In a year rife with monumental steps backwards in America, the rise of Young Thug has been one of our only saving graces. Seemingly put on this earth with the sole purpose of pushing every boundary he can, Jeffery Williams is providing hip-hop with a much-needed step forward.
Despite its relative youth, hip-hop has one of the richest and most fascinating histories of any popular music genre. However, with such a substantial culture comes certain drawbacks: legions of fans firmly rooted in old-school purism write off new, experimental artists as blasphemous and a dishonor to the rappers who came before them. Innovators like Lil Yachty and Future are discredited as villains who have come to destroy the foundations that hip-hop was built on. This mindset has led to an increasing amount of stagnancy in contemporary rap music, making it extremely difficult for new ideas and styles to emerge. Luckily, we have Young Thug to save rap from the clutches of monotony.
Thug’s influences are apparent, but his style is unprecedented. His music is grounded in the Atlanta trap sound pioneered by Gucci and Young Jeezy, but what truly separates him are his vocals. He twists and tangles his voice in ways that no vocalist – rapper or otherwise – has ever done. A master of space, he careens in and out of impossibly complex phrases; speeding up and slowing down without any sort of recognizable pattern. Thug spits with the reckless abandon of a drunken scat singer. Sudden bursts of screeching triplets morph into infectious, cascading hooks that only he can pull off. This recklessness is what makes him so engaging; he has little interest in doing what people want him to do. According to friends and collaborators, when he’s in the studio he doesn’t come in with raps written down. Instead he brings only a sheet of paper with abstract lines and scribbles and uses those as his guidelines.
Early 2016 found Young Thug on the brink of stardom, and he capitalized on his momentum. He released three mixtapes, becoming the first ever artist with three top 5 debuts on the Billboard Rap chart in the same year. The tapes, I’m Up, Slime Season 3 and JEFFERY, are his most commercially successful releases to date, marrying the eccentricities of his early releases with a refined pop sensibility.
As it was the final installment in the Slime Season series, Young Thug commemorated Slime Season 3’s release with a literal funeral procession through the streets of Atlanta. It symbolized more than just the end of a series, though; it represented the end of an era, the end of Young Thug as we knew him. SS3 was notable, too, because in its eight tracks it only featured one rapper other than Thug. It was a testament to Thug’s ability to command a track on his own without anyone else’s help. And he did just that. Songs like “With Them” and “Drippin’” showcase his ability to utterly dominate a beat, contorting his voice around production from Mike Will Made-It and London on da Track. Though fantastic in their own right, I’m Up and Slime Season 3 were merely warm-ups for Young Thug’s true masterpiece.
Released just this past August, JEFFERY is the most thrilling work Young Thug has ever produced. An amalgamation of bizarro trap bangers and glossy pop production, JEFFERY feels almost as if it was meticulously crafted to cement his status as a crossover star. “Wyclef Jean” features a reggae-influenced beat – somewhat unfamiliar territory for Thug. But he grabs the reins immediately. He hops on right as the bass comes in, riding just behind the beat, his flow mirroring the lazy, laid back feel of the TM88-produced instrumental. “Ok my money way longer than a NASCAR race,” he mutters, “I told her keep going on the gas fuck the brakes.” This seems to be a motif, not only in his music, but in his life. Young Thug is always moving forward, with little interest in slowing down. Since February of 2013 – when he released his breakthrough tape, 1017 Thug – he has released 12 full-length mixtapes. That is an average of three tapes every year. And even the weakest of those tapes are still quality releases.
The album’s zenith is its seventh track, “Harambe.” Thug provides one of the most jaw-dropping vocal performances in popular music history; one second he starts off at full speed, dropping short bursts of hard syllables with an intensity rarely seen in rap, then all of a sudden he leaps into a bonafide Louis Armstrong impression and the next second he’s screaming, “I got the devil inside of me,” his voice cracking as it’s pushed beyond its physical limits. “Harambe” feels like a moment of pure musical catharsis, and it’s a downright beautiful thing to experience. JEFFERY closes out with Travi$ Scott-assisted “Pick Up The Phone.” An undeniable candidate for song-of-the-summer, “Pick Up The Phone” was omnipresent from the moment it dropped in June, with Thug perfectly playing into his newfound role as a pop star.
Young Thug’s musical contributions to hip-hop are massively important for the genre’s advancement, but just as important (perhaps even more so) are his experimentations with gender norms. Hip-hop, and frankly popular music as a whole, has been polluted with a gross masculinity complex for most of its existence. But with his eccentric fashion choices, Young Thug has broken through many of these hardened gender norms. JEFFERY’s album art is one of the most pertinent examples of this: the cover is a photo of Thug wearing an androgynous purple dress that looks like something out of Mortal Kombat. Earlier this year he modeled womenswear for Calvin Klein, with the advertisement’s caption reading, “I disobey in #mycalvins.” In the accompanying campaign video, he delivered this quote, which has since gone viral: “In my world, you can be a gangsta with a dress or you can be a gangsta with baggy pants.” Young Thug’s insistent disobedience is not new – he claims that his wardrobe has been 90 percent women’s clothing since age 12 – yet it is something that the hip-hop world is in desperate need of. No artist in the mainstream has ever pushed gender limits this far, and with every dress he wears he chips away more and more at the firm clamp of masculinity.
Young Thug is a once-in-a-generation type of artist. He’s a visionary on par with others like Kanye West and Beethoven; it’s clear that he sees possibilities in art that the rest of us simply don’t see. His unflinching uniqueness and commitment to shameless, personal expression are beyond necessary to the evolution of hip-hop as a culture. As 2016 comes to a close, the world needs Young Thug more than ever.