Lil Yachty Doesn't Need to Be a Hip-Hop Scholar

In the past 20 years, rap has morphed into something unrecognizable from its golden era roots. Don't get upset with Yachty over that.

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When Lil Yachty dropped by New York's Hot 97 for an interview this summer, he was, naturally, asked by Old Man Ebro and company to rap. Anyone familiar with the show, or any other hip-hop radio show over the last 25 years, knows this is par for the course. It’s a way for a rapper, especially one relatively new to the scene, to showcase their skill live, and for a massive audience. Ebro played the instrumental for OutKast’s "Jazzy Belle" from the duo’s seminal 1996 album ATLiens, and Lil Yachty (who's performing at ComplexCon in November)  stumbled through some shaky couplets before declaring, “I feel, like, 40 years old on this beat.”

Ebro, in an effort to either motivate or dig a deeper hole for the 19-year-old Atlanta artist, played the beat for Nas’ 2012 song “The Don.” Maybe he was hoping Yachty would redeem himself with an unprecedented display of verbal dexterity. That didn't happen.

Instead, Lil Yachty became flustered and confessed, “I’m not a rapper.” Of course, people lost their collective minds, and by “people” I mean those who care deeply about that kind of thing—a professional rapper’s inability to rap a certain way. Or, perhaps more specifically, a rapper’s inability to impress older heads over boom bap production.

For fans of Lil Yachty, this is far less pressing an issue. His supporters make no qualms about such a thing, because Lil Yachty is a purveyor of a different sound, one that bears little resemblance to what the genre produced even a decade ago. It’s catchy, fun, and carefree, and lacks the conventional kind of lyricism that a '90s-era beat requires. The episode, and the strong reactions it provoked on social media, shines a light on the stark generational gap in hip-hop today.

There’s a question that needs answering: Is it fair, in 2016, to ask a teenager to rap the same way Jay Z or Nas or Ice Cube would? Should young rappers be expected to flip similes and metaphors in the pocket in a way that appeases rap fans who came of age in an era that emphasized lyrics? That someone like Lil Yachty has a more contemporary musical reference point is worth noting. He was a year old when ATLiens was released, and only 15 when “The Don” dropped.

Some argue that, yes, any artist who hopes to have a fruitful, impactful career should not only know how to spit in the traditional sense, they should also be well-versed in the legends who came before them.

Last week, the 30-year-old rapper and singer Anderson .Paak tweeted some words directed at Lil Yachty. "Don't be cocky in the fact that you don't know anything about hip hop history," he wrote. "Real artists are students of the game first." The tweet came after Lil Yachty was ridiculed online for admitting in an interview with Billboard that he "honestly couldn't name five songs" by the Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac Shakur, two pillars in hip-hop culture. "I think it’s funny how people feel like you HAVE to like something just cause everybody else does,” Lil Yachty tweeted in response. “Where in the handbook of hip hop does it say u must know this list of songs to make music. Lmao”

Lil Yachty doesn’t consider himself a lyricist in the classic sense, so knowing this history, he argues, isn’t particularly significant for him. And a large number of his almost half a million Twitter followers agree.

@lilyachty fr they acting like if u didn't know the music of their time that u ain't allowed to do your own thing lmao
@lilyachty let the old heads take there medicationv and cry they will stop hating there afternoon nap is coming soon
@lilyachty its because thats how the world wants you to be, they want to force their opinions on you.

What ultimately came of Lil Yachty’s appearance on Hot 97 is what typically comes of these things: More heated debate about what constitutes “real" hip-hop. But Lil Yachty, who defines his sound as "bubble-gum trap," is but one of many young artists whose approach is explicitly unconcerned with things like triple entendres or the gems buried in Biggie's "Warning." It’s a generational shift. And this new breed of rappers—from Lil Uzi Vert to Kodak Black—doesn’t deem it necessary to cater to some standard set by folks holding on to a rap ethos established decades ago.

When those rap fans, the traditionalists, think of craftsmanship, they think of groups like De La Soul. Last week, De La Soul released And the Anonymous Nobody, their first LP in almost 12 years. One of the first things an old-school head will notice when reading the 17-song tracklist, is that "Whoodeeni” features 2 Chainz. The pairing will likely come as a surprise for De La Soul fans, given the stylistic differences between De La and 2 Chainz. The latter is a torchbearer of the crisp, trap sound of the south, whereas the trio from Long Island has long pushed the limits of language with a poetic flare.

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But just because it’s a surprising pairing doesn't make the collaboration an automatically bad idea. That kind of juxtaposition is something that has existed in hip-hop since its inception. Which is to say: If it works, it works. Take, for instance, Public Enemy joining forces with Anthrax on “Bring the Noise,” or Run-DMC and Aerosmith rocking out on “Walk This Way.” Those were important records that challenged public perception and proved to be good for the genre.

De La’s And the Anonymous Nobody, while imperfect, is refreshingly nimble for a group with so much time in the game. From Posdnuos and Dave's witty and intelligent verses to the smooth, layered production, it’s a welcome treat for those who hunger for substance and soul in their hip-hop diet. Interestingly, after living with it a few days, the song I keep playing over and over is “Whoodeeni.” AND OH MY GOD, IT’S BECAUSE OF 2 CHAINZ.

2 Chainz is a rapper who, though always boisterous and entertaining, doesn’t necessarily ooze depth in his 16's. He is frequently compelling, if not especially complicated. But on “Whoodeeni,” his performance is at once technical and fun, smart and peppered with his trademark personality. While 2 Chainz has no doubt proven himself capable over more stripped down production in the past—his “So We Can Live” comes to mind—this is one of his more impressive executions in recent memory.

It comes down to the beat.

“Whoodeeni,” at its heart, is a golden age-style track, with a classic bounce. But there is no hiding or half-stepping on this type of production. You either deliver or it exposes you. And 2 Chainz, at 38, grew up during the peak of this defining sound—and the standards need to be met to satisfy those clamoring for a hip-hop sensibility that comes around less and less these days. Fact is, tracks like "Jazzy Belle" and "The Don" before it, fall into his scope of reference, but not Lil Yachty’s. An artist’s age and the time in which he or she came up is always important to consider.

Truth be told, it’s odd to demand a 19-year-old like Lil Yachty slay on something completely out of his wheelhouse. And while he may not be an ambitious and chipped-tooth Nas rapping his guts out with DJ Premier, Large Professor, and Pete Rock in the next room, that doesn’t discount Lil Yachty from having a voice. It’s just that some will choose not to hear it.

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