The Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, was founded in 1929. Today its mission, per its website, is to "create a dialogue between the established and the experimental… while being accessible to a public that ranges from scholars to young children." Last spring, concomitant with that mission, MoMA played host to a show by the multimedia artist Yung Jake, the DJ Sonny Digital, and the teenage rapper Lil Yachty. Teenagers vaped below Ellsworth Kelly paintings as anticipation grew. Somewhere, one imagines, somebody was busy talking a group of panicked docents off a ledge. When Yachty finally hit the impromptu stage at the top of a wide landing of stairs, the crowd surged forward so energetically up and onto that landing that the show had to be stopped by security after just a couple of songs. It was, without a doubt, a concert that I will one day tell my children about.
There are people, besides the justifiably nervous #EllsworthKellyHive, who would find great affront in this suggestion. Lil Yachty is a reliable lightning rod in the hip-hop community for any number of reasons—his lack of historical knowledge of the genre, his nursery rhyme delivery, his goofy shade of red hair—that basically boil down to people thinking his music is dumb and moreover infantile. Yachty's good-natured trolling, which includes admitting he'd never listened to the Notorious B.I.G. and making a tongue-in-cheek Hot 97 diss record, can reinforce this opinion, but to dismiss him and his potential impact is shortsighted and misguided. As my former colleague Craig Jenkins tweeted in December, "We gotta give Lil Boat some kind of special jury prize for annoying the most annoying fans without doing anything actually annoying." Change is always uncomfortable. Yet Lil Yachty's music is successful precisely because it is so aesthetically daring and because the changes it represents are so logical. It pulls together so many ideas that have floated around in recent years about what rap and music at large might be and in the process pushes those ideas forward.
Lil Yachty—whether insightfully or instinctively—combined a few prevailing ideas at just the right time: the cartoonish yet plaintive Auto-Tuned fantasia of music like Speaker Knockerz and Soulja Boy's "Zan with That Lean," the way that sound intersected with the ambient pastiche of the various ambient electronic -waves that show up in a crawl through Soundcloud, the matter-of-fact simplicity of artists like iLoveMakonnen and Migos, the positivity and enthusiasm of Lil B. He understood the power of connecting with the right influencers to push his brand in a way corporate entities can only dream of, and he naturally tapped into a teen understanding that the idols of the present are not the people your parents tell you to pay attention to but rather whoever happens to be famous in the present, even if that person is A$AP Rocky instead of Tupac. Perhaps most powerfully, he embodied the idea that kids can and should be kids.
Each of those things individually makes Lil Yachty a perceptive artist and a step forward for music given. Together, they have even more potential. Kids want to have fun and be positive, the future of rap is ambient and melodic, and the most exciting instrument in contemporary music is the digitally modulated human voice (lest you doubt this last one, consider the number of wildly acclaimed artists, from Kanye West to Frank Ocean to Future to Bon Iver, who have made it their musical focus in recent years). Yachty provided a figure for these ideas to cohere around, and you can hear them from the very beginning of his album Lil Boat. On the intro, he samples Finding Nemo, whimsically explains the two sides of his persona, and ties everything together with a long, swooning, Auto-Tuned "helloooooooooooooooooooo" that becomes the centerpiece of the song. It's goofy, but it's sincere, and who wouldn't want to be both of those things? Lil Yachty's music is playful in a time when people—and specifically black teenagers—aren't necessarily told that's an OK thing to be.
"It's colorful," Yachty's manager Coach K said of Yachty's sound, talking to Noisey during the filming the Atlanta VICELAND documentary. "It's like a—colorful, happy, hard, dark drums, hot, colorful synths, you know, synth sounds. And Yachty's like this—his voice is like this instrument, you know what I mean? It's, you know, I call it boat music."
Although, as the more aggressive "Lil Boat" side of Yachty's persona suggests, he's always mining the rap tropes that are essential for keeping him in the conversation, it's the smoother "Lil Yachty" side and the influence of producer thegoodperry's vision of "bubblegum trap" that usually provides the most fascinating ideas. Consider "Run/Running," which samples a Nintendo game and then melts into a disembodied ether so far outside the world of "rap" that it deserves its own ambient-focused side project. Or listen to the vertiginous, beautiful way Yachty's Auto-Tuned voice soars into the ether on "Why (Interlude)," where he seems to be discovering not just new notes in the human-made musical pantheon but also new stars in the galaxy. On Summer Songs 2, "Such Ease" picks up on a brand of swooping, plucky melodies that hews closer to Swedish indie pop than traditional rap. Remember jj? Or when the exciting story about Drake was that he was rapping over Lykke Li and Peter Bjorn and John? The internet always promised a collision of aesthetics that would change the world; Lil Yachty's music is the best encapsulation of that promise right now.
Another case in point: Lil Yachty is sweet in a way that is unusual in rap. The best song on Summer Songs 2 is one called "Pretty," a dream pop love song where the hook goes "I stroll through cities / gang ain't stay with me / but never have I seen someone so pretty / like you / every dream I seem to have / is always 'bout you." It's simple and tender in a vein that might be more familiar in a Beatles song than a Migos song. It's about a girl, and it also stole indie rock's girl, in a manner of speaking. Perry slides in for a guest verse that includes the line "want you there every morning to tie my ties / 'cause being with you is like being on a wild roller coaster ride." Rap's romances have never been this goofily vulnerable.
Lately, the Lil Yachty song I keep coming back to is another silly-serious one, "King of Teens." It didn't sink in at first because when it was released Yachty's Twitter bio was "King of the Teens," and the song felt like an obvious gimmick. But that's the point, too. It's like a cartoon theme song about being the king of the teens that knocks super hard. "Parents mad at my ass 'cause they kids sing my song in class / whoa-oh well," Yachty sings. If we know anything reliable about what the future sounds like, it's probably something that will make parents mad. In the present case that sounds like this type of elegant fusion of aesthetics, hazy ambient pop and buoyant, brightly colored trap. Already people are finding inspiration in the sound—the new Wale and Lil Wayne single "Running Back" sounds eerily familiar—and Yachty himself is crossing directly into conventional pop, collaborating with the likes of Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen (the latter for a Target commercial, which is as mainstream as it gets). Yachty is quite literally becoming the future of music, but that's not something to be afraid of: We should be happy that the future is so innovative—and so fun.
Photo by Prince Williams / Getty Images
Kyle Kramer is not a teen, not yet a man. Follow him on Twitter.