Tuesday, May 30, 2017

album review: 'teenage emotions' by lil yachty

I think there is a misconception surrounding why certain critics - particularly those who like oldschool hip-hop - are a little... let's say reticent towards Lil Yachty and the mumble rap crowd, often surrounding comments like 'oh, you don't get it, it's music for the kids, it's more about the vibe and flow than the actual words that are being said - after all, it's upbeat, it's happy!'

And yet here's why it doesn't really fly with me surrounding Lil Yachty: maybe it's because I've become accustomed to this sort of flow and style, or that I've been listening to rappers who flow with more speed and intensity for years now, but he's always been very understandable for me. And while I've never really liked his flow or delivery or the fact that he's a sloppy MC who clearly has the potential to be a better rapper and just doesn't care, that's never been at the core of my issues with him. No, it's something that's far more common and jarring than many people have given credit: for as much as Lil Yachty wants to project a dualistic nature between his rapping and sensitive crooning side, the issue has always been tonal dissonance between his delivery and approach and his content. Let's put aside the fact that instrumentally hip-hop is slowly becoming less dreary and bleak and that sonically Lil Yachty isn't breaking down barriers, but when you combine it with how he's still rapping about many of the same bargain barrel subject matter I've been hearing for decades, I'm not impressed! Because yes, I went back to listen through Lil Boat, and aside from being too long, the best thing I could say about it were some decent melodic hooks and a few cute samples - in terms of content, it wasn't interesting or subversive, and it certainly wasn't well-constructed. And even with all of that, I had a bad feeling going into his upcoming record Teenage Emotions, where with his lead-off single with Migos it looked be trending towards tones and sounds that pivoted towards the mainstream and removed the few things that made Lil Yachty sound somewhat different! But hey, surely there'd be something on this twenty-one track seventy minute record, right?

Well, actually... I think there might be. Yeah, I was all set to go in and despise this record, give it a pretty vicious thrashing... but there is a few tracks that yank this away from wallowing in the gutter and maybe even reflect a bit of promise for Lil Yachty down the road. Now I will not say this is good or even passable - the fact that I can make a comprehensive list of all of the terrible bars on this record says mountains about the lack of overall quality - but I was expecting an atrocity and I didn't get it, which makes me less disappointed and more just exasperated as a whole.

But let's make no mistake, if you're expecting all of my problems with Lil Yachty to have gone away, you'd be wrong. As a rapper... when he tries, he's barely passable, but I only need to point to 'DN Freestyle' as a case study of what happens when he doesn't try. He's not on the beat, his rhymes don't connect, he can't stay on topic, and among the choice bars include references to your bitch cleaning up the piss on the floor, him having trouble sustaining an erection, and turning your mom into a pedophile who wants to screw him - which doesn't make sense because I'm fairly certain every age of consent in the US is above 18! And you might say that it's a freestyle, but when you have a record this overlong and filled with repetitive content, there's no excuse to use a track this inept! And sure, some of you might make the argument that it's willful immaturity and that he knows he's behaving like a tool on songs like 'Priorities', where he actively brags about cheating on his girl and references the movie Takers of all things, but there's a difference between being childish and just being a dick without any redeeming qualities. Even by the standards of Riff Raff-esque 'so bad it's hilarious' on that same song, he's talking about a girl getting wet off his poster, for which he lays down a coaster of all things - which cannot be comfortable - where she sucks him like an insect - most bugs don't give you blowjobs - and that she's his stepsister so it's incest - which last time I checked, that wasn't funny. And that's not the only incest reference - on 'All Around Me' opposite YG completely phoning his verse in, he references screwing his godsister alongside screwing lesbians, which I don't even think is a thing! 

