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Lil Yachty Still Can't Escape the Innocent, Innovative Sound of 'Lil Boat'

'Lil Boat 2' finds the young Atlanta rapper largely succeeding at making minor-key trap, but perhaps he was more refreshing rapping over happier video game samples.

This is a column called Major Keys written by Phil Witmer, the only actual musician employed by Noisey. It's about timbres, theory, chords (lots of 'em), and how these nerdy qualities make us feel things.

Lil Yachty didn’t stride out into modern rap fully formed so much as he lit it up like a firework and watched it fizzily explode into a thousand colours. His debut mixtape Lil Boat harnessed the twee cloud rap of Lil B and iLoveMakonnen into a strange but appealing bubblegum trap that made him both a darling of the youth and a large target for hip-hop conservatives. That latter criticism stems from Yachty being, as Joe Budden put it, “too happy” in comparison to not only the mythical tough guys of hip-hop past but the bruised lovers that emerged post-Drake.


To these “real rap” defenders, the problem wasn’t just that Yachty was singing, it was the sugary melodies he picked and the placid production that he sang over. Yachty seems to have taken those attacks harshly, as his debut album Teenage Emotions began his Migos-esque attempts to prove himself as a tough spitter. But the overall seriousness of Yachty’s pivot isn’t just present in his performance style. Though his recent project Lil Boat 2 finds his rapping less awkward, the minor-key beats, while impressive, are more generic and take some getting used to in comparison to Yachty’s original and more novel major-key sound.

Rap beats are almost always minor-key, even when they’re celebratory. 50 Cent’s “In da Club” is musically menacing, droning on a C-sharp minor chord for most of its duration, and yet it’s one of this generation’s go-to party songs. The early 10s goth-crunk of Mike Will Made-It and Lex Luger only furthered that approach, getting ever more baroque and theatrical. That sound has stuck today, with subtle dissonance and minor modes reigning king in rap production. Yachty’s material on Lil Boat (and Summer Songs 2) bucked that convention by adopting major-key chord progressions, as produced and composed primarily by the Good Perry, who Yachty has apparently fallen out with since.

“Wanna Be Us” is a I to V movement in C major, one of the most basic progressions you can play on a piano. It’s childlike, casting Yachty’s boasts in an innocent and un-self-conscious light, as though he’s stunting while riding a tricycle. Even the samples on Lil Boat fit into this focused mood, with flips of J-pop and video game soundtracks all naturally fusing cheerful chords and rumbling 808s. It flies in the face of how a rap song should feel, and there was a giddy thrill at hearing something that should be a joke in concept slapping in execution. It's why Yachty’s new direction is so surprising.

The beats on Lil Boat 2 are made by Pi’erre Bourne, Southside, and other talents associated with the Atlanta trap sound of Migos and Future. Flutes are everywhere, as they would be after 2017, but instead of the Legend of Zelda melodies of “Broccoli” (not a Yachty song but his carefree character no doubt helped drive it up the Hot 100) there’s the dissonant bed of woodwinds on “Das Cap.” “Oops” and “Count Me In” are threadbare and ominous compared to something like “Good Day” or “So Many People,” with almost no harmonic backing. The move towards aggression sits better than Yachty’s past attempts, thanks to his increasing technical skill and the bonkers, avant-garde nature of these beats, but to think that major-key rap music can’t be hard is fallacious. Yachty himself proves that on Lil Boat 2’s bookending highlights: intro “Self Made,” which both knocks and floats, and the full-on cloud rap homage of “66,” which finds Yachty and guest Trippie Redd swimming through an ocean of gorgeous new-age synths.

The chord progressions on these two songs are blissful and emotional, respectively. “Self Made” uses major and minor seventh chords, calling back to both “One Night” and Super Mario World. “66” has an unresolved ache to its harmony the likes of which hasn’t been heard in rap since Lil B’s prime. This isn’t to say that Yachty should limit himself to sing-rapping on video game sample flips until the end of time—every artist deserves to branch out into new avenues—but he had a good thing going on those early projects. It’s kind of like how ASAP Rocky, another former cloud-rapper, removed himself from that Clams Casino sound and started making moombahton with Skrillex. It makes sense, but the refreshing and wonderfully confounding feel of that early exploratory work was lost in the change and was replaced with something a little slicker, a little more mature, a little more average. Yachty is already on the way to successfully reconciling the bright-eyed King of Teens with the newer, edgier Lil Boat persona on his next release, but he’ll have to first shut out the glaring sunshine of the original Lil Boat.

Phil is on Twitter.