Lil Yachty: A teenage icon

Words by Novar FLIP

I became fascinated with Lil Yachty’s journey and persona early on. I was first introduced to his music when a friend had sent me the link to his ‘Lil Boat’ mix tape early last year. He told me that, “Some of it had an ‘808’s & Heartbreak’ feel”, referring to the ground-breaking Kanye West album that he knew I was a huge fan of. The Kanye album had a wide impact on mainstream R&B and hip-hop across the board, and I could hear what he was saying with this mysterious new artist. At this point I had no idea of the iconic phenomenon that was soon to come.

I can’t specifically pinpoint the next occasion that I came across Lil Yachty. I can safely say, however, that what I thought was a niche new anomaly I had been initiated to in secret, was promptly everywhere. Not only was Lil Yachty all over my timeline, but there was also a wave of new artists emerging who seemed to look and sound like him. Within a matter of months Lil Yachty had broken the mainstream. He had featured on a Grammy-nominated single, his own music was everywhere, he had appeared in a Sprite commercial, and starred in a campaign for Target. Not bad for a 19-year-old artist who was only just recording songs on his home computer and uploading them to SoundCloud.

Lil Yachty’s rise did not come without its critics. His brand of rap music that he once labelled ‘bubblegum trap’ had begun to the rustle feathers of some hip-hop purists. Being from that background, I had come across some of these judgments and been defending his corner for a while. Many would say, “It’s not hip-hop”, and argue that Yachty and similar artists should be labelled as a separate genre. I had also begun to see the same narrative being presented in other online media and in some of Yachty’s own interviews. I was really looking forward to meeting with Yachty himself and hearing what he had to say on these matters and more.

I had seen older media figures focus on what they want from the next generation of hip-hop stars. When I sat with Lil Yachty, I decided that what his generation find important was more of a pertinent issue: “Creativity, originality, you know, keep pushing the barrier and breaking down new walls,” he says. I wondered if what the older generation thought of him was still significant. At one point he had made quite an effort to appease their sensitivities, from researching Biggie albums after the backlash of a comment he had made, to freestyling on ‘90s instrumentals and generally being a good sport in the face of adversity: “Nah, I used to but not anymore,” he says. He has reached a space where he doesn’t need to cater to anyone but his audience, and to the members of his generation that understand him, Lil Yachty is already an icon.

I wanted to know about Lil Yachty’s sudden found success and what that term meant to him. “Just coming to where I came from to where I am now, being able to provide for myself and my family,” he says. On the definition of success alone, he exaplains: “Success is whatever you make it to be, I don’t think there’s no general statement to what success looks like.” I had read about how Yachty had gone from recording at home to blowing up all over the internet, but I also wanted to know about the development of his live shows; “I did a show when there was like ten people in the crowd before”, and to go from visualising success to performing for a sold-out crowd, he went on to tell me: “It’s a good feeling, it makes you smile.” We talked about the amazing feats he has achieved in such a small time. Out of every achievement so far though, when asked for a highlight he says, “Getting my mum her dream car.” As far as his future goals he projects: “Just [to] continue to be successful, and be happy.”

We covered some other good ground in our discussion. We talked about Atlanta being at the forefront of what is popping in rap music and him hoping that it remains that way. We talked about his sound not being possible to define as one thing. We spoke about the UK’s Stefflon Don featuring on his album, and when I asked if he was paying attention to any other UK artists, he says, “I’m not paying attention to any US artists”. We talked about the album ‘Teenage Emotions’ and how sometimes he writes songs for other teenagers to be able to relate to rather than painting a picture of his own reality. On the vision of the album as a whole he explains, “To just put out good, great vibes. You know just like, good-ass vibes.”

After the echoed narrative of Yachty not being hip-hop, I was interested to hear his take on it directly. I had been in countless arguments with old school hip-hop figures on the subject. Much of the time they referred to an interview of Yachty’s where he stated, “I’m not a rapper”. I always argued that he’d been pressured to detach himself and that actually, he is a part of hip-hop regardless. I also realised that I had ended up in a strange situation a number of times. Often white people from rural parts of England were dictating this narrative to me. Hip-hop is an African-American culture that was partly born out of a reaction to oppression and racism. It has spread across the world since then and been embraced by all walks of life, but that clearly seems to have led to some strange divides. Rather than dive straight in though, I had an angle to approach the concept of culture.

Before this visit to London, Yachty had previously been over with his label mates Migos and headlined a joint show that they called ‘We Are The Culture’. This title was very provoking to me. I wondered what they were referring to? Could it be youth culture? Or Atlanta culture? Lil Yachty responded, “[It’s] just hip-hop, do you know what I’m saying? African-American hip-hop, that’s what they mean by that.” Yachty was unaware of my own journey with disputing this issue and how specifically his answer fitted my narrative, but does he personally feel that he is a part of hip-hop culture? “I mean yeah, you know, as much as people try to say I’m not.” I was pleased to hear Yachty take a stand on this issue. Here we have a young African-American man telling his story, speaking for his people and trying to be a positive influence for his generation. Looking at the roots of what hip-hop culture represents, there is no way that his story doesn’t fit. Lil Yachty also confirmed to me that he did feel like he was being pressured to detach himself from hip-hop previously. He didn’t seem to want to give the situation any more attention than it deserved though, and I respected his position.

Through his encouraging attitude and brave artistic statements, I had come to view Lil Yachty as a positive role model. His album cover that depicts teenagers with varying identities, including a gay couple kissing, is a perfect example of this courage. I asked him how important a positive message is to his objective: “100 per cent important, that’s my whole thing, that’s what I stand for, it’s very important.” I agreed and commended him for his efforts, but I did have one bone to pick. A lot of hip-hop music, no matter how positive our perception of the artist is, still contains elements of misogyny. I had a moment when I noticed this about Lil Yachty specifically, and because I view him so positively it made me realise how normalised we are to this type of content. Lil Yachty is a teenage man adapting to newly found fame and fortune. I can see how easy it could be to fall into some roles in that position. Earlier I had asked him about his song ‘Priorities’ where he repeats the line, “My priorities are fucked” in the chorus. I tried to point out that he seems quite responsible: “In some senses you know. That was a song about girls, you know, it’s about cheating on girls, you’re talking about having a loyal girlfriend and cheating on her.” As a positive young artist who clearly cares about his influence though, I was hoping he might give the issue of misogyny in hip-hop some further thought. He didn’t hesitate as he told me, “Yeah, I still gotta work on that… One day it’ll change. It’ll take time, but it’ll happen.”

‘Teenage Emotions’ is out now via Quality Control/Virgin


Photographer: Eva Pentel
Creative Director: Imran Malik
Stylist: Kirubel Belay
Assistant stylist: Chris James
Makeup artist: Asuka Fukuda

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