Lil Yachty has never quite fit in, but he’s successfully turned his quirks into some of his biggest selling points. His voice, which sounds a lot like Meatwad from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, is one of the most recognizable ones on the radio. He’s often the butt of Twitter jokes, but his meme-able appearance has multiplied his popularity a millionfold. His suburban upbringing makes him an outsider in trap, but he’s more marketable to middle America than streetwise peers like 21 Savage. And the fact that he pisses off hip-hop purists like Joe Budden has only increased his clout among young listeners eager to rebel against older generations’ rules.
But Yachty only appears to be underdog on the surface. The lucrative business opportunities that have emerged from his viral success — like his Sprite commercial and creative designer gig at Nautica — prove that there’s not much his haters can do to drag him down at this point. His debut album, Teenage Emotions, is a manifesto for this kind of free-spirited attitude. The album is an imperfect, sometimes strange record that can’t be graded on a traditional rap rubric. Instead, it feels like the beginning of a new genre altogether and, five years down the line, even the likes of Budden will probably call Yachty a pioneer.
Teenage Emotions gets away from the nursery rhyme quality of Yachty’s previous hits like “1 Night” and “Minnesota” in an effort to showcase a broader musical vocabulary. On “Peek A Boo” and “X Men,” Yachty comes as hard as a battle rapper, rhyming so aggressively you can imagine spit flying from his lips. This is a welcome departure from his sing-song cadence, but these tracks can be hit or miss: Case in point, the “blow that dick like a cello” line from “Peek A Boo.” As Yachty later cleared up in an interview with Genius, he intended to reference Squidward’s favorite wind instrument but mixed up the cello and the clarinet.
Yachty never sought to be the next Kendrick Lamar, so these missteps are ultimately endearing. Still, one can’t help but wonder if he included these harder verses to dispel what critics like Budden might have to say about his ability to spit a traditional 16 bars.
The album truly shines when Yachty liberates himself from genre convention. Take the groovy, reggae-influenced track “Better;” the plucky “Forever Young,” a Diplo production with a soaring pop hook; or the darker, more emotional “Lady in Yellow” and “Moments in Time.” These tracks are the beginnings of a new kind of pop that seamlessly swirls together elements of trap, R&B, new wave and even emo. “Bubblegum trap,” the label Lil Yachty’s debut mixtape Lil Boat mixtape acquired, no longer suffices to describe his wide-ranging fusion of sound.
And that’s the kind of artist Lil Yachty is. Yes, he’s weird and he knows it. He’s wildly successful because of it rather than in spite of it. Teenage Emotions doesn’t have a defined aesthetic and feels like Yachty is still experimenting, and his refusal to rely on formulas is commendable for a 19-year-old overnight sensation. He’s figuring himself out and having fun while doing it — which is a beautiful thing.