If measured against the standard dialogue around American adolescence, Lil Yachty’s debut album Teenage Emotions is not nearly as flimsy as the title might suggest. In fact, the Sailing Team captain’s inaugural effort is a commendable, unselfconscious introduction to his technicolor world of non-conformist pop-hop. Despite a palpable sense of fun and the constant barrage of easy-listening melodies (which help Yachty’s singular warble shine), the project struggles to establish a real sense of presence over its lengthy 21 tracks. Yet even with lyrical mishaps such as the much-discussed cello reference in “Peek a Boo,” Teenage Emotions still occasionally reveals nuggets of self-awareness that are ultimately quite likable.
It’s easy to forget that Lil Yachty isn’t old enough to drink. Though technically still in the fledgling phase of his career, the “1 Night” rapper became a lightening rod for derision so quickly that it’s tempting to believe he’s older than 19. His popularity with young audiences in particular highlights an increasing generational gap in hip-hop, and underscores the differences in belief regarding the function of music between older and younger artists. For Yachty, fun and self-expression come first and fundamentals come with an “optional” sticker.
Teenage Emotions sometimes makes use of said sticker, but the reliance on cheerful nursery rhyme-esque melodies and sleek, Auto-tuned thrills indicate that Yachty has no plans to give up his renegade status anytime soon. Despite that, in “DN Freestyle” and “Peek a Boo” he still makes a play at standard flex songs, complete with trap-tinged beats. Unfortunately, both only work against the naturally mellow quality of his voice.
Part of Yachty’s popularity is tied to the slightly goofy, everyman aspect of his personality. Attempting the sort of posturing that feels natural to fellow Quality Control act Migos comes off forced when delivered in Yachty’s lilting tenor. Even more so when the very same album houses examples of his ease with pop-framed gems; the dancehall-tinged “Better” featuring rising UK talent Stefflon Don is just one of a few standouts.
It is in songs like “Better,” “Lady In Yellow” and “Forever Young” (which calls in a Diplo feature) that it’s easiest to see why Yachty connects with young people. His music – when everything aligns – has the same quality as an emoji or GIF: it captures an emotion in a simple, memorable way that is more about the scope of feeling than the depth of emotion. As his homegrown path to fame proves, when Yachty manages to successfully project a universal sentiment it matters very little to his audience whether hip-hop heads think his lyrics are too generic or his beats are too juvenile.
Wading through the copious use of internet-age slang, mentions of performing sex acts on a hater’s mother, and filler lines that read like Mariah Carey’s Bergdorf shopping list does make the album feel a bit dense, particularly before the middle when he finds his stride. Especially when considering that some of the earlier tracks that see Yachty flexing the hardest also feel the most disingenuous. However, he regains some of the balance in the songs that play to his strengths, the biggest of which is his ability to interpret the zeitgeist.
Teenage Emotions doesn’t offer up a nuanced narrative of the ups and downs of adolescence, but it’s not lacking in self-awareness either. Despite being one of the single-most polarizing figures in hip-hop, Yachty manages not to take himself too seriously. He is who he is, generic metaphors, ill-conceived fellatio references and all. The album – finger-shakers and shamers aside – is an accurate reflection of the kind of artist Yachty is right at this moment. At times he struggles to verbally communicate important themes but he’s mastered using melody as a translator. Smartly, he relies on that.
For more on Lil Yachty watch as he and Migos debate Kendrick Lamar’s GOAT status.