I n 2016, a 19-year-old Lil Yachty emerged as a fresh-faced, red-haired maverick eagerly planting Generation Z’s flag in hip-hop. Songs like “Minnesota” intrigued many, but rap traditionalists denigrated him as a “mumble rapper” — an upstart who, they claimed, was insulting the essence of hip-hop one warbled vocal run at a time. That didn’t stop Yachty, though. In the years since, he’s kept trying new things, even as many other artists have gotten stuck retreading tired formulas. “Who cares?” he says now. “It’s going to go, or it’s not. You only have one life, bro. Just do shit.”
His latest creative gamble is Let’s Start Here, a psychedelic-rock project that posits Yachty as the lead singer of his band of friends (who include indie staples like Alex G, Mac DeMarco, and one of the guys from MGMT, along with executive producers SADPONY and Patrick Winberly). Together, they float through a world of syrupy melodies and dreamy affirmations like “I feel so pretty.” Yachty, 25, doesn’t divulge much about the album’s creation during our call, preferring to keep a mystique about it. In retrospect, he doesn’t enjoy how accessible he was at the start of his career; these days, he’d rather be more reserved with what he volunteers to the public. “I was young. I didn’t know nothing,” he says, one of many references to his growth throughout our conversation.
But he does offer a few details about the six-month recording process in Texas, New York, and elsewhere, which he says was “fun” at every juncture. At times, he played the work in progress for “heavy hitters” like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, A$AP Rocky, Drake, and Tyler, the Creator. “Everyone was ecstatic,” he says, “which made me feel good.”
At a listening event in L.A. last year, you said the title of Let’s Start Here was in part a declaration of the second chapter of your career. How would you define the first chapter?
I was learning myself, having fun. I’m still figuring it out now, just kind of growing. I was so young, man, and just trying to figure out my place and my purpose and how everything works. It was a great introduction, and [I was] trying to figure it out while living and enjoying life at the same time.
Do you think hip-hop could be more accepting of younger artists as they learn and grow?
I don’t know. I don’t really care either. Who cares? I don’t need acceptance from nobody. People seek too much validation.
What was the initial catalyst for you to start this album?
It was a phone call with Tyler that made me act on it. I always wanted to do it, but that was the battery.
What was the dynamic of that phone call? Were you like, “I want to explore something,” and he was like, “Go for it”?
I don’t fully remember, but he was very motivating and inspiring. I didn’t tell him my ideas, but it was more so, “Whatever it is in your heart and in your mind that you want to do, do it. And do it fully, don’t shortcut it. Don’t cut any corners.”
From there, what were the first moves you made to get the ball rolling? Did you reach out to the instrumentalists who helped construct the album?
They were friends. I called up a friend and then got with another friend, and then they got one of their friends and we did it. This concept was in my brain. It’s nothing new.
What do you remember from those first sessions?
I’ve known the guys, so it wasn’t awkward. I have a ton of songs already that sound like songs on this album. It’s not like I was stepping into a new world — this is music I’ve listened to since I was a baby. It’s new to the public, but in my own life it wasn’t some experience where it’s like playing in a new field. This is what I do.… But I didn’t know how the fuck we were going to do it. I thought I was setting my hopes pretty high. [To hear] an album like Dark Side of the Moon and say, “OK, I want to go make my version.…” That’s not some easy album to make.
You’ve referenced psychedelics in interviews. How big a factor was that in the recording process?
None. Zero. I can’t record music on drugs. I have to be fully sober. But I’ve done it enough times to know what I want. I don’t have to be high to make it sound high.
You said growing up you listened to all types of music. Did you ever hear the stigma of “That’s white-people music”?
Yeah, of course. I don’t give a fuck, bro. It’s so hard to affect me or offend me. I do what I want to do. You feel me? People say this album is white-people music. Who cares, man? What is white-people music?
You’ve said you made this in part because you “wanted to be taken seriously as an artist and not just a SoundCloud rapper, not just a mumble rapper.” What would you say to people who feel like SoundCloud rappers and mumble rappers deserve to be taken as seriously as any other artists?
