In our quest to re-capture lightning in a bottle, have we become too dismissive of what Young Thug still has to offer?
It's 2018 and we've yet to receive a studio debut from Young Thug. First teased circa-2013, HiTunes feels more and more like this decade's Detox with each passing commercial mixtape and collaborative project. Now, after last year's solo tape, Beautiful Thugger Girls, and joint effort with Future, Super Slimey, Thug seems to gearing up for yet another diversion from the main course. Slime Language, *officially* confirmed as the -next- Thug release, is sure to be an exciting display of the rapidly burgeoning YSL roster, but at what cost? With every passing album cycle, is Thugger solidifying himself as a generational talent, or is he simply being erased from the mainstream narrative? This begs another question, is he being erased or doing the erasing?
Young Thug’s level of influence on the current wave of popular rappers depends on your perspective of his original rise from 2011-2015. At this specific point in time, many are treating Thug’s impact on an “if you know, you know,” case-by-case basis - unwittingly turning him into The Velvet Underground for his generation. It's a powerful position of in-the-know reverence and far-reaching influence that often comes at the cost of immediate commercial success or widespread critical consensus. Meaning, although Thug may receive critical acclaim and adulation in spurts, the true impact of his work may never be accurately gauged. And this age-old issue with giving one their just dues is only exacerbated in this era of flippancy - in this era of white chicks that tote AKs while dissing Snoop Dogg, it’s important to keep an accurate account of rap lineage and history in its various forms.
I know we’re all proud of how far Jeffrey’s come; it’s a rags to riches tale unlike any other, filled with Shakespearean levels of grandeur. Betrayal and heartbreak - in the form of oft-misguidedbeefs and a very public relationship with ex-fiance Jerrika Karlae - take center stage against a backdrop of fame and fortune. He not only exposed core insecurities within music listeners - forcing them to question their sensibilities with every flamboyant photoshoot - his music was a bewildering mixture of unfiltered street rap and abstract associative wordplay. He sounded like Ol’ Dirty Bastard on helium with the charisma of Biggie and the swagger of Hot Boyz-era Lil Wayne. Textured harmonies, acrobatic vocal stylings and an endless pit of imaginative lyrics propelled Thugger to the top of his class. And since stepping into the spotlight, he’s only continued to expand his skillset and refine his artistry; Jeffrey sounds closer to a Best of Muddy Waters playlist than a rap mixtape. Beyond all the showmanship, it was Young Thug’s raw talent that ultimately pierced through the fabric of the culture and it was his consistency thereafter that made him undeniable.
Young Thug and his children: Lil Baby and Gunna performing together in Atlanta. Paras Griffin/Getty Images.
In a world of false paradigms, Young Thug became a reassuring constant. But it was a grind to get there: I Came From Nothing dropped in the summer of 2011, when I was still in high school. I wouldn’t even hear about the new-age ATLien for at least another 24 months. Take a second to imagine the series of events that elapsed during the summers of ‘11, ‘12, ‘13...if we consider that Thug didn’t have his breakout year until 2014, that would mean that his rise was parallel to those of Drake, Kendrick, J. Cole, Childish Gambino, Chief Keef, Future and so many more. Often, the conversation surrounding talent during those years was eclipsed by the rise of these stars.
Sure, Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan and that dude on the West Coast - YG, or something - were starting to become well-known names, but it would be years before they received any sort of recognition for their influence (if ever, in the unfortunate case of Quan). When Thug first started popping, the old heads who dictated rap media - *cough* Peter Rosenberg *cough* - barely recognized a Travis Scott, let alone the contemporaries Travis was biting from. Now, these same personalities are the ones claiming Scott to be the greatest innovator of this generation, retroactively painting Kid Cudi as a messiah and so forth.
All of this is fine - there’s enough credit to go around - but it’s done in poor taste when the legacy of equally important figures are dismissed because they aren’t part of the mainstream narrative (at the moment). The same was happening with Gucci Mane until he underwent a purposeful re-branding. All this to simply reiterate the idiom: we should give people their flowers while they can still smell them.
Coming up under Gucci Mane, Birdman and T.I., Thug has always been a rapper’s rapper and an artist’s artist. It wasn’t just Drake and Kanye turning up to “Danny Glover” in the club, A$AP Yams was obviously on to him early. Childish Gambino was doing interviews where he tried to put people onto “Eww.” Danny Brown wouldn’t stop tweeting about him. Swae Lee (who recently called Thug one of the best hook-writers of this generation) was making dance videos to “Pull Up On A Kid” with SheLovesMeechie and I swear I remember A$AP Rocky bumping Slime Season 2 on Periscope that November - just like everyone else. Nowadays, it’s Chance the Rapper that’s calling Young Thug one of his biggest influences.
To date, he’s gotten cosigns from - *clears throat and adjusts Cartier lenses* - Kendrick Lamar, Isaiah Rashad, Jay-Z, Elton John, Wyclef Jean, Andre 3000, Killer Mike, Meek Mill, Juelz Santana, Usher, Erykah Badu. I would keep going but we wanted to publish this today.
But, with all things considered, why will Barter 6 and Rich Gang: Tha Tour, Pt. 1 only be considered cult classics? How come “Stoner,” “Lifestyle,” “Best Friend” and “Pick Up The Phone” will be neatly filed away as minor-to-major hits while the astounding amount of high-quality of songs to be found in leaks will sooner or later be shrugged off as “incoherent” or “inconsistent” or some other equal falsehood? It’s hard not to be cynical when the collective memory of social media is paradoxically somewhere between that of an elephant and a goldfish. We have access to real, verifiable history, so we choose to be flippant about the present? It’s a perplexing position we’ve put ourselves in, but it’s ultimately by choice. We got here by being woefully dismissive about the history of a culture we claim to love - Statik Selektah was trying espouse much of the same advice in the most recent episode of 47 Minutes Podcast with Joey Bada$$.
