The Rise of Yeat: What the Unlikely Star Tells Us About How Rap Spreads on TikTok
by Michelle Hyun Kim, a Third Bridge Creative contributor whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, NPR Music, Teen Vogue, and Pitchfork.
Who could’ve predicted that one of this year’s biggest music success stories would belong to a rapper from Portland, Oregon, whose first Billboard-charting hit is a surrealist hip-hop song called “Rich Minion,” from the Minions: The Rise of Gru soundtrack? That honor belongs to the 22-year-old Yeat, a once-underground internet artist who has ascended to superstar status in less than a year, largely due to his remarkably consistent popularity on TikTok.
His rise started with his July 2021 song “Sorry Bout That,” whose eccentric vocals struck a chord with TikTok users. On the Young Thug and Playboi Carti-indebted track, Yeat raps with garbled charisma over video game-like synths and trap beats—“She eat me up like it's Beni-bachi,” goes part of the hook, a funny mangling of the Los Angeles restaurant Benihibachi. The strange phrase and the song’s catchy refrain eventually soundtracked over 201,000 TikToks. The early buzz led the rapper to sign to Interscope, on which he released his debut studio album Up to Më only two months later, sparking a Drake co-sign and a long string of more than a dozen TikTok hits.
Since then, the prolific artist has shared two more projects, with songs from his back catalog sparking numerous challenges and countless user-generated remixes. While his 9 million Spotify Monthly Listeners continue to grow after another hit, “Talk,” taken from his Lyfë EP, debuted at No. 42 on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts, his most viral success to date is still “Rich Minion,” now attached to over 1.8 million videos on TikTok.
Though there are other TikTok-made rap stars, most of them have blown up for songs with melodic hooks that easily lend themselves to dance challenges and mainstream appeal. While that was partly true for Yeat’s first TikTok success, “Sorry Bout That,” he’s seen more growth by pushing further into the unconventional: making up nonsensical lingo like “twizzy” and “tonkas,” putting together galaxy-brain bars with words like “simulacrum,” and incorporating production soaked in internet-era adventurousness. Using TikTok and other social media, he’s cultivated a distinct persona marked by bell sounds and seemingly random umlauts, drawing in a fervent fan base who flocks to his shows decked out in turban merch and yells about how he’s “the GOAT” over any other rapper right now.
So how did Yeat’s relatively niche music lead to his rapid growth as an artist? And what does it say about how rap spreads on TikTok?
Funny Lines, Weird Choices, and Memeability
While “Sorry Bout That” marked his early foray onto TikTok, Yeat’s general presence skyrocketed with his August 2021 single “Gët Busy,” due to a short section that users thought was funny enough to meme: Halfway through the song, he raps, “This song already was turnt, but here’s a bell,” right before the percussion instrument starts gonging on top of video game-like synths and trap drums. It also got a ridiculous music video with huge animated bells. Tickled by the unconventional line and production choice, TikTokers started posting what became over 35,000 bell-related TikToks, making light of Yeat’s sound while also praising him.
Even though “Sorry Bout That” had been in around 20,000 TikToks by the time that “Gët Busy” came out, it was the latter track that pushed Yeat from a mild viral sensation into an artist with a cult following. When “Gët Busy” leaked a couple weeks prior to its official release, his “fans who [had] been following his gradual rise in the depths of SoundCloud [had] been practically on their knees begging for a full version,” Pitchfork critic Alphonse Pierre wrote, suggesting that something about the flippant track had inspired a pressure cooker of commotion around the rapper.
It was only after Yeat had established a reputation for something as random as a fondness for the sound of bells that the TikTok hits actually converted into consistent followers. The summer that “Sorry Bout That” was gaining steam on TikTok, the rapper’s Spotify Monthly Listeners climbed from 6,500 to around 200,000 over the course of three months, boosted by his Trendi EP that August. But after “Gët Busy” and its accompanying Up to Më album, the count grew exponentially, leaping to over one million listeners after just a month.
It was “Gët Busy” that got Yeat the coveted Drake co-sign, too, with the Canadian superstar sharing the song to Instagram eager to show his 120 million Instagram followers that he was up to date on the latest rap trends. Up to Më also saw Yeat pushing harder into his idiosyncrasies: there were more bell sound effects and more unorthodox Yeat-isms. “Money So Big” became another hit because of its hook about how the rapper's “money be twerkin,’” resulting in over 70,000 TikToks made with the sound by the end of the year. A song about his signature accessories, the balaclava and keffiyeh headgear that he refers to as his “turban,” also started circulating on the platform.
