At 19, Atlanta upstart Lil Yachty is marching into the most uncertain chapter of his career. The self-proclaimed “King of Teens” is up against the increasingly irrelevant barometer of success—the debut album. His first LP, Teenage Emotions (out today) will be dissected critically, commercially, and culturally. But measuring Yachty’s artistic credibility against the benchmark of a debut album is almost beside the point, given how Yachty has positioned himself.
In a December interview with the New York Times Yachty explained that “I’m not a rapper, I’m an artist. And I’m more than an artist. I’m a brand.” In an episode of Everyday Struggle (and on Twitter), Lil Yachty has claimed to be a shrewd businessman, which might seem antithetical to the inclusive and optimistic pop music he is very good at making.
Yachty heeded the words of Wu-Tang Financial and diversified his bonds. He has deals with Sprite and Target, both of which have resulted in memorable collaborative commercials, with LeBron James and Carly Rae Jepsen, respectively. Nautica saw something in his lightning rod existence and invited him aboard as a creative designer to revive the brand for a new generation. And last year he modeled for Kanye’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion show at Madison Square Garden. He gifted D.R.A.M. and Kyle top 5 Hot 100 singles with “Broccoli” and “iSpy.” Chance the Rapper bestowed Lil Boat with the honor of his favorite verse on the Grammy-Award-winning album Coloring Book.
With this success comes scrutiny. Yachty’s become the symbol for everything that’s wrong with the latest generation of rap, according to various dusty rap talking heads. It isn’t a position that Yachty has tried to evade; if anything he’s embraced it, and used it to use advantage to build buzz. (He didn’t have to appear on Everyday Struggle, after all.) For his lack of familiarity with rap history—he told Billboard he couldn’t name five Tupac or Biggie song, and later called the Notorious B.I.G. “overrated”—he’s been branded the rap antichrist by some critics and fans.
All of this applies a certain kind of pressure to Teenage Emotions to show and prove his talent. But at the same time, it doesn’t matter.
2017 is not 1997. The classic album is still a signifier of greatness and relevance for some, but it doesn’t have shit to do with Yachty’s popularity or staying power—especially since he shrugs off the title of rapper. And what’s more, debuts don’t matter like they used to. A host of rappers from the last decade—J. Cole, Migos, Mac Miller, Wale—have bounced back from critical or commercially disappointing debuts. In some ways, if the album is hated by critics, it reinforces Yachty’s brand. He can’t lose.
So, how is the music? Teenage Emotions reflects the fragmented, hormonal chaos of one’s formative years, when pubescent feelings run amok. Across 21 tracks Yachty is joyous, horny, angry, grateful, paranoid, and a bunch of other things, sometimes all in a single track. In other words, it’s of a piece with the larger Lil Yachty narrative.
If you had to box it up, Teenage Emotions alternates between three styles: Trap Yachty (“Peek-A-Boo,” “X Men”), Pop Yachty (“Forever Young,” “Lady In Yellow,” “Bring It Back”), and Emo Yachty (“Like a Star,” “All You Had to Say,” “Running With a Ghost”). They are all real and sincere in their own right, and speak to the fact that the Lil Yachty brand appeals to disparate group of fans who have come to the Lil Boat show in different ways. As cynical as it may sound, Teenage Emotions is another asset in Lil Yachty’s portfolio. It is an outcast marketing being an outcast to other outcasts. It doesn’t delegitimize the art, because Yachty has worn his intentions on his sleeve from the start. And when you hear his Auto-Tuned warble, you know he means it.
The paradox of the Yachty brand is that he really is a voice for the underrepresented, and you can tell because of all the people he pisses off. In this writer's opinion, Teenage Emotions may prove to be Man on the Moon: End of Day for a new generation. But like him or not, Yachty in his own unorthodox way has put hip-hop culture in a choke-hold. He doesn’t show any signs of relinquishing his grip.