“I want people to hear this album and know what I was trying to do,” says Lil Yachty. “To understand that this is not just rap music, it’s all over the place and different—in a good way. It’s not sloppy, it’s smooth, but you can’t pin it on any one thing.”
Hot on the heels of two mixtapes that dazzled the world, the 19-year-old with the beaded braids and the fearless fashion sense is now completing his first album, Teenage Emotions. And as the title indicates, the set is a reflection of young lives right now, from social media-saturated heartbreak to the dance floor, caught in a sound that effortlessly, constantly bounces from rap to pop to something entirely its own.
But working on his official debut album hasn’t meant any change in Yachty’s approach. “It’s a reflection of my music, so I can’t treat it different than I did before,” he says. “I talk about different topics, but my sound is my sound.” Nor does the expectation around the record make him feel any stress. “I’m just making songs, like the way I do. I don’t feel pressure—I just do me, stay true to myself, and you can’t worry about what another person says.”
Following his own path has definitely paid off for Lil Yachty so far. In the course of just a few months, he went from recording songs on his home computer (he describes his initial attitude as “real nonchalant”) to appearing in a Sprite commercial alongside LeBron James, starring in a Target campaign for which he remade the Rob Base and DJ EZ-Rock classic “It Takes Two” with Carly Rae Jepsen, and becoming a Creative Designer at Nautica. He collaborated with D.R.A.M. on the Grammy-nominated smash single “Broccoli,” which reached Number Five on the pop charts, and was featured on Chance the Rapper’s Grammy-winning Coloring Book mixtape.
“It all happened so fast,” he says, “so with something like the Chance record or any of those things, you look at it like it could be any other session. Being around those kind of artists just makes me want to work harder. You want to hold your weight, want to be the best you can be.”
Yachty’s life changed in December 2015, when the SoundCloud version of his song “One Night” was used in a viral comedy video. The clip, which eventually propelled the track to platinum sales status, introduced the world to his signature sound, which he has called “bubblegum trap”—a catchy, sing-song-y, sometimes goofy style, full of hooks, slithery auto-tune vocals, left-field samples (videogame sounds or the Rugrats theme) and sudden musical shifts. (“One Night” was recently named one of the “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going” by the New York Times.)
Since then, Yachty has been releasing music at an almost unbelievable pace: Following his initial Summer Songs EP, he dropped three more EPS in addition to the two acclaimed mixtapes—Lil Boat and Summer Songs 2—in less than a year. His track “Minnesota” was a much-quoted hit, plus he appeared on a barrage of other singles (alongside such top guns as Young Thug, Charli XCX, Post Malone, T-Pain and many more), and most recently, he connected again on Kyle’s Top 20 hit “ISpy.” And all that studio time came in between three electrifying tours, with shows often climaxing with some stage-diving—and even losing a few weeks when, no surprise, his voice gave out from all the work.
Yachty credits his family first for his eclectic musical tastes. “My mom and dad molded me into who I am,” he says. His father, a photographer who specialized in documenting musicians, toted him along to shoots with icons like OutKast and Too Short. “I didn’t care about making music yet back then, but it all influenced me to be open-minded,” he says, singling out the jazz his pops listened to at home (and indeed, Yachty—born Miles Parks McCollum, was named after Miles Davis).
But his hometown of Atlanta also has to get some credit for his sound, as Yachty is part of a wave of artists from the town—including Migos, Future, and Young Thug—with a style that’s currently dominating pop music. “This is where the trap sound comes from,” he says. “It was birthed here, so we’re not just trying to recreate it. This is the original sound and it’s fresh every time.”
Perhaps most significantly, though, Yachty is a product of a new era in listening to music—call it Generation Playlist. The internet and its ever-evolving distribution systems have largely led to a breakdown in the tribal role of music genres; Yachty and his contemporaries don’t define themselves by musical category but just listen to songs they like. He counts Coldplay and Lil B among his all-time favorites, and current picks range from Frank Ocean to Modest Mouse to singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers.
Asked whose career he would point to as an inspiration, Yachty mentions Tyler the Creator, kingpin of the freewheeling hip-hop collective Odd Future. “He came out using the internet, taking over social media and being creative, and bringing his friends in to support him.” This sense of loyalty is close to Yachty’s heart; near the top of his goals is bringing a spotlight to the talents of his friends, known as the Sailing Team.
Other business opportunities and creative outlets continue to unfold for Yachty. Following a collaborative collection with Nautica sportswear for Urban Outfitters, he was has been named a “Creative Designer” at the company, and he’s even gotten his own flavor of “Rap Snacks” chips. But his music remains at the center of it all, and he claims that he knows just where he’s going with Teenage Emotions.
“None of these songs surprise me,” says Lil Yachty. “I kinda see the whole thing together, every time, and then it just goes how it goes.”