An album cover being proclaimed as “groundbreaking” is a rarity in today’s musical landscape. But when Lil Yachty unveiled the artwork for his major label debut “Teenage Emotions” — which is released today (May 26) on Quality Control/Motown/Capitol Records — it was met with that adjective.
The cover photograph shows the rapper flashing his rainbow grills while seated amid a spectrum of individuals that includes two young men kissing in the corner of the frame. Reactions across the Internet were mixed: many praised Yachty for depicting a gay couple on the cover of a major hip-hop release, while others took to Yachty’s Instagram comment section with homophobic remarks.
Photographer Kenneth Capello, who shot the cover, tells Variety that while he knew the image was special, he didn’t expect it to be so controversial. “I think hip-hop has changed quite a bit from the ’90s going into the 2000s, with rap becoming so obsessed with [fashion] designers and this and that,” he says. “You have all these designers who are gay, and [rappers] are aware of this, so maybe they cut the [gay] f-word out of some of their songs.
“I just didn’t think it would be a big deal because [hip-hop] was much more homophobic 10 years ago,”Capello continues. “I’m going to credit the Internet and what I just spoke about that’s changing it. But when it dropped on his Instagram and I looked through the comments, I was seeing all this anti-gay sh-t. It made me go, ‘Oh, that’s still where we’re at.’”
Capello, who shot magazine covers for Yachty in the past and has worked with artists like ASAP Rocky and Pharrell Williams, explains that while the cover was conceived with designer Mihailo Andic, the idea came from Yachty himself. Capello cast the teens who appear in the image, as well as Yachty associates Erron Vercetti, Earl the Pearl, Mitch and Big Brutha Chubba, and set up the shoot at Yachty’s high school gymnasium in Atlanta. While the assortment of individuals in the photo is diverse — including an albino man and a woman with vitiligo — the gay couple was actually two friends who knew each other and agreed to kiss for the photo.
“When I would cue them to start kissing, I could feel this funny energy,” says Capello. “The principal and basketball coach were there and some of the mentors from high school were there and people were watching like, ‘Huh?’ But Yachty wanted it. When I did the casting, I was like, do you want the so-called outcasts growing up as a teenager? He was like, ‘Yeah, I want the punks, the nerds, the gay kids. ‘Teenage Emotions,’ what you go through as a teenager.’”
Yachty, 19, previously explained his intention for including the rainbow of teens in the image. “I wanted to have all of these different aspects of teenage life,” he said. “I thought about all the things I saw in high school for the first time that I had never experienced before. I had never seen two dudes kissing until high school. The topic of obesity was never that serious until high school. I had never seen vitiligo until high school. I’d never seen albino kids until high school. I’d never seen emo kids until high school. Then I just put my homies in the back. Everybody trying to say I put the black people in the back, I don’t understand that. Those is my n—as and they just wanted to be in the picture, so I put them in the back.”