See, that’s the thing. I can’t speak for nobody else. I’m not some spokesman for the people. I’m not vouching for anyone else’s work ethic or creativity, only mine. I want to be taken seriously. I’m not no mumble rap. I’m not just some SoundCloud rapper. I’m not speaking on all SoundCloud rappers. I’m speaking on me, you feel me? I want to make that apparent. This is for me, because everybody don’t have that work ethic. Everyone ain’t going to put the hours in to understand a new genre and how to execute something the right way.
“See, that’s the thing. I can’t speak for nobody else. I’m not speaking on all SoundCloud rappers. I’m speaking on me, you feel me? This is for me, because everybody don’t have that work ethic.”
I feel like a lot of people projected that from your comments, maybe unfairly. People are so protective of hip-hop that anytime someone wants to do something else, it’s perceived as somebody saying that hip-hop is less-than.
It’s so crazy. The main people that want to do all that be the main people downing certain people’s talent. Like, “Oh, man, you ain’t no real rapper. This ain’t real rap.” You can never please everyone.
You’ve said you had a period of trying to prove you can rap. How do you feel about those efforts now?
I love it, man. They made me a man. They made me strong. They made me care more about the craft — because I do. They made me want to learn, be better, sharpen my sword.
Did it ever get to a point with that stigma where it was hard to navigate your career?
I don’t think nothing’s hard in life. It just took work and effort, and I still feel like I got more work to put in when it comes to rap and how people perceive me. I care less, though.
How much does the dynamic that you’re talking about here have to do with the stigma against rappers when it comes to award shows and radio play and festivals?
For me, that’s zero. I don’t care about none of that shit. I just make all types of music. It has nothing to do with the fruits and labors that don’t come with being a rapper, none of that. I like to make all music. That’s all it is, totally. It ain’t got nothing to do with not getting the love or respect or not being invited to an award show.
Going forward with your creative process, do you feel like you’ll have that motivation with every album you make, to prove something to a certain audience?
Not necessarily. I didn’t make this album to prove that I could. I also want to be taken seriously. But I didn’t make it like, “Oh, man, I need them to take me serious. Let me make this type of album.” I just wanted to make a great album, and I felt like personally, I could do it better this way than if I made a rap album.
How are things going with your label, Concrete Boyz?
That’s next for me. That’s all I care about right now. That’s where we are every day, in the studio getting established together. We got some special artists, and they’re fresh faces. I want to make sure when we drop this, it’s hot, because they’re fire and it’s fresh. You’re gonna hear some fresh sounds. That’s my next project, in the summertime.
I was listening to your Zane Lowe interview, and I feel like I heard you reference doing a documentary. Did I mishear that, or …?
I was saying I have one, but I doubt I’ll drop it. Just like me not wanting to do any of these interviews. I don’t really care to talk about it, [because] you give it all away, you pull the curtain back. “Who inspired it? What did y’all talk about? When did y’all talk about it? What made you do this? Why’d you do that?” Then it’s no longer a special project, because then they know everything. It’s no longer “Wow. How did he make this?” because we know it all. That’s why I’m like, “Damn, bro. Do I want to show every inch of this album?” It takes away from it having any factor, any special surprise, [any] cool, hidden element. And that’s what I feel like is a problem with music nowadays. Everyone is oversharing. Everything is social. The more you give, the less cool something becomes.
Coming up, were the artists who had that mystery the ones you felt most intrigued by?
Well, coming up, you didn’t have all this social media. Even if you did an interview, you didn’t get every element of something. Kanye wasn’t telling you every inch [of how he] made 808s & Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s the simple things you knew, but they left a lot of room for, like, “Wow. How did he make this? How did he come up with the sound? I wonder what that session was like.” Which is the beauty in art.
Have you always been discerning about how much you put yourself out there?
No. I got 1,000 interviews on the internet. I hate it. I was young. I didn’t know nothing. Back then, I was trying to be the spokesman for the new generation because no one else wanted to talk. I felt, “I’m going to stand up. I’m going to speak.” But [now] I don’t speak for nobody but me.