Nineteen-year-old “bubblegum trap” sensation Lil Yachty is rap’s most polarizing figure. He joyfully hopscotches past hip-hop tradition in a way that’s not only antagonizing to old heads (he famously told Billboard that he “honestly couldn’t name five songs” by Biggie and Tupac), but actively unmoors rap from familiar ideas of rhythm and melody. On his debut album, Teenage Emotions, he brags that he has “never took a sip of beer” but has an intoxicated flow, crooning notes he can’t hit and enthusiastically rapping beyond the beat. Love him or hate him, he is probably going to change the world.
There’s no real musical cohesion on this collection of 21 tracks by 23 producers, but the presence of the Instagram star is unmistakable, gleefully rapping about looking at the stars, going back to high school to stunt on his teachers and – on two different songs – having sex with people’s moms. He cuts a presence that’s one part Chance the Rapper at his most cheerful, one part Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnston at his most pajama-party friendly and one part Beavis at his most sophomoric.
Teenage Emotions may just be a landmark moment for rap, opening the genre to the giddy, childlike, organic, occasionally broken feel of Eighties twee-centric bands like Beat Happening, Television Personalities and Half Japanese. None of these bands had hit records but paved a road that led to Nirvana, Beck, Pavement, Belle and Sebastian, Bright Eyes and Deerhoof. An entire generation of current indie rock bands give their bands childlike names like Soccer Mommy, Loose Tooth, Scary Little Friends, Cuddle Magic and Diarrhea Planet. And it’s right on time too: Beat Happening’s 1988 LP Jamboree was even closer to Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” than Yachty’s Teenage Emotions is to Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” So here he comes with a combination of naïve-sounding melodies, kid-like lyrics and pop smarts – a history that reaches back into some of our greatest songwriters (think Talking Heads’ “Stay Up Late” and Nirvana’s “Sliver”), but is practically unheard of in rap.
In short, he’s no naïf, but a pop songwriter who deals with the feel-good, free-wheeling vibe of childhood. If he releases the Diplo-assisted “Forever Young” as a single, he might have a hit bigger than Alphaville and Jay Z’s combined. Name-checked on this album are Kid Cuisine frozen dinners, N’Sync, the X-Men, Kirby and Othello (and here, you’re only about 70% sure he means the board game, not the Shakespeare character). The break-up song “Runnin With a Ghost” features a cameo from his Metallica Ride the Lightning T-shirt. There’s even a shout out to classic kawaii signifier Hello Kitty, even if it’s the icky come-on “Play with that kitty like Hello” on “Peek-a-Boo.”
He’s a K Records natural when he’s at his sweetest. “I been missin’ the way your stories tell” (“Bring It Back”) reads like a Composition notebook scribble turned into perfect pop valentine. A stickier milkshake is the Super Nintendo reggae of “Better”: “Let’s grow old, rocking chairs and play checkers … Without you I feel so blue/I’d probably lose my train of to-dos.” And as pick-up lines go, you can’t get get more innocent than “Hello/Would you like to push petals through the meadow with me?” even though he follows it with the brasher “Wassup? I just got a question, baby, can I fuck?” The reunited Violent Femmes would do good to add friendzone anthem “Made of Glass” to their setlist: “Am I made up of glass? Do you see straight through me?”
Even his most nauseating sex rhymes – and, boy, are there is no $ hortage of nauseating sex rhymes on here – have the feeling of a playground gross-out session. If you were never the type of kid to tell dead baby jokes or sneak John Waters movies, then no worries if you can’t stomach barf-bag couplets like, “Lil shorty get wet from the Lil Yachty poster/Before we fuck I gotta lay down a coaster/’Cause she get wet, and she suck me like an insect/She my step-sister so I guess that’s incest.”
Yachty’s melodic structure is equally raw and unconcerned with expectations. He’s no amateur since he’s surely capable of dropping deft, funky, traditional old-school bars when teamed with Tee Grizzley (“The D to the A”) or appearing in a Target commercial (“It Takes Two”) or even an XXL Freestyle. But still, Yachty’s album willfully lands on cracked notes and internal-logic rhythms. He’s a craftsman with a unique vision like Captain Beefheart or Harry Partch or the Residents, just with a pop streak he can’t kick. He understands the appeal of the fragile, the different, the bent and the drifting.
The closest thing to a traditional rap, “DN Freestyle,” has him careening across the beat like it’s accompaniment instead of the rhythmic base an MC is supposed to sync up with. His voice is elastic and he’s never afraid to go into a back of the throat yowl. Watch how he emotionally but excitedly wails on “Say My Name”: “My brother used to sleep in a Hyundai/Now he spent about a hundred G’s on a fun day, wow” The brash tunelessness of love songs like “Lady in the Yellow” and “Bring it Back” – moving from his regular voice to a falsetto in the former, completely skating off the beat and making mouth percussion in the latter – sound like your drunk co-worker doing Billy Ocean at karaoke.
Yachty’s organic, warts-and-all delivery – when being a perv, when pining for a girl, even singing a song for his mom – makes his music feel simply more naked and human, even with that layer of Auto-Tune. And the generation that has vaulted him to SoundCloud fame certainly agrees. Whether affected or genuine, he’s got a fractured delivery and a free approach to rhythm that seems like a new way of approaching a genre that’s been rooted in “the one” and “the pocket” for more than 40 years. Rap music has its twee icon – and this time, the revolution is not just for record geeks.