None of the common complaints about Lil Yachty are valid, but "Teenage Emotions" still isn't a great album.
There was absolutely no way Lil Yachty wasn't going to blow up. From the very first moment you hear his playful honk of a voice and lay eyes upon his licorice-red hair, he's impossible to ignore—a garish, flashing sign on the side of the highway that reads, "very unexpected shit ahead." Rarely do today's breakout stars leave you awestruck with breathtaking bars on the first go-round; instead, they catch your attention by sounding like nothing else that precedes them (perhaps they even sound like what older rappers actively tried not to sound like). In this sense, Yachty is the Platonic ideal of a rapper for whom stardom is inevitable in the late 2010s.
Stardom—that is, elevation to a status that doesn't require people to know your work to know who you are—comes with its prices, its "Young Thug is gay," "lol Fetty Wap's eye," "Lil Uzi Vert ruins 'Bad & Boujee,'" or "Playboi Carti only does ad-libs" jokes, and more than anyone else, Yachty has borne the brunt of those in the last year. Everything he stands for has been picked apart and critiqued by rap listeners (mostly of a certain age). His positive attitude was recently mocked and scrutinized by Joe Budden. His writing-heavy, freestyle-averse approach to music was ridiculed by Ebro. His music taste, which skews closer to guitar pop than Golden Age rap, outright offends people. Naysayers bitch so much about the way he speaks and raps that they even coined a derogatory, overarching term ("mumble rap") to describe him and his peers. But just as much as these barbs are meant to wound Yachty, they end up aiding him. Headlines like "Washed up 45 year-old disses Lil Yachty" are just as key to his success, if not more so, than successful tracks like "1 Night" and "Broccoli." Yachty fans and haters will both click on those.
Yachty spent the last year building his buzz with headlines and singles and, to a lesser degree, honing his sound with a couple of mixtapes. Lil Boat and Summer Songs 2 both read as lighthearted, low-stakes affairs that make room for posse cuts, remixes, bangers, and ballads. They weren't perfect, but they didn't have to be. They gave Yachty fans places to go other than their idol's Soundcloud page, and they showed that he was more than a viral fluke. The tapes also proved that the prevailing complaints about Yachty were false. He wasn't always happy, as melancholy tracks showed; he could actually rap quickly and proficiently, as evidenced on bars-heavy cuts like "For Hot 97"; his beat selection was mostly excellent; he spoke clearly and comprehensibly.
That twin assault of pleasantness and proving the haters wrong was never going to carry a debut album though, and now that it's here, Teenage Emotions' main flaw is that it lacks the substance or even catchiness to take casual Yachty fans (like myself) beyond the ground-level "Hmm, I fuck with this kid" point that many arrived at minutes after first hearing him. He's still inspirational ("Like A Star"), full of sunshine/Columbine contrasts ("Stuck between trying to find friends who want innovation but will still kill"), humorously cartoonish ("Fuck my annual taxes could have bought some land with several cactus"), and clever in his cultural references (I love the sly nod to Nelly's "Tip Drill" video in the line "Slid my black card through her crack"), but conceptually, melodically, and experimentally, there are very few great leaps forward here.
Like the tapes before it, Teenage Emotions is loosely structured as a T.I. Vs. T.I.P.-style duel between two personas, Yachty and Lil Boat, which is basically the least interesting way to say "I rap but also sing" in 2017. Most songs are dominated by one persona or the other, and even though the kid can actually rap, it's clear which side comes more naturally and holds the most potential. "Dirty Mouth" might have some of his least-clumsy, most inspired rapping yet, but it also reads as a move from the XXXTENTACION playbook and has the lyric, "I got m's, I'm talking about the letter before n," so make of that what you will. Part of Yachty's charm comes from him saying whatever the fuck he wants, whether that be misconstruing a cello as a woodwind instrument or describing an orgy with prostitutes on their grandmother's back porch, but his zany free-association game loses its charm after the first couple of "he said what??"s.
More interesting things happen when Yachty untethers himself from ominous trap beats. The album's second half finds him attacking everything from sun-kissed reggae ("Better"), big-tent Diplo EDM ("Forever Young"), gated-snares-and-sax-solos '80s fare ("Bring It Back"), Tegan and Sara remakes ("Running with a Ghost"), and IDM that seems primed for the next Kanye album ("No More"). All of these vary in quality based on how sharp Yachty is with his lyrics and melodies-- some of the hooks on Teenage Emotions are truly unimaginative and grating-- but at least it beats him trying to prove yet again that he can actually rap quickly and proficiently. No one's expecting a Slaughterhouse tape here, but Yachty often crams syllables like he actually does care what rap's old guard thinks of him, which runs directly counter to the persona he's built for himself.
Teenage Emotions' best moments come when Yachty leans into his strengths and finds high-sheen, lush beats to back him up. "All Around Me" is an unexpectedly upbeat offering from Lex Luger, and with the help of the unparalleled swagger of YG and Kamaiyah, Yachty delivers his finest "I don't care if you like me, I'm shining" statement to date. Right now, no one in hip hop says that with more authority than Yachty, and his confidence is palpable over something that sounds so high-budget. Then there's the final two songs, where it feels like Yachty's actually letting us in, not hiding behind goofy lines about cactuses and T-Rexes. "Made of Glass" is as close to pop perfection he's ever gotten, a heartbreak song for the ages that meshes with the album's '80s vibe without being as glaringly obvious as that sax solo a few songs earlier. "Momma" follows suit on the back of keys from the always-impeccable TrapMoneyBenny, sounding poignant as fuck despite the fact that songs about loving your mom are almost a cliche at this point. Here, Yachty proves that he no longer has to exert himself to prove his originality. We've already spent the last year debating his place in rap, being shocked at his latest antic, and spitting out our drinks at his latest ridiculous punchline. What Yachty still has yet to do is make a full body of work that's appealing beyond its shock value or novel concepts.