Last week, Young Thug took to Instagram Live to share a snippet of a new song. Along with the new material came a plea for his followers: to tag XXXTentacion in the post, in a bid to get the controversial rapper featured on the track. “He’s one of the only young niggas that I like,” Thug said. “He’s really dope. I want y’all to tag him. I want him featured on this.”
Thugger—who maybe now goes by “Sex”—had previously claimed that he won’t be releasing any new music this year out of respect for his deaf brother. Yes, really. But potentially breaking family solidarity for a chance to work with XXXTentacion makes sense for Thug, because X is a bigger rapper than Thugger/Jeffrey/Sex/etc. right now.
It’s a strange thing: Young Thug has spent the last five years at the top of the critical food chain. He’s your favorite rap critic’s favorite rapper. He’s been bending—and sometimes breaking—the rules of rap, becoming a genuinely exciting star in the process. All of that has never quite translated to A-List commercial success, but Thug has a string of hits and has proven that he has what it takes to take over the charts, should he choose to do so. Back in 2016, he seemed poised for domination after the brilliance of Slime Season 3 and the coherence and Wyclef cameos of Jeffery. But while we’ve been waiting for that to materialize, a new generation of rappers, similarly operating on the fringes of the genre, has been overtaking him.
Right now, XXXTentacion is in the midst of the very A-List commercial success that Thug has been flirting with for years. X has three songs on the Billboard Hot 100, and his latest album ? topped the Billboard 200 chart—something, incidentally, that Thug has never done. The closest Thug has gotten on his own was to the seventh slot (he climbed to the number two spot once, but that was for his collaboration with Future, which we all remember was no Watch the Throne).
X’s highest-charting song, “Sad!,” hit a peak of #7 a few short weeks ago, which is a stunning 38 slots higher than Thug’s biggest solo hit, “Best Friend.” “Sad!” has over 80 million views on YouTube, and 140 million streams on YouTube. Much has been made of this: XXXTentacion is accused of domestic abuse and has a history of sometimes ugly publicity stunts, but the rapper’s popularity indicates that he’s well on his way to stardom regardless. He is currently the 45th most listened to artist on Spotify’s entire platform. Kanye West is number 43.
potentially breaking family solidarity for a chance to work with XXXTentacion makes sense for Thug, because X is a bigger rapper than him right now.
Young Thug, meanwhile, is at 219, which lends credence to the idea that Thug’s open call for an X feature is one artist asking a hotter, more popular one for a look. And ultimately, the fact that X has, at least for now, eclipsed Thug makes sense. Looking back through music history, it is rare that actual innovators and boundary-pushers reap the commercial rewards for their breakthroughs. Instead, it’s the people who can take those leaps forward and find a way to work them into an already existing commercially successful sound who get the glory. So you have Nirvana’s Bay City Rollers-sweetened grunge selling 30 million albums instead of the real innovators of the loud-quiet-loud dynamic, the Pixies; and Schoolly D’s early proto-gangsta rap didn’t earn him the kind of biopic-inducing fame that NWA received. So it makes a certain kind of sense that a rapper who takes Thug’s boundary-pushing, anything-goes sense of possibility, and wraps it in familiar trap drums and melodies—as “Sad!” does—would earn the kind of fame that seems to elude the much more musically eclectic Thug. And that is what makes the fact of X eclipsing Thug’s fame both eminently predictable and—you guessed it—sad.