Young Thug might be the most generic name in hip-hop; which makes his eccentric brand of music somehow even weirder. Born Jeffery Lamar WIlliams, the Atlanta native has taken the game by storm since breaking onto the scene in 2013; releasing an incredible amount of music with his trademark sound which is, well, weird. Like it or hate it everyone who listens to Young Thug, or “Thugga” as he is affectionately called by fans, has to admit he makes music that sounds different than anything that's ever been made in hip-hop.
That otherworldly sound isn’t totally a surprise when listening to a man who has admitted that 90% of his wardrobe is women's clothes; a man who actually said at one point that he’s probably from a bigger version of Earth. This is a rapper who draws pictures instead of writing lyrics. A man who I believe is probably the world’s first gender fluid rap star. I could probably go on and on (and I will later) about just how much really really odd things he’s said, at the end of the day he is so un-corruptedly himself and it shows through his music.
|Young Thug is... Himself|
As someone who listens to way too much rap, Thugga’s fresh sound is a welcome and needed break from the standard in hip-hop. There was no Young Thug before Young Thug. He is not emulating anyone, he isn't trying to be anyone. He has no influences. He’s pioneering a fresh approach that’s being adopted and co-opted by some major players in the game, even people as big as his hero, Lil Wayne. Even though the two are now… lets just say, estranged.
With the release of his newest project, the free mixtape Slime Season 2, Young Thug has launched himself into the upper echelon of contemporary hip-hop, thanks in major part to his dedicated and creative fanbase, who have used memes and reaction pictures to spread the gospel of Thugger across the internet, mainly via Twitter and hip-hop forums such as /r/HipHopHeads and KTT (Kanye To The). While he did get his start in Atlanta, the groundswell behind Young Thug has is due mainly to social media, it could be easily argued that 15 years ago he could have never reached this level of popularity.
I’m five paragraphs in and you probably still have no idea what to expect from this guy, my bad. The best way to get a handle on him in just to watch and listen for yourself, here’s a single from the first Slime Season, called Best Friend.
The video is visually striking as Thugga takes the viewer on a ride that we can only assume is just a small slice of his brain brought to a visual medium. With rapid fire scenes reminiscent of the same style he sometimes uses to connect his lyrics, not wholly cohesive, but interesting because they offer a peek at the mind so dissimilar to others in the genre it set him apart. We see Thugger rocking 2 (two!!!) Apple watches on the same wrist, some sort of coordinated dance in the woods, some whiteface(?), and the man of the hour serving himself for a thanksgiving meal in lieu of a turkey. All this and I’ve intentionally left out the most bizarre aspect of all, just for you to go see for yourself.
I’m really attempting to avoid quantifying and containing Thugga by placing him in comparison to his contemporaries and basing the standard of measurement off of that, which is, in retrospect, the entirely wrong way to go about this. He’s so separate it's almost necessary to create a new rubric of judgement; he can’t really be judged by the same standards as his predecessors, if it can even be said he has any. The closest thing, just based off of the way he uses his voice could be improvisational Jazz greats such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane; as Chirs Richards puts it, “He appears to be exploring the possibilities of the human breath with the same improvisational zeal that yesteryear’s jazz masters must have felt when they tried to blow the universe through their horns.”
Slime Season 2 is the latest in a absolutely torrential output of work that’s been released by Young Thug in the past 4 years; some kind user on Reddit was nice enough to curate every official release, and it’s a disgusting amount of music. 13 projects since 2011, and this isn’t counting the over 100 leaked songs. Yet somehow he manages to find a new tempo and sound on each one, ensuring that he never stagnates and has ever-crisp releases. In today’s age of increased consumer demand and higher content expectations, not in quality necessarily, but quantity; to be an artist that stands out in terms of sheer musical yield is impressive. It almost feels like he can’t help but to create at a frantic pace, as if he has to take the enigma of his brain and project it through music to ensure his survival.
SS2 was released on Halloween day for free via the internet, to be instantly downloadable by anyone with internet access and enough space to store the 22 song project. Technically this makes the project a mixtape not an album but in the hip-hop world the lines are becoming increasingly blurred.
Whereas 10 years ago the word mixtape would imply a DJ produced cut of possibly unreleased and remixed songs, today’s mixtape is different from an album only in objective according to Vice’’s Andrew Friedman, “Albums are supposed to move units and to generate singles. They fit into the well-oiled, decades-old recording industry machinery. While mixtapes can (and often do) produce singles and sell some copies, their targets are more flexible. Mixtapes are a way to attract new fans, something for old fans to talk about on social media, a reason to tour, and a way to show off collaborations with bigger artists. Mixtapes move a rapper’s career forward, and they can do that without selling a single copy.”
Because of it’s mixtapeness there’s no way to figure out how many time’s Slime Season 2 was downloaded; it would require counting every download from every site that hosts the project, which is a pretty much impossible task. And why would they want to? As said before the point isn’t to get numbers, but get people talking. More on that later, right now I have to shift my focus to the actual project.
