Lil Yachty, Rap's Next Big Thing, on His Unapologetic Approach to Hip-Hop: 'I Honestly Couldn't Name Five Songs' By Tupac & Biggie

Chris McPherson
“If you want to get to the youth, “I’m the quickest way to them,” says Lil Yachty, photographed on Aug. 12, 2016 in Los Angeles. 

The self-proclaimed "King of Teens" stresses positivity -- and a healthy dose of weirdness.

"My whole vibe is different" from other rappers, says Lil Yachty. This is an ­understatement coming from a boat-obsessed, straight-edge 19-year-old from the 'burbs who admits that he "honestly couldn't name five songs" by hip-hop heroes Tupac and Biggie. "But if I'm doing this my way and making all this money," he reasonably inquires, "why should I do it how everybody says it's supposed to be done?"

Lil Yachty: The Billboard Photo Shoot

Like Rae Sremmurd, the Atlanta duo whose tour he will open on this fall, the rapper born Miles McCollum has built a ­following by gleefully defying ­categorization. He's optimistic, narcissistic, flashily irreverent, an Atlanta-area native in the left-of-center lineage of acts like OutKast, with a key difference: Softness, not bombast, defines his sound. Yachty calls it "bubble-gum trap": a mix of Auto-Tuned warbling, rhymes equally motivational and puerile, 808 beats and whimsical melodies often plinked on piano or (before legal got involved) cribbed from kiddie fare like Super Mario 64 and '90s cartoon Rugrats. About "Minnesota," an early cut in which he attempts a delicate falsetto over ­chiming keys, Yachty says, "Even my friends said that song was wack" -- though it was good enough for Young Thug and Migos' Quavo to guest on a remix. "I'm an emotional person," he says. "I'm not going to deny that. If I feel a certain way, I'll express it on the track."

This fall's compilation mixtape from his Sailing Team crew caps off a big year for Yachty. He inked a deal with Quality Control, Capitol and Motown; ­modeled in Kanye West's Madison Square Garden Yeezy show; amassed more than 14 ­million YouTube views for his trippy "1 Night" video; and banked charting ­collaborations with D.R.A.M. ("Broccoli") and PartyNextDoor ("Buzzin"). Atlanta vet Coach K, who turned Gucci Mane into a major player, is managing his career, and Yachty recently moved into a penthouse with producers TheGoodPerry and Earl (both Sailing Team members), bought cars for his mom and grandma, and dropped $16,000 on a Goyard luggage set for ­himself. The same bright-red beaded braids his Alabama State peers teased him about a year ago -- before he dropped out to pursue his dream -- are now a beloved trademark.

"I've found myself," says Yachty. "I'm like the youth's big brother now. I have to be that voice for them."

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 3 issue of Billboard.