What’s the first thought that crosses your mind when you hear that now ubiquitous “Lil Boat” ad lib bellow from your speakers? I’d bet a pair of Timbs and the CD jackets from my 50 Cent bootlegs that “role model” isn’t the first word that pops into your head. But maybe, just maybe, it should be.
Most hip-hop fans associate Lil Yachty with “Broccoli,” mainstream pop-culture, 2016’s controversial XXL list, or “mumble rap.” But there’s a lot more to Boat’s image than red dreads and Sprite ads. Yachty’s music gets characterized as the kind of mindless pop-rap that’s perfect on a party playlist, but Lil Boat himself is stone-cold sober and proud of it. That isn’t entirely unique in today’s hip-hop landscape, but for a generation of young music listener’s vibing to what Yachty’s laying down, it’s hugely significant.
There’s always been a movement within hip-hop of rappers espousing the virtues of sobriety. Kendrick is “normally drug-free,” OutKast doesn’t want you to “spend all your time trying to get high,” and legendary acts such as Public Enemy, De La Soul and Run-D.M.C. have all been strong anti-drug advocates for decades. But let’s be honest: kids these days aren’t bumpin’ Chuck D in the whip.
An ever-growing rapper like Yachty publicly supporting clean living in the Dirty Sprite era is rather incredible and cannot be understated. And it’s not just Mr. Bubblegum Trap: Macklemore, Vince Staples, Logic and Tyler, The Creator are all rappers who appeal to a younger, mainstream audience and claim sobriety as a core part of their identity.
When Vince Staples reminds us in interview after interview that he hasn’t ever drank or used drugs in his life, it’s significant in a way that's different from when the old, conscious rap vanguard preached about the sober life. When Vince talks, young people are actually listening. Yachty, Vince and other young, trendy rappers openly living drug- and alcohol-free represents nothing less than a “straight edge” revolution in hip-hop culture.
Quick history lesson: Back in the wild heyday of early 1980s punk rock, some of the most hardcore rockers banded together to fight the notion that heavy music had to go hand-in-hand with heavy drug use, and birthed the straight edge, or “sXe” movement. Straight edge punks and metalheads were vocally opposed to drug and alcohol addiction, and their movement was young, trendy, and filled with sober role models. While today’s straight edge revolution in hip-hop is a lot quieter than its historical precedent, it’s powerful for the same reasons.
Young listeners rightfully see Yachty as a peer. Similarly, Vince Staples used to run the same streets as many of the teenagers who idolize him. Rap artists don’t need to write songs for every album that promote sobriety in order to be a role model and impact their fans. By living clean and being open about it, the same effect can be felt.
Of course, a lot of the music being made by these young, sober rappers isn’t entirely positive or praiseworthy from a role-modeling perspective. Not that it has to or should be, Vince has every right to rap about the dirty and heartbreaking aspects of his reality, and we shouldn’t be offended by his truth.
If anything, the fun-loving spirit of Yachty and gritty realism of Vince makes the straight-edge drug-free pill easier for some listeners to swallow. If every song on every Vince album read like a D.A.R.E. advertisement, he wouldn’t have the following he does, and he wouldn’t be in the position he is today to positively affect listeners simply by vocally embracing his own sobriety.
The mere fact that some of the trendiest rappers amongst young hip-hop listeners are sober and happy to talk about it is huge for the culture. Five or 10 years ago, it’d be almost unimaginable for commercially successful pop culture voices to spit lines about being clean to their young fans. Today, Vince and his comrades can openly support sobriety without having to worry about how it will impact their image or their pocketbooks.
Only time will tell whether or not Yachty’s public sobriety will translate into more widespread support for drug-free living amongst his followers. In large part, that may depend on whether or not the straight edge revolution in hip-hop remains a quiet one, or grows louder and becomes a more defined focal point of rap music, rather than one restricted to interview and social media form. For now, though, props must be issued to Boat and crew for living how they want to and giving young hip-hop fans role models who live substance-free.
By Cassidy Kakin. Follow him on Twitter.