For people who pay close attention to up-and-coming hip-hop, it was starting to seem like Young Thug wasn't going to pop. He initially surfaced as a solo artist in mid-2011, and started to get attention from the press in early 2012. Even after he signed to Gucci Mane's label and released an acclaimed mixtape, 1017 Thug in early 2013, Young Thug's buzz seemed nominal next to many of his peers in a suddenly flush Atlanta underground: Migos, Que, and Rich Homie Quan were getting bigger looks. It was especially strange because it seemed like he had the potential to be the biggest star of them all.
For one thing, rap isn't just music; it's about artists, too. That's why we feel invested, willing to fork over cash for albums. But lately—especially in Atlanta—the song has come first. The sound of that city has left the personalities of rappers like T.I. and Jeezy behind: from YC's "Racks" to Ca$h Out's "Cashin Out" to K Camp's "Money Baby," it's become the city of smashes. That you don't really know anything about Ca$h Out, or what he's been through, or where he's from, is of no concern; he made a hit song. Atlanta's biggest hitmaker of the last few years is Future, a rapper who's as much a songwriter as rapper, whose songs we all know, but whose story feels removed, mediated through his songwriting, even at his most confessional.
He's tall and gawkish and skinny, with a head of scraggly multi-hued dreads that seem to fall haphazardly across his face. His Instagram, "@thuggerthugger1," paints the picture through over-saturated filters that show ever gnarly detail, like a Robert Crumb cartoon, giving you an abstract angle of the person behind the music.
The image stream of his Instagram covers familiar rapper terrain: cups of lean and darkened Sprite bottles, wads of cash, designer clothing. Despite these consistencies, there's one way in which he's not much like your typical rapper: his radical personal style. He's got a mouth full of gold, a lip piercing, and a septum piercing. He wears nail polish and tight t-shirts, and simply dresses unlike any other artists in his scene. It's these kinds of accouterments that led the gossipping heads of social media to speculate on his sexuality, much as their '90s equivalent circulated rumors about Andre 3000 in the fuzzy boots era.
This tension between that which is expected of rappers, and that which is uncharacteristic and unique, extends to Young Thug's music as well. His art is packed with volatile contradictions, relies upon them. On the one hand, he's clearly influenced by Lil Wayne, who he identifies as his favorite rapper. But it's equally true that his art has a confident voice of its own, a point of view and singular sensibility that makes his influences feel like the picture frame rather than a part of the painting.
Within the texture of his voice is the idea of liberation: of breaking through (or maybe just breaking against) the concrete-hard self-control of the last two decades of hip-hop nonchalance. Of dissolving the rapper's primary tool—his voice—in a pool of acid and codeine and molly and melody, and watching the Daliesque shapes form on the other side.
Of course, this approach to rap is common; it's what half of Atlanta sounds like right now, from Future to Ca$h Out to Rich Homie Quan. (Wayne's own forays in this arena may not have even been all that groundbreaking, as much as they were broadly popularizing the style. Surely, Fabo deserves some credit for breaking the melodic outer space weirdo style barrier. And it's hard to deny that Jamaica beat U.S. hip-hop to melodic autotune by several years.) But that's the thing about Young Thug: as much as he seems like a radical, an outsider, a weirdo as a personality, his foremost talent as a musician isn't breaking down the walls; it's picking up the shards of autotune-addled, lean-drenched club music that burst when Atlanta careened off in a different direction, and putting them back together again.
That sounds kind of abstract. But let's take a look at Young Thug's musical history, to get an idea of what it is that sets him apart from his competition.
By contrast, since that time, Young Thug's vocal style has only gotten more raw, his flows less predictable, his yelping vocalizations more pronounced. It's the advantage of being a full-on hip-hop personality; he can adapt easily as the sound of hip-hop changes. His first tape, 2011's I Came From Nothing, shows a heavy Wayne debt, particularly in his flows, and the way his voice would fold into a knowing smirk during a punchline. But by the end of that year, when its sequel dropped, some very particular shapes were forming. First was the album's opener, the near-indecipherable "Haiti Slang." Slowing his flow and mumbling over an ominous loop that never resolves, the song was an immediate overthrow of hip-hop's rules and regulations. It's a great song.
