When rap weirdos go off the deep end, they generally don’t come back. Consider, for example, Kool Keith, a transformative figure when he first emerged with the Ultramagnetic MCs and a deity within rap’s late-’90s backpack underground, one who got successively goofier with every new persona and finally disappeared into near-total irrelevance. Or Lil B, who seemed to be on the precipice of a new and exciting form of cult-rap stardom a few years ago but who’s allowed his more digressive impulses to take over, to the point where he’s releasing five-hour mixtapes that only a few of his most fervent fans will even momentarily bother with. Young Thug could’ve gone that way. Atlanta’s street-rap underground is a hospitable environment for eccentrics; in recent years, its biggest stars have included the dangerous brilliant lunatic Gucci Mane, the dad-joke-slinging goofball 2 Chainz, and the otherworldy robo-hooksmith Future. But with his chaotic stream-of-consciousness aesthetic and his garbled high-pitched yelp, Thug handily out-weirds all of them. On mixtapes like I Came From Nothing 2 and last year’s 1017 Thug, Young Thug came off like a voice untethered, a genuine maniac bursting with melodic and lyrical ideas who seemed like he didn’t care at all for rap conventions. Those mixtapes were fascinating and irritating in equal measure, and though 1017 Thug in particular had rabid fans, I couldn’t listen to more than a track or two at at time. In recent months, though, Thug has gained a stronger command of his own gifts, to the point where he’s releasing actual underground hits like “Stoner” and “Danny Glover,” earning himself A-list rap cosigns in the process. That version of Thug, the zonked craftsman finally finding his feet, is the one we hear on the inexplicably titled Black Portland, Thug’s new team-up with fellow yipping Atlanta eccentric Bloody Jay.
Black Portland dropped late last night, and I haven’t had much time to process it yet, but I also haven’t listened to anything else all day. It’s an absorbing, immersive listen — catchy and satisfying the way you want Atlanta trunk-rattle music to be, but also beguilingly off in the way that’s always set Thug apart. Lyrically, Young Thug’s mind still goes to some strange places. Throwaway lines become the sorts of things that, when you think about them, you find yourself wondering just how he found his way to that exact word-combination: “Run with pistols like utensils,” “Money standing eight feet just like twooooo midgets.” And his delivery is still a frantic voice-cracking cackle, a jumbled pileup of cadences and deliveries that don’t seem like they should make sense but somehow do anyway. He’ll be half-singing in a bluesy croak one second, and then he’ll suddenly lurch into a double-time rat-tat-tat. As ad-libs, he’ll emit demonic howls rather than just repeating his own words.
This time around, though, I hear more intention in Thug’s abrupt switch-ups. He’ll start rapping faster when the beat kicks in, for instance, rather than at some randomly determined break between bars, and it’ll serve the song rather than just Thug’s own deranged persona. The choices make sense in a way that they haven’t before, at least to me. The tape is also much better mastered than Thug’s past mixtapes, which were generally lo-fi aural assaults. The tape has no production credits, but the beats follow the thumping, minor-key blueprint of the producers in the 808 Mafia crew, and there’s a resoundingly visceral punch in their bass levels. (The only guest is Future, sounding straight-up ghostly on the hook of the evocative “Nothing But Some Pain.”) “Signs” samples the old Three 6 Mafia track “Gang Signs,” and the sinister bedlam of a track like that seems like something of a precedent here (though not as much as Lil Wayne’s pill-gobbling mixtape-era peak, still Thug’s single greatest influence). As hard as these tracks punch, they still give Thug’s personality plenty of room to wriggle around.
For his part, Bloody Jay brings a husky voice but a slippery delivery, and while he’s not a space cadet like Thug, he’s still weird enough to rhyme “Jenna Jameson” with “Antawn Jamison” and “throwing up gang signs” with “R.L. Stein.” Jay’s greatest asset is a quality he shares with Thug: His urgency. Both of them sound intense throughout, like they have thoughts they need to get out as forcefully as possible. At times (though not, thankfully, too often), both of them yell so loud that they start to lose all coherence. Jay, then, isn’t exactly a stabilizing influence on Thug. Like frequent Thug collaborator PeeWee Longway, he’s idiosyncratic enough to keep up with Thug but never enough to overwhelm him; Thug is always the clear star here. Still, the mere fact that he’s sharing a track with someone seems to keep Thug relatively reigned in; he never spirals off into full insanity the way he so often did on 1017 Thug. As a result, Black Portland walks a fine line: Sober and focused enough that its bangers still bang, but loopy enough to keep you guessing. And if Young Thug goes on to become an important and influential figure within Southern rap, which he seems poised to do, then Black Portland will represent an important step of his development. If that never happens, though, Black Portland is still a mixtape that can stay on permanent repeat all day without ever losing its freshness, and that’s a rare enough thing on its own.
Download Black Portland at LiveMixtapes.