From the magazine: ISSUE 90, Feb/March 2014
In the spare bedroom of a small brick house in East Point, Atlanta, the 22-year-old rapper Young Thug is crouched in a cramped, wooden closet, ad-libbing into a microphone strung from the wall. Darting between warbling melodies and quick, halting yawps, his voice rings out through the other rooms of the house and even faintly onto the sidewalk outside, where it’s cold and the lawn is newly covered in brown and yellow leaves. It’s early December, and all along the street are cinder-block strip malls with Christmas lights and locked grates over the doors and windows, most of them shuttered for the night.
This house is only now coming alive. It belongs to another rapper, Peewee Longway, who at the moment is leaning against the closet door, gripping a stack of $20 bills and nodding to the beat, his camouflage cargo pants bulging with pharmaceutical prescription bottles. The room is a dark, olive green, with a stained carpet and shelves cluttered with crumpled packs of Newports. Getting impatient, Peewee grits his gold teeth and knocks on the closet door, shouting, “Aye, let me get a hit.” The door slides open, releasing a dense mass of weed smoke that floods the room, and out of the makeshift booth steps Thug, shirtless and lanky in a pair of tight leather pants with gold zippers. Thug: this is what he is called by even his closest friends, though his immediate family may slip and call him Jeffrey or Lil’ Jeff (he was born Jeffrey Williams). He looks around and blinks, bewildered, as though for a moment he’d forgotten he wasn’t alone in the room, before passing Peewee what’s left of his blunt.
Thug rubs his eyes and shakes out his dreads, and even barefoot, he’s a full head taller than Peewee, who is stout and lives up to his nickname. The two shot a music video here not long ago for their song “Loaded,” and have known each other for as long as they can remember, having grown up four doors down in the same housing project—but then the same can be said for most of the people Thug works with regularly. “This our city,” he says, “so we always known each other.” From Peewee, the blunt circles the room: to Jose Guapo, short and wiry and too excitable to stay seated for long; to Rich the Kid, cool and reserved and conspicuously well-dressed; to the night’s engineer, Y.D.G., who sits at the computer desk in a black hoodie, a pistol perched casually in his lap as he cuts and rearranges sections of the verse Thug has just finished recording. On the floor next to the computer sits a single Styrofoam cup filled with bright pink liquid that quivers with every jolt of bass.
The beat keeps rumbling on a permanent loop, though no one’s rapping anymore, and as Thug brushes his way into the larger crowd in the next room, everyone follows. In the living room, beneath a flat-screen TV on the wall displaying an error message (“No Cable Connection”), Peewee sweeps ashes off the pool table and starts racking up the balls as Thug dances around his pool cue and mumbles to himself in time with the beat still echoing from the bedroom. As they play, Thug’s mumbling just gets progressively louder, starts to sound like actual words. After a while, he makes eye contact with Peewee and they start nodding and smiling wide and laughing. That’s how you can tell he has something he can use.
Thug’s approach—whether he’s recording in a professional studio or a friend’s closet—is working, his music catching on beyond the Southwest Atlanta neighborhoods where he got his start. His songs have become fixtures on radio setlists and at clubs all over the city, most recently the oddly affecting drug anthem “Stoner,” which everyone here at the house can’t resist singing every few minutes. Gucci Mane, the imprisoned, ice-cream-tattooed face of the city’s street rap community, considers him a protégé, and calls him most days from Dekalb County Jail.
There’s a knock at the back door and everyone scowls and glares, and two guys in the kitchen pick up their pistols and peer out through the room’s only sliver of exposed glass. A third waits off to the side, by the stove, clutching a black and brown semi-automatic. No worries though—it’s just the guy with the snacks. The guns are put away and the guy with the snacks tosses three bags of gas station food on the floor. Thug tears into a bag of Funyons. Then the beat starts over, Peewee starts racking up the balls and the blunt recirculates, the room once again filling up with smoke.
