Young Thug Featuring Young Thug: The Ouroboros of Influence

A decade of Young Thug
By    October 22, 2019

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An abridged version of this piece is running concurrently over at BBC Music

Young Thug wanders into a bedroom to interrupt Young Thug lying on his back, straddled by a daisy duke-wearing Young Thug. Shaking his head, a blonde dreadlocked Jeffery Williams staggers outside into a classic Lincoln Continental piloted by his chauffeur, Young Thug. Later that evening, he winds up back at his house with his sisters, wearing mime face paint and eating Lucky Charms for dinner. When they uncover the stainless steel salver in the center of the table, it reveals Young Thug’s head surrounded by a circular array of citrus fruit. As the night dies down, Young Thug finds himself in his boudoir for an intimate one-on-one conversation with Young Thug. It’s the plot line for 2015’s “Best Friend” video, but it might as well describe the state of rap as time expires on this decade.

After several years where twitter quarterbacks deemed the Atlanta rapper far too extraterrestrial, idiosyncratic, and hostile to the promotional demands required to become the chart-topping festival-headlining star that his talent warranted, the last 24 months have made him the sun king at the center of rap’s solar system. A surreal but deserving turn for a 28-year old whose biggest hit until relatively recently featured a digression about the importance of offering oral sex in the face of impotence — on a song (“Lifestyle”) nominally dedicated to the struggles overcome in able to spontaneously purchase droptop Maybach’s like it was a 7 a.m. donut run.

In 2019, Young Thug is his own genre. He won his first Grammy for handling backing vocals and ad-libs on Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” This August’s So Much Fun became his first-ever #1 album and he briefly occupied 11 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 (including his Post Malone hostage situation, “Goodbyes,” which still receives over a million streams daily). It’s his Carter III, a shrewdly-curated synthesis of his appeal, more coronation than a classic — diluting his berserk experimentation in favor of a restrained fluorescent joy that could appeal to both the streets and prep school kids sneaking vape hits after lacrosse practice. Earlier this summer, Thug duetted with Ed Sheeran on his No. 6 Collaborations Project which went #1 and ensured that the duo will eventually perform at the 2024 Super Bowl with Sheeran strumming a mandolin while snake-shaped streams of fire poison the sky.

The tenth of eleven children from the Jonesboro South projects became ubiquitous on the Spotify U.S. Top 50, even when he’s hiding in plain sight. You can hear the linear evolution of Thug’s Area 51-in-Atlanta melodies on the “Ransom” remix from Lil Tecca and Juice WRLD. He’s in the latest hit from South Florida’s YNW Melly, whose early freestyles sounded like Young Thug fan fiction, and who bragged about signing to Thug’s YSL imprint shortly before going to prison. There’s Camilla Cabello, the ex-Fifth Harmony singer, whose biggest solo record remains “Havana,” her 2017 collaboration with Young Thug, which catalyzed his second act. Not to ignore Drake, the most commercially impactful rapper of the decade, who has repeatedly cribbed Thug’s slippery electric eel cadences, most notably on last year’s “Mob Ties.”

In rap, influence usually begins regionally and expands outward. So it’s unsurprising that practically every Atlanta phenom owes paternity to the rapper briefly known as SEX. Take February’s “Three Headed Snake” from YSL rapper Gunna, which featured Thug and doubled as the rap version of the Spiderman pointing at Spiderman meme. Last year, Gunna and another Thug protégé, Lil Baby broke beyond the Rolling Loud multi-verse with “Drip Too Hard,” an unofficial spinoff of Future and Thug’s “Drippin on Me.” That’s not a knock at either, but merely acknowledging that Thug created a multi-lane highway with space for his progeny to traffic in the fast-twitch swerves that left acceleration marks in the middle of the decade.

After all, the difference between homage, imitation, and apprenticeship remains forever murky. The old rap line held that no biting was allowed. Or as Raekwon eloquently darted: I don’t want no one sounding like me on no album. But T.S. Eliot seemed more equanimous: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Even someone as revolutionary as Thugger couldn’t have existed without his acknowledged idol, Lil Wayne, whose slurred codeine hexes splintered rap’s possibilities in a thousand directions. “Prostitute Flange” alone started its own sub-genre.

