As much credit as rappers and beatmakers receive, someone has to rep for the folks who get shit done. Though maligned for years, Diddy's singular vision was critical on each of Biggie's albums. Jermaine Dupri wasn't the world's slickest rapper, but he knew hits. And Master P may not have been No Limit's most original voice, but he transformed the local Parkway Pumpin label into the international juggernaut No Limit. What exactly Birdman did to make Rich Gang's Tha Tour Part 1 happen is perhaps unknowable. What we do know is that Rich Homie Quan had slipped backward into a Def Jam label deal via Trinidad James' arrangement with T.I.G., while Young Thug has one of the messiest contract situations in rap history. In an era where a small handful of rappers can force a record through the major label system, when a rapper can have two significant hits and only drop a digital EP, a free, full-length (in the old industry charge-you-$18.99-per-CD sense), all-killer, uncompromised set of originals from two bubbling stars feels like a hallucination. Whoevers arms were twisted, whichever creatives corralled, whatever loopholes exploited, Birdman got shit done. The result: not just the best record Thug or Quan have yet produced—if you've been holding out, this is the one—but one of the year's best full-length records full stop, a consistently impactful rap record destined to be an indelible artifact of 2014.
one of the year's best full-length records full stop, a consistently impactful rap record destined to be an indelible artifact of 2014.
Young Thug and Quan's rap styles are oddly complementary, as if the former were a funhouse mirror reflection of the latter: Quan, despite a lower profile in the press, is a more well-known phenomenon nationally. His hits came earlier, so the broader world is more familiar with his material and persona. He's also a less eccentric, less provocative character, a rap stylist whose approach is mainly expressionistic. Although initially compared with Future (and "Type of Way" was undeniably Future's offspring), Quan was always more of a traditional rapper, more personal, and autobiographical down to the details. His style is one of empathic appeals, making his vulnerabilities known: "My baby momma just put me on child support/Fuck a warrant, ain't goin to court/Don't care what those white folks say I just wanna see my lil boy."
In contrast, Young Thug is the Q-Tip to Quan's Phife. While both artists are essential to the record's success, Thug looms somewhat larger artistically. In a time where truly fresh voices rarely cluster at the top of hip-hop's food chain, Young Thug is an undeniable original. The Lil Wayne comparisons are irrelevant. While Wayne has remained static for the past five years, Young Thug has been in a perpetual mode of upheaval and unpredictability. This is aggravated by the chaotic state of his catalog; before achieving radio success with "Stoner" and "Danny Glover" at the end of last year, Thug had two years of recordings tossed into the world through a variety of collaborators, many of whom—like Gucci Mane—held on to the records before cashing in once Thug's stock had risen. Once they did, it was like a tidal wave: So many Young Thug records surfaced over the course of the past eight months that it became difficult to make heads or tails of the rapper's work. What could have been a linear progression became a scattered starfield, with fans forced to pick through the mess pointing out possible constellations.
But here, each record is reliably strong. Not that certain songs don't stand out: opener "Givenchy" begins with an unforgettable Birdman lead-off introduction, before shifting into an unforgettable Young Thug track workout that steadily amplifies the mood as it goes, building up in intensity until Thug's voice splatters up against the track. "I Know It" repurposes the hook from Yo Gotti and Quan's "I Know" for a jubilant, jocular, organ-driven record that finds Quan rapping in a Young Dro pattern before shifting into a stop-start cadence to close his verse. The piano chord eighth notes of "Flava," meanwhile, is easily the album's strongest overall pop record and a potential future single.
One of Tha Tour Part 1's great accomplishments is that Thug's consistency here is unprecedented: 1017 Thug and I Came From Nothing Vol. 2 remain career highlights, but this tape renders them mere exercises. In part, credit likely goes to Birdman's increased quality control. But it's not simply a matter of tossing aside the questionable records. A characteristic of mid-period Thugger recordings was disjointedness: a track might push the envelope hard; another might have interesting lyrics; a third would play with a variety of flows, or incorporate an invigorating hook. Sometimes a few positive aspects would overlap on a single song. This inconsistent experimentalism was enjoyable enough in its unpredictability, and it helped solidify the rapper's weirdness, still an underlying justification for fans who struggle to understand the bulk of his vocabulary. (From The New Yorker: "Listening to Young Thug feels like watching a slapstick comedy in a language you don’t quite understand.")
But much of that experimentalism was simply the rough edges of a restless mind stretching to the outer limits of its imagination. If anything, Tha Tour Part 1 suggests he's discovered a comfort zone, that the static has been cleared out, his technique finally fluent enough to keep up with the rate of his ideas. Young Thug's sound here is that of a camera lens pulling in to focus, sharply: His words, their meanings, the sounds, his compositions, all seem to have reached a kind of resonant frequency, floating parts moving in formation. The squares will grumble, obviously, about how he's not rapping about shit, and the too-clever-by-half counterparts will argue that it doesn't matter that he's not, because it sounds good. But he is, and so is Quan, and it's manifested in wordplay, audacity, clever lines, and unpredictable imagery ("She gonna look over these bitches like Terms & Conditions," "Split that money up in eight ways like I’m an octopus," "And she come and let me ride like Uber"). And most of all, an overriding purposefulness.
Not that the lyrics are always easy to make out, but as it's ever been, with repeated listens, the lines bleed to the front of your brain and quickly click into place. But for both Thug and Quan, this new sing-song rap style has not clicked for everyone. In some ways, this is understandable. While it's gotten attention for how "radical" or "progressive" it is, it's not really absurdity that makes it appealing, whether in lyrics or vocal approach. Instead, it's gripping for how much more musical it is than earlier, more traditional rap forms: Quan and (especially) Thug are more interested in experimenting with different phrasing, playing more liberally with predictable patterns and timbres. (Listen to Young Thug stop for a breath at 3:45.) They let new musical pathways lead the direction of their lyrics and ideas, shifting each line in ways that keep a grip on the listener's attention. And they incorporate melody, working rap in new dimensions. They're not the first to do so, but they do in refreshingly unfamiliar ways.
It helps that the bulk of the album is produced by London on the Track, a longtime Young Thug collaborator. (He's worked with him since the beginning.) Inevitably, the best songs belong to London, who works a sparse atmosphere of smooth, softened pianos and empty space, further enhancing the feeling that you're witnessing walls crumble to dust at the intersection of hip-hop and R&B. The record's sound is positively urbane; it's not too difficult to imagine a tuxedo-clad Birdman sitting at the Steinway himself to a few of these records, particularly the enveloping "Keep It Goin." Where a label trying to push their stars might encourage safer, more obvious pop moves, London on the Track beats stay out of the way and let the artists paint the portraits. Like Mike Will's "Take a Picture" and DJ Spinz's "I Just Might" from earlier this year, an emptier canvas seems to free up Thug and Quan to take more liberties than they might otherwise.
Amidst the cosmic symphony of the Quan and Thugger chorales, in the spare, deep space environment of London on the Track's production, Birdman alights for a just a handful of bars on the record. Maybe it's due to this listener's old age, or maybe he legitimately steals the show. But after a full record of vocal acrobatics, hearing Birdman rap about how he's "got the chopper with the mac in the back with the stacks" is refreshing every time he makes an appearance, grounding the record in a reminder of where it all comes from.
David Drake is a writer living in New York. Follow him @somanyshrimp