Lil Yachty On His Big Rock Pivot: ‘F-ck Any of the Albums I Dropped Before This One’
With his adventurous, psychedelic new album, 'Let's Start Here,' he's left mumble rap behind — and finally created a project he's proud of.
Lil Yachty, presented by Doritos, will perform at Billboard Presents The Stage at SXSW on March 16.
Someone has sparked a blunt in the planetarium.
It may be a school night, but no one has come to the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., to learn. Instead, the hundreds of fans packed into the domed theater on Jan. 26 have come to hear Lil Yachty’s latest album as he intended: straight through — and with an open mind. Or, as Yachty says with a mischievous smile: “I hope y’all took some sh-t.”
For the next 57 minutes and 16 seconds, graphics of exploding spaceships, green giraffes and a quiet road through Joshua Tree National Park accompany Yachty’s sonically divergent — and at this point, unreleased — fifth album, Let’s Start Here. For a psychedelic rock project that plays like one long song, the visual aids not only help attendees embrace the bizarre, but also function as a road map for Yachty’s far-out trip, signaling that there is, in fact, a tracklist.
It’s a night the artist has arguably been waiting for his whole career — to finally release an album he feels proud of. An album that was, he says, made “from scratch” with all live instrumentation. An album that opens with a nearly seven-minute opus, “the BLACK seminole.,” that he claims he had to fight most of his collaborative team to keep as one, not two songs. An album that, unlike his others, has few features and is instead rich with co-writers like Mac DeMarco, Nick Hakim, Alex G and members of MGMT, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Chairlift. An album he believes will finally earn him the respect and recognition he has always sought.
“I did what I really wanted to do, which was create a body of work that reflected me,” says a soft-spoken Yachty the day before his listening event. “My idea was for this album to be a journey: Press play and fall into a void.”
Sitting in a Brooklyn studio in East Williamsburg not far from where he made most of Let’s Start Here in neighboring Greenpoint, it’s clear he has been waiting to talk about this project in depth for some time. Yachty is an open book, willing to answer anything — and share any opinion. (Especially on the slice of pizza he has been brought, which he declares “tastes like ass.”) Perhaps his most controversial take at the moment? “F-ck any of the albums I dropped before this one.”
His desire to move on from his past is understandable. When Yachty entered the industry in his mid-teens with his 2016 major-label debut, the Lil Boat mixtape, featuring the breakout hit “One Night,” he found that along with fame came sailing the internet’s choppy waters. Skeptics often took him to task for not knowing — or caring, maybe — about rap’s roots, and he never shied away from sharing hot takes on Twitter. With his willingness and ability to straddle pop and hip-hop, Yachty produced music he once called “bubble-gum trap” (he has since denounced that phrase) that polarized audiences and critics. Meanwhile, his nonchalant delivery got him labeled as a mumble rapper — another identifier he was never fond of because it felt dismissive of his talent.
“I came into music in a time where rap was real hardcore, it was real street,” he says. “And a bunch of us kids came in with colorful hair and dressing different and basically said, ‘Move out the way, old f-cks. We on some other sh-t.’ I was young and I didn’t really give a f-ck, so I did do things that may have led people to the assumptions that I was a mumble rapper or a SoundCloud kid or I don’t appreciate the history of hip-hop. But to be honest, I’ve always been so much more than just hip-hop.
“There’s a lot of kids who haven’t heard any of my references,” he continues. “They don’t know anything about Bon Iver or Pink Floyd or Black Sabbath or James Brown. I wanted to show people a different side of me — and that I can do anything, most importantly.”
Let’s Start Here is proof. Growing up in Atlanta, the artist born Miles McCollum was heavily influenced by his father, a photographer who introduced him to all kinds of sounds. Yachty, once easily identifiable by his bright red braids, found early success by posting songs like “One Night” to SoundCloud, catching the attention of Kevin “Coach K” Lee, co-founder/COO of Quality Control Music, now home to Migos, Lil Baby and City Girls. In 2015, Coach K began managing Yachty, who in summer 2016 signed a joint-venture deal with Motown, Capitol Records and Quality Control.
“Yachty was me when I was 18 years old, when I signed him. He was actually me,” says Coach K today. (In 2021, Adam Kluger, whose clients include Bhad Bhabie, began co-managing Yachty.) “All the eclectic, different things, we shared that with each other. He had been wanting to make this album from the first day we signed him. But you know — coming as a hip-hop artist, you have to play the game.”
Yachty played it well. To date, he has charted 17 songs on the Billboard Hot 100, including two top 10 hits for his features on DRAM’s melodic 2016 smash “Broccoli” and Kyle’s 2017 pop-rap track “iSpy.” His third-highest-charting entry arrived unexpectedly last year: the 93-second “Poland,” a track Yachty recorded in about 10 minutes where his warbly vocals more closely resemble singing than rapping. (Let’s Start Here collaborator SADPONY saw “Poland” as a temperature check that proved “people are going to like this Yachty.”)
