Some aspiring rappers sling mixtapes; some upload demos to Soundcloud. Lil Yachty – one of hip-hop's most idiosyncratic young stars – took a different, hyper-contemporary path to stardom: He vowed to become Instagram-famous. "I wasn't really focused on music," the Atlanta native, 19, says. "I was more into fashion on the Internet."
A little more than a year ago, Yachty (real name Miles Parks McCollum) struck upon his nautical nickname and a signature look consisting heavily of vintage maritime apparel, sourced from "eBay, Etsy, thrift stores, consignment shops," he says. Next, he spent a summer in New York, crashing with a buddy and systematically ingratiating himself with some of his online street-fashion heroes, like Luka Sabbat, who has racked up 272,000 Instagram followers.
"They're the cool kids all the kids listen to," Yachty says. "It was strategic. They helped my name build." Before long, Yachty had an online following of his own. He began to parlay it into a music career, self-releasing catchy, intentionally dinky-sounding tunes packed with off-color boasts delivered in a proudly amateurish singsong. Capitol Records signed him; Kanye invited him to collaborate in the studio (and asked him to model for his Yeezy clothing line); Chance the Rapper gave him a feature spot on Coloring Book; and Drake put one of Yachty's best and weirdest songs, "Minnesota," on his Ovo Sound Beats1 show.
Despite the big-name accolades, Yachty doesn't take himself seriously. He calls his style "bubblegum trap." "I've got songs that sample Mario Bros., Charlie Brown, the Rugrats theme, the music that plays when you turn on a Gamecube," he says. For all his strategic thinking, he characterizes his artistic approach as un-premeditated; he recorded his breakthrough single, an anti-commitment ode called "1 Night," "in my friend's garage." On "Minnesota," he riffs about his flip phone, New Balance sneakers and his lawyer. Inspired by ingenious weirdos like Lil B and Soulja Boy, Yachty's bars bob on and off the beat like dinghies. "I just flow," he says. "My only verse I remember really working on was 'Mixtape'" – a Chance the Rapper song – "and I took 45 minutes on that because I wanted it to be tight."
Growing up, Yachty says, he always had flair. "I wore colorful clothes, had colorful hair. My older brother was gangbanging, selling drugs, and I think he was kind of embarrassed of me." Yachty was arrested, pre-fame, for credit-card scamming, but he says those charges have been expunged. Now, he says he's focused on positivity: His next album won't include the cartoonish threats of violence he made on early releases: "That was talkety-talk. I'm not influencing the youth in no bad way. I'm doing can drives at my shows. I'm promoting boating!" He chuckles. "I'm 100 percent sunshine."