The evening before Lil Yachty released his fifth studio album, Let’s Start Here, he gathered an IMAX theater’s worth of his fans and famous friends at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City and made something clear: He wanted to be taken seriously. Not just as a “Soundcloud rapper, not some mumble rapper, not some guy that just made one hit,” he told the crowd before pressing play on his album. “I wanted to be taken serious because music is everything to me.”
There’s a spotty history of rappers making dramatic stylistic pivots, a history Yachty now joins with Let’s Start Here, a funk-flecked psychedelic rock album. But unlike other notable rap-to-rock faceplants—Kid Cudi’s Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven comes to mind, as does Lil Wayne’s Rebirth—the record avoids hackneyed pastiche and gratuitous playacting and cash-grabbing crossover singles; instead, Yachty sounds unbridled and free, a rapper creatively liberated from the strictures of mainstream hip-hop. Long an oddball who’s delighted in defying traditional rap ethos and expectations, Let’s Start Here is a maximalist and multi-genre undertaking that rewrites the narrative of Yachty’s curious career trajectory.
Admittedly, it’d be easy to write off the album as Tame Impala karaoke, a gimmicky record from a guy who heard Yves Tumor once and thought: Let’s do that. But set aside your Yachty skepticism and probe the album’s surface a touch deeper. While the arrangements tend toward the obvious, the record remains an intricate, unraveling swell of sumptuous live instruments and reverb-drenched textures made more impressive by the fact that Yachty co-produced every song. Fielding support from an all-star cast of characters, including production work from former Chairlift member Patrick Wimberly, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Jacob Portrait, Justin Raisen, Nick Hakim, and Magdalena Bay, and vocals from Daniel Caesar, Diana Gordon, Foushée, Justine Skye, and Teezo Touchdown, Yachty surrounds himself with a group of disparately talented collaborators. You can hear the acute attention to detail and wide-scale ambition in the spaced-out denouement on “We Saw the Sun!” or on the blistering terror of “I’ve Officially Lost Vision!!!!” or during the cool romanticism of “Say Something.” Though occasionally overindulgent, Let’s Start Here is a spectacular statement from hip-hop’s prevailing weirdo. It’s not shocking that Yachty took another hard left—but how exactly did he end up here?
In 2016, as the forefather of “bubblegum trap” ascended into mainstream consciousness, an achievement like Let’s Start Here would’ve seemed inconceivable. The then 18-year-old Yachty gained national attention when a pair of his songs, “One Night” and “Minnesota,” went viral. Though clearly indebted to hip-hop trailblazers Lil B, Chief Keef, and Young Thug, his work instantly stood apart from the gritted-teeth toughness of his Atlanta trap contemporaries. Yachty flaunted a childlike awe and cartoonish demeanor that communicated a swaggering, unbothered cool. His singsong flows and campy melodies contained a winking humor to them, a subversive playfulness that endeared him to a generation of very online kids who saw themselves in Yachty’s goofy, eccentric persona. He starred in Sprite commercials alongside LeBron James, performed live shows at the Museum of Modern Art, and modeled in Kanye West’s Life of Pablo listening event at Madison Square Garden. Relishing in his cultural influence, he declared to the New York Times that he was not a rapper but an artist. “And I’m more than an artist,” he added. “I’m a brand.”
As Sheldon Pearce pointed out in his Pitchfork review of Yachty’s 2016 mixtape, Lil Boat, “There isn’t a single thing Lil Yachty’s doing that someone else isn’t doing better, and in richer details.” He wasn’t wrong. While Yachty’s songs were charming and catchy (and, sometimes, convincing), his music was often tangential to his brand. What was the point of rapping as sharply as the Migos or singing as intensely as Trippie Redd when you’d inked deals with Nautica and Target, possessed a sixth-sense for going viral, and had incoming collaborations with Katy Perry and Carly Rae Jepsen? What mattered more was his presentation: the candy-red hair and beaded braids, the spectacular smile that showed rows of rainbow-bedazzled grills, the wobbly, weak falsetto that defaulted to a chintzy nursery rhyme cadence. He didn’t need technical ability or historical reverence to become a celebrity; he was a meme brought to life, the personification of hip-hop’s growing generational divide, a sudden star who, like so many other Soundcloud acts, seemed destined to crash and burn after a fleeting moment in the sun.
One problem: the music wasn’t very good. Yachty’s debut album, 2017’s Teenage Emotions, was a glitter-bomb of pop-rap explorations that floundered with shaky hooks and schmaltzy swings at crossover hits. Worse, his novelty began to fade, those sparkly, cheerful, and puerile bubblegum trap songs aging like day-old french fries. Even when he hued closer to hard-nosed rap on 2018’s Lil Boat 2 and Nuthin’ 2 Prove, you could feel Yachty desperate to recapture the magic that once came so easily to him. But rap years are like dog years, and by 2020, Yachty no longer seemed so radically weird. He was an established rapper making mid mainstream rap. The only question now was whether we’d already seen the best of him.
If his next moves were any indication—writing the theme song to the Saved by the Bell sitcom revival and announcing his involvement in an upcoming movie based on the card game Uno—then the answer was yes. But in April 2021, Yachty dropped Michigan Boat Boy, a mixtape that saw him swapping conventional trap for Detroit and Flint’s fast-paced beats and plain-spoken flows. Never fully of a piece with his Atlanta colleagues, Yachty found a cohort of kindred spirits in Michigan, a troop of rappers whose humor, imagination, and debauchery matched his own. From the looks of it, leaders in the scene like Babyface Ray, Rio Da Yung OG, and YN Jay embraced Yachty with open arms, and Michigan Boat Boy thrives off that communion.
Then “Poland” happened. When Yachty uploaded the minute-and-a-half long track to Soundcloud a few months back, he received an unlikely and much needed jolt. Building off the rage rap production he played with on the Birthday Mix 6 EP, “Poland” finds Yachty’s warbling about carrying pharmaceutical-grade cough syrup across international borders, a conceit that captured the imagination of TikTok and beyond. Recorded as a joke and released only after a leaked version went viral, the song has since amassed over a hundred-millions streams across all platforms. With his co-production flourishes (and adlibs) splattered across Drake and 21 Savage’s Her Loss, fans had reason to believe that Yachty’s creative potential had finally clicked into focus.
But Let’s Start Here sounds nothing like “Poland”—in fact, the song doesn’t even appear on the project. Instead, amid a tapestry of scabrous guitars, searing bass, and vibrant drums, Yachty sounds right at home on this psych-rock spectacle of an album. He rarely raps, but his singing often relies on the virtues of his rapping: those greased-vowel deliveries and unrushed cadences, the autotune-sheathed vibrato. “Pretty,” for instance, is decidedly not a rap song—but what is it, then? It’s indebted to trap as much as it is ’90s R&B and MGMT, its drugged-out drums and warm keys able to house an indeterminate amount of ideas.
Yachty didn’t need to abandon hip-hop to find himself as an artist, but his experimental impulses helped him craft his first great album. Perhaps this is his lone dalliance in psych rock—maybe a return to trap is imminent. Or, maybe, he’ll make another 180, or venture deeper into the dystopia of corporate sponsorships. Who’s to say? For now, it’s invigorating to see Yachty shake loose the baggage of his teenage virality and emerge more fully into his adult artistic identity. His guise as a boundary-pushing rockstar isn’t a new archetype, but it’s an archetype he’s infused with his glittery idiosyncrasies. And look what he’s done: he’s once again morphed into a star the world didn’t see coming.