In February of 2004, Chappelle’s Show introduced a skit called “A Moment in the Life of Lil Jon.” In his first appearance, Dave Chappelle’s Lil Jon checks in for a flight and responds to questions from an airline agent with modified versions of the punctuations Lil Jon turned into a career: “Yeah!” “OK!” “What?” Chappelle extends these words, magnifying the drag of Jon’s voice. As with his imitations of Prince and Rick James, he is both clowning and celebrating Lil Jon, whose delivery was a sublime engine of exaggeration, adding syllables until words felt like sentences: “Yee-AY-uh-ah!” A comic was the right critic for this moment. It took Chappelle one word to embody the complexities of Lil Jon’s voice. This point took me a paragraph to make.
A less charitable version of the same exchange is currently revolving around a nebulous genre called “mumble rap.” This category was suggested first by Wiz Khalifa, during an appearance on Hot 97 this past June. “We call it mumble rap. It ain’t no disrespect to the little homies. They don’t want to rap. It’s cool for now — it’s going to evolve. Those artists, if they want to stay around, they’ll figure out the next thing to do.” Some of Khalifa’s peers are not cool with the mumbles. One Atlanta rapper, Lil Yachty, has become the prime suspect in this alleged crime against hip-hop, and a proxy for several things.
After Yachty admitted he couldn’t name five songs by Biggie and Tupac, Anderson .Paak pulled a Mr. Hand on Twitter, writing that “real artists are students of the game first.” Yachty and Hot 97 morning show host Ebro interacted several times, and Yachty was widely mocked after he was unable to freestyle more than a few bars on Ebro’s show. MC Ab-Soul and producer Pete Rock have joined in this chorus of hall monitors.
Condensed for clarity, Yachty’s response to his detractors is that they’re way old and don’t understand that a few words, said or sung, are more than enough for the backbone of a song. “I’m not RZA,” he said during one of his radio appearances. Chappelle understood this distinction in 2004. In 2016, his colleagues from the Nineties somehow can’t.
Lil Yachty predicted the threat he came to represent. On the intro to his Lil Boat mixtape, released in March, he set up a generational divide, playing a character named Darnell Boat, who introduces his two nephews, Lil Yachty and Lil Boat. (Both are eighteen and they sound more or less the same.) Yachty’s goal doesn’t seem to be creating a bench of alter egos, but making clear that Boat and Yachty are young enough to need a chaperone. Boat/Yachty raps, “I don’t know who I am sometimes. I might rap a verse, I might sing a song. Came up overnight from one song. …Old heads hating on Boat ’cause I young as fuck and I rich as hell.” This preemptive defense shows up across Yachty’s releases.
He has yet to work with well-known producers. His EPs and full-length mixtapes were all produced by friends from Atlanta: Burberry Perry, Ducko McFli, and Digital Nas. Yachty’s sound is roughly Atlantan — the only element that moves quickly is the hi-hat — and leans toward airy tones and major-key motifs that would fit the scene-setting panel of Super Mario Bros. When a track calls for singing, Auto-Tune appears. And Yachty likes singing — in a widely distributed smartphone video made on his tour bus, Yachty declares Drake the winner over Tupac and Biggie because he can both sing and rap. Yachty also counts Chris Martin as one of his main influences and prefers the term “artist” to “rapper.” If we are looking for parallels in rock, the musician Yachty recalls is Jimmy Buffett. Both love leisure and boats and have found success more easily than respect.
The “one song” that Yachty says made his career is “1Night,” where a slight melody lifts the hook. Released on 2015’s Summer Songs EP, “1Night” brought out the frowny uncles with these water-is-wet lyrics: “I know you want this for life, taking pictures with all my ice. But I can’t have no wife, I just want you for the night.”
If Lil Yachty sounds uninterested in rapping, it’s not because his rhymes are dumb, but because he doesn’t deliver them with the gusto of Lil Jon or his contemporary, D.R.A.M., who collaborated with Yachty on a current Top 10 single, “Broccoli.” D.R.A.M. fires off the words “bagel” and “capers” and “square plate,” after hollering an intro that could be dropped into a Replacements song. Yachty doesn’t really mumble his rhymes, especially on “Broccoli.” If his rhymes were truly garbled, nobody would know how rarely he switches up his words. But if Yachty is trying to convey the sensation of being permanently relaxed, effort could seem desperate. Yachty is on a boat — this is not a minor point. Maybe he is starboard right now: who knows? He’s busy being unbusy. If Lil Jon was calling in from the eternal party at the heart of crunk, Yachty is here to take his time. If being a clever rapper appeals to him, he’ll get to it.
Who the crabcakes are likely trying to talk about is Future, a much more successful and mumbly MC. Why not name him? The most plausible explanation is his fan base would make the internet dangerous territory for the Nineties loyalists, who might need to take Future’s call at some point. The croak flowing through Auto-Tune is Future’s sound, and the Lil rappers are Lil in relation to Future, for now.
Can a persnickety battle say anything about a genre’s health? Yes — hip-hop is vast enough that any genre-wide discussion is a guaranteed missed connection. As Vince Staples pointed out in a recent interview with Noisey, Kanye West is the biggest rock star alive, and rap tours like Drake and Future’s can sell out multiple arena dates. Liking Yachty will not retroactively delete Big L’s catalog. And Yachty seems comfortable with the idea that plenty of headliners wouldn’t choose to work with him, likely because some already have. Chance the Rapper featured Yachty on Coloring Book, Gucci Mane and Yachty just released a collaboration, and West featured Yachty in his Yeezy Season 3 show last February, though they haven’t made any music together.
Hip-hop is having another “get off my lawn” moment. Yachty and his critics spring from the same sources; the passage of time doesn’t change the map. The relevant precursor for this virtual scrap is a physical one: KRS-One pushing Prince Be of PM Dawn off the stage at Sound Factory in January of 1992. Before this ugliness, which was sparked, in part, by KRS-One feeling slighted, Prince Be had stated publicly that he preferred the term “songwriter” to “rapper.” KRS-One issued a Trump-like apology for his “temper” and the “unfortunate incident” that also managed to fold in a complaint about artists trying to “demean and provoke” him. He later told the Voice, “This new breed of rapper coming up did not pay any dues. They’ve forgotten what hip-hop is about.” What it’s about is fluid, though, and Drake has infinitely more in common with Prince Be’s gentle touch than KRS-One’s flag-planting. Cue Yachty, bank, and laughing. And rest in power, Prince Be.
Lil Yachty will perform on October 15 at the Tidal X concert at the Barclays Center and on October 19 at the PlayStation Theater.