By Salvatore DiGioia
Two weeks ago, during one of those networking phone calls that always feel suspiciously like an interview, I was asked a question about Lil Yachty.
“What’s the deal with that guy?” my potential future coworker laughed through the phone, inquiring about the tenacity with which the red-haired, twenty year old rapper has snatched up major endorsements from corporate players such as Sprite and Nautica. From his elder perspective, such partnerships are odd emblems of success for a breaking artist — especially one stemming from hip-hop, a subculture wherein “selling out” has long been viewed unfavorably — to be waving around so boastfully. It’s a valid criticism, one that Yachty’s certainly been forced to grow accustomed to answering, yet to perceive this recognition as unwanted — or even as unusual for a modern hip-hop star — is essentially to misunderstand Yachty’s existence.
Born in 1997, Yachty came of age during an era in which digital branding tactics entirely re-structured the music industry and an elite circle of musicians evolved into full-fledged business moguls. Corporate endorsements may’ve once been a stain on one’s character, but throughout his lifetime, endless such partnerships have captured his attention and, perhaps, even dollars, among them Jay-Z’s RocaWear, Diddy’s Ciroc and Dr. Dre’s notorious Beats headphones. Today, these deals are so common that Justin Charity — of The Ringer — has pondered if, “perhaps there’s no longer such a thing as a bad look.” For Yachty, there certainly is not.
In the two years since Lil Yachty released his debut mixtape, Lil Boat, he’s appeared in two major television commercials, including a Sprite ad (which cast him aside Lebron James) and an extensive Target spot (with pop star Carly Rae Jepsen). He’s also been called upon by usually-preppy clothing brand Nautica to act as a creative designer, a partnership which was re-signed in January and prompted spokespeople for the company to acknowledge that “his talent and creative influence go far beyond music.” News of the Nautica deal’s renewal arrived, of course, on the heels of the launch of “Lil Yachty’s Hot Cheese Fries,” his own signature flavor of the the quirkily themed “Rap Snacks” food product. Apparently, the young emcee will stamp his name on just about anything — as long as the check is correct.
Despite his mass visibility, Yachty has failed to achieve significant commercial success as a solo act. His new-wave counterparts, many of them walking a trail he helped blaze, out-performed him commercially in 2017, with Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” reaching the number-seven spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” peaking at number three shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Yachty hasn’t had a hit since 2016, the year in which breakthrough collaborations with Kyle (“iSpy”) and D.R.A.M. (“Broccoli”) helped force his name into the industry’s orbit. Last May, his first major-label album, Teenage Emotions, debuted at a modest number five on the charts and failed to gain relevant traction. For this reason, Lil Boat 2 — his latest project, which was coincidentally released the same day as my aforementioned phone call — serves not only as a sequel to Lil Yachty’s most coveted mixtape, but also as a well-advertised attempt to re-connect with his quasi-fans, many of whom have already switched their support to other exciting rookies, counting him out as a serious artist altogether.
For much of LB2, Lil Yachty remains overtly focused on his jewelry, money and alleged female inquirers — ironic motifs for an artist who initially rose to fame by preaching fairytale-like kindness and happiness, but still natural progressions for a blooming hip-hop star who, despite facing critical backlash, has garnered support from staple players such as Migos, 2 Chainz and Gucci Mane. Sometimes Yachty’s braggadocios entitlement manages to align with his earlier message, like on intro track “SELF MADE,” wherein he brags about having bought his mother “a crib” by capitalizing on his “self made cool.” However, more often, it paints him as a largely uninspired artist who has already become less enticing by his lonesome, thus forced to lean on brand-name collaborators and easy topics such as jewelery. Endless buzzy producer tags (“Ch-Ch-Charlie Shuffler,” “Earl on the beat!,” “30 blessed this beat,” “Yo, Pierre, you wanna come out here?”) decorate the mixtape like endorsements while most of its featured guests (Trippie Redd, PnB Rock, YoungBoy NeverBrokeAgain) blatantly overshadow its protagonist, their sections of each respective song proving either its most appealing or prevalent, if not both.