Nor was Thug alone in transmuting Wayne into something different. The first mixtapes from generationally revered peers, Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar are deeply indebted to Weezy F.’s tasmanian attack, psychedelic wobble, and free association fantasias. Lamar even made a pre-fame mixtape called C4, which boasts stellar moments but also a few where he sounds like the Greta Van Flute to the Carter’s Led Zeppelin. While Drake’s early work cast the neurotic Toronto native as a subdued diet Sprite simulacrum of his mentor (with 808s and Heartbreak spiking the Styrofoam cup in place of purple). Most young artists hitch themselves to the stylistic eccentricities of their idols and the worthwhile ones are those wise enough to understand when to kill them. In the case of Thug, this nearly became literal when he was implicated in shooting up Wayne’s tour bus (his road manager was ultimately convicted).

Listening to Thug’s first mixtapes, the dragon-in-couture croak and Jabberwocky rhyme schemes that followed are absent. It’s all muted riffs on Wayne. Even on his first notable project, late 2011’s I Came From Nothing 2, he remains in thrall to his Cash Money hero. But a song like “Keep In Touch” revealed his illimitable potential. Like all of Thug’s best work, it’s resistant to critical tangent — a song built on a puppy dog romanticism that could’ve came out of the Brill Building if it were ransacked by a 6’4 nose-ringed, dice-obsessed, ex-high school quarterback from the slums of Atlanta cooing about riding his love like a Kawasaki.

The breakthrough arrived with 2013’s “Stoner,” which felt like an evolutionary splintering — an entirely different species forged from a DNA mutation whose bloodstream was equal parts strawberry jolly rancher, promethazine, weed, molly, and esoteric powders beamed in from the plug on Betelgeuse. On “Stoner,” he shrieks and moans, vomiting nightmare cantilations and euphoric wails, stretching syllables until they collapse under the stress, disappearing into the vanishing point. Or maybe you prefer its direct antecedent “2 Cups Stuffed,” where he spell-screams “L-E-A-N-I-N-G” like a spoiled child begging to open his Christmas presents early, but the only thing under the tree are styrofoam and codeine. Thug’s voice contorts into neon lava; he uses it like Hendrix using a wah-wah-pedal. A live power cord writhing in the street during a lightning storm. He became a conduit for unleashing tremendous post-traumatic pain and sugary chemically-enhanced joy: a sour patch kid soaked in blood.

The next three years marked a run that can match nearly any creative streak in history. There was the Rich Gang project with Rich Homie Quan (whose own stylistic influence is often slept on), which somehow fulfilled Quan’s boast that they were the “hardest duo since Outkast.” The first two volumes of the Slime Season series are delirious improvised masterpieces, often overlooked because like Rich Gang, they never made it onto streaming services. The zenith may have been Barter 6, his first project made available for commercial release. There’s arguably his most innovative song, “Halftime,” where he introduces a half-dozen different flows, switching direction with the agility and speed of a Simone Biles floor routine. The sort of blackout vocal performance only matched at a few moments in music history: Rammellzee on “Beat Bop,” Myka 9 on “7th Seal,” Wayne on “A Milli,” Roky Erickson on “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” whatever your preferred Prince ascension is.

If this era was marked by dozens of think-pieces lauding Thug’s emotionally searing “post-verbal gibberish,” it was a fundamental misread. Of course, the Icarine flows and flooring emotion were fundamental to his appeal, but his best songs usually featured a few cryptic gems that might not have scanned as traditionally great lyrics but were nonetheless unforgettable. He described himself as “looking good as your dad on a Friday.” On the Rich Gang collaboration, he mentions a love who “had the same exact face as his brother’s nurse.” Without pausing, he follows up with the dagger: “he in a hearse.” On “Old English,” he effortlessly drops indelible throwaway lines, describing his jewelry as “gold like the tokens at Chuck E. Cheese.”

