Let’s get one thing straight: Paul Thompson would never tell you to drink Sprite. Even if he was in a commercial for Sprite—which he is—or you were watching it—which you are. He wouldn’t tell you to drink it. No matter what that cue card says. Even if you’d just eaten tacos with extra hot sauce, and you were holding an extra cold Sprite, and for some reason you were waiting for him to tell you to drink it, he wouldn’t tell you to drink that thirst-quenching Sprite. Even if this were a metaphor about Sprite. And I was talking about Sprite. And Lil Yachty here was paid by Sprite to write lyrics about Sprite.
As a point of disclosure, Complex often hires me to write about rap music. I like writing for Complex—they pay me pretty well and my editors there give me a lot of creative freedom. One of my coworkers (as it were) at Complex is named Joe Budden. Joe Budden used to be a rapper: at first a good rapper, then, briefly, a great one, and finally a rapper who’s painfully average, chasing the aesthetics of other rappers half his age and with infinitely less baggage. Earlier this year, Complex asked Budden, along with an internet personality (as it were) named DJ Akademiks, to host a daily morning show discussing current events in or adjacent to hip-hop. At least that’s what I gather, as I’ve never actually watched the show, which is called Everyday Struggle. That name is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Biggie song by the same name, the one from Ready to Die. You know this song: “I don’t wanna live no more / Sometimes I hear death knocking at my front door / I’m living every day like a hustle / another drug to juggle / Another day, another struggle.” Big raps those words animatedly; the song’s not despondent, it’s resolute. Ready to Die spends plenty of time looking back (the first song is called “Things Done Changed,” “Juicy” lapses frequently back to childhood, and etc.), but it’s always in service of something new: the past informs the future. The grief in that hook hardened into the grit that would send Big south to Maryland, then further south to Raleigh, and then make him dig in and leave it all behind. So as strange as it sounds, “I don’t wanna live no more” became a mantra for self-improvement. But that’s not how Joe Budden used it. In 2005, while his second album was languishing on the shelf at Def Jam, Budden put out an exceptional mixtape called Mood Muzik 2: Can It Get Any Worse? Budden had rapped before about his own clinical depression, and on that tape he laid himself bare in front of his listeners, rapping about how his son calls his stepfather “Daddy,” about how he had to explain to a judge that he hadn’t made any money off his latest single, about pleading with a girlfriend to just get the abortion and I’ll give you the $250. The first song on Mood Muzik 2, “Are You In That Mood Yet,” opens with those lyrics from “Everyday Struggle,” only Budden isn’t gritting his teeth and taking the bus to North Carolina. He sounds like he can barely get out of bed. His voice is hoarse. Bombed out and depleted. But the strange thing about Mood Muzik 2 is no matter how deep it buries into dark, morbid corners of Joe’s psyche—suicide, PCP addiction, sampling Staind—it comes out the other side. On “If I Die Tomorrow” he finds a sort of peace; on “Young Niggas” he takes the thirty-thousand-feet view of his Odyssean childhood, finding perspective, even warmth. “Dumb Out” and “World Takeover” are razor-toothed, and “40 Licks” is even celebratory. I say all that to say that Mood Muzik 2 isn’t simply about depression, it’s about how depression colors your work and your relationships and your family and your time with Jae Millz.
The Pitchfork review for Lil Yachty’s new album, Teenage Emotions, calls him “our master of joy.”