It can often feel as if Yachty is playing a mere curator role on LB2 wherein he unites artists (be them unsigned or platinum-selling) and combines styles (mainstream or underground) beneath one well-branded, major label umbrella without ever being forced to a take a lead. Even bubbling anthem “COUNT ME IN,” which seems destined to become his biggest solo hit to date, appears more a product of its producer, Pi'erre Bourne’s, imagination than its actual artist’s. Yachty’s passivity is certainly strategic, allowing for him to claim a number of songs that are undoubtably among his best (“66,” “She Ready,” “NBAYoungBoat,” BOOM!”) despite playing a near-side-kick role on most of them. Yet, one can’t help but wonder how long this boat can stay afloat without proving itself to be a tangible value-add. Yes, Yachty’s rap skills have improved, but he cannot possibly last forever if he keeps touting his sole intention to be getting rich rather making actual art. Can he?
Just days before Lil Boat 2 dropped, business journalist Zach O’Malley Greenburg (who routinely covers rap celebrities’ wealth for Forbes) released a book outlining hip-hop’s long transition from an unfunded, grassroots subculture into a monstrous corporate startup and superstar-making machine. Titled “3 Kings,” it’s mainly written around its joint analysis of Diddy, Jay Z and Dr. Dre, three A-list superstars who started as hip-hop musicians but evolved into multi-faceted entrepreneurs. Each of them, as Greenburg explains, have amassed a fortune by creating a unique “24/7, head-to-toe lifestyle” and selling it at massive scale. Yet, in doing so, they’ve also laid out “three distinct blueprints for aspiring entrepreneurs” to follow, a feat which has already inspired infinite rappers to seek pay-outs in places other than music, among them Kanye West (still ferociously pioneering into high fashion), Tyler, the Creator (already on his fifth album and second sneaker deal) and — you guessed it — Lil Yachty.
On a surface level, Jay-Z, Diddy and Dr. Dre share almost nothing in common with Lil Yachty, the nerdy, nonsensical kid who capitalized historically off of his natural meme-ability to pave a well-disputed lane into hip-hop. Yet, in just two years, Yachty has already forced his way to the final spot of Forbes' “Hip-Hop Cash Kings” list, a nod that evaluates his net worth at $11 million and places him among the ranks of the kings themselves, by the numbers. He may not be an especially interesting solo act, but his entrepreneurial spirit and marketing acumen are as sharp as any one’s. Plus, Diddy wasn’t a very interesting solo act either — for real, though. The bottom line is that Yachty would not exist had these kings not personally transformed hip-hop into the market-ready venture that it is today, one from within which any person in the spotlight can expect to get rich -- even a person as whacky as Lil Yachty.
Diddy, for one, always intended to double as both a performer and entrepreneur without ever being a technically talented rapper. He first launched Bad Boy Records as a subsidiary of Uptown Records, then was released from the company in 1993 (along with then-unknown rapper the Notorious B.I.G.) and instructed to shop his entertainment company around. After being lured to Artista by industry-veteran Clive Davis, he employed new funding to create an alleged “musical assembly line” wherein producers and rappers worked separately to maximize outputs. A promotor by nature, Diddy released others’ music while simultaneously turning Bad Boy into a full-fledged lifestyle brand centered around his own mythological charisma. Eventually, he re-negotiated his original deal to earn permission to make solo LPs. Though this caused countless songs to be stitched together via ghostwriting and over-indulgent sampling, it also completed his takeover: Finally, the ultimate advertiser could shout out his products in songs.
Jay-Z also shares Yachty’s blind attraction to cash. As Greenburg recounts, the Brooklyn-raised emcee was initially reluctant to get professionally involved in music whatsoever because its payouts failed to compete with those of the drug trade. Even after opening for a Big Daddy Kane tour in 1988 (along with other blooming acts Queen Latifah and Tupac), Jay returned to the streets and expanded into territories like Maryland and Virigina, where profit margins were higher than in New York. It wasn’t until long-time affiliate Clark Kent introduced Jay to future business partner Damon Dash that he finally started to focus on music. Moreover, after his debut LP, the stunningly gritty Reasonable Doubt, failed to resonate with a mass audience, he strategically followed it with In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, a misfire that Greenburg describes as “a clumsy attempt to court pop audiences,” but which only further revealed his his intentions as green.
