With his luminous yellow tracksuit and red beaded braids, Lil Yachty is hard to miss. The 19-year-old Atlanta-based singer-rapper is in London for his first European visit, and later tonight he’ll play an electric sold-out show that will see the likes of Skepta and Frank Ocean in attendance. Arriving late to our morning photo shoot, Yachty strolls into the studio and immediately slumps down on the sofa to take a nap.
As the studio team finish final preparations for the shoot, NYC legend Cam’Ron’s 2002 hit single Hey Ma plays through the photographer’s soundsystem. Right on cue, Yachty wakes up, walks over, unplugs the aux and puts on Chief Keef’s track Cashin. Considering the debate surrounding him, it’s an appropriately audacious move.
"If you’re different, it’s going to take a second for people to accept change"
In a little over a year, Yachty’s gone from dropping out of college in Alabama to becoming the talk of the rap internet. The self-proclaimed ‘King of the Teens’ has divided opinion – accentuating longstanding differences between two schools of rap fans. Atlanta godfather Gucci Mane told a US radio station that the future belongs to Yachty and his peers, while Pitchfork writer Sheldon Pearce described him as “definitive proof that modern rap has no gatekeepers, and Soundcloud rap’s laziest possible copy-and-paste job.”
The debate is fierce and ongoing. While he’s built up a huge and primarily young fanbase in a remarkably short amount of time, Lil Yachty has also become the punchbag for a legion of rap fans who feel he represents a degeneration in the genre – an artist trading lyrical dexterity and streetwise grit in for catchy melodies and unintimidating eccentricities.
“I was making music for fun,” he tells me once the shoot’s wrapped up. “I wasn’t trying to be no lyricist. That’s what people don’t understand. All these blogs and old hip-hop MCs don’t understand I’m just having fun.” Fitting with his playful aesthetic, Yachty’s voice is almost cartoony – a kind of nasal baritone, dozy but switched-on. His youthfulness is on show too. His eyes are fixed on his PSP – playing NFL Street 2 and showing off all the other games he’s got with him on tour. “It used to bother me, but not anymore. If you’re different, it’s going to take a second for people to accept change.”
It’s unsurprising that the backlash got to Lil Yachty at first. The comments levelled at him range from those confused by his melody-driven ‘mumble-rap’ and those genuinely upset by the apparent disrespect he’s shown for hip-hop’s old school. In August he uploaded a photo to Facebook of him biting his trademark boat medallion. The top comment reads, “Please choke on that necklace and die. Sincerely, all the old hip-hop heads who require talent in their music.”
Born in 1997, when Yachty was ready to pursue music his father connected him with a longtime friend, Coach K. The Coach is a crucial figure in the timeline of ‘New Atlanta’ – he managed the early steps of Gucci Mane’s career and has been instrumental in affirming the Southern rap capital’s status as hip-hop’s modern nucleus. He’s become a kind of uncle figure for Yachty – accompanying him here on this first trip out of America. At first, Coach is a somewhat intimidating figure whose reputation precedes him, with two decades experience and a santa beard that only comes with wisdom. Later though, his affection for Yachty is clear – he chuckles at his silliness and reassures him that British bacon is indeed edible when breakfast is served up.
Having only made music for around 10 months, Yachty’s profile grew considerably when he starred alongside the likes of Naomi Campbell and Young Thug in Kanye West’s Madison Square Garden takeover – the globally streamed launch for West’s Yeezy Season 3 range and his “living, breathing” album, The Life of Pablo. It was at the Yeezy show where Yachty first met Young Thug, who he later went on tour with. “He’s super cool,” Yachty enthuses. “He’s just like me – open-minded to trying anything.”
"I don’t say no to anything, I give everything a chance. I was raised around art"
Much like Thug, Yachty has always been keen to exist outside of conventional rap norms. As a kid, his parents exposed him to all kinds of art. He remembers growing up in an environment which taught him to escape conventions. “I don’t say no to anything – I give everything a chance. I was raised around art. My dad was a photographer so I was always exposed to so much imagery. I had an iMac and the internet… I was just always in my room.” The pixels of his imagination are most prevalent in his music, but there’s a feeling of daydreaming youthfulness throughout everything he does. When he’s not looking down at his PSP, he’s looking up, wide-eyed and thoughtful.
This personality is poured into the two mixtapes he’s released in 2016. Lil Boat and Summer Songs 2 have a vivid cinematic quality. Narratively, the tapes revolve around three characters. ‘Uncle Darnell Boat’ – Yachty’s middle-aged moustached alter-ego – and his two nephews. “Well, hello folks, Darnell Boat here,” he says at the start of the first tape, in a pantomimic voice of a straightedged elder. “Today, I’mma tell you a little story about my two nephews: Lil Yachty and Lil Boat.”
“If you were to have an angel and a devil on your shoulder, Lil Yachty would be the angel and Lil Boat would be the devil,” he tells me, without smirking. “I’m not saying Boat is a bad guy, he’s just a bit more aggressive.” The two characters actually serve as a handy way of splitting his rapping style in half. Lil Yachty is responsible for the airy, falsetto singing – lullaby melodies on ice-cream-van beats. Lil Boat emerges when he gets tougher and takes on more of conventional rap delivery.
