We simply must talk about Lil Yachty’s latest album, ‘Let’s Start Here.’

OPINION: The Atlanta rapper’s latest musical offering is — I think(?) — a huge but welcome departure from anything we’ve ever expected from him. 

Lil Yachty performs on stage during Rolling Loud at Hard Rock Stadium on July 23, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

It all started with supremely odd album art. Every Friday, I peruse through the Spotify “stacks” of new musical releases. As I scrolled down, I saw an odd assortment of animated people in suits laughing. I looked at the artist and saw the name Lil Yachty. Now, I know about Lil Yachty, but I can’t call myself a fan. Or at least I couldn’t before last week but we’ll get there. I remember his early songs like “One Night,” which I will generously call … not my cup of tea. In fact, none of his music has been my cup of tea while I’ve enjoyed his commercial and corporate glowup. Lil Yachty had commercials with Sprite and Target. Good for him.

But again, I have never cared one bit for his music — no matter where it showed up. So, under normal circumstances, I’d just scroll on through a Lil Yachty project, but I’m a sucker for good album cover. And like with tons of artists I don’t remember or will never listen to again, I decided to give the album a cursory two or three song run-through. To say I was surprised would be the understatement of the millennium. I was aghast. Run amuck. Plymouth Rock landed on me. Did Lil Yachty make this psychedelic, synth, pop, moody, enjoyable, engaging album?? 

HOW, SWAY? That’s the first thing I actually said out loud. I listened to the first song, “the BLACK seminole.” in full — all roughly seven minutes of it; the longest I can honestly say I’ve ever listened to a Lil Yachty anything in one sitting — and loved the sound, vibe and even his lyrics on the song, which aren’t great, but just, you know, work. I went song by song and then restarted the album and listened again, wondering how this happened? Why this happened? Who made this happen? Was Lil Yachty secretly some kind of musical savant that I’d been ignorant ignoring? His catalog suggests not. This album sounds nothing like the rest of his catalog. It’s an entirely different sound and feel. And I love it. 

I think you’ll love it, too. But we must examine this. Questlove from The Roots, whose musical opinion is about as good as it gets these days, posted on Instagram about this album and about folks who make albums that depart from their expected sound and oeuvre and remarked, “I dunno man: after about 3 listens (and I thought I’d NEVER say this—-& not because “I didn’t expect this from Lil Yachty”——but just in general I didn’t expect this from MUSIC)”. 

Now, let me say a few things about that last statement about not expecting this from music. I think that’s an understandably large statement, but a bit of a reach and overstatement. And I respect Questlove’s opinion in spades; it’s an extremely informed one. 

I am mostly surprised that this album came from Lil Yachty. I had absolutely no expectations of him and his musical offerings, and for him to make an album this cohesive that centers so many sounds and other voices that are, quite honestly, more important to the album than Yachty seemed like, until Jan. 27, 2023, an impossibility. I expect genre-bending hip-hop from artists like Kendrick Lamar, not Yachty. In fact, that fact alone makes me want to know everything about how this album came to be. 

It’s Yachty’s album, so I will give him all the credit for bringing these elements together but I need that oral history of “Let’s Start Here.” ASAP. I want to know about the studio sessions and the writing process and how the first records came to be that set the tone for the rest of the album. Did somebody bring the elements to him or was he playing around with sounds and felt good about them? The same three names are on the production credits for nearly every song: Patrick Wimberly, Justin Raisen and Jacob Portrait, each artists whose work tends (according to the little bits I’ve listened to) to be in the space of the album that became Lil Yachty’s. My guess is those folks were working together on some stuff, and Lil Yachty fortuitously stumbled upon these gems and they were all like, “let’s do this!” I have no idea if this is what happened — I’m anxiously awaiting the music review or the article that breaks all of this down. 

Again, my point is that I’m surprised that Lil Yachty made this album. I’d expect it from Kid Cudi. In fact, Kid Cudi (I’m a superstan) has been trying to make an album this genre-bending and cohesive, to me, his whole career. Of most of the forays into off-genre works by hip-hop artists, this is easily one of the best I’ve heard. Full stop. 

So let’s take a look at the other part of Questlove’s statement that he didn’t expect this of music. That part surprises me: if this wasn’t Lil Yachty’s project but some artists whose name I don’t know, I’m not sure I’d be THAT surprised. From groups like Black Moth Super Rainbow and the oft-cited Tame Impala when referencing this album, it’s not an album that is so monumental that it’s changed music. Not to me at least. The surprise and joy of the album is that Lil Yachty and Quality Control Music released this. There’s joy in that fact; when an artist creates music you don’t expect, it ripples. André 3000 taught us that with his half of Outkast’s 2003 double-album, “The Love Below.” Whether you loved or hated that album, you had to respect André’s attempt to do something wholly different but still keep it hip-hop. 

That’s where this album lands for me. The biggest difference is that unlike “The Love Below,” I don’t feel like Yachty is dropping amazing gems or vocal performances or anything. While I enjoy him on the album and give him credit for his presence and ownership of it, he’s kind of random most of the time. There are entire songs where I’d love to have heard other artists. For instance, I would, right now, pay good money to get a Lil Uzi Vert feature on “The Alchemist,” one of my favorite records on the album. In fact, if this was a JuiceWRLD and Lil Uzi Vert collab, I might think this is one of the greatest songs of all time. See? THAT IS AN OVERSTATEMENT. But I can hear them on it. There are songs that I feel like Tyler, the Creator or Pharrell Williams would be perfectly suited for. 

With that said, I fully appreciate that this is Lil Yachty’s album, and he deserves all of the credit for releasing this album. I appreciate that he went this road. I truly enjoy “Let’s Start Here.”, and I enjoy it in full — I listen to this album from start to finish every single time, and it’s been on a constant loop since I first listened to it. I would love more artists who opted into non-expected album releases with a set of producers who curated a sound that rappers would be able to blend with well. I don’t think every rapper is able, but I never thought Lil Yachty would either and he sure showed me. 

Interestingly, this has me looking forward to what he does next. Even if he goes right back to what he was doing before, in any capacity, this album is a welcome excursion into the mind and imagination of Lil Yachty and that’s turned me into a fan. Is “Let’s Start Here.” an album-of-the-year kind of project? I don’t know; the who of it makes it feel like that. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see. But I’ll tell you one thing; I’m fairly certain that whenever next year’s Grammy nominations come out, I’ll probably STILL be listening to this album. And happily. 

Panama Jackson theGrio.com

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said: “Unknown” (Blackest).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download it here.