Young Thug is a rapper from Atlanta who has never released an official full-length album and, at this rate, may not for a long time. His mixtapes—both alone and with collaborators—have been daring and unusual, bundles of promises that haven't quite come to bear. Until about two weeks ago, he had produced one verifiable hit, called "Stoner," whose refrain is "I'm a stoner, I'm a stoner, I'm a stoner," sung in a plaintive, Auto-Tuned voice that sounds like a grandmother's lullaby, or a Muezzin's call to prayer.
It is strange, lonely music, honed by a delirium more redolent of mid-period Pink Floyd than anything on the Billboard Hot 100. Like Future (a recent antecedent) or Lil Wayne (a stated idol), Thug is a rapper who seems to be reporting from the edge of consciousness—a quality that makes him both fascinating and a little scary. Whatever opinions he has to offer about the real world and how it might work surface like steam through fissures in an otherwise psychedelic mindset, where everything feels important but nothing makes sense. Sometimes I worry about him; sometimes I just want to close my eyes and follow him void-ward into darker, lesser realms.
I call Thug a rapper, which already begs some questions. Most of the time I have no idea what he's saying, let alone talking about. His is a class for whom wordplay and lyricism are secondary to presence—that raw, unquantifiable trait that just makes you want to stand a little closer to a person. More than rap, Thug inhabits. He is a moose unaware; the beat, his Canadian wilderness.
The core values here are that of karaoke, where entertaining performances are more memorable than technically proficient ones. "I tell that bitch I feel like Fabo," goes another line on "Stoner." The perceptive among you will already see where this is going: "I feel like Fabo, I feel like Fabo / I feel like Fabo, I feel like Fabo / I feel like Fabo, I feel just like Fabo!" To hear it is a very difference experience than to read it, which is part of Thug's unstated point: The simpler the line, the more crucial the style you bring to it. At times he seems to grasp the role of the entertainer at a symbolic distance: The stage is his, the attention is on—he just needs to keep us fascinated however he sees fit.
The best and most consistent testament to his talents is a mixtape that came out last week called Tha Tour Part 1, which is attributed to Rich Gang, a collaboration between Thug, another young Atlantan called Rich Homie Quan, and Birdman, variegated entrepreneur and co-founder of Cash Money Records to whom Lil Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj all owe at least some of their career.
Birdman's role is a mostly ambassadorial one: He plays the benefactor in the old movie who signs Thug and Quan's letters of employability before they depart for Europe. He also has a great intro where he talks about how part of the Rich Gang lifestyle involves gold toilets, which he pronounces terlits, which I didn't think happened south of Sioux City. (Presumably the line is not a reference to V.I. Lenin's promise that in the wake of the Communist Revolution, public toilets would be made of gold.)
Part of what makes Tha Tour great is that neither Thug nor Quan seem too beholden to their idiosyncrasies. What once sounded like tremendous efforts to get noticed have become second nature: tics absorbed into a general style. Quan is a heartier vocalist, with more chest, though both him and Thug have adopted the modern project of moving fluidly between rapping and singing. Given that neither of them are great rappers or great singers, the gesture is less a show of prowess than of freedom: Unbound by rhythm or convention, they sing when the spirit moves them.
(Unsung here so far is a producer named London on da Track, whose soulful, mechanized sound serves as rock to anchor Quan and Thug's wayward balloons. Like Mike Will Made It—the figurehead of Atlanta's sound—London's name is a preemptive answer to a question unasked, and should ring out alongside Will's, Metro Boomin's, and Sonny Digital's. Witness anything on Tha Tour, or maybe a Rich Kidz song called "My Life," the harvested energy from which now powers several amusement parks in Fulton County.)
Competence, at least in the conventional sense of the word, has never been part of Young Thug's selling point, but it is a byproduct of spending a lot of time doing one thing. Thug is becoming a better rapper, but whether he becomes a great rapper is immaterial—like a novel, you're less likely to remember the ins and outs of the plot than the general feeling of having read the book in the first place.
Which brings me to the question of what Thug's feeling is. In quieter moments, he seems broken and confused, the stoned ex- making up a story about why it went wrong. Most of the time, though, he seems blank and out of reach. Maybe I'm going too far (I'm going too far), but when I think about Thug, I always end up thinking about Donald Rumsfeld and the Unknown Known, an idea both firm and yet hopelessly vague. For however exuberant Thug can be, he's also numb and difficult to read, a kind of cipher. (If Future humanizes the robot, Thug roboticizes the human—thousands of settings but none that feel.) My favorite moment on Tha Tour actually belongs to Quan, who, in the middle of "Beat It Up" follows the line "Let me put my dick inside your hole, peep it" by shouting, in some spooky act of ventriloquism, "Thugga want your soul—he need it!"
Thug seems like a true American original. Raised as one of 11 kids in an Atlanta housing project, he is frequently filmed pretending to speak into stacks of money as though they were telephones, and when asked by an interviewer what he would do if he made $10 million tomorrow, said he would buy his mother a new heart and brain, because she was 50 years old now and he would like her to be able to live 50 years longer. "Thug eats no real food," his manager once told a reporter.
Until now, Thug's story as an artist has been inextricably tied to his story as a young black man from difficult circumstances trying to navigate the opportunities ahead of him. Earlier this year, a story in BuzzFeed went on in epic length and murder-mystery detail about his label status and contractual obligations, which nobody—possibly not even Young Thug—understands. It's possible, however grim, that he just becomes another rapper whose best music is the music he releases for free, between the bloated and supposedly more important projects that business compels him to.
For now, though, he can chalk up another genuine hit, this one with Quan and Birdman, called "Lifestyle," which is currently at no. 2 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart and has been watched more than 40 million times on YouTube. "I hate this song it's so stupid," complains one commenter. "But it's catchy so I keep playing it that's how they get us :/."
My quiet hope is that someone in an office somewhere in Southern California will snap to in the middle of a four-minute Thug interrobang called "Picacho" and wonder if he is available for work as an animated puppy, or maybe a sass-talking weasel. "Voice" in this case becomes a perfect metaphor: Both the sound coming from someone's singular body and the creative vision that sound represents. Until then, rap—or whatever this is—suits him well.
Mike Powell (@sternlunch) lives in Tucson, Ariz. He has written for Pitchfork, Grantland, Rolling Stone, the LA Review of Books, and other places.
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