The next day’s session is in a gated townhouse community in Midtown, at the apartment of the bright and friendly, 20-year-old producer Metro Boomin. Originally from St. Louis, he’s become a highly sought-after collaborator for his baroque, boldly assertive beats. He is often associated with Future, the most recent Atlanta rapper to attain household-name status, and for whom Metro produced hits like “Karate Chop” and “Honest.” If there’s anyone in the current crop of young rappers coming up in the city whom Young Thug looks up to, it’s Future (“He changed everything,” Thug says, comparing the rapper to Eazy-E and Tupac). Metro and Thug, both perched unsteadily on the verge of wider renown, share what seems like genuine mutual admiration, and work together easily and intuitively.
Today, though, there is cleaning to do first. In the corner of the apartment is a mountain of enormous, overstuffed garbage bags, and the dinner table is piled high with “studio food”: fast-food boxes, lemon-iced cookies, off-brand candy in bulk plastic packages. Thug paces the apartment in flip-flops and socks, nervously eating sour neon gummy worms (“Thug eats no real food,” his manager, Rip, tells me) and shaking his head in disbelief at the apartment’s general state of disarray. “Metro!” he shouts. “Metro! Where your maid at, man?” Emerging from his bedroom in sweatpants, Metro shrugs and yawns.
As with the previous night, there is both an inordinate amount of attention paid to tight, armed security and also, in practice, an essentially open-door policy. Some visitors—like the rapper Que, who had a recent street hit with “OG Bobby Johnson” and wears a thin soul patch and snakeskin-pattern pants—stay only for a few minutes, as if to pay their respects. Others, like Rip and local DJ Lil Keem, are in it for the long haul, rolling a steady stream of blunts and complaining—about Metro’s inability to clean up after himself; about the unplanned leak of a recent Thug song, “Danny Glover,” by its producers, TM88 and Southside; about the mixtape hosting website Datpiff, which was was late to recognize the South, and will never be forgiven the slight.
Thug and Metro get to work in a small room set off from the den, where their guests sit around on couches, talking and drinking lean from Styrofoam cups. Syrup, it’s worth noting, isn’t necessarily a social drug. In the middle of one conversation, a friend of Metro’s, a younger guy in a red tracksuit who everyone calls Jay, shuts his eyes, slumps forward and passes out; I never see him wake up. From the recording room, we hear Thug’s wild, sometimes startling vocals—adding words in small clusters and stopping Metro with a grunt every time he wants to try a line again, which is about every 30 seconds. It’s impossible to get a sense of how even a single verse will sound at the end of this process. We just hear certain phrases and key words (“MLK,” “Purple Rain,” “Blimpie”), repeated and punned on until we don’t anymore. Tonight, excepting occasional breaks for food, this will go on for roughly 14 hours.
“Everybody who rapped, I wanted to be like. Pretty sure I don’t want to be like them now, though.”
The most exciting and maybe puzzling thing about Thug’s ascendant popularity is that he has consistently proven himself to be more aware of and interested in probing the sonic possibilities of present-day Atlanta rap than any of his peers. His sound is partly an exaggerated outgrowth of the insistence on new styles that has always been a part of Atlanta rap, of novelty taken to a logical extreme. But it’s also a product of his early fandom of Lil Wayne, whom he credits with teaching him to love words, to love maneuvering and manipulating them. “That’s my idol,” he says of Wayne. “Everything he do.” The influence is most obvious on Thug’s first mixtape, I Came from Nothing: there’s that familiar, nasal intonation on the vowels, softening and widening words so that, for example, “y’all” sounds like “yeow.”
Over the course of the tapes that followed—two I Came from Nothing sequels and last year’s 1017 Thug, his first tape with Gucci Mane’s 1017 Brick Squad collective—the Wayne influence receded as he developed his own, personal approach: vivid, brassy and joyful, more melodic than lyrical. Thug and his generation, the children of Beats by the Pound and “Bombs Over Baghdad,” have lived through rich and strange eras in Southern hip-hop. His songs often sound like dub versions of the ones he grew up on, propped up on the same goofy synth flutes and ringtone harmonies and trap-kit orchestra stabs. His voices (he has several) are what you remember, though: he cuts through the chaos, corkscrewing, raving and drifting in and out of Auto-Tune with robotic R&B turns that, like Future’s, defy the conventional line about the technology’s inhuman coldness. Individual phrases take on a kind of weird resonance independent of their contexts. Lines like, I’m so cold in Siberia (from “Nigeria”) and A hundred black choppers like a fuckin’ night (from “2 Cups Stuffed”) are raw material for his voice to reshape, and he makes sure you notice them, whether they are part of a larger story or not. He’s been accused of lyrical incoherence, but doesn’t especially mind. “I love when people ask me what I’m saying,” he says, “even though I ain’t gonna tell them. I’ll let them listen 10 more years before I tell them.”
