Lil Yachty’s debut album Teenage Emotions didn’t sell up to expectations its first week. As of Monday (June 6), the 20-track album moved just 44,000 units by Billboard‘s new SPS (sales plus streams) measures.
In 2014, Billboard introduced digital-friendly charts that count 10 individual track downloads as equal to one traditional album sale. The updated charts also count 1,500 song streams as equal to a traditional album sale.
These new measures are meant to help millennial artists like Yachty, who rely on social media, viral content and streaming services to reach fans and build their brands. But after debuting at number five on the Top 200 chart on a holiday weekend, the 19-year-old top pick of Capitol Records is blaming the lackluster numbers on being misunderstood — proving he still has a lot to learn about the music industry.
“I understand first week numbers didn’t do what most people expected but that’s only because they don’t understand me,” the ATLien said of his underwhelming sales in an Instagram message to fans. “They don’t understand us. I don’t expect anybody to. I make it for those who listen.”
Some artists go to extreme lengths to project an aura that says they don’t give a f**k, but Yachty’s attempts at sounding care-free just make him sound clueless about the business. Often saluted for his business savvy and shamed for his lack of musicality, Yachty is supposed to have a better grasp of his brand than his comments suggest. If consumers don’t understand your product you aren’t edgy— you’re bad at marketing. But Yachty’s 1.2 million Twitter followers and endorsement deals with Nautica, Sprite and Finish Line suggest he’s got a genius mind for courting attention. The problem seems to be that the quality of his content doesn’t match the popularity of his character.
Yachty’s 1.2 million Twitter followers and endorsement deals with Nautica, Sprite and Finish Line suggest he’s got a genius mind for courting attention.
The new sales plus streams charts don’t account for plays on every streaming service, but give a fair assessment of an album’s impact on the commercial market. For reference, Kendrick Lamar and Drake both debuted at number one this year, each selling well over 500,000 SPS units.
But the truth is that Yachty can’t be accurately compared to most of his peers in hip hop. He goes out of his way to distance himself from traditional tenants of MC-ing like lyricism, competitiveness and machismo and aims to be as abstract and non-confrontational as possible — making him stand out from the herds of struggle rhymers reciting miracle lyrical bars or stale dope boy clichés.
Yachty’s natural zen nearly blew a vessel in Joe Budden’s temple when he told the new millennium’s maddest rapper that he was genuinely happy with his current state in life on an episode of Complex‘s Everyday Struggle. The middle class mama’s boy-turned-college dropout doesn’t care about achieving musical perfection nearly as much as a young Kanye West did, but his counter-culture personality has helped him generate a buzz comparable to West’s early 2000’s come-up. By now he should see that his recording career won’t last nearly as long as Ye’s if he doesn’t drastically improve his music or diversify his brand.
“I feel like my brand… blew up so big, it blew up bigger than my actual music,” said Yachty, in a far wiser moment than his “misunderstood” comment. “It could be worse,” he leveled, “all I have to do is make it to where my brand hype and music hype equal out.” It’s a chase everyone from Soulja Boy to Trinidad James is still on. It’s a difficult prospect for artists with magnetic personalities but unremarkable skills. Whether out of laziness, brilliance or sheer necessity, Yachty seems to go out of his way to distance himself from the hip hop establishment; both musically and aesthetically it almost seems like he’s not really trying his best. Still, his schtick is almost as charming as Lil B‘s or Flavor Flav’s in doses.
For the same reasons Trump’s extremism attracted casual voters and ignited ignorant mobs, Yachty’s presence in hip hop will forever be both divisive and explosive. No matter how hard he works to improve his music, he will be vilified by diehards and purists as a destructive force in the culture. But if he realizes, as Trump did, that most people simply don’t care enough to curate their own playlists or politics via research or reason, there is no limit to the heights he can take his corporate takeover to. So why try to play their game when you have the cheat codes?
For the same reasons Trump’s extremism attracted casual voters and ignited ignorant mobs, Yachty’s presence in hip hop will forever be both divisive and explosive.
Yachty doesn’t smoke weed, he speaks calmly and clearly, and his main motivation in life seems to be tricking off his riches on his doting mom. Face to face, he’s hard not to like. But he’s also hard to listen to much of the time.
Recent speculation as to whether he owns his publishing is mostly pointless because Yachty’s most valuable asset will probably never be his music. Condolences to the label execs that blew their budgets on him, but he would be wise to pursue all acting, hosting and endorsement contracts over more studio time. Lil Yachty may leave a significant mark on hip hop culture, but only if he continues to think bigger than just the music industry. And as long as he understands that a misunderstanding is never a valid excuse for underperforming.
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