album review

Lil Yachty’s Great Gig in the Sky

Photo: Quality Control Music and Motown Records

Since the release of his Lil Boat mixtape in 2016, Lil Yachty has cultivated a peculiar rap career that has benefited from versatile musical interests. The Atlanta rapper, singer, and producer’s early work juggled booming southern trap drums, gauzy synths, unclearable samples, and melodic sensibilities on loan from children’s television. Shifting listlessly between disaffected snark and sweet repose, the best songs answered the question of what Brian Wilson’s teenage symphonies might’ve sounded like if he’d grown up hanging around the Migos. On future projects, Yachty leaned into the gruff anthems of his labelmates on Atlanta’s Quality Control Music, toughening up on 2018’s Lil Boat 2 in some of the ways Drake did on Scorpion the same year, this after dividing critics and listeners with the synthpop and reggae excursions on Yachty’s 2017 debut studio album Teenage Emotions.

Restlessness saves his catalog from the pedestrian work of peers chasing the sound of a beloved early mixtape. Lil Yachty is always up to something, quietly penning an undisclosed piece of the City Girls smash “Act Up,” or producing a chunk of Drake and 21 Savage’s Her Loss, or logging an unlikely chart hit about sneaking promethazine through customs. He’s a lightning rod for guys who see a new wave of absurdists and crooners as a displacement of rap traditionalism (rather than a continuation of a detailed history within it); he knows what the fans are into and where they’re getting into it online, so accusations about his music ruining hip-hop are complicated by every unforeseen success. The work varies greatly in style as well as quality, but being difficult to pin down also buys him freedom to make unusual plays.

Let’s Start Here, his fifth album and first full-length excursion into psychedelic rock, didn’t spawn entirely from nowhere, and not just because it sprung a leak under the name Sonic Beach a few weeks back. His appearance on a remix for Tame Impala’s Slow Rush jam “Breathe Deeper” hits a few of the markers the new album visits: the taste for psychotropic drugs and the interaction between the shimmering sound achieved by an elaborate pedal board and raps that feel both lightly thought through and also spirited and spontaneous. The first song, “The Black Seminole,” outlines the project’s guiding ethos, from its burbling, delay-drenched analog-synthesizer sound to the trippy changes and show-stopping vocal performance by “Bad Habit” co-writer Diana Gordon — all of which amount to an attempt to jam every idea housed in Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon into a single seven-minute performance. Bolstered by memorable spots from Gordon (who gives the Clare Torry screams in “Failure” and “Seminole” her all), Fousheé (whose softCORE album served rockers like “Die” and “Bored” that share Yachty’s love of walls of noise), and Justine Skye, the new album makes more space for women in its love songs than most rappers percolating on the charts tend to care to now. (Note also the presence of one Daystar Peterson in the credits as a co-writer on “Paint the Sky.”)

Let’s Start Here journeys back in time and out to space and sometimes up its own ass. It’s a drug odyssey that delightfully defies expectations whenever it’s not overindulging, taking its adulation for its influences from pastiche to parody, pushing its sound from psych to cacophony. Much will be made of Kevin Parker’s impact here, because Tame is also a project about savvily jumbling ideas from other eras and getting synthesizers to feel as delicately enveloping as puffs of smoke. It’s also an oversimplification of the scope of Let’s Start Here to call it Lil Yachty’s Tame album. Patrick Wimberly co-produced every song, and the snap of the drum sound and the flair for gooey horn accompaniment are assets Chairlift — Wimberly’s former group with Caroline Polachek and Aaron Pfenning — used to employ. U.K. producer Jam City and Yves Tumor collaborator Justin Raisen sat in on a lot of these, too; the maximalist sonics and the mix of love songs and acid-addled horror here are both a result of its pick of personnel and an authentic re-creation of the wild fluctuations of a lurid trip.

Its intriguing bio- and band chemistry are Let’s Start Here’s gift and curse. “Running Out of Time” kicks off with drums that feel like Thundercat’s “Them Changes” (which, in turn, feels like Paul McCartney’s “Arrow Through Me”) and a bubbly bass line evoking “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers. Pushing through to a gorgeous bridge, matching vocals with Skye, Yachty pokes out from under the shadow of his forebears and delivers one of the finest bits of music he’s ever made. The blissed out “The Ride” plants the Texas rapper Teezo Touchdown into a wobbly groove that could’ve fit into last year’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs album. It feels like both songs could collapse at any moment, hanging a sharp turn into an unflattering section wrecking the momentum they built. Equally prone to swift tense shifts and long detours, Let’s Start Here meanders a great deal between highlights, raining sheets of sound that soak and weigh down the delicate grooves it’s trying to build. “Paint the Sky” sounds like a radio hit dropped into a flooded pit cave. These songs sink or swim on Lil Yachty’s ability to steady himself amid a maelstrom of phase-shifted guitars, delay-kissed drums, and synths shrouded in reverb. He’s a good study and a great hook man, but the novelty of some of his experiments wear off as ideas repeat and choruses get smothered. The less they tinker, the better.

Restraint guides Let’s Start Here to a few of its most sublime moments. “Pretty” will draw comparisons to Childish Gambino’s Awaken My Love! and the hit slow jam “Redbone,” but the drum programming recalls the stuff Prince did with the LinnDrum and the vocal performances feel inspired by cloud rap, a sensibility teased out in a cocky, carefree verse by Fousheé. “Say Something” strikes gold coolly poking around the pillowy synth pads and echoing drums of ’80s pop in the same way recent albums from the Weeknd picked up where Daft Punk left off in marrying dueling interests in 20th- and 21st-century popular music. “Pretty” and “Say Something” keep things relatively simple, stacking a few complementary ideas on top of each other and allowing space to breathe. (Other producers might abuse the clav hits in the latter for the old-school feel they bring, but this group lets them drift in and out of frame, recalling the minimalist trap lullabies on the back end of Lil Boat.) The noisier and less structurally sturdy cuts that surround them feel like the jams a band works through on the way to more refined compositions, before taking them on the road where they grow new layers of sound and significance. Let’s Start Here begs to be untangled in a live setting the way artists drawn to the tactile and communal experience of music tend to, allowed to drift over warm air, playing during the sunny days and reckless nights it describes.

Maybe this album is the new beginning its title implies, a first step toward tighter songcraft on the horizon, and maybe Yachty will pop back up in six to 18 months’ time on some different shit entirely, as is often his tendency. The new record finds him sniffing around the same intersections of pop, rock, psych, and soul as “Bad Habit” or Frank Ocean’s “Pretty Sweet,” sacrificing the brevity of his hits for a purposeful sensory overload, which sometimes works in his favor but sometimes encumbers tracks that ought to seem weightless. It is important for young artists to get the space to grow and change and eat mushrooms and make weird but enthusiastic indie-rock music.

Let’s Start Here fits into a long tradition of pleasant curveballs from rappers, unheralded classics like Q-Tip’s Kamaal the Abstract, side projects like the Beastie Boys and Suicidal Tendencies offshoot BS2000, imperfect genre excursions like Kid Cudi’s WZRD, and effortless R&B pivots like Tyler, the Creator’s Igor. Yachty is stumbling down well-trod pathways, learning lessons imparted on generation after generation of listeners ever since Pink Floyd’s international breakthrough 50 years ago and taking metaphysical journeys endeavored since humans first discovered fungi and plants that made them see sounds and smell colors. The sharpest songs here could go toe-to-toe with the best in the artist’s back catalog, and the worst ones sound like excitable demos for various guitar pedals. Let’s Start Here isn’t Lil Yachty’s greatest work, but it goes over better than the pitch — “Poland” guy does shrooms and jams on instruments — implied it might. And if shoegaze-adjacent rockers like “I’ve Officially Lost Vision” and sound experiments like the one at the end of “We Saw the Sun” drone-pill even a fraction of the audience, it was all worth it.

Lil Yachty’s Great Gig in the Sky