On the surface, Atlanta native Lil Yachty seems like your typical ambitious 19-year-old rapper. His trademark bright-red braids are held together with clear beads. He’s laid down catchy, sing-songy “bubblegum trap” rhymes over beats sampled from Rugrats, Super Mario Brothers, and the startup chime of a GameCube. His Twitter handle is “King of the Teens.” He released a single for the recent Captain Underpants movie. Just last week, Yachty fulfilled every starry-eyed teenage dream when he finally copped himself a Bentley coupe, which is appropriate, considering he and Gucci Mane scored a hit with the 2016 single “Bentley Coupe.” Afterward, he posed for a photo wearing a Bart Simpson chain and clutching a giant Kermit the Frog stuffed animal.
There’s more to Lil Yachty than meets the eye, however–and what does meet the eye flouts decades of hip-hop tradition by embracing optimism and exuberance. The young man born Miles Parks McCollum made a savvy move in 2015 when he relocated to New York City and began building a huge Instagram following via collaboration with street fashion icons. In February 2016, Yachty was the most noticeable model in Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion show/The Life of Pablo release show. And every month thereafter, he scored accolade after career-building accolade.
- March 2016: Lil Yachty’s debut mixtape Lil Boat dropped to widespread Internet fanfare.
- April 2016: Yachty and D.R.A.M.’s plastic recorded-fueled song “Broccoli” hit No. 5 on the Billboard 100.
- May 2016: Yachty earned a spot on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book mixtape.
- June 2016: Yachty inked a deal with Capitol Records and Motown Records and appeared on NYC radio station Hot 97.
- July 2016: Yachty’s second mixtape, Summer Songs 2, hit the streets.
In October, he appeared in a Sprite commercial with LeBron James. Since then, he’s had cameos on pop hits by Katy Perry and Charli XCX and appeared in a Target ad with Carly Rae Jepsen, teamed up with mega-producers like Diplo to drop his May full-length debut Teenage Emotions, become a creative director for Nautica, and tapped into the current Beatlesesque craze surrounding Atlanta trio Migos on “Peek-A-Boo,” a relentlessly infectious song that Yachty recently boasted had sold 500,000 copies.
If Lil Yachty seems like he’s following a carefully constructed narrative à la cloud cult icon Lil B, well, that’s because he is. He’s unabashed about being drug- and alcohol-free, a rarity in hip-hop history but a more common streak of squeaky-cleanness that’s trailed the mainstream success of Chicago’s Chance the Rapper. In a cover story for The Fader, Yachty revealed his weaknesses to be Domino’s and Fruit by the Foot. He expressed his love for New Edition, Tim McGraw and Slipknot, while sacrilegiously calling The Notorious B.I.G. underrated. As Atlanta producer Su$h! Ceej has said of his time working with Yachty, “He knows what beats he wants and is very specific with the sound he’s trying to create, freestyling everything at first and fine-tuning as he goes.”
Yachty told online radio host and provocateur Joe Budden earlier this year, “When you come from living in a dorm room with no clothes, no girls, no cars, and then you go to having three cars, girls and money, you can’t help but be genuinely happy that things are moving in a positive direction.” Budden called bullshit on that, his rage-filled face contrasted with Yachty’s effortless cool becoming an instant Internet meme.
Young fans are serious about Yachty. The day before Teenage Emotions dropped in May, the rapper was scheduled to perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live! En route to the Hollywood soundstage, Yachty and his entourage stopped at Mel’s Drive-In, a Southern California landmark. Every kid in a 500-foot radius went nuts, screaming “Fuck Joe Budden” while tossing shoes, cash and cell phones in an act of selfless offering. Yachty said “Follow me” to the throng and began ascending Hollywood Boulevard to Kimmel’s outdoor soundstage.
It’s one moment in a wild, wild digital-fueled landscape, but it’s representative of Yachty’s newfound success. In less than 18 months, he went from college dropout arrested in South Florida for credit card fraud to international superstar, all before he turns 20 on Aug. 23. Asked by Hypebeast about the benefits of being young and his status as King of the Teens, Yachty replied, “We have so many resources now. We have it all at our fingertips. The Internet has no boundaries.” That statement might not be completely accurate, but for Lil Yachty, it’s his ticket to ride.