Beginning with 2016’s Lil Boat mixtape, all eight of Yachty’s major-label-released albums and mixtapes have charted on the Billboard 200. Three have entered the top 10, including Let’s Start Here, which debuted and peaked at No. 9. And while Yachty has only scored one No. 1 album before (Teenage Emotions topped Rap Album Sales), Let’s Start Here debuted atop three genre charts: Top Rock & Alternative Albums, Top Rock Albums and Top Alternative Albums.
“It feels good to know that people in that world received this so well,” says Motown Records vp of A&R Gelareh Rouzbehani. “I think it’s a testament to Yachty going in and saying, ‘F-ck what everyone thinks. I’m going to create something that I’ve always wanted to make — and let us hope the world f-cking loves it.’ ”
Yachty says he was already confident about the album, but after playing it for several of his peers and heroes — including Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Post Malone, Drake, Cardi B, Kid Cudi, A$AP Rocky and Tyler, The Creator — “their reactions boosted me.”
Yet despite Let’s Start Here’s many high-profile supporters, some longtime detractors and fans alike were quick to criticize certain aspects of it, from its art — Yachty quote-tweeted one remark, succinctly replying, “shut up” — to the music itself. Once again, he found himself facing another tidal wave of discourse. But this time, he was ready to ride it. “This release,” Kluger says, “gave him a lot of confidence.”
“I was always kind of nervous to put out music, but now I’m on some other sh-t,” Yachty says. “It was a lot of self-assessing and being very real about not being happy with where I was musically, knowing I’m better than where I am. Because the sh-t I was making did not add up to the sh-t I listened to.
“I just wanted more,” he continues. “I want to be remembered. I want to be respected.”
Last spring, Lil Yachty gathered his family, collaborators and team at famed Texas studio complex Sonic Ranch.
“I remember I got there at night and drove down because this place is like 30 miles outside El Paso,” Coach K says. “I walked in the room and just saw all these instruments and sh-t, and the vibe was just so ill. And I just started smiling. All the producers were in the room, his assistant, his dad. Yachty comes in, puts the album on. We got to the second song, and I told everybody, ‘Stop the music.’ I walked over to him and just said, ‘Man, give me a hug.’ I was like, ‘Yachty, I am so proud of you.’ He came into the game bold, but [to make] this album, you have to be very bold. And to know that he finally did it, it was overwhelming.”
SADPONY (aka Jeremiah Raisen) — who executive-produced Let’s Start Here and, in doing so, spent nearly eight straight months with Yachty — says the time at Sonic Ranch was the perfect way to cap off the months of tunnel vision required while making the album in Brooklyn. “That was new alone,” says Yachty. “I’ve recorded every album in Atlanta at [Quality Control]. That was the first time I recorded away from home. First time I recorded with a new engineer,” Miles B.A. Robinson, a Saddle Creek artist.
And while they did put the finishing touches on the album in Texas, they also let loose. “We had a f-cking grand old time,” SADPONY says. “We had about 50 people all throughout these houses and were driving in these unregistered trucks, like cartel trucks, around this crazy pecan farm. Obviously, we were all having some fun making this psychedelic record.”
Yachty couldn’t wait to put it out, and says he turned it in “a long time ago. I think it was just label sh-t and trying to figure out the right time to release it.” For Coach K, it was imperative to have the physical product ready on release date, given that Yachty had made “an experience” of an album. And lately, most pressing plants have an average turnaround time of six to eight months.
Fans, however, were impatient. On Christmas, one month before Let’s Start Here would arrive, the album leaked online. It was dubbed Sonic Ranch. “Everyone was home with their families, so no one could pull it off the internet,” recalls Yachty. “That was really depressing and frustrating.”
Then, weeks later, the album art, tracklist and release date also leaked. “My label made a mistake and sent preorders to Amazon too early, and [the site] posted it,” Yachty says. “So I wasn’t able to do the actual rollout for my album that I wanted to. Nothing was a secret anymore. It was all out. I had a whole plan that I had to cancel.” He says the biggest loss was various videos he made to introduce and contextualize the project, all of which “were really weird … [But] I wasn’t introducing it anymore. People already knew.” Only one, called “Department of Mental Tranquility,” made it out, just days before the album.
Yachty says he wasn’t necessarily seeking a mental escape before making Let’s Start Here, but confesses that acid gave him one anyway. “I guess maybe the music went along with it,” he says. The album title changed four or five times, he says, from Momentary Bliss (“It was meant to take you away from reality … where you’re truly listening”) to 180 Degrees (“Because it’s the complete opposite of anything I’ve ever done, but people were like, ‘It’s too on the nose’ ”) to, ultimately, Let’s Start Here — the best way, he decided, to succinctly summarize where he was as an artist: a seven-year veteran, but at 25 years old, still eager to begin a new chapter.
He dug into his less obvious influences: In 2017, he listened to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon for the first time. “I think that was the last time I was like, ‘Whoa.’ You know?” He believes Frank Ocean’s Blonde is “one of the best albums of all time” and cites Tame Impala’s Currents as another project that stopped him in his tracks. All were fuel to his fire.
Taking inspiration from Dark Side, Yachty relied on three women’s voices throughout the album, enlisting Fousheé, Justine Skye and Diana Gordon. Otherwise, guest vocals are spare. Daniel Caesar features on album closer “Reach the Sunshine.,” while the late Bob Ross (of The Joy of Painting fame) has a historic posthumous feature on “We Saw the Sun!”
