"I want to get in the studio with Wayne more than anybody in the world," Young Thug told Complex contributor Justin Davis in an interview conducted earlier this year. "I’ll get in the studio with Wayne before Michael Jackson right now, so I hope he listening." Apparently, he was; shortly thereafter, Cash Money CEO Birdman reached out, and he's been working closely with the Atlanta rapper ever since.
"You've got these young artists who, really, Wayne is the mold for them," Birdman said on the set of Young Thug's cover shoot. "They watch Wayne. They study Wayne. He comin' in the game like that."
Lil Wayne ranks with Gucci Mane as one of the most influential stylists for rap's new generation of talent. Plenty of rappers—even ones with dope music—wear their debt to both artists on their sleeves.
And as you can see from Thug's video interview, the two have recently recorded a single together: "Ill," which instantly jumped to the top of Young Thug's list of favorite Wayne songs, although it remains unreleased.
The rest of the above video gives an interesting snapshot of the Wayne records that shaped Young Thug's world. On the one hand, these choices are somewhat unexpected; aside from "Let the Beat Build," which appears on the 3.6 million-selling The Carter III, the remaining three records are great, but not exactly canonical. But those songs—"Eat You Alive," "Ms. Parker," and "No Problems" (by this he most likely means "Steady Mobbin," one of the rare instances where Wayne was actually outshone on a track—in this case, but Thug's "brother" Gucci Mane)—do point to how an artist with as long a career arc as Wayne's can influence generations in different ways.
To anyone paying attention, Thugger's debt to Wayne is obvious. It loomed more clearly on Thug's earlier material. His debut tape I Came From Nothing made this debt evident. Just listen to "We Are," which even incorporates the hashtag flow ("Plus I'm shining... star.")
From that flow to the way his voice underlines each punchline to the phrasing—the pauses, the half-laughing vocal turns—traces of Wayne are unmistakably evident at this early stage of Thug's career. That he was able to break from the shackles of his influence—a process I've written about at length—is an impressive feat. This accomplishment proves that one artist's in-depth absorption of another artist isn't necessarily a limitation, as long as you find a way to transcend them.
"A good style simply doesn’t form unless you absorb half a dozen top-flight authors every year," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter Scottie in the year before his death. "Or rather it forms but instead of being a subconscious amalgam of all that you have admired, it is simply a reflection of the last writer you have read, a watered-down journalese." This is a tempting truism and easy enough to apply to rap: if you want to find your voice, listen to many artists, and adapt things you like from each. Not doing so can lead to artists with a limited stylistic range, unable to escape the shadow of their obsession. But as Clive James argued in an essay about Fitzgerald, this advice may have been a case of do as I say, not as I do. After all: Scottie Fitzgerald never became the writer her father had been. And what made him great was not simply his style, but how his ideas and his style were wrapped together as one.
More than just the quirks of his vocals or his obvious stylistic signature, Thug gravitates to the core of Wayne's art: an originality and creativity that sees the rules of the game as a fabric that can be rewoven.
Lil Wayne ranks with Gucci Mane as one of the most influential stylists for rap's new generation of talent. Plenty of rappers—even ones with dope music—wear their debt to both artists on their sleeves. But Thug's debt to Wayne has moved on; he no longer treats Wayne as a literal blueprint for how to rap. Young Thug's vocals are distinct, immediately recognizable as his own. His song choices suggest that he now sees Wayne's influence as a toolkit for his own ideas: strategies to convey feeling, the kind of conceptual creativity that animated Wayne's best work. More than just the quirks of his vocals or his obvious stylistic signature, Thug gravitates to the core of Wayne's art: an originality and creativity that sees the rules of the game as a fabric that can be rewoven.
Much of the attention given to Wayne's transition from a member of the Hot Boys with a middling solo career into a full-on star was what happened with his flow in the early 2000s. Beginning with the Sqad Up tapes and culminating in his first volume of Tha Carter, Wayne's flow was slowed down, centered on the beat, and made more decipherable to non-Southern (especially East Coast) rap fans. But what happened as he continued to evolve his style—and, presumably, as the drugs took hold—was that his work became more psychedelic. His flow's deliberate pace was no longer a delivery system for punchlines that even New York heads could understand. He relearned control of the effect his vocals could create.
Listen to "Eat You Alive" from The Drought Is Over 6, one of the few songs for which Thug offers commentary ("It just sounds weird"). He's right: over the song's descending horns, Wayne's unhinged vocals crawl with a raspy melody, as he sings about feasting on his enemies with haunted, evil enthusiasm. His words have a creeping unpredictability—not just the timing of where he places a certain word, but his use of phrasing. His opening line goes on for fifteen words with numerous internal rhymes; the next line contains half that. His flow turns in a new direction on a dime. This approach introduces an alluring chaos to the creative mix.
"Ms. Parker," from Young Money's We Are Young Money takes this a step further. Here, Wayne's vocals dance and twist and turn, using Auto-Tune not just for the purposes of melodic precision, but as a distorting vocal affect. Even more liberated from the stylistic obligations of hip-hop proper, Wayne was free to form new shapes, to sculpt each verse in numerous ways as he played with phrasing, melody, flow, texture, percussiveness. You can hear it in the way he just starts singing—"tick, tick, tock"—building tension between the predictable and unpredictable. Despite this, the song is also one of Wayne's most "pop" maneuvers, euphoric in the extreme. (This musical sweet tooth is a quality he shares with Thug.) He achieves this without losing accessibility, making the record feel even more audacious in the process.
What took Wayne most of his career to accomplish took Young Thug an instant to capture. But what's animated so much of Thug's more recent work isn't its literal similarity to Wayne. Instead, it's his uncanny ability to wrap his head around the totality of Wayne's innovations as a writer in three dimensions—lyrically, texturally, melodically, rhythmically—and to use those tools to tell his own stories, to make his own moods and feelings. That's what Sir Isaac Newton meant when he said he saw further by "Standing on the shoulders of giants." This doesn't mean Young Thug is the next Lil Wayne. Prophecies about Lady Gaga becoming Madonna didn't take into account that Gaga's act was a recitation of the entirety of Madonna's evolution in one moment in time. Young Thug's path is his own, and he's just beginning to walk it.