SS2 falls somewhere in between the frantic pace of the first Slime Season and the subdued tension of Barter 6, his last two projects. He has club hits on here, with his trademark unorthodox voice riding lush production full of hard hitting snares; such as on the opening track, “Big Racks”. At the same time he includes some nice deep cuts like “Raw”, where he lets his gift for melodies take the forefront, as he shapes the song with incredible harmonization and emotion; moaning, shouting, and crooning his way through one of the most emotionally revealing tracks he’s made.
Raw is actually a great example where you only need to catch a couple of the lyrics to understand exactly the emotion Thugga is putting behind his music. Looking at the lyrics on their own, the song doesn’t seem like anything special; it doesn’t even really have a connected narrative, but listen to a lyric as simple as “you can have my son”, and there’s no denying the emotion behind the song. It’s not often I’m impressed by a song right up until I look at the lyrics and end up thinking, “oh, this isn’t actually anything special”; a solid case for the argument that Thugga is pushing the genre into a “post verbal stage.”
Most of the songs on the 22 song tape fall in between those two extremes, I think he strikes a nice balance here, he doesn’t hit some of the energetic highs seen on the first Slime Season but every song on here is solid. And the sound as a whole is much more centered.Still, it’s hard not to see this as sort of a music dump for the big Young Thug fans, there wasn’t a big marketed lead single, it’s a ridiculous length, and it’s lacking any really big name features; opting for smaller Atlanta names instead. Add all these things up and you have a project that’s going to be forgotten about in a couple of months by the majority of the world, even if its impact isn’t.
The biggest negative of the album is its tremendous length, which makes listening to the whole thing in one sitting feel more like a chore than listening to any music ought to feel like. By the 15th song or so everything just feels like it’s blurring together; even though the sound is more focused overall there’s no clear flow to the album, not totally unexpected from a mixtape but still a negative regardless. Some would make the argument that the lyrical content being thematically trite is a negative. And it is trite, at its core this is still generic brag rap; I’m sure you all know the drill, money, cars, clothes, girls, ect. But the way these themes are composed is borderline genius; Thug is creating rhyme schemes that no one in rap has seen, ever. But he’s doing it at the cost of limiting his subject matter to very well worn territory.
Look, maybe he’s incapable of more, maybe he doesn’t want to expand his motif, either way he’s not trying to be anything more than a rapper; there isn’t an allegorical meaning behind these lines. And I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with that, claiming music that sticks to basic or stale themes is somehow “lesser” than other types is like saying action movies are objectively the worst genre of movie because they don’t explore the great metaphysical questions of the modern era. That’s dumb. If you want to watch dudes drive cars and grit their teeth, that is perfectly fine. If the dudes and cars are particularly well crafted or groundbreaking in the way they’re executed on-screen, then you have a great movie.
|Speaking of action movies, this is the best one.|
When he says things like, “I'm in the city, I got some lil bad hoes, they gonna pull up like a diaper” or “Climb in that cat like a lion/I’ma mix that shit up like a liger,” both on the song “Twerk It”, he’s not trying to make a high minded statement on the human condition, he’s simply trying to entertain and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I pushed play on this expecting to be entertained, not subjected to a heavy handed, poorly disguised audiobook about the dangers of nicotine addiction. Sometimes it doesn’t need to be serious.
And this is the furthest thing from serious. This is an project you don’t want your kids to listen to; it’s chock full of misogynistic, bragadocious, and violent lyrics, really that's about all it is. This isn’t an album to that’s going to be sold in Starbucks as Ellen’s latest pick, it’s for dumb young people who take a certain joy in yelling along to raunchy lyrics in whatever cadence Thug has chosen to throw out there. I’m not going to quote any of the really explicit stuff in here but if you’re really bursting with curiosity feel free to check out some of the lyrics of the more intriguing songs, here, here, here, and here.
Most critics have given this album a generally good review, from what I’ve seen the average rating is sitting around 8.5/10, above average. While they all agree with me with the more balanced feel of the album being a sweet spot I think they look into the lyrics and overlaying theme of the album a little more than I do. This thing was created from years worth of songs curated into a sort of “best of” album, it wasn’t created with a specific emotional effect in mind.
Either way some great stuff was written about it, Partick Lyons of HotNewHipHop.com describes his evolution as “In a few short years, he's gone from unhinged weirdo with a penchant for ear-worming hooks to a restlessly inventive songwriter, master melodian and never-ending lyrical puzzle.” and the fantatic Meghan Garvey of Pitchfork.com flexes her prose skills, “His thoughts fracture and wander down unpredictable paths, forcing us to draw connections in non-linear ways. At its core, magical realism suggests that the ultimate mystery in a logical world is man himself; it’s soft mysticism is a roundabout path to the heart.” Although I think she’s looking into it a bit much, you have to admit she can write.
