There was a time, not that long ago, when “weird” was all Young Thug really was. He was fascinatingly, absorbingly weird, but he hadn’t learned what to do with that weirdness. Over his first few mixtapes, Thug managed to transition from being a Lil Wayne disciple to a figure capable of pushing Wayne’s most way-out tendencies even further into the cosmos. 1017 Thug, the mixtape that made Thug into something other than a local Atlanta sensation, was a clumsy, clanging piece of work, but it had enough ideas flying around in there to suck you in anyway. Around the time he made “Danny Glover” and “Stoner,” Thug figured out how to direct that weirdness, to channel his alien energy into fast and exhilarating tracks. When he teamed up with Rich Homie Quan for “Lifestyle” and the great Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1 mixtape, Thug matured even further, smoothing out that energy and using it to assume larger-than-life rap-star status. The brand-new Barter 6 is a step further: It’s a mood piece, a confident low-key churn that luxuriates in vibe rather than songcraft. It’s Thug’s first proper commercially available album, but like If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, the new one from Thug’s sort-of I-guess labelmate Drake, it’s content to dial in on a specific mental state, staying there and letting its sound breathe. And like Drake, Thug is taking that weird side route of claiming that this up-for-purchase-on-iTunes album is really a mixtape, that the actual album is coming later. Maybe that’s a cop-out, a way of preventing himself from entirely standing behind this thing that he just made. But whatever purpose it’s supposed to serve in Thug’s greater career arc, Barter 6 works as a beautiful descent into a uniquely psychedelic headspace. Thug has made the full-on rap-star leap here, and he’s done it without losing one iota of the weirdness that made him interesting in the first place.
Thug is a controversial figure in rap for reasons that go far beyond his amazingly peacocky sartorial decisions. People will say that Thug doesn’t rap about anything, or that you can’t even understand what he’s saying. Both are, at least at times, completely true. Thug’s subject matter is money and drugs and sex and killing you and clothes and drugs again — nothing revolutionary. And he intentionally lets his voice devolve into mutters and gargles, daring you to catch every word. But this isn’t a symptom of lyrical laziness, as plenty of critics will assert. Thug does the things he does with style, with an ineffable sense of how to leave an impression. He doesn’t just throw lyrics over beats; he dances with them. He’ll leave a string of rapid-fire syllables and then let his voice dissolve into a blues-moan. He’ll interrupt his own lethargic mumble with an electric yelp. He’ll find a new way to express an idea you’ve heard a thousand times. “Your money flat like a plasma” — that’s a linear and maybe even pedestrian simile. Plasma TVs are flat, and so is your money. Joe Budden or any other supremely basic battle-rapper could’ve come up with that. But Thug delivers it in a breathless swoop, like it’s all one word. By the time you mentally untangle what he just said, he’s run through another five or six lines that demand that level of attention. And more often, his lines aren’t that basic. They have a logic that exists only within the linguistic worlds Thug has built: “All my dogs, they dirty; check for mange / All I gotta do is reserve your brains.” (I think that’s what he’s saying on “Never Had It.) Every once in a while, he’ll come up with a line so on point that it feels instantly iconic: “Every time I dress myself, it go motherfuckin’ viral.” Most of the time, though, he’s tossing out a line like “She running away from my weed like it farted” and somehow making it sound like the coolest shit imaginable.
Just the way Thug uses ad-libs is something special. He’ll use them like horn stabs, letting them tear violently through the track. He’ll let loose a violent rooster screech, or a ghostly whisper, or he’ll make his lips flap like a horse. On “Check,” he just yells “Sheesh!” a bunch of times. And those things will work within the context of the track. Even on a low-key-by-design album like this, Thug will elephant-honk in the middle of the song, and it’ll be just the emphasis-point that the song needed. It won’t derail anything. It won’t even beg for attention. London On Da Track, the Atlanta producer who did all of the Rich Gang mixtape, handled a handful of the tracks on Barter 6, and his chemistry with Thug is quickly turning into an all-time great producer/rapper pairing. London On Da Track’s drums kick as hard as anyone else’s, but he has a florid, expansive sense of melody, and the glimmering pianos on “Numbers” and the haunted music-box synths on “With That” intuitively counterbalance Thug’s erratic energy. Another Atlanta producer, the unknown-to-me Wheezy 5th, produced or co-produced eight of the album’s 13 tracks, and his tracks do similar things. The hazy, staggering synth-bass on opening track “Constantly Hating” adds a whole new layer of melody to what Thug does. And it’s only when Birdman shows up to break your fucking nose that you entirely register the spell that Thug and Wheezy have cast over the previous two minutes. That’s how Barter 6 generally uses its guest rappers: For contrast, to ground Thug’s astral tendencies. It works. Just about everything about the album works.
Throughout Barter 6, Thug casually drops drug names like they’re not a big deal: lean, Xanax, Percocet. And the way Thug’s voice interacts with these beats, it evokes the feeling of crawling inside your own head and staying warm. (The one time I ever tried lean, I was asleep in front of the TV within 10 minutes. This guy is out here inventing new rap syntaxes every few weeks. It’s scary, and it’s inspiring.) The difference between Thug and just about any of his rap peers is the same as the difference between, say, Tame Impala and any other retro-psych band you’d care to name. They’re working with the same ingredients, within the same context, but some people are just better at tapping into some form of free-floating magic. Thug is a rapper, doing rapper shit. He’s doing his best to sound cooler and more badass and more dangerous than everyone else. And he’s succeeding. But he’s also made a great sustained zone-out album, an album for staring at starry night skies or neon lights. Barter 6 is going to start conversations for all sorts of reasons: The album-cover nudity, the stray Lil Wayne darts, the question of what counts as an album and what counts as a mixtape. But when you listen, try to shut all that out. Try to focus instead on what Thug has accomplished here. He’s made a searching, lovely space-rap album that will still destroy your car speakers. He’s transcended “weird.”
Barter 6 is out now on Atlantic.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Speedy Ortiz’s sharp, incisive, melodically tough Foil Deer.
• Built To Spill’s warm, instinctive guitar-flare Untethered Moon.
• Passion Pit’s reliably shimmery Kindred.
• Red Death’s crossover thrash ripper Permanent Exile
• Alchemist and Oh No’s rattling, psychedelic Welcome To Los Santos compilation.
• Wire’s tough, terse self-titled album.
• Pupppy’s scrappy, emotive Shit In The Apple Pie.
• Squarepusher’s giddy, accessible Damogen Furies.
• Beauty Pill’s spindly, off-kilter Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are.
• Peach Kelli Pop’s lo-fi garage-popper III.
• Joywave’s sparkly sophomore effort How Do You Feel Now?
• Miami Horror’s sunny electro-popper All Possible Futures.
• Loose Tooth’s twisty, propulsive debut Easy Easy East.
• OOFJ’s droning, cinematic Acute Feast.
• Yazan’s grungy, bluesy Howlin’.
• Bright Like The Sun’s self-titled post-rocker.
• Alabama Shakes’ honest-to-god impressive Sound & Color.
• Yelawolf’s messy bummer Live Story.
• Ryan Adams’ Live At Carnegie Hall.
• Girl Band’s The Early Years EP.
• Mavis Staples’ Your Good Fortune EP.
• Jones’ Indulge EP.