Thug’s reputation for bizarre or inexplicable lyrics isn’t entirely merited. His songs are peppered with autobiographical and personally meaningful ephemera. The most widely quoted line in his recent hit, “Stoner,” for example, is its apparent non sequitur of a refrain, in which he repeats, I feel like Fabo in increasingly desperate cadences. To Thug, who still remembers sneaking into Bankhead’s Club Crucial as a kid to see the iconic Atlanta rapper Fabo with his group D4L, the sentiment is real. It’s about ambition, what it feels like and how confusing it can be. “Damn, I used to want to be like D4L,” he says. “Everybody who rapped, I wanted to be like. Pretty sure I don’t want to be like them now, though.” And then there are songs like “RIP,” from his first tape, a seeming map of his emotional life for the previous 10 years, including references to his brother Bennie, who was shot and killed in front of their home in 2000; his brother Unfunk, currently in prison (Thug pays for his legal fees); and his mom, Big Duck. I lost three people in three years, he raps, but to Big Duck it feels like seconds, later telling her, I love you, I love you, I love you. Thug was one of 11 children growing up, all of whom lived together, so the responsibilities of family are regular sources of motivation and frustration.
Midway through the session at Metro’s, two of Thug’s sisters, Max and Dora, stop by on their way back from the skating rink. The family remains close, and is pretty thrilled by Thug’s success. “They all smiles,” he says. “They struggled all their life and they finna stop struggling, so they feel like Kardashians. They’re already talking about reality shows.” Max, the older and more outspoken of the two, wears cheetah-print leggings and Timberlands, and immediately after sitting down rolls a blunt that she then smokes entirely by herself. She goes out of her way to embarrass her brother, claiming he demands 30 different types of breakfast cereal and telling the room about the most recent time his great-aunt saw him: noticing his nose ring, she laughed and said he looked like Flavor Flav.
The family dynamic, though, has had its rough patches, something that mostly becomes clear when Thug talks about his dad. Making a half-hearted effort to clean Metro’s apartment at one point, Rip points out a picture frame on the counter that still features the generic, stock photo of a smiling white family, and everyone laughs. The frame reminds Thug of a story about his dad, who had a strange sort of rivalry with a country sheriff a few years ago. He says it started because of his mom: “She tried to be slick, but you know a man gonna know,” he says cryptically. “So they ended up getting into it.” Eventually, the grudge spilled out onto the street in a high-speed car chase, ending when his dad’s car “fishtailed and flipped over a bridge.” Several months later, when his dad got out of the hospital, he began staking out the man’s home. “He’d spend the night in the house with him,” Thug says. “For real movie-type shit.” To let him know he’d been there, just to scare him, his dad would flip over all the man’s picture frames in the night.
Nobody exactly laughs when Thug tells this story—they nod and then they move on to something else. If you spend any time at all with Thug, you will recognize this reaction: he is full of stories that have this effect on people.
“I don’t want to explain. I hate explaining. But I can definitely show you.”
Thug has kids of his own now, and he understands better than most how closely they’re paying attention, how much he matters. “I don’t want my kids saying, ‘My dad was a gangster, so I need to be a gangster,’” he says. “I would rather mine say, ‘My dad was a stunna, so I need to be a stunna.’” His priorities are different now, and so are the people he looks up to. This is the other thing that “Stoner” is about, he says: a claim to a certain kind of lineage. “Hendrix, Michael, Wayne, Future,” he says. “Those are stoners.” As he talks, it becomes clear that this legacy has very little to do with drugs. “Drugs help me think,” Thug says at one point, “but they aren’t the reason why I think.” It’s about a way of being in the world, seeing things off-kilter. It’s about finding a voice that can accommodate the experiences he’s had, experiences that might be beyond words. Or as he puts it, “I don’t want to explain. I hate explaining. But I can definitely show you.”
