With ‘Let’s Start Here,’ Lil Yachty Emerges as Music’s Boldest Creative Director
Lil Yachty is rich. The 25-year-old musician posts TikToks featuring exotic Italian furniture, and goes vintage shopping with Drake. By the time he graduated high school, he’d already bought his mom a house. He caused a mild international incident with his viral hit “Poland,” a loosie released late last year in which he croons, with impossible sincerity, about bringing illegal pharmaceuticals into Poland. One couldn’t imagine a more charmed Gen Z existence. And yet, on “:(failure(:,” an early interlude from his left-turn of a new album, Let’s Start Here, he says that he’s “seen failure a few times/More recently than before, actually.”
The song is a spoken-word reprieve that offers something of an explanation for what you’re hearing. Let’s Start Here is positioned as a grand reset. An offering of artistic integrity from a musician introduced to the world as the mainstream star of the SoundCloud generation. Except there’s been a subtle force of brilliance lurking beneath Yachty’s earnest, treacly flow — an emotive efficiency in his voice’s refusal to obscure. Yachty’s instincts would draw him into the expansive soundscapes of experimental jazz and psychedelic rock. “I met Andrew from MGMT, and I’ve been talking to a bunch of people. I met Kevin Parker. It’s just inspiring,” he told Rolling Stone two years ago. “What I’m trying to do on my next album, I’m trying to really take it there sonically.”
With writing credits including those very names — as well as Alex G, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Jake Portrait, and Daniel Ceasar — Let’s Start Here is less a departure for Yachty than a logical endpoint. Already, in the years since Michigan Boy Boat, his formidable homage to Michigan hip-hop released in 2021, Yachty has maintained a lava-hot streak of attention-grabbing vignettes. All of which delve further away from the traditional realms of rap, veering more toward pop and rock. Last January, he posted a TikTok duet to singer Sadie Jean’s hit “WYD Now?,” displaying an emotional depth fitting for the platform’s stripped-down ethos.
Cast in this new light, the quality that once made it hard for detractors to take him seriously has become Lil Yachty’s greatest strength. His playful vocal acrobatics, his freewheeling gestures into key ranges he might be less than suited for, create a listening experience rooted in feeling. So we open Let’s Start Here with “the BLACK seminole.,” in which Yachty sprinkles sparse musings from history. The title references Afro-Seminole people, free Africans who lived among Seminole groups in what is now Florida. Yachty’s idea fragments ooze together in the psychedelic groove, careful to keep the theoretical framework loose, allowing the words “Black” and “sex symbol” to float off into space carrying only as much weight as they need to. The statement retains potency in its aloofness. It isn’t unheard of to see rappers treading indie-rock terrain, though the efforts tend to have the sheen of corporate crossover. With instrumentation from Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly, Yachty rolls in like a Black cowboy in a way that feels unforced. “A Black man with mouths to feed,” he whispers.
Maturation is a central theme of the album. You can hear the inspiration of Tame Impala’s anxious midlife musing on “the ride-,” featuring rap experimentalist Teezo Touchdown. The song’s lush, psych-rock production makes for a fitting landscape. We’re bearing witness to a childhood’s end, as both howl into the void. There is, indeed, a lot of howling on the album.
Oohs and ahhs stretch to the heavens with intention — like on standout “pRETTY,” which is already proving to be a hit on TikTok, and sounds like a slowed bedroom cut from the cult label Naked Music. Percussion rumbles gently over the staggering two-step, while a sensual, otherworldly warble breaks through the clouds like a ray of sunshine in spring.
Yachty has already proven how much unlikely meaning he is able to harness from the sound of a single vowel, stretched into impossible range — he displays that technique on the aforementioned surprise viral sensation “Poland,” and the snippet mostly known as “Holster,” in which he turns a triplet (“I’m puttin’ crushed ice in my soda/Perky got it stuck like a holster/It’s a gun in my holster”) that should mean absolutely nothing into a well of emotion. His voice, even at its most modulated, retains the crackly texture of natural speech, and throughout Let’s Start Here he’s nimble in his delivery. “pRETTY” punctuates Yachty’s theatrics with smoothly delivered vocals from rising talent Fousheé, and “drive ME crazy!” opens with the angelic voice of Diana Gordon, offering an unrepentant disco rhythm.
As a collaborator, Yachty is most skilled at finding pairings that work, like Justine Skye’s addition to “THE zone~,” which offers the track a sensual backdrop that Yachty is smart enough not to interrupt. And that ability to cultivate the diverse talents of others, not unlike a creative director, remains his greatest gift. Similar to his pal Drake, Yachty’s sensibility as a rapper fits comfortably into the framework of classic dance sounds.
While many artists have signaled a need to break new ground — Beyoncé’s Renaissance and Drake’s Honestly Nevermind have set the stage for an even bigger reshuffling on the horizon in popular music — Yachty’s latest effort dives headfirst into the unknown. His journey inward is as pure as his fandom for Tame Impala, and so we get moments like “sHouLd i B,” where he successfully charts new terrain in the canon of forlorn love songs. “Am I mad at what you did?/I don’t think so,” he coos. A verse fitting for Phoebe Bridgers. “But should I be? But should I be? But should I be?”
You could call Let’s Start Here a rebuke of the notion that listeners have abandoned the full-length album. The record’s tight 57 minutes feel as cohesive a project as any artist has released in the streaming era. Yachty’s genuine adoration of his musical inspirations is like the Gen Z alchemy of Pinkpantheress, able to turn familiar source material into something entirely new.
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