Black male eccentrics flourish in Atlanta. Thank Andre 3000, or blame him: Ever since he kicked open the door in the 1990s, the city has welcomed a colorful assortment of trailblazers and genre-pushers, from Fabo's gik'd up mid-2000s spaceship tales to the more recent outlandish rhymes and personal style of Young Thug. So who's next? Enter Lil Yachty, the 18-year-old ATLien with deep-red braids whom you might have heard on Future's Snapchat, or seen mean-mugging next to Thug and a bunch of models at Kanye West's Madison Square Garden gala last month.
Yachty's latest project, Lil Boat The Mixtape, swings freely between lightweight Atlanta trap, effusive based freestyles, and relationship screeds that are endearingly hopeless and full of puerile candor. “Good Day," produced by Big Lo$, pulls those threads together, with a keyboard riff that's so delightfully cheery it’s possible to miss the gunshots that pop off just before Yachty’s first verse. The fact that the hook goes “Walking down the street / I just copped a big-booty bitch / Today’s a good day" is an easy reminder that for all that’s going on musically, the person navigating the ship is still in his teens. But there's a light-hearted joy to Yachty's music, even in his moments of casual adolescent misogyny. When he says, “That bitch smiles like an emoji" on another song, it’s hard not to grin yourself.
Lil Boat The Mixtape is Lil Yachty's first project of any substance, and a quick dive into his SoundCloud shows that Yachty is still very much figuring out where he's headed. It's a situation that calls to mind where another Atlanta oddball was a couple of years ago. The summer of 2014 gave iLoveMakonnen a pair of blog-buzzing singles (“I Don’t Sell Molly" and “Club Going Up on a Tuesday"), followed by a genuine pop radio smash that fall after Drake remixed "Tuesday." In between those moments, fans who dove into his still-intact SoundCloud found a trove of weird ballads, at least one Whitney Houston tribute, and song sketches that showed how many years it took him to craft a singular persona before stepping into a national spotlight. That kind of unrushed self-actualization is a good thing for artists, especially ones who color outside the lines, or, perhaps, purposely smudge them. The trick is to keep it going after fame comes knocking.
Last week, Makonnen premiered Drink More Water 6, his fourth release since signing with Drake’s OVO Records. It's a strong project, but it's stuck with the same challenges as most of Makonnen’s post-“Tuesday" output: Unless Drake feels gracious enough for another remix, it's unlikely any of these songs will turn up on pop radio. And maybe that's OK – the quality of Makonnen's music hasn't faltered, and there's plenty on this mixtape for devotees of his pre-crossover music to love. Drink More Water 6 nails the off-kilter trap (“UWONTEVA") and balladry (“Want You") that so many other, lesser SoundCloud rappers are still trying and mostly failing to approximate.
Lil Yachty, by contrast, has clearly absorbed many of the qualities that make Makonnen unique. His music might not be toting tremendous positive energy, but it's pretty based – Lil Boat is the kind of project where a inspirational Finding Nemo sample doesn't feel out of place, and Yachty's nickname of "Lil Tugboat" has the same kind of silly charm as Makonnen's "Red Dragon." So is Makonnen's career over the last two years a cautionary tale, or a shining beacon of where to go? The answer is up to Lil Yachty. Whether he wants to build a lasting career or to pop on the pop charts, or he's content to settle into comfortably eccentric minor stardom, he'd better make up his mind soon.