Do The Bartman: The Amazing Elastic Universe of Young Thug

Play "Barter 6" until you figure out how to pronounce "Hy!£UN35"
By    April 24, 2015


Paul Thompson is running through the 323 with Yak Gotti

Young Thug’s world is elastic. On his brooding Barter 6, the cartoon excess snaps back to unnerving realism, Birdman’s coupe back to the final song’s jail cell. (He makes bail.) At the end of his verse on “Dream,” Yak Gotti raps, “I’m living out the dream, broke is not an option/ I’m living out my dream, broke is not an option,” his voice trailing off into nightmares of temp work and repo men, when Thug turns around and, in the space of a few bars, has you booling with his dawgs—just like Michael Vick. “Od” shouts “R.I.P. Mike Brown, fuck the cops!” before Thug absconds on a boat. Around every piece of Gucci linen is an assailant, at the bottom of every lonely well drink lies a few bands Thug thought he misplaced. This, the polarizing Atlantan’s first full-length effort since he borced his way onto the pop charts in 2014, is the new year’s most paranoid, most virtuosic rap record–and maybe its best.

These aren’t Dickensian reversals of fortune: As a writer, Young Thug is concerned with tone over linearity. Barter 6 doesn’t have any narrative in the traditional sense, because it doesn’t need any. Each phrase is carefully constructed, but the gangster flick truisms file in neatly next to the quips from a burgeoning rap star who spends too much time on Instagram. Thug is entirely disinterested in transitional scenes, in mild emotions, in curbing his enthusiasm. When blurring the lines between reality and its funhouse mirror reflection serves the mood, that’s exactly what he does. “Every time I dress myself, it go motherfucking viral” is probably closer to the literal truth than “Got $100 million flat, like my motherfucking idol,” but on “Halftime,” the former is an escalation of the latter. Welcome to Barter 6.

Thug (presumably) wrote Baby two phenomenal verses to rap on the record, because, frankly, he deserves them. Though you could convince me that no one has been paid for a Cash Money beat since Mannie Fresh left, Bryan Williams is one of the best executive producers breathing. So above the din of armchair A&R complaints that Barter 6 lacks hits—it’s true, it does—is the fact that the record is better for being so slight. “Never Had It” plays like Thug and Young Dolph snuck into a Looney Tunes jazz club and threw coke money at the bouncer. “Check,” the lead single, is built on minor keys and negative space and an ad-lib (“SHEESH!”) that your great-aunt pioneered on the low. But Thug don’t know her. He act like she dead.

It’s not just the tics. Barter 6 is a master class in rapping as performance. On “Can’t Tell,” between T.I.’s hushed self-incrimination and part 44 of Boosie’s post-Angola victory lap, Thug raps:

“Never had time to wrap and cap and dap the trap
My ice a lamp, I can’t adapt, I’d rather slap
I’d rather pop his cap, and now his mom, his aunt,
His dad, his cat
2004, I was screaming, ‘Everything Gucci, no Big Cat’
We was skatin’ in the ride with them cases, had all these big racks”

There are quote-unquote rappers on your subway car or in your sociology class right now who can compile an unending list of rhyming words. Only a select few emcees can string together syllable after syllable and sound like they’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown, yet exert control like they’re reliving the same four-bar set in a Groundhogs Day scenario. Take “Numbers,” the middle of the three-song emotional bloodletting that serves as the record’s coda. The writing is as colorful as anything to be pressed up this year—there’s the passive shot at David Banner, “Let them gators get they prey,” “Leanin’, movin’ slow as grandma”—but the song’s emotional arc has nothing to do with the words. He squawks and warbles all over the track like he’s circling his haters’ vomit-clogged drain. Young Thug is the most emotive rapper alive, and people who only speak Portuguese would have to concur.

Barter 6’s title has been discussed and debated ad nauseam, with Thug, depending on your point of view, either a fearless upstart baiting his hero or a pawn in a long-brewing game of royalty payment chess. What seems to be lost is that, since willing his presence into your RSS feed two years ago, two official Young Thug solo projects have hit the net, and the title of each pays homage to a different rapper. Thug is not Gucci Mane, nor is he Lil Wayne. Among the things those two shared—hyper-regional origins, creative peaks built on prolifically, questionable facial tattoos—was a sense that they were approaching their respective peaks in real time. But at just 22, turns in Thugga’s catalog sound less like developments than they do discoveries of something that’s already codified. “Just Might Be” is anchored by a triple-time hook and the promise that it won’t take more than two days to come up with bail money. “Halftime” has him re-upping, stealing Little Caesar’s, having sex on $10,000 beds. On “With That,” he makes his uncomplicated, unqualified love for his girl sound like a veritable death threat. In short, Young Thug is fully formed.

Back to those Birdman verses. Barter 6 opens with “Constantly Hating”, 2015’s best Donald Trump diss song. The album starts in earnest about 65 seconds in, when Thug whispers, “I heard my Noila niggas not friendly, like ‘No way,’” then yelps, “We not friendly either, you know it!” He spends the song’s first two thirds backloading each line, all the emphasis falling to the end of each bar like a batter shifting his weight too early. On first pass, it seems a strange choice for a song that practically screams out for a sudden change of pace. But then it comes. Baby rubs his hands, glowers at his creditors, then barks: “I’m from that motherfucking Noila, nigga.”

His verse approaches the instrumental from the opposite angle, spitting out supposed truths (“We won a hundred-mil on fights, lil’ nigga”), then pausing to let them sink in. Then he overpays for private planes, then he scoffs at Jeep owners, then he cedes the booth to Thug, who closes out the song with a plea to Wiz Khalifa to save him from Miami’s subpar weed. It seems too blunted, too off-the-cuff to work, but the closer you examine the song, the more carefully constructed it reveals itself to be. This is Barter 6—every time you think you’ve lost the plot, Young Thug is there to ferry you through, double cup in hand.

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