Starter Pack: Young Thug

Where to begin with the FADER 118 cover star.

August 21, 2019
Starter Pack: Young Thug Photo: Francesco Nazardo for The FADER  

Young Thug joins a very select group of artists in being a two-time FADER cover star, and it's little wonder. He's prolific — even if you discount the troves of songs he keeps (and tries to keep) under wraps — with 20 full-length projects to his name over the last eight years. He's enigmatic enough to elude categorization, surprising fans with sonic U-turns and bold fashion choices and even once maybe changing his name to a sentence. And, as Jordan Darville writes in his issue 118 cover story, he's hugely influential, paving the way for a new generation of artists that includes Gunna, Uzi, and Post Malone. “I feel like I started a lot of things,” Thug told Darville. “[But] I don't try to downplay nobody career. I ain't make they career, I just made a lot of people not be scared to be them[...] I just like to see people do what they want to do.”

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The nine tracks below don't cover the breadth of Young Thug's career to date, but they might serve as an introduction to one of this generation's most pioneering, surprising, confounding artists.

"Halftime" from Barter 6 (2015)

The blonde dreadlocked Young Thug era is often referred to as one of the Atlanta rapper’s creative peaks, and “Halftime” is at the peak of that peak. If So Much Fun is Thug’s official debut, then Barter 6 was his statement of proof at the time of its release — a full-length that will go down as one of the best rap projects of the 2010s. “Halftime” comes in the middle of the project, an anthem that both showed the promise of Thug’s commercial appeal and the weirder, warped sides of his mind. Much about Thug’s career seemed uncertain at the time — the homophobic comments about his style seemed to dominate the narrative. But Thug knew that as long as people were talking, his singular approach would carry him through: “Every time I dress myself, it go muthafuckin’ viral.” — Ben Dandridge-Lemco

"Wyclef Jean" from JEFFERY (2016)

"Wyclef Jean" will likely always be remembered for its creative video, in which directors Pomp&Clout used an apparent disappearing act by the rapper to their advantage. But the track is memorable enough in its own right — even if it has no apparent reason to be named after the only Fugee to run for President in Haiti. It's classic Thug from the off, with the Atlanta rapper using a rubbery beat as a backdrop to brag that his money is "longer than a NASCAR race." He bends melodies at will around a rich buffet of lyrics involving Franck Muller watches, body bags, assault rifles, and feng shui. Meanwhile, a bundle of ad-libs are wooped and squalled. Like all great Thug songs it makes no sense and perfect sense at the same time. A side-step from reality that reimagines life as a dream. — David Renshaw

"Picacho" from 1017 Thug (2015)

1017 Thug's “Picacho” isn’t named for a tiny town in Arizona, but it doesn’t have too much in common with the famous Pocket Monster, either. “My diamonds, they say Pikachu” is where the anime references begin and end, but it captures part of what made Mixtape Thug such a revelation: an absurd-yet-instantly recognizable comparison, delivered with an incorrigible disregard for tradition. Packed inside of a beat that glitters like the inside of a precious stone, “Picacho” is a flex so ear-splittingly loud it circles back to being cool and quiet again. — Jordan Darville

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"Feel It" from Beautiful Thugger Girls (2017)

I first experienced "Feel It" as most music listeners now hear new rap music: in unfinished form. A coworker sent me a YouTube rip of an Instagram snippet (a copy of a copy, essentially) featuring the song's soaring, indelible chorus, obscured by noise in the background. The song ended up appearing on Young Thug's 2017 album Beautiful Thugger Girls, which featured Thug with an acoustic guitar on the cover as well as a Bright Eyes sample buried in the album's extremely Thug-esque sprawl. The song itself is perfect, but its initial method of delivery to my ears seemed to define the Thug experience in a specific way. Chasing down his every digital breadcrumb has reflected the essence of modernity in music listening, and the element of surprise — of hearing your new favorite song and not truly experiencing it in its intended form for at least a year after — is what makes him one of the decade's most decade-specific artists. — Larry Fitzmaurice

"High feat. Elton John" from On The Rvn (2018)

