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YTK Went Viral. Now What?

By Grant Rindner on

“You see dreads coming out the top of a ski mask with fronts and straps you’re gonna be like, ‘I cannot scroll past this.’”

That was the logic of Baltimore rapper-producer-engineer YTK’s first viral hit, “Let It Off,” a wickedly funny, absurdist spin on Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off,” this time focused on gunfire, not emotional catharsis. Since its May 7 release, it’s racked up countless plays on Twitter, where it reached Carey herself and found a champion in The Roots’ Questlove, who reportedly is working to help clear the sample.

Last year, YTK posted a clip of the song on social media as a lark, not expecting that his fans, friends, and team would be so taken with it. There’s a lineage of artists making ear-catching records aimed at going viral, from Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” to Sada Baby’s “Whole Lotta Choppas” to Doja Cat’s “Mooo!” While “Let It Off” has some inherent goofiness, YTK stacks his harmonies in compelling ways, and the verse has an airy bounce even as he’s threatening to leave your brain looking “like beef lo mein.”

“I wasn’t deadass serious, but I dropped it just to see what the homies said,” YTK explains. “Everybody was like, ‘This is hilarious.’ And then my manager hit me, and he was like, ‘‘This shit is funny, but this high note you hit at the end is actually kinda crucial.’”

He stopped promoting that early snippet, worked on putting the finishing touches on the song so he could give it a proper release, and shot a darkly comic video directed by Jack Rottier and YTK himself.

Though this new record blew up suddenly, it was not YTK’s first time being recognized for his music. He received praise for 2017’s heady, lo-fi “Bodiless” and in 2020 released From Grace, for Grace, a multilayered EP that showcased his singing and songwriting chops. In the wake of “Let It Off,” Audiomack talked to YTK about his next steps and how to make an impact as a new artist in the world of shrunken attention spans.

When did you come up with the idea for “Let It Off,” and how long ago did you have it done?

I think the idea came about a year ago, and the way it came was that I used to engineer at a studio around my way, and in between sessions, I would practice different aspects of recording people, just trying to sharpen myself on the engineer front. I had just cracked a new version of Auto-Tune, so I was getting used to that, and in the middle of my sessions, I would listen to music that I just fuck with, so I was listening to Mariah while I was getting familiar with the software.

I thought, “Yeah, fuck it. I’m ‘bout to just record a full song over the top of the instrumental for ‘Shake It Off.’” I really recorded that joint in 25 minutes.

Something I like about it is that you didn’t really change the beat. You hear some songs, and it’s a sample where they make it sound super hard and put big 808s on it. But this, you hear the Mariah song and recognize it instantly.

I tried to really do Mariah justice. I wasn’t gonna drop it if I genuinely thought it was just bullshit over the top of a classic beat. When I was making it, I definitely played the most with my harmonies and the melodies and my harmonies and how it all laid on top of [the instrumental]. I didn’t want it to sound like a cacophony of just random shit.

For you, in that three-day stretch from release day to the end of that weekend, what was the wildest thing that happened as a result of this song going viral?

The wildest thing on social media–it kinda blew me that Daily Mail, TMZ, USA Today were posting it because they don’t even post music. So, it made it feel like, damn, n***a, this is a news event going on right now. This is not a viral moment; this is a news event.

In thinking about going from having this viral moment to wanting people to stick around, is there anyone who has done a really good job of that in your eyes?

In retrospect, I do see a connection to YNW Melly. I think the song that put me onto him was the Chris Brown joint he did. That one, I think, was the first song I heard from Melly, and that was really early on. When I heard it, not many other people had heard him at that time. But then, now, I’m kinda understanding that, and this have a lot in common. But it definitely wasn’t intentional. I knew it was gonna have some effect, but I didn’t know it was going to have the effect that it’s having right now.

Something I’ve always thought was smart about the way you release music is that you seem very aware of how difficult it is to get people to pay attention.

I 100 percent do take into account the attention span of people who consume music, especially because my attention span is also being affected by how shit is working nowadays.

The human attention span, I don’t think it’s shortening, but it is changing. Short-form content definitely is on the rise. You have to catch people’s attention kinda fast. Unless you already have a standing platform, it’s very difficult for someone to give you a chance, especially in music, if they don’t like it in the first 20-30 seconds. I take that into account and think it’s important to succeed. It’s also a challenge I welcome. It sharpens my abilities to know that and try to adhere to that.

Are you thinking of eventually dropping a debut album?

Yes, I definitely do want to. Right now, I don’t have, in my opinion, the proper resources to deliver a debut album that feels like my best shot at one. I’ve been dropping EPs because I have EP resources. I have EP time, I have EP production budgets, I have EP video budgets. But when I have a debut album, I’m just gonna go so nuts. I’m not gonna hold anything back. I’m gonna really craft. I got grand plans for my album.

Before [on] my EPs, most of my songs—my creation process is that I live my life, I make the songs, and then I make sense of it after. That’s kinda how it’s been going. But for an album, I feel like it’s the opposite.

You’re still a young guy, but you’ve been getting attention through your music since “Bodiless” in 2017. All of this writing about you still frames you as a new artist, so how do you square that with the fact that you’ve been making music for years?

I used to catch shades of it where it was like, “Damn, am I working hard enough? Am I doing the right thing? Am I making the right moves?” But then, for the most part, I really just love making music. Honestly, if I didn’t go crazy [with “Let It Off”], I would still be working just as hard as I will be in the future. I don’t know how to do anything else well other than make art.

I do kinda understand how seeing people pop at 17, 18, 19 is kinda crazy, and seeing my homies do their own respective, successful deeds, it honestly motivated me, truth be told. Being around and seeing people that I knew believing in themselves and having that long grind pay off, it definitely motivated me to be the same way.

The last thing that I wanted to ask you was being a Baltimore rapper. How do you see yourself fitting into the whole of Baltimore hip-hop?

I knew this year was gonna be crazy for Baltimore, specifically. I just had that feeling because I was hearing talk about Butch [Dawson] getting signed. Shordie Shordie just went Platinum. We had a Netflix documentary about club music and all this other shit that’s happening in the city. The eyes are on Baltimore. It was some shit I’m telling my n****s, “We don’t even have to reach out anymore; we just have to close our hands. It’s right here to get.”

I knew Baltimore was gonna go up this year, but I didn’t know I was gonna be one of the frontrunners. I thought it was gonna be more seeing what was going on and helping out where I could. I find myself in a space where the world is my oyster. I now have to make a few decisions that cement how I’m about to be coming for the next few years. I think I have a pretty good foundation.

Photos by @tribecalledjosh.

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