But that's the frustrating thing: for as much as Lil Yachty might embrace tones that imply a brighter mood - more on the production in a bit - it's not like he makes up for his lack of lyrical construction with wit or flavor, and there's still a lot of tonal dissonance. I've already talked about how utterly incompetent 'Peek A Boo' is on Billboard BREAKDOWN with the 'blow me like a cello' line is, but I think the line that skeeves me out more is 'play with the kitty like Hello' - it reflects a juvenile mindset that gets really creepy against production punctuated by distant screams! Of course, then you have Takeoff of Migos ending the song comparing a 'yellow girl' to Pikachu - which opens up a can of worms surrounding light-skinned black women that are constantly called bitches for our 'protagonist' to pull their hair ejaculate all over, to the point where Lil Yachty made an entire song called 'Lady In Yellow' about it - but again, it's hard to differentiate between ugly, frequently hypocritical womanizing and just sheer incompetence. Again, this is a guy who in between describing all the places his jizz is going - or to quote him, 'she wants a meat peek to eat all the skeet skeet' - on a song called 'X Men' that really has nothing to really do with the comics, he's trying to slam other MCs for not being as good as him, says he's not one for pillowtalk despite doing it two songs earlier, and says those other rappers are 'stinky and dirty like farts' - really. This isn't clever or funny, and when you throw in how he mispronounces Stephen Colbert's name on 'Harley' that doesn't come close to rhyming, compares a girl to the Nintendo character Kirby twice, and does it all through an autotuned warble that sounds midway between Travis Scott, Kid Cudi, Biz Markie, and Kermit the Frog with far less charisma and somehow less range in his upper register, it leads to an MC who seems way over his head with nobody sane stopping him. And don't give me that bullshit about how there's supposedly some difference between Lil Yachty and Lil Boat, they both have the same bragging about brand names and sex, except one alternates between crooning and whining about it more.

And here's the infuriating thing: amidst all of this mess, there are songs I don't mind here, mostly because of the production. About seven songs in the record does pivot a little towards more agreeable territory, with the buzzy synth against the chunky trap beat on 'All You Had to Say' being at least passable, in comparison to the droning chiptune blocks, hollow synths, and badly blended percussion that comprise a lot of this record. And he follows it two songs later with 'Better' - and yeah, it's corny with his references to growing old with this girl and playing checkers and naming stars nonsensical names, but there's an innocence and watery reggae guitar groove to the track that kind of works, especially opposite Stefflon Don. I don't quite like 'Forever Young' as much - I think Diplo's production is more messy than it should be, but at least Lil Yachty's flow is decent - but I'll say it: I like the synth tones on 'Lady In Yellow' and 'Moments In Time', they have some hollow atmosphere that a better MC or R&B singer could really make work. Hell, 'Bring It Back' is a blatant 80s soft rock tune with some real groove and guitar and a sax solo to end things - give it to The Weeknd even if you kept a lot of the same lyrics and I'd really like it! And you know, as much as I think Grace is completely worthless on 'Running With A Ghost' - you shouldn't interpret Tegan And Sara if you don't know what to do with it - and I find Lil Yachty's 808s & Heartbreak-esque tones on 'No More' painfully clumsy and badly mixed, there could have been some sincere melancholy that held the landing, because it's not like the tones on songs like 'Made Of Glass' or the closing tribute to his mother on 'Momma' aren't expressive or sincere. The problem is when you place it opposite so much of the hedonistic, self-absorbed sloppiness it feels dissonant and not in a way that reflects the duality Yachty's trying to create. 

But, on some level, I guess there's a part of me that could see this as representative of teenage emotions - not trying to say anything about them or tap into angst that feels real or relevant for modern teenagers, or even speak to their experience. No, to me this feels a lot more like a male teenage fantasy that might be shooting for something more but ends up making a wet, sticky mess that isn't remotely profound. And sure, artists make this sort of thing for self-gratification - I think the reason I'm slightly more forgiving of the cornier moments because they feel a little more consistent - but speaking as someone who wrote hundreds of thousands of words of bad fiction as a teenager - original and otherwise - it's not something you want to revisit, and you just feel faintly embarrassed for the whole affair. As such, I'm thinking a light 4/10 and I don't know how the hell I can recommend this. There are a few decent cuts, but there's nothing great, and they're outweighed by the ugly, incompetent, or just plain monotonous. And when the kids that liked this grow up in five or ten years when Lil Yachty is forgotten, they'll probably feel very much the same.

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