Rouzbehani tells Billboard that Ross’ estate declined Yachty’s request at first: “I think a big concern of theirs was that Yachty is known as a rapper, and Bob Ross and his brand are very clean. They didn’t want to associate with anything explicit.” But Yachty was adamant, and Rouzbehani played the track for Ross’ team and also sent the entire album’s lyrics to set the group at ease. “With a lot of back-and-forth, we got the call,” she says. “Yachty is the first artist that has gotten a Bob Ross clearance in history.”
From the start, Coach K believed Let’s Start Here would open lots of doors for Yachty — and ultimately, other artists, too. Questlove may have said it best, posting the album art on Instagram with a lengthy caption that read in part: “this lp might be the most surprising transition of any music career I’ve witnessed in a min, especially under the umbrella of hip hop … Sh-t like this (envelope pushing) got me hyped about music’s future.”
“People don’t know where Yachty’s going to go now, and I think that’s the coolest sh-t, artistrywise,” says SADPONY. “That’s some Iggy Pop-, David Bowie-type sh-t. Where the mysteriousness of being an artist is back.”
Recently, Lil Yachty held auditions for an all-women touring band. “It was an experience for like Simon Cowell or Randy [Jackson],” he says, offering a simple explanation for the choice: “In my life, women are superheroes.”
And according to Yachty, pulling off his show will take superhuman strength: “Because the show has to match the album. It has to be big.” As eager as he was to release Let’s Start Here, he’s even more antsy to perform it live — but planning a tour, he says, required gauging the reaction to it. “This is so new for me, and to be quite honest with you, the label [didn’t] know how [the album] would do,” he says. “Also, I haven’t dropped an album in like three years. So we don’t even know how to plan a tour right now because it has been so long and my music is so different.”
While Yachty’s last full-length studio album, Lil Boat 3, arrived in 2020, he released the Michigan Boy Boat mixtape in 2021, a project as reverential of the state’s flourishing hip-hop scenes in Detroit and Flint as Let’s Start Here is of its psych-rock touchstones. And though he claims he doesn’t do much with his days, his recent accomplishments, both musical and beyond, suggest otherwise. He launched his own cryptocurrency, YachtyCoin, at the end of 2020; signed his first artist, Draft Day, to his Concrete Boyz label at the start of 2021; invested in the Jewish dating app Lox Club; and launched his own line of frozen pizza, Yachty’s Pizzeria, last September. (He has famously declared he has never eaten a vegetable; at his Jersey City listening event, there was an abundance of candy, doughnut holes and Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts.)
But there are only two things that seem to remotely excite him, first and foremost of which is being a father. As proud as he is of Let’s Start Here, he says it comes in second to having his now 1-year-old daughter — though he says with a laugh that she “doesn’t really give a f-ck” about his music yet. “I haven’t played [this album] for her, but her mom plays her my old stuff,” he continues. “The mother of my child is Dominican and Puerto Rican, so she loves Selena — she plays her a lot. [We watch] the Selena movie with Jennifer Lopez a sh-t ton and a lot of Disney movie sh-t, like Frozen, Lion King and that type of vibe.”
Aside from being a dad, he most cares about working with other artists. Recently, he flew eight of his biggest fans — most of whom he has kept in touch with for years — to Atlanta. He had them over, played Let’s Start Here, took them to dinner and bowling, introduced them to his mom and dad, and then showed them a documentary he made for the album. (He’s not sure if he’ll release it.) One of the fans is an aspiring rapper; naturally, the two made a song together.
“I want to be Quincy Jones,” Yachty near whispers. Last year, he co-produced a handful of tracks on the Drake and 21 Savage collaborative album Her Loss. And recently, he features on two Zack Bia tracks, one of which he produced, for Bia’s upcoming album. Six months ago, he started living by himself for the first time. “I wish I did it sooner. I wake up, play video games and then I go to the studio all night until the morning,” he says. “That’s all I want to do.” Since finishing Let’s Start Here, Yachty claims he has made hundreds of songs, some experimenting with “electronic pop sh-t” that he can only describe as “tight.”
Yachty wants to keep working with artists and producers outside of hip-hop, mentioning the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and even sharing his dream of writing a ballad for Elton John. (“I know I could write him a beautiful song.”) With South Korean music company HYBE’s recent purchase of Quality Control — a $300 million deal — Yachty’s realm of possibility is bigger than ever.
But he’s not ruling out his genre roots. Arguably, Let’s Start Here was made for the peers and heroes he played it for first — and was inspired by hip-hop’s chameleons. “I would love to do a project with Tyler [The Creator],” says Yachty. “He’s the reason I made this album. He’s the one who told me to do it, just go for it. He’s so confident and I have so much respect for him because he takes me seriously, and he always has.”
Yachty is now hoping everyone else does, too. “I just want people to understand I love this. This is not a joke to me. And I can stand with my chest out because I’m proud of something I created.”
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This story originally appeared in the March 11, 2023, issue of Billboard.