Yeat now had multiple TikTok hits lined up one after the other, but more importantly, he had created a whole language, look, and worldview that inspired listeners’ unceasing devotion. One viral tweet this summer asserted that Yeat, along with rappers Playboi Carti and Bladee, were “just kpop idols but for boys.”
As demonstrated by Young Thug and Gunna’s features on Yeat’s 2 Alivë album from this February, as well as his multiple collaborations with Lil Uzi Vert since, the rising rapper’s cult of personality also made more established artists want to be part of the hype.
Minions: the Perfect Cross-Branding Opportunity
Riding the momentum from his co-signs and 2 Alivë, which had sparked about six more minor hits on TikTok, Yeat was primed for a more mainstream breakout moment. That came this summer with the Minions. The film franchise centers on a bunch of unintelligible, pill-shaped dwarfs, which proved to be great muses for someone like Yeat. He may not be as upbeat as the little yellow protagonists, but he could definitely be as absurd as them.
The match-up came from a suggestion from Cole Bennett, the psychedelic rap music video director and co-founder of Lyrical Lemonade, who had been tapped by production company Illumination to create the trailer and merchandize for their fifth Minions installment. In a meeting, Bennett mentioned that Yeat could be a “perfect fit” for the movie soundtrack, he told Rolling Stone, and he immediately asked his close collaborator, Chicago producer Lotto, to draft up the beat for what would become “Rich Minion.” Its sample of the movie minions saying their silly phrases like “la papaya, du la potato,” was something that could already belong in a Yeat song. After it was previewed in the film’s official trailer on the Lyrical Lemonade channel at the end of June, the track caught on swiftly on TikTok.
Boosted by a ridiculous viral #Gentleminions trend where young men stormed movie theaters wearing suits to watch the film, “Rich Minion” was used by some of TikTok’s biggest influencers, like Mr. Beast and Jojo Siwa, leading to its cultural explosion. It became his biggest TikTok hit yet, leading to Yeat to see a brief peak in Spotify Monthly Listeners of 8.8 million that eventually died down by the end of the summer. While it also led him to swiftly gain 5,000 followers on TikTok throughout July, it didn't cause a pronounced jump on his Spotify Followers or YouTube Subscribers as compared to his other releases. Instead, those counts continued to rise at the same rate that they had been since his 2 Alivë album from February.
The steady growth suggests that, even while Yeat had created another TikTok sensation, bolstered by a brand as mainstream as Minions, it hadn’t converted a new, unexpected follower demographic into loyal listeners. Instead, his consistent output and brand seems to have only strengthened the fandom of people who were most likely to already like him: Gen Z men who spend time online.
TikTok Virality and Fan Conversion
The notion that a TikTok-viral song will automatically convert to consistent listeners outside the platform is called into question when looking at Yeat’s peers. SoFaygo, a 20-year-old rapper associated with Lil Tecca, scored a TikTok hit with his 2019 single “Knock Knock,” which started circulating on the app in spring 2021 and resulted in over 130,000 videos. But Charmetric shows that his Spotify Monthly Listeners didn’t take a commensurate jump during that time period. Instead, he saw more growth during his tour opening for Trippie Redd that fall, peaking at almost 6 million listeners, and now that number is on the decline even as he releases new projects.
Similarly, the Atlanta rapper Young Nudy has landed several TikTok hits in the past few years, the biggest of which is his 2017 song “Hell Shell,” which resulted in over a million TikToks last summer. The artist’s Spotify Monthly Listener count has steadily risen to over 5.6 million, but his growth can be similarly correlated to his project output and tours. All of which suggests that TikTok virality can sometimes be its own discrete ecosystem, and doesn’t necessarily translate to increased awareness away from the platform.
What Does the Future Hold for Emerging Rap Artists on TikTok?
Yeat’s story shows that while going viral on TikTok can be a great way to break through to a new audience, a certain type of persona and skill at worldbuilding is needed in order to sustain the hype. In his case, the sense of surrealism present in his songs and videos seemed to be absurd enough to catch the attention of millions and spark in-jokes on the app, while not feeling too gimmicky to lose favor with the crowd. There’s also his never-ceasing output, which has helped feed new material out to his listeners on TikTok and beyond, but it was Yeat’s willingness to push deeper into his weirdness and illegibility with each new project that truly seemed to convert listeners into fans.
While it’s unclear whether the rapper can sustain the idol-level of visibility he sits at now — his Chartmetric score of 48,187 has seen a significant cool-down since his peak of 110,159 earlier this summer — it’s likely that Yeat’s swift rise and singular style is already inspiring others to try to follow his template.
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