At its core, this could all be a symptom of one thing: we, as fans, didn’t truly engage with Thug’s work. Or we did so in a wholly personal manner that made him part of our palette yet never properly introduced him to the rest of the world. As a culture, we need to stop playing with Jeffrey’s name and put some long overdue respect on his artistry. “My last two years were the worst ones in my career, but I'm still rich as you,” Thug raps on the new Lil Baby album, uncharacteristically self-pitying - even Thug himself would tell you he’s partly to blame for the wayward trajectory of his career. It’s not just 300 Entertainment’s fault, nor is it Birdman’s, nor is it the infamous leaks. Like with most things in life, this increasingly prevalent debate doesn’t have a clear cut answer. If you believe you have the answer to the increasingly dreary question, “What happened to Young Thug’s career,” let us know - seriously.
It could be the fact that many fans of Thugger now were not necessarily early, or even on time, to the party. Even I was significantly late. But we can’t use that subconscious frustration with not getting to enjoy the coveted feeling of finding something rare by subsequently devaluing the meaning of the very word. No one is saying someone can’t genuinely like Lil Baby more than Young Thug - there is no point in trying to cut through the thick weeds of preference in search of some objective answer, especially when we’re dealing with an artist as versatile as Thug. What we can do, however, is make sure that his impact and lineage is well-documented.
Like, for example, let’s keep in mind that Baby was literally just a close friend of Thug’s that never considered rapping until about a year ago (you can see him here, in the studio with Thug, nearly half a year before his first song - "Rider" with Thugger - would drop). Same with Gunna, to a lesser degree. It's Jeffrey's active role in curating their styles that has catapulted them to the top of their class. And while they’ve mastered about two of Thug’s flows, SEX has quietly been in the hyperbolic time chamber, working on a solid three dozen more. The benefit of Thug’s tutelage is starting to speak for itself, but so is the sheer irreplaceability of his work in a sea of potential copycats. What if Lil Baby’s debut selling nearly 10x as much as Thug’s is a testament to just how much the latter broke through the industry? It’s a rhetorical question because Thug’s clearly paved a path for certain artists, but it’s also partly asked in earnest because we're looking for any way to defend his uncertain career trajectory.
Despite the fact that he was just on a #1 Childish Gambino song after just having secured his first #1 as a feature on Camila Cabello’s “Havana,” there’s an air of disbelief surrounding Thug’s current ability to remain an influential facet of the culture. Despite the fact that it’s his ad-libs that are being bitten, his flows that are being repurposed, and his day one producers that are running the game (Metro Boomin, London On Da Track, Wheezy), the public seems eager to write him off. It’s not the role of the artist community to propel each other to reverence - the burden of doling out respect, or, at the very least, recognition, has always been on the fans. And - if his solo mixtape sales are any indication - we may have let Thug down, numerous times.
In fact, the artists who are currently wearing their Young Thug influences most openly are actually the ones being rewarded! Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Yachty, Kodak Black, Sahbabii, Playboi Carti, Ski Mask The Slump God, Tekashi 69, XXXTentacion - Lil Tracy, close friend of SoundCloud icon who recently passed away, Lil Peep, was just recently tweeting about wanting to be YSL in the midst of dropping his own Beautiful Thugger Girls-inspired bangers. Even west-coast legend in the making, 03 Greedo, owes a lot to the abstract stylings of Barter 6 era Thugger.
At the start of his career, a pensive and guarded Thug would have you believe he grew up on a steady diet of Lil Wayne and nothing else. Of course, over the years, we’ve seen him showcase a deep appreciation from everyone from Fugees to Fun, everyone from Tupac to Monica feed Thug’s ever expanding palate. His own local influences can't be ignored as well - from the Rich Kidz to Future. It’s this very eccentricity that has allowed his own music to influence so many different artists in so many different ways.
There should be no shame in gleaning inspiration from your contemporaries - we just need to be honest with each other. There’s an argument to be made for the fact that Travis Scott has always leaned heavily into a YoungThuginfluence he’s never outwardly spoken about. Future got burnt out and then took Thug under his wing to reinvigorate himself. Kodak did nothing but listen to Super Slimey on IG Live and tried freestyling his own tracks for six straight months (we wish he would go back to writing). Rihanna was in the studio with Thug back in 2015, The Weeknd caught on a little bit later and, if we had to guess, we’re pretty sure that Frank Ocean’s love for Thug probably supersedes all of theirs.
Each era of Young Thug has made its mark on a sect of popular rappers and, nowadays, pop artists in general. There are numerous family trees to explore when it comes to rap; from the Zulu Nation to the Dungeon Family, a lineage of any given rapper can be traced back to a handful of founders and a few dozen innovators. While his label, YSL, may not be there quite yet, over the past half decade, Young Thug at least managed to cement himself as one of the most influential acts in contemporary art.
In our quest to re-capture lightning in a bottle, have we become too dismissive of what Young Thug still has to offer? With the breadth of his narrative and the proven strength of his songwriting, the best is surely yet to come, right? Disagree? Sound off below!
But no matter what we believe, let’s all agree to actually stream/purchase Thug’s next mixtape so we can finally get HiTunes, okay?