Young Thug started from the bottom, now he’s up under Birdman’s wing. Where he goes next is anybody’s guess. Andale!

WRITTEN BY Jacob Moore


This feature appears
in the June/July 2014
issue of COMPLEX.

“He might not get on the plane. He might shoot a video in Atlanta.” The text message, from one of Young Thug’s many associates, arrives less than an hour before the rapper’s supposed to board a flight at Hartsfield-Jackson to New York City for his cover shoot, at 8:30 a.m. on April 1. And no, it’s not a prank. At that moment there are a dozen people awaiting his arrival in a Brooklyn photo studio, all hoping against hope that Young Thug will show.

This isn’t the first time. Thug had already missed a shoot date at the same studio four days earlier. After dozens of back-and-forths among several different people trying to coordinate the shoot, it turned out that he had a stomach ache. Nobody was able to pass along this information until his flight had already taken off. Fifteen minutes before the shoot was scheduled to start, word arrived that he was still in Atlanta.

Now it’s becoming clear that, once again, Young Thug will be staying in the A instead of coming to NYC. The flight to get him to this second cover attempt is taking off in less than an hour and ambiguous text messages like “shit crazy” keep arriving. His Instagram later confirms that he ended up shooting the “Stoner” video in Atlanta rather than his Complex cover. Happy April Fools Day!

Two weeks before, on Saturday, March 15, the final weekend of SXSW 2014, Thug arrived at the Complex Complex, a small house on 3rd Street in downtown Austin, a few minutes before he was set to perform on the stage in the backyard. He stepped into the house with seven other people—two girls who sat on a couch and five guys who quickly formed a perimeter, posting up around the edges of the room. Standing six-foot-three and wearing skinny plaid pants that accentuate his lanky frame, with a bow-tie belt buckle and tight black T-shirt, Thug cut a distinctive figure to say the least. “He’s always been an eccentric character,” said producer Dun Deal, who’s been working with Thug since 2009. “He was the first person I knew who was wearing skinny jeans and peacoats and stuff. He’s never been your typical Atlanta guy.”

“Everybody stoned, weed, lean, molly, E,” Thug raps on his smash hit “Stoner.” And sure enough, within minutes of arriving he began sprinkling weed from a tall orange pill bottle into a sliced-open cigar wrapper. When it was time to hit the stage, he brought the blunt with him.

Thug performed a three-song set that lasted maybe 15 minutes. He brought a few of his boys with him and rapped every other line, pausing at times to smoke and relight. Though the show was far from polished or rehearsed, Thug’s natural charisma and energy were unmistakable. Stepping off the stage to give a short video interview, he had a coughing fit, spilled his lean, and shifted restlessly in his seat, avoiding extended eye contact and giving brief, cryptic answers.

“Are you going to be on Wayne’s album?” asked Complex TV’s Brandon “Jinx” Jenkins.

“Yes, no, yes,” Thug answered, forgetting to hold the microphone to his face.

“So, we’ll take that as a maybe?”

“Yes, no, yes. That’s my answer.”

Thug wasn’t confrontational or visibly agitated, he just didn’t seem to care much about this—or any—interview. It was almost funny, but his boys, leaning cross-armed against the wall of the small room, weren’t smiling.

Asked about “Thugger Thugger Thursdays,” a new music campaign announced on his own Instagram, he seemed genuinely surprised.

“What’s that?” Thug asked.

“It was on your Instagram,” Jinx said. “You’re putting out music every Thursday.”

Thug looked around the room. “Am I? I don’t know. I don’t do my own Instagram. ”

After enduring a few more questions, Thug strolled straight out the front door and into a black SUV. Later that night, he popped up during Lil Wayne’s show at The Illmore. Towering over his idols on a packed stage at four in the morning, he seemed much more comfortable than on the Complex TV hot seat.

With a towel flung over his shoulder and a bottle of champagne in his hand, Lil Wayne grinned as Thug stood beside him performing “Danny Glover,” a track off Thug’s Black Portland mixtape with Bloody Jay, who’s currently in an ATL jail cell on weapons charges. “I knew I was gonna run my money up and everybody didn’t,” Thug rapped as Birdman gripped the bill of his fitted cap and stared at his shoes, bouncing in time to the beat—his mind, no doubt, on his money.