There is a trap here, though. (Pun not intended.) And it's a growing danger as Young Thug receives more notoriety. It is the problem of being perceived, first and foremost, as an artist who is good because he's "weird." But his talents are so much more than simple eccentricity. Such an interpretation of his art could easily become as limiting as the Rich Kidz hooks-on-hooks euphoria. Or even worse, since "weird" music doesn't even have the advantages of pop's immediacy and familiarity, existing, by definition, in opposition to it. Haunting the Young Thug project is the ghost of Lil B, who, ultimately, chose to remain in the margins, letting his mind spray drown out the signal in the noise...or maybe just letting the noise stand in for the signal.
And of course, weirdness-fetishizing has a long, embarrassing tradition in American music history, particularly when directed at black American artists. (As it relates to Lil B, read this thoughtful piece by Nitsuh Abebe.) At times, it can begin to seem as if the art is completely subsumed by the capital-P Persona, an unfair burden for any artist, but also a real risk. For a black American artist coming out of a predominantly black American music scene, having a strong personality and distinct image is a double-edged sword. And not just by those who see hip-hop at its strongest in the form of a firm handshake, rather than as a middle finger, or clutching you by the throat.
Some of his best songs, like I Came From Nothing 3's "Foreign," felt like they could have been smash hits for this reason, given the right promotion. But in 2012, his profile was considerably lower. 1017 Thug, released in early 2013, earned him more press and notoriety, as did Gucci's endorsement. Songs like "Nigeria" and "Condo Music" found him just throwing away million-dollar hooks on mixtape tracks.
The primary missing piece was a real club and radio hit, which he finally delivered with "Stoner." And it's easy to see, in listening to it, how far Thugger's compositional style has evolved. Producer Dun Deal crafted a sparse frame that sounds like Frankenstein's snap track, a multi-part beat that shifts to a subdued, descending electric guitar for one of the song's several choruses. Thugga seems fully set on blurring the lines between rapping and ad-libs, between verses and hooks, and using his vocals in new ways. While the recent "Danny Glover" is the more immediate single, "Stoner" is packed with ideas, his rhymes alternating between forcefully percussive and soothingly melodic.
The South has spent the last decade redefining hip-hop, pulling apart its DNA like Laffy Taffy (pun intended) and rearranging the pieces. Obliterating genre conventions and finding purpose in other, unexpected places. The ad-lib is now a requisite part of the recording process. Beats have been reduced to skeletal snaps only to be ramped back up again to booming, gothic club bangers. Jeezy abandoned the intricate for urgency and totality, Wayne experimented with vocals and played with language. Young Thug's approach to song—to see every part of the song as pliable, up for grabs, to be reformed into a complete whole—isn't a radical break; it's a logical next step. And in some ways, it's a purer and spiritually consistent kind of traditionalism.
It is in these moments that he resembles no one but himself, a sure sign of an artist who is creating, rather than emulating. An artist whose voice—expressed in a multivalent way—is an original, devoid of mannerism. His art is the art of the rap song.
Forget boom-bap and graphite vocals. Young Thug brings back pieces that have been missing from hip-hop. Pieces that should in fact appeal to traditionalists who've struggled with recent developments in the genre.
"We're not against rap," said the Rev. Calvin O. Butts, the pastor who ran over rap CDs with a steamroller in a highly publicized media event in 1993. "We're not against rappers. But we are against those thugs." The song ended up sampled at the beginning of Bone Thugs N Harmony's "Thuggish Ruggish Bone" a year later. Young Thug's own name is a similarly knowing statement. As are the titles of his first three mixtapes, which situate him as a voice rising from poverty, a throwback to the "Keep Your Head Up" era of hip-hop history. But most significantly, he's an artist with a distinctive style and a creative voice, one for whom cliche, at least thus far, is an impossibility.