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Let’s get this out of the way up front: No, Lil Yachty is not the first rapper to release an alternative project. Obviously, within the past few years, a number of artists have made swings that way: Kid Cudi, Machine Gun Kelly, and Post Malone all spring to mind.
Notably, though, Yachty’s new album, Let’s Start Here, isn’t just a departure from his own oeuvre; it also differentiates itself from its peers like Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven, Tickets To My Downfall, or Twelve Carat Toothache by tapping into a different lane in the psych-rock stylings of bands like Animal Collective, MGMT, and Tame Impala.
Yachty also took care to tap members of the modern psychedelic scene as collaborators on the album, recruiting Jacob Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Justin Raisen, known for his work with Yves Tumor and David Bowie, Patrick Wemberly from synth-pop duo Chairlift, and MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser to produce and play on it.
As Lil Boat himself put it ahead of the album’s release, “I wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, not just some SoundCloud rapper. Not some mumble rapper, not just some guy that made one hit.” While it would have been impossible to reduce him to “one hit” given he’s been directly responsible for several to date, the result of Let’s Start Here is that he’s received much praise — and criticism — for the creative risk of diverging so sharply from what was thought to be his established lane.
It’s fascinating to watch the divided responses roll in. On the one hand, you’ve got those who are absolutely thrilled to see Yachty pulling from late-aughts Brooklyn barbecue staples like MGMT, evoking what’ll likely end up being the first wave of nostalgic nods to that era (right on time for the 15-year cycle, no less).
On the other hand, there are those who lived through that era who are if not perhaps a little grouchy about entering the second or third phase of internet-era nostalgia for their late teens and early twenties, then taking the same, high-handed hipster approach of being cooler than the latecomer (who was, I shouldn’t have to remind anybody, just 12 years old around the time Modest Mouse and Vampire Weekend ruled the airwaves).
There are those who undoubtedly see in Let’s Start Here echoes of the exaggerated fawning over Childish Gambino’s Funkadelic homage Awaken, My Love! Maybe they don’t want the originators, the King Gizzards and the Rain Parades, to get overshadowed by this upstart, as happens so often when imitators sometimes became the avatars of past scenes.
But then, when someone like Questlove, who’s been there for it all and is as unimpeachable as a music figure can possibly get, has such glowing things to report of the album, it’s hard to see Yachty’s creative grasp as anything less than a success for the recording industry as a whole — even if he doesn’t quite reach as far as some would have hoped.
As for myself, I land in that fourth quadrant of hoping for the best in all respects. I want this album to be the gateway for younger fans to discover the wealth of incredible art in its foundations. And I hope that it does cast Yachty in a new light, capable of besting the wobbly “Minnesota” and its spiritual successor “Poland.”
And I’m a little sad that a hip-hop artist still can’t really get his or her due operating primarily in that mode. Yachty sort of raps on a handful of tracks, like “I’ve Officially Lost Vision” and “The Alchemist.” But 50 years later, it still feels like hip-hop is an afterthought, a second cousin, a red-headed stepchild to every other genre, save for rare exceptions like the hyper-heady Kendrick Lamar or the genre shapeshifter Drake.
But I’m impressed that we’re in a place where an artist who was written off as a gimmick early in his career can rediscover himself like this. I love that the once solid walls between genres are now so fluid and hazy. The musical freedom this album exemplifies — not just for Yachty but for all artists — is heartening, especially in a world where algorithmically-generated music looms as an existential threat to the very nature of artistry.
It’s ironic that the cover of Yachty’s latest is an AI-generated monstrosity. It seems to mock the idea that the computers can do what flesh-and-blood artists can. They can take in influences from multiple sources and blend them together and spit out something approximating art. But they can’t take risks, they can’t change their minds, they can’t have the idea, and they can’t execute it in the one unique way that Yachty can. Even if only in proving that and nothing else, Let’s Start Here is a triumph.
Let’s Start Here is out now via Quality Control and Motown. You can get it here.