“Yes, no, yes. that's my answer.”

By this point in Young Thug's budding career, it’s been well-documented that his rise to fame has come with certain complications. The 22-year-old Atlanta rapper has Internet buzz, club hits, radio spins, magazine covers, and co-signs from the likes of Kanye West, Drake, and Nicki Minaj, but there’s still plenty of confusion behind closed doors. Much of his music—made with Atlanta-based producers like Dun Deal, 808 Mafia, Metro Boomin, and London On Da Track—gets leaked without his approval. His label and managment status are just as mysterious as his whereabouts on shoot day part deux, although conflicting reports have linked Thug to Gucci Mane’s 1017 Brick Squad, Asylum Records, various divisions of Atlantic, and more recently, Cash Money Records. Thug’s come-up hasn’t been a controlled, label-driven movement so much as a series of sudden lunges. The pattern is similar to his music, through which his voice veers unpredictably in pitch and cadence, somewhere between rapping, high-pitched singing, and unhinged yelping.

Metro Boomin, who has produced dozens of Thug songs and teamed up with him for the Metro Thuggin project, admits that as demand for new music grew, things started to get messy. “It got to the point where we were like, ‘Man, we just can’t give all this music out for free like this,’” Metro says. “Thug releases a lot of music, but you gotta understand it’s not really him though. Now that he’s hot there’s a bunch of people that had songs just doing lame shit, putting it on their mixtapes and putting it out. Thug knows about it, but a lot of that is not on his behalf. It is what it is.”

Thug’s momentum was generated from the ground up, starting in the streets where he caught the attention of the rapper who put so many other young ATL artists on the map: Gucci Mane. Back in 2011, Thug signed a deal with Gucci’s 1017 Brick Squad under Atlantic Records. Dun Deal told Complex that “Gucci really understood Thug, even though everyone else really didn’t.” By September of 2013, with Guwop sentenced to six months in prison for a weapons-related parole violation, Thug’s 1017 Thug mixtape was generating serious buzz. At that point Thug was approached by another Atlantic-affiliated imprint, Artist Partners Group, that reportedly signed him for a $15,000 advance—less than he now earns for one show.

In January of 2014, Thug said he was thinking about signing yet another deal, this time with Future’s label Freebandz. In March of 2014, when “Stoner” and “Danny Glover” had taken off, he told a reporter—shortly after chilling in Birdman’s Maybach during NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans—that he’d signed with Cash Money Records, home of Weezy, Drizzy, and Nicki. But Cash Money’s official press rep denied any record deal. Still, label co-founder Birdman had been spotted with Thug on several occasions, fueling rumors that he was acting as Thug’s manager. The whole situation was cloaked in mystery and intrigue. When Buzzfeed posted a behind-the-scenes article delving into Thug’s music-biz maneuvers, they quoted anonymous sources. Nobody at Atlantic was willing to go on the record about it, and some made made it clear that they’d been explicitly directed not to speak about the matter. On an April 10 Breakfast Club interview, DJ Drama confirmed that Thug was signed to 300, Lyor Cohen and Todd Moscowitz’s new label, distributed by Atlantic. Reps for the label declined repeated requests for comment.

In the midst of all the chaos, getting a hold of Young Thug has been no easy task. During the months before Thugger’s Complex cover shoot, an associate of his known as Propane, who is unaffiliated with any label, was setting up interviews, sending out music, and even scheduling a SXSW performance. Planning these things felt like a slightly sketchy, under-the-table exchange, although they worked. But as the final business hours of April 1 slipped away, and the last flight from Atlanta pulled out of the gate without Thug on board, the connection seemed to be crumbling.


Young Thug isn’t the next Biggie or Jay Z, but if all goes according to plan, he will be hip-hop’s next superstar. He won’t get there by being the best technical rapper, or the best lyricist, or the best storyteller. But that doesn’t matter. The thing is, he’s not even playing the same game.

Young Thug isn’t trying to make the next Illmatic. He has been quoted as comparing Future to Tupac. Ask him who his three favorite rappers are and he’ll say Lil Wayne, Lil Wayne, and Lil Wayne. Like Weezy in the late 2000s, his deliveries are animated and eccentric, bringing idiosyncratic tempo shifts and melodic flourishes to futuristic Southern rap beats. That old-school boom-bap style doesn’t occupy a single cell in his body.