His biggest solo hit thus far is 1Night which, having gone viral through Vine, was accompanied by a music video which paired footage of Yachty’s IRL boat trip with meme imagery and a cameo from Venus X. Then came Broccoli, a sun-kissed collaboration with Virginia producer/rapper D.R.A.M. which has gone double platinum. Since his music has begun to seep into the mainstream, some listeners have likened Yachty to a young Andre 3000, while others have compared his Auto-Tuned vocals to the sound of a Sega Megadrive malfunctioning.
While the debate about Yachty’s credibility rages on, the only thing undeniable at this point is the hype he’s getting. Earlier this year he laid down a verse for Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book, shrugging off expectations that he might end up as a one-hit-wonder: “After 1Night the folks thought I was finished/ I pinned my name to the game like a seamstress.” It was arguably the most affecting verse on the whole record.
“I knew I had to really write something because Chance is so dope,” Yachty explains. “He sent it to me and I sent it back in like 30 minutes, I was so excited. I’m a huge fan.” While many rappers would try and play it cool, Yachty is unashamed of his fanboy moments. “When I was at Made In America Festival I met Jay Z and Beyonce!” he exclaims, sounding as if he’s still trying to believe it himself, “it was crazy cause they knew who I was. They spotted me first! Beyonce said, ‘Look it’s Yachty!’”
The excitement and sincerity of Lil Yachty is compelling, yet for some the fact he acts a little like a competition winner only adds fuel to the theory that he’s effectively winging it. It’s sometimes hard to decipher whether Lil Yachty is excited because he’s made it, or because he’s gotten away with it.
There’s a case for arguing that he’s baited the response from older hip-hop heads – a contingent especially susceptible to insolence. He made a particularly grating pop song with reality star Kylie Jenner which he’s since admitted was “awful”. Elsewhere, a video emerged of Yachty and his entourage listening to Drake’s Shot For Me on his tour bus, claiming that the Toronto superstar is better than Biggie and Tupac. After playing Drake’s tune, they put on Tupac’s Picture Me Rollin’ and imitate the sort of hands-in-the-air action that’s typically associated with old school hip-hop shows. “Drake be singing and rapping!” shouts one of Yachty’s friends, “Tupac and Biggie, ain’t got shit on Drake!” It’s clear to see why he’s seen by many as an agitator – smuggling the ostensibly throwaway idiocy of the internet generation into the rich tapestry of hip-hop.
According to Yachty, these moves haven’t been part of some masterplan – where he disrespects an entire culture and separates himself from older styles – he was just born into a generation who weren’t force-fed east coast rap and haven’t inherited the narrow-minded attitude that the entire genre has been deteriorating since the mid 90s. “I was never shown New York rap until I went out there last summer and started getting put on,” he confesses. “I’d never heard DipSet or Biggie or anything.” The only rap Yachty’s dad played him as a kid was Kanye and OutKast – hardly key champions of traditionalism. Other than that he was raised on Paul McCartney and Coldplay. He lists Pure Heroine, the 2013 debut from New Zealand teenaged pop star Lorde, as one of the greatest albums of all time.
After an hour in his enjoyable company, Lil Yachty seems like an easy sell. He tells me he gets lonely on the road and wants a girlfriend, that he wants to take care of his family, that he’s trying to stay off Twitter. All normal obstacles for a 19-year-old thrust into fame. Altogether he seems like an internet explorer with a playful demeanour, infatuated with the most essential elements of songwriting. To some, the melodies he dreams up are immature and facile, to others they have a kind of starry-eyed charm. His seemingly overnight ascent to superstardom is still something he’s coming to terms with.
“I talk to my mum every day,” he says, recalling how things were just 12 months ago. “I’ve lived with her my whole life until this year. I was scared about not speaking with her. Every memory I have is in that house but there was a lot of rules and a lot of chores. I had to keep my room clean, I had a curfew, I couldn’t have company all the time. Now I have my own place – I have a penthouse.”
This sudden change in lifestyle seems to be what weighs heaviest on Yachty’s mind. He’s created a mystique around himself and willed success into existence. If anything, the hype is moving too fast even for him. To write him off as a passing fad on account of the differences between him and Tupac or Biggie is to undersell the limitless creativity and essential freedom of expression that exists within hip-hop. Why shouldn’t his music sit worlds apart from a style that he’s two generations and 800 miles away from? There’s also a chance that he might turn out to be the modern paradigm for faking it till you make it – the meme made manifest – an American dream story built on aspiration and personality alone.
“I think back to college a lot. I had no money and I was walking around campus and nobody knew me,” he reflects. “I remember walking through the mall in my city and thinking to myself, ‘One day I’m gonna walk through this mall and everybody’s gonna know who I am’. I’ve been back to the mall and people follow me and chase me.” He’s looking me in the eye for the first time. “It’s crazy. All my dreams – every dream – has come true.”