Colin Small is ballin’ like an asterisk.
A man hasn’t been on the moon since 1972, but recently a few notable rappers have been spending a lot of well documented time somewhere far from earth’s gravitational pull: Lil Wayne is a martian, Lil B is also a martian, Future is on Pluto and so on. While this has been a solid creative trend, it’s not like anything about all this alien talk is otherworldly or entirely new. After all, both Kool Keith and OutKast were doing the whole next-level extraterrestrial thing in 1996, almost twenty years ago. Go back two more decades and you’ll see George Clinton at the wheel of the mothership all the way back in 1975. Lil Wayne claims that he’s not a human being because he wants people to think of him as sui generis, but the very act of doing so places him at the end of a long string of influences. Like any other recognizable element of popular music, being pridefully “out-there” has a precedent.
In the last five years, the purposefully strange rapper has occupied minds for a few reasons. First is the lingering contact high of the post-Dipset era. While 2004’s Purple Haze and Cam’s departure from Def Jam was the beginning of the end of the Diplomats’ most fruitful period, their discography has, for better or for worse, acted as a sort of time-release capsule in the stomach of the larger blog world for the past ten years, leading many to look for a similarly stone-faced absurdity in others. Much more significant, however, has been the expansive influence of Lil Wayne’s breakneck career from Tha Carter II in 2005 to his incarceration in early 2010. A world of young artists are now eager to emulate their idol, a man notorious for a (once) brash and unfiltered approach to self-expression and a penchant for increasingly outlandish and unexpected punchlines.
A particular kind of weird has become normative both in a certain segment of street rap music as well as much of the criticism of that music. As more and more rappers follow in this post-Wayne tradition, however, simply praising weirdness for the sake of weirdness has become a particularly limp point. How do you compare the weirdness of Lil Wayne to the weirdness of Lil B to the weirdness of Young Thug without simply saying that they are all just very, very weird? In an abstract sense, being weird just means doing something that is unexpected or confusing, but what exactly does “weird” mean for each of these very different musicians?
Young Thug’s joint mixtape with Bricksquad, aptly entitled 1017 Thug, brings this question to light, not only because he is yet another weird rapper for us to struggle to describe, but because he is one of the most uniquely weird rappers since the Based God. While Lil Wayne’s quirks tend to take the form of relatively coherent dad jokes (“Real G’s move in silence like lasagna”) and Lil B’s thought provoking nonsense and eccentric personality (“Hoes on my dick cuz I look like Jesus”), both maintain some level of grammatical coherence. You may not understand exactly why these ladies would be attracted to a guy who looks like Jesus, or in exactly what way Lil B looks like Jesus, but you can surmise pretty definitively the logic of Lil B’s reasoning. If Lil B looks like Jesus, then hoes are on his dick.
No such assumption can be used within Young Thug’s lyricism, which seems to have broken being weird down to a sub-grammatical level. On “2 Cups Stuffed” Thug yelps, “I ain’t from New York, but aye aye, bruh!”. From such a statement, it would be tempting to simply dismiss the dude as a drugged up, talentless kid who’s taking advantage of a hip-hop audience that is simply very receptive to weird rappers at the moment. Indeed, there is that certain danger to this linguistic breakdown. In this mode, it is impossible for Thug to make any kind of statement that will not be considered as a novelty first and foremost. He is, in other words, sequestering himself to a narrow ledge of incoherence. There is only so much you can dance on the edge of gibberish before you end up falling in.
What keeps Thug on the ledge, really, is that his lyrics, while they are certainly really fucking crazy, are also often really hard to forget, a direct inheritance from Wayne, whose memorable punchlines contributed considerably to his renaissance. “Feed me, feed me, I don’t rap for free, the opposite of freebie,” Young Thug raps on “Condo Music,” one of the mixtape’s best tracks. Despite a distinct logical disconnect, it is possible to thread these fragments of language back together: feeding is a metaphor for getting money. What’s great about this line, however, is that the metaphor’s connection to reality is it’s least interesting characteristic. The line and its manic delivery are much more likely to make one envision some kind of wide-eyed monster furiously demanding to be fed, as if Young Thug thinks he’s Jabba the Hut. Whereas Lil Wayne would use this kind of lyrical opportunity to impress the audience with a reference or a clever joke, Young Thug raps seemingly for the sake of dazzling imagery alone.
For the past couple of years, lyrical shop-talk has centered on the immediate, in-the-moment elements of rapping, the trading of pad and pencil word wizardry for a looser improvisational expression. This is, of course, a continuum upon which most buzzworthy rappers of late fall somewhere in the middle. Young Thug allows improvisation and feelings to trump lyricism almost completely, often only using language and recognizable imagery as a secondary mechanism for an intense emotional presence. Metaphor and wordplay are no longer as important as flashes of inspired description or even just the force of the speech itself. Where other rappers require themselves to stay fresh through clever turns of their language, Young Thug relies solely on spontaneity.
That’s not to say that this kid has entered the studio like some kind of deaf mute who was raised by dolphins. While his lyricism may be unique only to himself, his peculiar flow isn’t all that peculiar. Wayne’s influence on Young Thug’s previous I Came From Nothing mixtape series was far more holistic than the simple emotive autotune that he initially made famous with “Lollipop”. It’s all there, the corny punchlines, the obsession with intricate word-sounds, and the stream-of-consciousness yelp. At the time, Wayne’s comprehensive influence showed a preternatural complexity of voice on the part of Young Thug. At the same time, he possessed neither Lil Wayne’s technical talent or his gift for dad jokes.
1017 Thug shows Young Thug folding Future’s recent vocal work into his previously Wayne-centric style. While Future has clearly been influenced by Wayne’s early autotune as well, he possesses the vocal integrity to have formed from it his own very individual style. This can lead to raw and unimaginitive imitations in Young Thug’s work like “2 Stuffed Cups”, a song that, while it centers upon an idea that is as confusing as it is intriguing, mimics the flow of Future’s “Same Damn Time” far too closely for comfort. On the other hand, Future’s broad variety of flows has allowed Young Thug not only to channel his vocal inspiration away from Lil Wayne, it has made his fantastically kaleidoscopic flourishes of fever-dream imagery all the more fun to hear and sing along to.
Whether Young Thug will actually produce hits on the level of his more well established idols is very unclear. His eccentricities and close influences could make it hard to find a large public niche to establish his voice. As his name intimates, Young Thug still has most of his potential career in front of him. A variety of creative turns are open to him before he gets enough attention to truly cement his personal style. At the moment Young Thug is a very revealing case study in the current state of weird in street rap music. Out on a single limb of a huge tree of influence, Young Thug defines himself from other weird rappers by cherry picking elements from his influences and exaggerating them. In other words, the glut of weird in popular rap music has forced Thug and rappers like him to get specific. I doubt that being weird will ever not be a part of hip-hop music, but Young Thug is evidence that this particular iteration has sunk both feet into it’s late period.
ZIP: Young Thug – 1017 Thug (Left-Click)