Poor Lil Yachty. When he showed up on the scene with his Lil Boat mixtape in spring of 2016, he had all the makings of a star. He was colorful, optimistic, distinctive, and instantly resonated with young fans of the burgeoning cloud rap scene with his self-proclaimed “bubblegum trap.” There was just one problem: Nearly every single one of those traits is a capital offense to a certain generation of rap fans. See: The Joe Budden response to the cheerfully monotone rapper with beaded braids and unconventional style that Budden berated as being woefully out of touch with not just the business aspects of his exploding rap career, but with the very essence of hip-hop. It didn’t help that his debut album under Capitol/Motown, Teenage Emotions, premiered with a flop, vastly underselling its projected first week numbers and receiving lukewarm reviews.
So, for the past several Yachty projects and collaborations, he’s traded in the cartoonish bop of his appearances on Dram’s “Broccoli” and Kyle’s “iSpy” for the more brittle menace of his Quality Control cohorts Migos and fellow ATL Soundcloud graduates like 21 Savage, first on Lil Boat 2 earlier this year and now with Nuthin’ 2 Prove, his second official studio album under QC’s joint venture with Capitol and Motown.
While the confident moniker suggests he’s moved past the disappointment of his early career woes, unfortunately, it feels more and more like Yachty is desperately trying to do its opposite. Even the moody-looking cover belies the title’s message, which Yachty doesn’t seem to believe himself. He wants so earnestly to win the approval of his staunchest critics (approval that was likely never coming in the first place) that the only thing he manages to prove in this 15-song set is that he should never have been listening to them in the first place.
That becomes clear in the album’s far superior back half, where glimpses of the fun-loving, loopy Lil Boat peek out from behind the grumbly bass and stormy disposition of the album’s first eight tracks. “Worth It” is where he drops the faux tough guy facade that he’s adopted as a reaction to Budden’s grousing and returns to the sing-song warble that made the first Lil Boat such a joy to listen to. Interestingly enough, it’s when he controverts well-established rap tropes that he seems most himself and delivers his most standout lyrical performances as well. The beat whistles along as Yachty reassures a female companion that she doesn’t need to fit rap’s unyielding standards for beauty: “Baby, that’s alright, let’s take a trip out to the sand / I don’t give a f*ck if your titties don’t stand / I won’t give a f*ck if your lips kinda thin / You is still a 10, let me come in.” It’s an astonishing parallel to the advice he should be giving himself.
“Everything Good, Everything Right” and “Stoney” hum along in this vein, while Yachty displays superb chemistry with guests Kevin Gates and Gunna, playing off their crispier deliveries with the vocally slurry sound that initially got him slapped with the unfortunate “mumble rap” tag. It’s a shame that his critics couldn’t appreciate his unique delivery on its own merits, because the effect he generates with it is catchy in a different way from more percussive peers, but isn’t any less rhythmic or lyrical. In fact, it’s when he tries to live up to that “lyrical” standard that his shortcomings as a writer come to the fore and become intractable.
Alongside labelmates Offset and Cardi B on “Who Want The Smoke,” Yachty sounds pressed and half-hearted, barely mustering enough energy for a half-length verse, which makes “Smoke” sound more like a prelude to the eventual Offset and Cardi Everything Is Love knockoff that is almost assuredly in the pipeline of nonstop QC releases. On “Gimme My Respect,” he sounds preoccupied with earning something he never cared about on his intro, delivering leaden gun threats that nonetheless land with all the intimidation of an angry Welsh Corgi’s most ferocious growl.
If anything, Nuthin’ 2 Prove just leaves the listener with nothing so much as a lingering resentment toward Joe Budden and the rest of the “for the culture” brigade. Their near-constant harping on Lil Boat as the avatar for everything wrong with hip-hop in the streaming era shook his confidence and knocked his easygoing, multicolored grin into a cockeyed, unconvincing scowl. The real Lil Yachty is still in there somewhere but mired in layers of “real hip-hop,” mean-mugging cosplay. It’s a double shame too, because Yachty’s pioneering helped wedge open the door for true sonic experimentation in a genre with a real tendency to get mired in stilted formalism, bushwacking a trail for fellow sensory rebels like Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, Trippie Redd, Juice WRLD, and Lil Pump. Yachty was at his best when he was having fun and really had nothing to prove. Here’s hoping he can find his smile again.
Nuthin’ 2 Prove is out now via Quality Control Music/Capitol/Motown. Get it here.