How Lil Yachty Got His Second Act

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Jeff Ihaza
·8 min read
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Until the pandemic, Lil Yachty never stopped to think about how quickly he became famous. “It was a full year from walking across the stage in high school to then I’m in this penthouse in midtown Atlanta, I got this G-wagon, put my mother in a house,” Yachty explains. “It’s a fast life. You not ever getting the chance to think about a lot of shit.”

Yachty’s 2016 hit “Minnesota,” which had the treacly energy of a nursery rhyme, earned the then-17-year-old the title “King of the Teens.” But since then, he’s become an elder statesman of a certain brand of young superstar — and something like the Gen Z answer to Diddy. He collaborated with brands like Nautica and Target; he appeared in the movie How High 2; he signed an endorsement deal with Sprite. Signees to his new label imprint, Concrete Boys, even get an iced-out chain.

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Yachty’s upcoming mixtape, Michigan Boy Boat, is an ode to the state where a new crop of MCs is currently restitching the fabric of modern hip-hop. It’s also a testament to one of the 23-year-old rapper’s greatest gifts: his ear for talent. “I started doing my own homework and digging,” Yachty explains. “And just started realizing there are no bad rappers in Michigan. Everyone knows how to rap.” For all of the criticisms of Yachty as a lyricist over the years — rap purists loudly disdained him early on — there’s a clear sense of progression on tracks like “Royal Rumble,” which finds Yachty trading bars with some of Michigan’s best MCs. The wordplay is punchier, the wisecracks are wittier. He fires off lines that fit perfectly within the scene’s penchant for clever bars. He even manages to land a pun about The Grudge.

Yachty tends to describe rapping in terms of how much fun he’s having. “I just do what I want,” he says. “That’s what makes it fun. I’m not aiming for Number One on Billboard.” This attitude may explain why, early in his career, commentators latched onto what they saw as a lack of seriousness on his part. There was Joe Budden accusing Yachty of not understanding his record deal, and the fateful Ebro in the Morning interview in which Yachty fumbled through a freestyle over a Nas beat. In 2016, he told Billboard that he “honestly couldn’t name five songs” by Tupac or the Notorious B.I.G. An errant quote from his Ebro appearance, Yachty saying he was “not a rapper,” followed him for years. Never mind that he said it when he was 18. “I was different, and sometimes when people don’t understand, they turn away from it,” Yachty says. “Back in 2017, every day I woke up, my phone was blowing up from something new. Stupid shit.”

Today, the narrative has changed. The debate over “lyrical” rap versus rappers like Yachty is stale. The past decade in the genre has brought a widening of what it means to be a rapper and new styles flourish alongside old. The last three winners for the Best Rap Album Grammy were Tyler, the Creator, Cardi B, and Nas.

Born Miles Parks McCollum, Yachty embodies many of the ways the music industry has changed in the past decade. He rose to fame on the internet and commands attention with or without new music. Over Zoom in March, he’s calm and reserved, pausing intently before he responds to questions. The youthful exuberance is still there, though. At one point, his mom, who lives nearby, calls to ask what he wants from the grocery store. “I need Pop-Tarts,” he says sweetly. “I really want them cinnamon-bun Pop-Tarts.”

He can afford lots of Pop-Tarts. Yachty reportedly made $13 million on endorsements in 2016 and 2017. (“Work hard, play hard,” he responds when asked about the number.) He spends more than $50,000 a month on various expenses, according to one recent headline. (“If anything I pay a little more. I have many assets and insurance, plus an elaborate payroll.”) He’s working on a Reese’s Puffs cereal collaboration, a film based on the card game Uno, and he was one of the first rappers to hop on the crypto craze, selling something called a “YachtyCoin” last December in an auction on the platform Nifty Gateway. According to a report from Coinbase, the token sold for $16,050. Yachty explains that when he was first discovered by Quality Control records founder Kevin “Coach K” Lee, “one of the biggest things he talked about was being a brand. Being bigger than just an artist — being a mogul.”

That might explain why he seems unconcerned with the charts. Yachty’s most recent album, Lil Boat 3, arrived last year amid the pandemic and a national uprising in response to the death of Black people at the hands of the police, all of which hurt its chances at capturing listeners’ attention. “The first few critical months of the project was a serious time in the world,” Yachty explains. “It was unfortunate, but it was for a better cause, a bigger cause, and it was what it was.” Still, Lil Boat 3 is worth revisiting for the excellent collaborations alone. Future is at his most joyous on “Pardon Me,” which is accompanied by one of the more genuinely fun music videos in an otherwise bleak year. The deluxe version, released in November, is equally formidable. The Playboi Carti and Future-assisted “Flex Up” is a testament to Yachty’s ability to simply bring a vibe together.

In fact, collaboration has come to be a useful tool for Yachty as he sheds the King of the Teens title for something more akin to a rap mogul. “I only work with people I have friendships with, who I really admire,” Yachty says. “And I love working with newer artists, up-and-coming artists.” Within the world of hip-hop, Yachty has found for himself somewhere between a megastar and internet hero, and it would appear that he’s just settling in. “I just fuck with new talent. Not even like, ‘let me sign you, get under my wing,’ ” he explains. “Just ‘hey, I’ve been in this spot before. I know what that’s like, bada bing, bada boom.’ ”

Yachty started Concrete Boys last year. One of the first signees was his childhood friend Draft Day, who offers one of the more exciting features on Lil Boat 3, on the cut “Demon Time.” “I feel old sometimes,” Yachty admits. “I feel old as fuck when someone’s popping and I don’t know who they are. Which is rare, because I be on my shit.”

Yachty is also at the forefront of a new realm of social platforms, namely Twitch and Discord, that engender more direct communication within communities. Yachty frequently talks directly to fans on both platforms, and in April he collaborated with Discord on “sound packs,” which allowed users to replace the app’s normal notifications with sounds he created.

This points to an emerging dynamic among modern celebrities. As social platforms give fans more windows into the lives of famous people, more engagement is expected. For Yachty, it’s natural. “I connect with my fans every day, all day. I feel like it’s where I connect to my fans so much, I got fans that I know names and I’ll talk to,” Yachty says. “If they see me in person, they would not scream. They’d be like, ‘what’s up bro?’ Like a friend.”

Yachty says he’ll often talk on the phone with another young mogul: Tyler, the Creator. It’s important for him to keep that kind of company because “it’ll keep you on the right track.” For now, he’s readying the release of Michigan Boy Boat, which he says will be followed up by a project with the producers Working on Dying, as well as a collaborative project with Lil Tecca. Yachty has also been on something of a psychedelic-rock kick and says he’d like to bring some of these influences to his next album. “I met Andrew from MGMT, and I’ve been talking to a bunch of people. I met Kevin Parker, I’ve been talking to him. It’s just inspiring,” he said. “I got a bunch of side projects I’m going to drop before my next album. But what I’m trying to do on my next album, I’m trying to really take it there sonically.”

I ask Yachty where he sees himself in five years. “Hopefully, a really successful actor,” he responds. “And with a bangin’ eight pack. I’ll probably cut my hair up, maybe a little beard. Real sex-symbol shit, you know what I’m saying?” For Yachty, who opened the door to a new brand of celebrity rapper, it doesn’t register as wishful thinking. His enduring celebrity is proof of what’s possible with a solid flow and internet savvy. “I just want to do everything. Because I’ve realized I can,” Yachty explains. “I’ve learned the power I have. The only thing stopping me is me, for real.”

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