Dr. Dre — a well-known perfectionist with a reputation for exclusively releasing multi-platinum albums — is, admittedly, the toughest of the three kings to connect to Yachty. Yet, if Dre’s jumpy, extensive career could possibly be stitched together into one single narrative, it would tell of a super-producer with a knack for reading culture and understanding what people are ready for — not what they want, but what they are ready for. He began this story first at Ruthless Records, where he helped pioneer “gangsta rap” by producing Eazy E’s late 1980s hit, “Boyz N The Hood,” and N.W.A.’s triple-platinum LP, Straight Outta Compton, then continued it at Death Row, where he ushered in a new wave of West cost cool by employing Minimoog synths, George Clinton samples and a young gangster-turned-rapper named Snoop Dogg. Dre’s first two solo albums, The Chronic and 2001, went multi-platinum and officially marked him as one of the buzziest brand names in hip-hop. However, they’re also well-known to have been heavily ghostwritten, a sign that he — like Diddy and Yachty — is a better cultural curator than actual rapper.
Obviously, each of these kings went on to establish full-fledged business empires and amass near-billion-dollar net-worths that make Yachty’s bankroll whimper in comparison. Diddy has made fortunes through both Sean John and Ciroc — the latter of which represented his largest income stream in 2014 — and according to GQ, his ownership of classic songs still managed to make him the most paid musician in 2017. Meanwhile, Jay-Z — who owns everything from a clothing brand to a portfolio of liqueurs — helped pioneer 360-degree deals by signing a one-hundred-fifty million dollar contract with Live Nation that cover tours, albums and his operating of multi-legged entertainment company RocNation. Finally, Dr. Dre — always the cultural pioneer — transformed headphones into a fashion staple by partnering with Jimmy Iovine to create Beats, a company that boasted $860 million in revenue in 2012 and sold to Apple in 2014 for a legendary three-billion dollars.
To ignore the blatancy by which these actions both inspired and catalyzed the current generation of rainbow-haired, hustling internet weirdos is to ignore the simple logic of cause-and-affect. Greenburg appropriately titles his chapter on headphones “The Beats Generation” and in it, he describes the young consumers whose dollars Dre helped lure away from Air Jordan by effortlessly employing his star power. Inevitably, Yachty was among those consumers, probably making mental notes of the multi-dimensional marketing scheme at play and, perhaps, even plotting out his own. When asked about the influence of these kings during an interview with i-D, Yachty confidently called them not rappers, but “brands,” explaining: “That’s how I’m trying to be.”
Lil Yachty has struggled immensely to earn acceptance within the mass hip-hop community, a feat which he may indeed never accomplish, but it hasn’t stopped him from routinely increasing his visibility throughout his brief, though controversial, career. The son of a former photographer for Goodie Mobb and OutKast, he became exposed to celebrity culture at a young age and developed a youthful passion for urban fashion, experiences that would eventually inform his branding capabilities. Before Yachty was even calling himself a rapper, he was already attempting to package himself strategically and acquire fame. “I was simply trying to get people who had an audience to hang out with me, so that I could get that audience,” he explained to the New York Times. Though he wasn’t yet focused on promoting his mixtape, he added: “I [already] knew exactly how it worked.”
Of course, elder rap fans maintain the belief that making great music is the only way to make it work in hip-hop, but such logic seems naive to Yachty. From his perspective, there are infinite more important pieces to the puzzle of superstar-making than said superstar’s actual music. While it may seem glaringly obvious that his hip-hop moment cannot last forever, the twenty-year old celebrity remains glowingly optimistic about his future prospects, gleefully assuring listeners on Lil Boat 2 that he’s “rich and it ain’t ‘cause of rap.”
In the grand scheme, Lil Yachty doesn’t actually care much about music. Yet, for the time being, it remains his most viable method for remaining visible. Lil Boat 2 is now number two on the Billboard album charts and seems certain to yield him a few hits. The fact that he’s basically a guest feature on those hits means close to nothing to him — as long as the check is correct. That's been the plan all along.