The interesting thing about Young Thug’s quick rise to stardom is the complete lack of recognition from more traditional rap institutions, that is to say Thugga doesn’t have a single award to his name. And I’m not here to argue that he should, not when rappers like Kendrick Lamar are putting out masterpieces like this years, “To Pimp A Butterfly.” Attempting to put all bias aside there’s nothing in Young Thug’s discography worthy of an awards. The juxtaposition between his fans perceived fame and talent level compared to the actual accolades received is stunning, and puts Thug firmly in the category of cult rap star.
|The cover of Kendrick Lamar's groundbreaking album, To Pimp A Butterfly|
And those dedicated cult fans have brought him into the view of the mainstream, even if they haven’t quite earned him the respect of the mainstream just quite yet. This is all due to his massive internet influence; he’s pretty much only popular among the younger generation therefore there’s a huge disparity between his popularity between generations. You’re not going to find Slime Season 2 on the shelves of your local Target or any retailer. It’s available only online. And I can guarantee you haven’t seen any ads for the project on TV or online, the only marketing this album got was tweets from those involved with it announcing when it would be released about a week before it dropped.
But all the attention generated didn’t come from the artists themselves; rather it was made by the most popular music blogs running today. Thug just unconsciously used some of Jeff Jarvis’s rules on online marketing. Many young people, especially in the hip-hop scene,(which has taken the anti-authority mantle from 80’s punk) have an innate distrust of marketing coming directly from the proprietor of a brand. The only real effective marketing for the genre has to come from trusted voices that aren’t the ones directly profiting off of the product, not so say the clicks from a good review don’t make a nice sum of money.
Young Thug himself uses Twitter both to promote his newest project and spread his enigmatic mind even further through the cyberverse. I’ve gone to the liberty of putting a couple of the best(worst?) Young Thug tweets here, I have no explanation for them but I’d be lying if I said they weren’t endlessly interesting to me.
Speaking of Twitter, the platform absolutely blew up with memes and remixes on days following the drop of SS2, it was actually even trending worldwide at one point.
Pretty impressive for a project with no marketing budget, or even a plan.
Part of the massive online reaction was due to the interactive culture that has become a big part of twitter; we didn't see people simply talking about the album, but photoshopping Thugga’s face onto other famous people’s photos and essentially trying to make the funniest memes for internet attention. On the surface level this just encourages individual knee jerk reactions for validation, but looked at as a bigger cog in the machine it creates a whole new form of user-generated entertainment. Entertainment that spreads the half knowing prophets of the Young Thug Testament even further. I've included some examples down below.
But not far enough to break out of the mostly self contained sphere of internet influence, I’ve found that among people my age knowledge of Thug is almost unanimous but you’d be hard pressed to find a middle age man who would even register a hint of recognition.
Clearly this points to the fact that he makes music exclusively consumed by the younger generation; so the question is, what kind of cultural trends is he riding in order to have such a solid spot as one of the top artists for young people, but not show up as a blip on the radar of the middle aged.
I don’t believe he’s influencing this trend on purpose, this it’s just thug being himself, but it shows the high value on individualism on the cutting age of music. We’ve heard everything, we’re ready for something new. Thug is being wholly himself and that’s why he’s become so popular among millennials, not so much because he’s a weirdo you want to marvel at the same way as a zoo animal, but because he has the courage (or lack of foresight) to do or say exactly what he’s thinking.
Through his being an outlier we can feel our behavior is normalized and have the confidence to try to be a little bit more ourselves; whatever that means is up to the person. Of course the individual has to be key in instituting idiosyncratic culture trends. But this is music for the new generation of weirdos. Who are, naturally, rebelling against the traditions of their parents and a culture that is a product of the conservative youth movement of the 80’s. The metronome of rebellion has begun to swing back the other way in the form of weirdness, and at the forefront of that metronome is s Young Thug, flying head first at whatever inevitable collision course the future has planned.Hopefully if you're reading this it means you've at least been interested enough in the subject to sift through my 3000ish words, and I thank you for that and hope I've added some sort of new perspective to your world. Of course, the other reason you've gotten this far is because you're Rob and you're grading this right now. Hi Rob.
This was a subject I already knew a lot about as a fan but I had never really thought about the reasons for Thug's popularity beyond the music. It's been very interesting to take a look at all the different factors in his personality and online influence that have arguably been just as big as factors as the content on its own. There were things I didn't really notice until writing about them, like how SS2 was trending worldwide at some point, it didn't register just how big of a thing this was. Along the same line I didn't realize how youth centric Young Thug's appeal was, I'm still not sure if that sort of applies to all contemporary rappers but it really seems like an artist who constantly gets upwards of 5 million views on his youtube videos and has the clout to trend worldwide should be known by at least a couple people in the older generation. As for the mixtape this was a good chance to step outside of the hype bubble and attempt to examine it with as little bias as possible, and I think I realized it doesn't have the staying power I always assumed. Still, I'm a big fan of the music and had a ton of fun writing this. Thanks for reading!
Best Friend Video
Reddit guide to Young Thug
KTT curation of all of his projects
Interview with engineer Alex Tumay
Pitchfork unpredictability article
FANTASTIC Washington Post feature
Stereogum Slime Season Review
90% Womens Clothes
New Earth Video
How Did Thugger Get Leaked?
Difference Between Mixtape and Album
The Guardian feature piece
Pitchfork SS2 Review
Slime Season 2 Twitter Memes