ignore the enjoyment many of his songs give me because of their many flaws. But I wouldn’t be able to recommend Teenage Emotions to anyone with a straight face. I struggle to even call half of its songs good.
So if you want a review of Lil Yachty’s music, this is it. It’s bad, often extraordinarily terrible, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t like it. In fact, you might enjoy a lot of it more genuinely than you would expect to. Many people have argued that Yachty’s success doesn’t make any sense and can be boiled down to people having bad taste but what those people ignore is that Lil Yachty does offer something to his fans. He offers them the promise of a good time with no baggage and complexity attached. That might sound like an overly simple USP but for a generation who have had little to be positive about, Yachty’s sunny optimism is going to keep on resonating regardless of its inconsistencies. Like all good artists, he’s managed to tap into a mood that people want to connect to. What’s so surprising is that he’s managed to do it without being very good at all.
Coincidentally, Drew Millard over at Noisey has written a good piece that tackles with the same conflict between objective and subjective reviewing that this article does, you can read it here: https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/how-do-you-even-write-an-album-review-anymore