There is almost no money in music discovery, at least when it comes to journalists or critics digging up new talent and broadcasting it to the broader rap-listening world. There’s plenty of money in it if you’re a record executive at a major label—maybe not as much money as there was in 1997, but with the advent of streaming, certainly far more than there was in 2007, when your best bet was to rack up 99-cent polyphonic ringtone downloads. There’s also money out there for (coughs loudly) brands, albeit in a more abstract sense. The thinking is that if Nautica or Target aligns their company with someone who young people find cool or somehow attractive, that those same young people will look more favorably on those patron brands. This might sound like I’m over-explaining the concept of the celebrity endorsement, which is as old as waxy yellow buildup. It’s not that, or at least not quite. This ad is not meant to dupe teens into thinking that Lil Yachty shops at Target (although he might); it’s meant to Bat-signal to savvy young people that Target and Lil Yachty have partnered, that someone at the Minneapolis headquarters knows who Yachty is, and that they’ve bestowed him with several thousand American dollars and Carly Rae Jepsen’s personal assistant’s BBM pin. The yield for Target is not a simple endorsement from a young rapper, but the appearance that the corporation and the rapper are in some sort of symbiotic relationship. And Yachty’s fans (or at least those who have been sufficiently convinced they should be Yachty fans) see this in itself as a victory for him. Nautica isn’t simply a sponsor, it’s a weird boat-shoed Medici. This is the game we showed up to play. Of course, none of this is a moral failing on Yachty’s part, or on the part of the surely well-intentioned marketing majors who pitched the idea to their bosses. I think if you ran into Yachty in a Forever 21 and asked him if he’d like to be rapping in ten years he would snatch his Crystal Dye French Terry Shorts off the counter, snap you a quick “No” and be on his way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s shockingly cynical for us to turn around and say that this is somehow virtuous, or makes his music unassailable.
While Travis Scott is
a thief and a frauda limited songwriter, as he’s settled into his Calabasas of the mind he’s figured out how to do increasingly weird, dissonant things through Autotune. His recorded music is one thing, but long stretches of his Coachella set from this April were genuinely avant-garde in an arresting way. Those bits of discord went beyond the tool’s Zappian intrigue, past Kanye’s melody enhancement or Future’s emotional bloodletting and into a place beyond words. By contrast, Yachty’s vocals tend to be atonal in a less compelling way: think of “Broccoli” without D.R.A.M.’s ain’t / no / tellin’ / what / i’m / finna / BE OOOOOONNNNNN. Now, what Yachty’s turn on“Broccoli” has going for it—aside from an excellent Vanessa Carlton impression—is that there really is a sort of joy threaded through his verse. I just did a show and spent the check on my mama. There are moments on Teenage Emotions where he taps into the same sort of colors, but there’s no D.R.A.M. to ground the songs, and we end up with the Diplo collaboration “Forever Young,” and so on. It’s nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, where the childhood we’re supposed to be gripping tight to is vague and didn’t sound that fun to begin with.
Look, you don’t need me to tell you that you’re being sold something. That Lil Yachty’s marketing push has been both thorough and a clever pitting of Yachty and his fans against joyless balding haters has been well-documented. And if you do find value in Lil Yachty’s music, I have no interest in poking holes in your enjoyment. But isn’t there something wrong with the fact that I have to give disclaimers like this one? One of the reasons music discovery is a thankless, profitless pursuit is that our cultural economy values reactions, over everything and to everything. You could react to a movie, or an album, or simply a tweet; you could react to someone’s reactions to said pop culture events, or to a real or imagined backlash to someone else’s reaction to the original reaction or to the event itself. It’s a dizzying circle. You’ve heard these reactions referred to, disparagingly, as thinkpieces, or as takes. In this world view, how you feel about an event or entity within pop culture is not an isolated appraisal, but rather a part of your identity; this is why you might have sensed that you either are or are not the kind of person who should be a Lil Yachty fan. For as disgusted as some people are (or are made to seem) when they criticize Yachty, I’m sure that he’s not only a perfectly nice guy, but probably has a pretty sharp, reasoned take on all of this. I’m sure he thinks it’s silly that his music has become a sort of cultural prism through which we can all look sideways at the guy who made “10 Minutes.” Because it is ridiculous. And I’m sure he wouldn’t be bothered that I don’t find Teenage Emotions all that joyful, and in fact I find it sort of hollow and cold and unnervingly postmodern and sad when he says he “just had sex with six different whores” and hits the -re sound so hard.
And even if all these cool influencer people were holding one, I still wouldn’t tell you to drink a cool, crisp, refreshing, lemon-lime Sprite. I’d ask you. You #WANNASPRITE?