To date, his sons haven’t captured the full summation of what made Thug immortal. Each works within a modest parcel of his flows, melodies and vocal textures. It’s nearly impossible to guess who will surpass him or at least annex new territory. It could be his “little brothers” Gunna and Lil Baby, whose Drip or Drown 2 reached #3 on the Billboard charts earlier this year. This summer, Thug and Future announced that the pair would join their elders for a Super Slimey sequel to form an Atlanta rap Avengers. It probably won’t be Sahbabii, among the first of Thug’s spawn who dropped a perfect first single (2016’s “Pull Up with Ah Stick”) liberally cribbing from Thug’s “Pull Up On a Kid,” and starting the Slime-core goldrush. It earned him a deal from Warner Bros, before he was promptly overshadowed by his predecessors and disappeared to presumably wait for a career revival via TikTok.

You can convincingly argue that 2019’s best Thug-inspired album was Long Live Mexico from 21-year old YSL signee Lil Keed. Or maybe it might be Keed’s younger sibling, Lil Gotit, who hasn’t received the elusive Thug feature yet, but did conscript Gunna and Millie Go Lightly for his last project. It was Go Lightly who collaborated with Thug on 2017’s Beautiful Thugger Girls, where Thug flirted with a country-pop fusion that quietly served as a blueprint for the yee-haw agenda. If Lil Nas X became the trend’s public face, the genesis of “Old Town Road,” traces back to Thug and Go Lightly’s “Family Don’t Matter.” And while Thug has repeatedly asserted his heterosexuality, gender-fluid gestures like wearing a billowing periwinkle gown on the cover of No, My Name is Jeffery took sniper aim at the hyper-masculine posturing that had dominated rap since N.W.A. made Dr. Dre retire his sequin jumpsuit and stethoscope. In a nod to his predecessor, Nas X recruited Thug for one of the “Old Town Road” remixes that conquered the charts all summer.

There is the other argument that the first half-generation that Thug influenced has already transformed his innovations into something singular. Travis Scott famously stole Thug’s “Pick Up the Phone” for one of his first huge solo hits, and it’s readily obvious that the Houston rapper’s ad-libs, vocal pitch and melodies first derived from Thug (blended with 808s and Yeezus-era Kanye). Playboi Carti became one of the biggest artists of the moment by triangulating Chief Keef with Thug (and nicking his “Slatt” ad-lib). While Lil Uzi Vert rapped like Meek Mill until he moved to Atlanta, signed to DJ Drama, and popped up on Slime Season 2. Of course, weighing art is more complex and inscrutable than merely playing a game of spot the influence. A song like “XO Tour Llif3” was clearly informed by Uzi’s own life and emotions, not to mention the mall punk of the last decade. But it’s hard to imagine it existing or having the impact it did without Young Thug laying the foundation.

Even in cities with a flourishing regional tradition, Thug’s presence is felt. In Baton Rouge, NBA Youngboy has stamped all of his Louisiana rap with his battle-scarred full moon blues. But after his emergence at 16, his breakout mixtapes built on almost a perfect hybrid of Thug and Kevin Gates. Youngboy’s hero worship of Thug is so absolute that he spent six figures on a diamond-encrusted chain of Thug’s likeness. In Compton, the ancestral home of G-Funk and gangsta rap, the biggest rapper of the last two years is Roddy Rich, whose 23 and Me would reveal 90 percent Jeffery Williams (and 10 percent Lil Durk).

With the streaming format entrenched as the chief form of music consumption, there’s less of a financial motive for any of these artists to diverge from the Young Thug archetype. The days of purchasing CDs or even MP3s are long dead, and the “fans also like” algorithm economy rewards passive listening. If you like Young Thug, Spotify and Apple will be happy to lull you into high-pitched double-timed oblivion with a playlist that promises to “Keep it Real for the Dirty.”

It’s been 20 years since that MTV Music Awards where Eminem famously stormed the stage with a hundred lookalikes with bleached hair, white tees, and blue jeans. The idea was that he embodied the millions of aggrieved middle-American white boys obsessed with rap, who up until that point hadn’t seen themselves credibly represented within the genre. For a year or two after Eminem blew up, every major label attempted to trot out their own Eminem replicant, but none survived (save for a few classic Bubba Sparxx singles). But now tastes and music distribution models have changed, and with it, the desire to hear artists that are better or at least different. If you were going to redo that same awards show today, you might do it with 100 Young Thugs standing in a straight line onstage, the alien visionary at the forefront, his descendants in designer clothes and dyed hair, taking his cue and rapping along simultaneously. It would be hard to hear the difference over the sound of the applause.

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