Thug is at the forefront of a new wave of rappers who don’t give a fuck about tradition. Old-school heads are going to have to accept it or be pissed for the rest of their lives. They’ve never seen a rapper blow up who will openly admit, “I only listen to Lil Wayne.”

Enter Young Thug. He was born Jeffrey Williams in 1992, the year after Nirvana’s Nevermind was released, and raised along with 10 brothers and sisters in the Jonesboro South projects in Atlanta, a bleak campus of brick buildings that was torn down in 2008. He’s got tattoos on his face, a septum and lip piercing, and he once Instagrammed a picture of himself in a dress. His take on rap from the ’80s and ’90s is that “everyone was cool,” but he readily admits that none of them influenced the music he makes.

Trying to compare Young Thug’s skill set to Biggie’s is like comparing Nirvana to the Beatles. If old school hip-hop is your benchmark of quality, you’re already doomed to be a Young Thug hater. (And you aren’t alone: one rap blogger said he’d “rather eat a used condom” than listen to Thugger.) But he doesn’t even give enough of a fuck to even say he doesn’t give a fuck. What Thug does care about is his family, friends, and the people he plans on working with in the future. He’s establishing a label called YSL (Young Stoner Lifestyle) to put his friends on. He doesn’t speak much to outsiders and seems more comfortable surrounded by people who grew up like he grew up, facing a life of poverty, drugs, and violence in the Atlanta projects. His brother Bennie was shot and killed near their home. Another brother, Unfunk, is in prison. His father was a hustler, and Thug’s friends say he’s done his share of dirt as well. Now his whole team is thriving. Can it stay that way?

It's late afternoon on April 4th and the Complex team is in an Atlanta photo studio, waiting again. Acoustic coffee shop music quietly plays in the background as two enormous men with badges hanging around their necks walk in carrying guns with extended clips dangling from their waists. They sweep the building and the parking lot, looking around every nook of every room before relaxing a bit and politely introducing themselves as Birdman’s security. Asked about the weapons, they reply, “You know how the rap game can get.”

After two failed photo shoots, it was starting to look like the Thug cover would be scrapped. An associate of Thug’s named Twank surfaced to say he’d get Thug on the next flight to New York. An hour later, Thug was still asleep. Another associate named Polish said he’d wake him up, but by then it was too late. While other cover options were being explored, Mack Maine, the president of Cash Money Records, reached out to discuss the situation. Within the hour word came that Birdman wanted to talk. In polite and professional tones, the co-founder of Cash Money apologized on Thug’s behalf and asked if there was any way to salvage the cover. As an added incentive, he offered to do the shoot with Thug if a new date could be scheduled in Atlanta.

About an hour after security shows up, the parking lot fills up with Escalades and Corvettes as people start flooding into the studio. Most of them wear red shirts with Rich Gang written across the back. Weed smoke starts filling the space. Styrofoam cups are filled with Sprite and syrup and passed around. A powerful speaker is dragged in and the soundtrack shifts from coffee house to trap house. By the time Birdman arrives, there are at least 20 people hanging out in the studio. He greets everyone warmly, then has his people block off a section of the studio in the back. Nobody goes there without permission.

Young Thug's Five Favorite
Lil Wayne Songs


As producer London On Da Track blasts unreleased Young Thug music off his iPhone, Thug makes his entrance with an even bigger wave of guests, as if he’s brought his whole neighborhood along to the shoot. He lunges through the crowd of people in long, quick strides, in constant motion from the second he walks in. Thug heads straight for the dressing room, where he lights up a blunt and checks out the clothes.

People continue to arrive until the studio becomes the Atlanta rap hot spot for the afternoon—Young Scooter comes through, as does Rich Homie Quan. While Birdman and Young Thug pose for photos, everyone raps along to music, drinks, smokes, eats, tells stories, and hangs out. Ask anyone in the room how they know Thug and the answer is the same: “From the streets.” Now their friend is Birdman’s new chosen one, and they’re walking around the studio with stacks of hundred dollar bills hanging out of their back pockets. They rap along to his songs proudly, and when asked about Thug as a person, they all bring up the word loyal.

