Rap music is full of big personalities, and their occasional clashes have created scenes that encapsulate larger epochal shifts. Think Suge calling out Puffy at the Source Awards, or pretty much anything involving Soulja Boy. More recently, take the case of Joe Budden yelling at Lil Yachty.
Budden, best known for his 2003 hit “Pump It Up” and almost nothing else, invited Lil Yachty, the giddy, self-proclaimed “King Of Teens,” onto his Complex morning show, Everyday Struggle. Beneath his distinctive red braids and wearing the sheepish, demurring smile that befits his 19 years on earth, Yachty weathered Budden’s criticisms well, with Budden representing the standard bearer for gritty, lyrical hip-hop and Yachty representing its ostensible demise at the hands of simpleminded American kids. The climactic moment came when Yachty, shrugging affably through the whole interview, told the increasingly infuriated Budden, “I am happy every day”—a sentiment that rendered Budden so incandescent with rage, he couldn’t even respond. Instead, he looked to his co-hosts to begin critiquing Yachty’s media training, a civilized conversation among adults that ended with him pointing at the young, budding rap star and yelling, “I don’t like what he represents!”
The whole drama immediately, inevitably turned into a meme.
As with any good joke, these memes underscored a much broader, long-simmering tension in pop culture. Even before the Budden match, Yachty’s studio debut, Teenage Emotions, was destined to be contentious. His first two mixtapes earned Yachty the ire of no less a rap legend than Pete Rock, kicking off a beef with the hip-hop cognoscenti that he’s since only worsened by professing ignorance of both Tupac and Biggie—considered a cardinal sin among older, more “serious” fans.
Nevertheless, it makes some sense that he doesn’t worship at their altars, considering he often sounds like their diametric opposite. As a rapper, he marries the colossal obviousness of Gucci Mane with the warbling (Auto-)tunefulness of Future—though unlike them, his verses are often startlingly childlike, full of nursery-rhyme melodies and feel-good, druggy paeans that lack the slightest suggestion of a comedown. Also, he once rapped over the theme song to Rugrats.
Teenage Emotions has thus served as a bellwether for rap fans. For people who look to rap as a vast cultural playing field in which emcees spur each other and listeners toward self-empowerment using only their intellect and wordplay, he represents a sort of harrowing antithesis—a studio-built buffoon made for entertaining suburbanites. To his fans, however, he represents a transmutation of the hip-hop ethos to empower a more diverse array of identities.
The record itself will provide plenty of fodder for both sides (just look at that cover!). Like his previous efforts, Teenage Emotions runs in two speeds. The first is the bright, inhibition-free bubblegum pop that you can hear on album opener “Like A Star,” on which the rapper sweetly croons that he’s never had a sip of beer. His second mode is a shift to hard mixtape rap, a melody-free spitfire of surprising crassness that he cannily exhibits on the immediate next track, “DN Freestyle.” These sorts of transitions seem designed not to win over the Joe Buddens of the world, but rather to infuriate them more. It’s not technically impressive stuff, but it is, at least, recognizable as traditional hip-hop, proving a capacity that the rest of his album rejects.
The fact that Teenage Emotions oscillates like this—clarifying and deepening the trench lines of hip-hop’s internal culture war—implies that you, listener, must take sides in order to properly listen to it. Are you with Budden and the Rakim-quoting acolytes, grimacing from underneath your fitted caps? Or are you with Yachty and his band of merry moviegoing teens, riding the feel-good waves of universal love?
It’s an exhausting exercise in dialectics around what is, at the end of the day, an intentionally featherweight record. And in fact, Teenage Emotions deserves a third avenue of response somewhere between a shrug and mild appreciation. After all, the actual music is, at best, fine. Yachty can be grating, and he can be catchy, but—strictly musically speaking—neither mode merits the amount of debate he’s provoked.
He is at his most interesting on the few occasions where he slips into a sort of uncanny valley of pop music—a bizarro fantasia that he arrives at honestly, like a less satirical PC Music. He closed his first mixtape, Lil Boat, with the hallucinatory jubilee “We Did It,” which can only be described as the sound of a Sega Dreamcast having an orgasm. On Teenage Emotions, he shows his more experimental side via the film-noir come-on “Lady In Yellow” and the shimmering, ’80s-inspired highlight “Bring It Back.” Most telling is “No More,” whose pixelated, overexposed beat evokes the shitty laptop speakers on which this album was designed to be listened. These tracks are the exceptions that suggest Yachty may have something more interesting in him down the road.
Hip-hop has always been obsessed with place, whether it was the coastal feuds of the ’90s, the borough-based sparring that preceded that, or the subtler regional allegiances that have long differentiated various scenes from each other. Yachty’s music is no different, although it seems to hail not from the rapper’s real-world home of Atlanta but rather somewhere deep within Tumblr. It is by, for, and about the adopted home within digital spaces of teenage outcasts; of course it’s selling well in 2017.
It’s easy to see this as part of what makes Joe Budden so mad: a simple case of a Gen Xer baffled to the point of fury by millennials. Yachty’s often derided for being “mumble rap,” a not-terribly-useful term that has been pinned to everything from the austere ambient horror of 21 Savage to the abyssal psychedelia of Future. The thing these “mumble rappers” have in common is not their enunciation, but the fact that they are 1) new, and 2) popular. Hip-hop is always scandalizing itself like this, its old guard bemoaning whichever punkish upstarts buck its conventions. Just 10 years ago, Soulja Boy was threatening to have his grandpa beat up Ice T; a decade before that, De La Soul and Tupac were waging war for the conscience and heart of hip-hop. In this narrative, Lil Yachty represents an interesting node. His music is pointless, but it is also beside the point.