Later that week, Thug is eating lunch at Lenox Square Mall with his friend, the rapper Wicced. It’s raining heavily, and fog covers all but the lower halves of the skyscrapers visible from the restaurant windows. The mall is lined with white, icicle Christmas lights, and a man dressed as Santa Claus sits in a giant green throne in front of a line of kids at the entrance. Thug teases the waitress, asking her if they have promethazine and codeine syrup, and she smiles in a way that suggests she regrets ever approaching our table.
Like Thug and Peewee, Wicced grew up in the Joneseboro South housing project. As if to prove this, he pulls down the collar of his shirt to show off a tattoo reading “Jonesboro South” along his collarbone. Thug has the same tattoo. Thug’s phrase “I came from nothing,” which he’s used as a kind of mantra, could be understood as a tribute to this place, which no longer exists. “There’s nothing there now,” he says. “Just grass.” It was razed in 2008 along with all the rest of Atlanta’s old-style housing projects. Thug says his family stayed “until the last day, until they closed it and started knocking down the buildings.” As the director of the city’s Housing Authority described the place to the New York Times the following year, by way of explanation, “We’ve realized that concentrating families in poverty is very destructive.”
Jonesboro South and its absence loom large in Thug’s self-mythology, and this neighborhood’s disquieting legacy has everything to do with it. Still thinking about the story he told at Metro’s, I ask him what his father did for a living and he puts one hand over his face, under his eyes like a mask, and makes a gun with the other. “There was 11 of us,” he says, “so it was worse than struggle—that shit was hell.” His dad and Wicced’s uncle had been best friends, and “used to do shit we can’t even talk about.” His dad once served two years in prison on a mistaken identity charge—for something Wicced’s uncle had done. Wicced says Thug was “really different” growing up; “he already had that vision.” For his part, Thug says he idolized the older kids, like Peewee and Wicced, who “had all the money, all the weed, all the girls,” and so he got into petty theft and gambling. The one usually led to the other.
I ask Thug the most he’s ever lost gambling, and he tells me this story: as a young teenager, he and a couple of friends robbed a nail salon and split several thousand dollars between them. Getting home late, he realized he’d lost his keys on the run and knocked on the door, waking his mother. “I had to give my momma like five thousand just to get her to open to door,” he says. “Had to pass it through the window.” Early the next morning, a friend who had heard about the previous night’s take came over and convinced Thug to go shoot dice in the neighborhood. They spent the day playing dice, and by midnight Thug had lost all the money he’d made and more. This was fairly typical. “I done lost a million kazillion dollars gambling,” he says, spacing out for a moment before adding, “My dad is a gambler.”
Family and regional royalty is paramount to Thug, even if more often than not it means being loyal to flawed men. His other father figures, too, tend to be gamblers, the most prominent of which in recent years has been Gucci Mane, who as we talk is across town in federal court, being charged with two counts of firearm possession by a convicted felon. Thug had local hits before meeting Gucci—he got early attention for “I Got It” with Ca$h Out, “100 Dollar Autograph” with Rich Kidz, and later “Who’s On Top,” which features a verse from Wicced. But it was Gucci’s endorsement that put him over the edge, solidifying his reputation in the city and elsewhere. And though Gucci had recently undergone a kind of nervous breakdown in public, alienating many of the artists he’d worked with and ultimately going back to jail for assault, Thug still stands by him. “If Gucci Mane said fuck you,” he says, “you need to please know that Young Thug says fuck you too.”
Listening to him talk about the men in his life, it’s hard not to worry about Thug, to hope he stays out of trouble. Rip says he tries to keep him busy recording or touring, because when he isn’t making music he can be “a problem.” A few weeks ago, one of Thug’s best friends, DK, a member of the clique he calls Y.S.L. (Young Slime Life), was arrested for armed robbery and aggravated assault. He’d been in the hospital briefly and Thug had a photo taken there of the two of them together. It’s on his Instagram: they’re drinking lean, holding the cups to each other’s lips as they sip.