The parallels between Young Thug and British glam icon Elton John were clear long before the two met at John’s Atlanta home to beam for a couple of photographs and talk about their approach to music in private. Both are pop pioneers, both have impeccable style (in and out of the studio), and, though they traveled from different locations in different generations, both arrived at the same galaxy-sized melodies in the end. “High,” Thug’s remix of John’s 1972 single “Rocket Man,” is so blissful it’s almost dissociative, an ambient rearrangement of a space-travel song that actually sounds like it was made light-years away. Thug’s verses — ”From Maine way to Spain / All I got is a chicken for the thots” over bleeps and bloops and echoes — are dextrous, playful, and, at least melodically, among his very best. But hearing John’s original chorus cut up by Young Thug ad-libbing “super geeked” is why you keep listening. — Alex Robert Ross

Gucci Mane's "Extacy Pill feat. Young Thug" from World War 3 (Lean) (2013)

Before Young Thug’s delivery evolved into the smoothed-out Swiss Army knife that it is now — bouncing from silky melodies to growls to perfectly placed squawks — the YSL leadman was an Atlanta upstart with a dizzying ability to disrupt tracks with an approach that, at that point, was the most identifiable indicator of Auto-Tune Weezy’s influence on the generation after him. In the early installments of Thug’s career-launching I Came From Nothing mixtape series, the amount of Lil Wayne that he consumed was so prominent that, on certain tracks, if you closed your eyes and listened, it would have been a trying task to distinguish between the two. But somewhere around late 2012 and early 2013, when his affiliation with Gucci Mane became stronger, the flashes of personalized eccentricities started to become a more integral part of his music — the harmonies became more animated, the ad libs more manic and entertaining. One of the better examples of those skills arriving at an ah-hah moment is buried within Gucci’s feverish 2013 run on World War 3: Lean’s “Extacy Pill.” The C-Note-produced track begins with deep space sounding synths before Thug, the only person on the song, appears rapping with an aggressive, almost angry tone. Within 30 seconds of that arrival, his voice seamlessly grows into a higher-pitched harmonizing. And about a minute after that, the register climbs to a wailing howl that, at moments, causes Thug’s voice to crack. The song felt like a breakthrough — an early showing of what Young Thug could be when he allowed himself to completely lose himself to the music, regardless of what conventions he may be breaking. He felt completely, and admirably, free all while sounding like something that had never been heard before in that way. — Lawrence Burney

"2 Bitches" from Black Portland (2014)

Writing about Young Thug’s music is nearly impossible; attempting to describe the energy of his rapping is pointless. TYou really need to just hear it. “Danny Glover” — which now exists as “2 Bitches” on streaming services — first dropped as a loosie in late 2013 before ending up on 2014’s Black Portland, Thug’s brilliant joint tape with Bloody Jay. It’s the perfect song to illustrate the gray areas in which Thug operates, sailing over a dramatic Southside beat. And although So Much Fun is one of my favorite projects he’s ever released, it’s also his cleanest — and Thug has always been at his best when he doesn’t clean it up. Perfection is boring. — Eric Sundermann

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"Stoner" (2014)

Aside from the I Came From Nothing series, Young Thug entered the conversation through appearances on various Gucci Mane and 1017-affiliated projects. His verses were strange — a combination of croaks, squeals, and grunts that would soon seep into hip-hop at large — but they were ones that you would remember. On “Stoner,” changing things up again, Thug channeled his best smoke-filled open mic night crooner, romantically murmuring “I feel like Fabo” over guitar-looped production from Dun Deal. His flow kept morphing, breaking, and giving way to new patterns on the spot. There’s also classic Thug hilarity — an entire verse is dedicated to listing the entire roster of a very early iteration of his YSL imprint. “Stoner” made it clear that the young pioneer was ready for the limelight, even if the world didn’t know it yet. — Will Gendron

"With Them" from Slime Season 3 (2016)

“With Them,” the first track on Thugger’s Slime Season 3, is the middle ground between tough and playful. He bounces from theme to theme — wealth, power, and women — with a comedic twist: “She suck on that dick on the plane and I just called her airhead." He was criticized at the time for mumbling, but the punchlines are loud and clear. The flows are unpredictable, varying from quick and high pitched mumbles to slow, melodic groans. “With Them” showcases Young Thug’s ability to switch up speeds and tones — and find the perfect balance between confidence and humor. — Ava Trilling

Starter Pack: Young Thug