By this point the studio is so full of smoke that its owner opens a back door to air it out. As if to counter the fresh air, Birdman motions to a guy sitting in the corner, who promptly brings over two carrot-size joints. Each spliff contains an ounce of Birdman’s signature strain of weed. He hands one to Thug and they both light up, filling the studio with weed fog.

With a simple nod of the head, Thug agrees to an interview, but first, his sister Dora, who also acts as his personal assistant, wants to see the questions. Petite and dressed casually in a sweatshirt and jeans, Dora is one of only a few females in the room, and she looks out for her brother like nobody else does. While others roll his blunts and fill his cup, she brings him food and hovers over him as if to make sure he gets something other than lean and weed in his system. When she gives the go-ahead, Thug ducks into the dressing room and leans up against the counter for the quickest interview in history.

“When did you first hear Wayne?”
“I don’t remember.”

“What is it about him you like so much?”
“The ambition.”

“What’s your relationship with Gucci like now?”
“He’s my brother.”

“Are you trying to sign with Cash Money Records?”

“Are you really going to call your album Tha Carter VI?”

“What have you learned from Wayne?”
“A lot.”

Can you share anything specific?
“Um… no.”

And so it goes. Thug’s eyes don’t fixate on anything for more than a few seconds, and he’s constantly fidgeting as if at any moment he might burst into motion again. Despite all the drank and smoke, he speaks and thinks quickly, but he doesn’t use many words.

Birdman, however, is more forthcoming. He says he first heard Young Thug’s music from Pee Wee, one of Thug’s friends from ATL. “He was like, ‘Stunna, you need to check into this.’ I heard it, and I was like, ‘I need to meet him. Bring him to me.’ So he flew to L.A. And we connected ever since.”

It was an immediate fit. “He acted like he already knew me,” Birdman says. “I could tell he followed the legacy and he says Wayne’s his favorite rapper.”

Standing outside the studio smoking his giant joint, he’s surrounded by the people who have known Young Thug since he was little. “I come from the street life—born, bred, raised. It’s hard in them streets. Thug reminds me of myself and how we used to be in the streets,” Birdman says. “And nobody helped me. I want to help.”

Whether as manager or big brother, Birdman has definitely taken Young Thug under his wing. And so it would seem that big things are guaranteed. Thug is already making music with Nicki Minaj, Drake, Tyga, and Lil Wayne. The whole YMCMB team is riding with him.

Birdman says he’s not Thug’s official manager and that he wants him to join Cash Money “in time.” For now, he says it’s about more than business: “Really, he’s like my little brother. I just want to make sure his business is straight, and that he takes care of himself. I just want to make sure he gets the right treatment wherever he goes. His talent is going to speak for itself. By nature he’s Rich Gang YMCMB. He’s part of us, before he even met us.”

While Atlantic works to make “Stoner” its big single and divert attention from dozens of other Thug songs—to say nothing of the contractual nightmares that await—Birdman seems unconcerned with label drama. “I always dealt with things differently than the labels,” he says. “I’m part of the life and I’m a part of hip-hop culture. The major labels, they don’t come out here on these streets. They’re sitting in a building and they don’t really know what the fuck is going on. I don’t ever want to be like none of them.”

“It’s business and it’s life,” Birdman continues. “I see the opportunity to help a young man come out the street, then he can help everyone he knows. So that’s my whole thing. Keep him out of trouble, let him do great music, help his mama and his sisters and his kids, and he’ll live a different life.”

In the streets, Young Thug and his people have figured out how to operate. There is an unspoken order governed by loyalty and love. In the music industry, it’s a different story. Birdman negotiates cover shoots while reps from Thug’s label won’t mention his name on the record. With the 300 deal in place, he’s on board with one team even as he’s firmly entrenched with another powerful clique. The whole scenario seems like a recipe for behind-the-scenes turmoil.

Later tonight, Young Thug and crew will drive five hours to North Carolina to perform and pick up more stacks of cash. It’s past 7 p.m., but he’s still hanging out, smoking as blunt ashes are swept and Styrofoam cups thrown out. Thug says he always knew he’d be famous, but the level of fame he’s flirting with now is something very few people achieve—or can deal with. Luckily, Birdman is one of those people. “Young Thug is already a star,” Birdman says, exhaling a cloud of smoke and cracking a half-smile that flashes his platinum grill. “We’re going to make him a superstar.”