The Ambient Escapism of Lil Yachty
As I began to navigate the world of coming off antidepressants, 'Lil Boat' transported me to a calm and soothing sanctuary, far away from reality.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
When you're depressed – or at least when I'm depressed – there's a sense of comfort to be found in the familiar: the warmth of bed sheets and the backlit glow that permeates a Netflix marathon. Or, in my case, listening to a reassuring playlist that rarely seemed to deviate from Grouper's Ruins (the ambient music that had become my sanctuary) or the blank silence that was as much a part of my consciousness as my limbs are part of my body. Listening to anything remotely classified as 'new music' sat next to sex and food in the list of once pleasurable activities or hobbies that were no longer enjoyable.
I had been aware of Lil Yachty all summer, ever since he stood front of stage at Kanye West's Yeezy Season 3 show in Madison Square Garden, barely moving an inch, looking like the most bad-ass runway model I've seen this side of whoever I was in a past life. He was the Atlanta rapper born to go viral; the teenager behind one of the year's biggest hits "1 Night"; the ready-made superstar with a head of notorious red braids. He was an appealing proposition, but I just couldn't drum up the desire to listen to him. My new course of antidepressant medication meant it had become difficult to care about something I didn't already understand.
But when I came off antidepressants a few months later, it was as though a dull fog had been lifted. The process can be mentally and physically testing, but in my case I was mostly glad I could feel again. I cried, I felt happy, and despite fluctuating between those feelings like a banana boat, an important sense of self started to return. Rather than being protected by a sterile and uninspired sheen, the world started to present itself in all its beauty and sadness and all those other things that are integral to feeling alive.
In these fresh moments of clarity, I began to listen properly to Lil Yachty. For the first time in ages, I could process, interpret, and comprehend new music; and most importantly I could feel it. On tracks like "One Night" or "We Did It", Yachty and his friend and producer The Goodperry crafted portraits of relaxation, and summertime excursions to untouched lakes. Listening to it felt like diving into a double page spread in a copy of National Geographic. The alternate world he was presenting became the calming presence I needed as I began to navigate through the discombobulating world of coming off medication.
In the months since appearing in Kanye West's fashion show, Yachty has transitioned from the arena of short-lived viral videos into the superstar he was destined to be. On the one hand, he's adored; on the other, he's shrouded controversy. It's the perfect duality. He's a new, refreshing artist, yet he's also pissed off the old school hip-hop demographic, whose response to him is akin to developing a stress hernia. Out with the old, and in with the new.
The main crimes brought against him fall somewhere between the following three categories: he thinks The Notorious B.I.G is overrated (a sacrilegious act to those born before 1985), he doesn't look or act like your average rap artist (he mumbles his way through interviews and is lacking in bravado), he could be described as a gurgle rapper (his songs have more in common with nursery rhymes than history's hottest 16 bar verses).
Ultimately, these grievances against Yachty from his detractors boil down to one point: he lacks the substance to be taken seriously as an artist. Of course, his lyrics aren't progressive and it's unlikely he'll kill a '5 Fingers of Death' freestyle on Sway in the Morning, but music is subjective – and if we are to see it as a vehicle that can transport the listener away from reality, then Lil Yachty is a young master. The substance is there: it's just buried in the feeling he's able to conjure, rather than the lyrics he writes.
Rap music has traditionally concerned itself with summoning the imagery of very real places: Nas illustrating the stoops and baseheads of Queensbridge, New York, for example, or N.W.A documenting the realities in the streets of South Central Los Angeles. But Yachty's unparalleled talent is presenting a world that exists outside the portraiture of a city or even reality. Extending to a celestial place beyond what one could consider to be an atypical foundation for rap, his work paints a calming, soothing world that draws from dreams, the beauteous aurality of the Studio Ghibli collection, a sort of virtual and ethereal paradise.
In a way, the serene environments that permeate Yachty's work share some similarity with ambient music. In the same way that a record like Hiroshi Yoshimura's Green can recall the composed stillness of a Japanese water garden I'm still yet to visit, a track like Lil Yachty's "Never Switch Up" transports my mind to a place where I'm permanently reclined in the soothing, safe touch of the world's most comfortable Lazy Boy. The soft and light feeling in his music may be off putting at first, but in the right moment and the right time, it is deeply relaxing. As my mind buzzed with the low running hum of post-medication anxiety, Yachty helped to ease me into somewhere safe and comfortable.
Narratively, Lil Yachty's two releases revolve around three characters: Uncle Darnell Boat – Yachty's middle-aged alter-ego – and his two nephews, Lil Yachty and Lil Boat. The nautical theme is a visual and tangible one too: his posse are called the "Sailing Team", he wears almost exclusively vintage Nautica clothing, and the artwork for Lil Boat features Yachty cast away at sea on a wooden dinghy. It's a world that exudes a gentle, idealistic portrait; one that's not too dissimilar from the soothing expanse that is the open ocean. In a way, whatever Yachty is saying in these subconscious places feels almost irrelevant; it's the aesthetic combination of his tone of voice, production and artwork that forms these landscapes, not the words. His work is defined by the overall feeling, the sum of all of the parts, rather than one singular component.
Every great artist is impregnated with a specific, unique quality that makes them stand out from everyone else. A selling point that makes them adored and abhorred in equal measure. Kanye wants to improve his listeners' sense of esteem; or as he puts it, "to make you believe you can overcome the situation that you're dealing with all the time". Kendrick is this generation's go-to-artist for a heavy, narrative based album with bars, on bars, on bars. Put on a Drake record and your fresh ensemble will pop harder than ever before. Yachty isn't in this echelon of artist yet. In fact, he may never reach that tier. But what he does have is that one singular element that sets him apart from everyone else. He might not be 2016's greatest rapper, but he's succeeded in creating a unique world that strays away from reality. As he said in an interview with i-D earlier this year, it's also one that is based on the tenets of "positivity", "awesomeness", and "friendship".
In these fresh moments, in the time period where I stopped taking anti-depressants and started to become a sentient human again, I've found myself returning to Lil Yachty over and over. And over and over. Not because I want to hear him rap, but because I want the environment presented in his music to wash over me. That feeling is important. Right now, it's also one that could be unique to Lil Yachty. Hearing him freestyle over k-pop instrumentals is the closest I'll get to feeling like a cloud: free, floating, carefree. Qualities, I think we can agree, we all want to experience from time to time.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter.