Status Ain’t Hood: Young Thug Vs. Language
Even before Future and Drake came along and sucked all the air out of the room, this was a dauntingly busy seven days for rap music. In the space of 24 hours last week, we got new mixtapes from Young Thug, Migos, Rich Homie Quan, and Gangsta Boo. That’s an absolute avalanche of music from Southern rappers who have, in recent memory, done great things, often with one another. And there are all sorts of weird little subplots in that day’s bonanza. For instance: Thug opened Slime Season, his new mixtape, with “Take Kare,” the middling track that he and his onetime idol Lil Wayne recorded late last year, before Wayne and Thug started beefing with each other. Why did he do that? What’s he trying to say with it? And why didn’t Thug record the entire tape over beats from favored producer London On Da Track, as he’d claimed he was going to do? By that same token: What’s going on with Rich Homie Quan? He and Thug made one hell of a beautiful tandem on last year’s Rich Gang: Tha Tour Part 1 mixtape. Things have cooled between the two of them since then, and now Rich Homie is releasing his own DTSpacely Made This tape mere hours after the hyped-up Slime Season. What’s that about? Why is he trying to steal thunder? Or is he stealing thunder? Did he even have anything to do with the tape’s release, or is it a case of the producer DTSpacely just compiling a bunch of old Rich Homie tracks that he had sitting around? Those questions might be fun to talk or think about, but they’re also distractions. And right now, they’re distracting from this: Young Thug is one of the best rappers in the world right now.
The brand-new Slime Season isn’t the best Young Thug full-length. It isn’t even the best Young Thug full-length of 2015. That’s still Barter 6, on which Thug learned to project a sort of low-key bubbling-under intensity. On that one, for the first time, Thug carried an album without relying mostly on the erratic energy-bursts that had come to define his style. He found that he could still be a compelling figure even if he held back. For the past few years, Thug has been making these quantum stylistic leaps in between projects, learning new things about his voice and then putting those things to work. Slime Season might be the first Young Thug mixtape on which Thug sounds like he’s spinning his wheels. Stylistically, he’s all yammers and yips and electric-shock yelps and oddly-beautiful lean-slurred choruses — all great, all old news for him. It had to happen sooner or later; he can’t go in reinventing his own voice every few months. But it’s unclear how new all these tracks are; early standout “Quarterback” features incarcerated-for-months Migos member Offset, as well as PeeWee Longway, an old Thug collaborator who recently announced that he’s quitting rap because everyone is too fake. And most of the producers here do solid work without ever quite making it stand out. It’s too long, too. And yet Slime Season is still a vital release just because it’s an hour-plus of Young Thug rapping. Even if he’s treading water, he’s doing it with an absolutely enviable sense of tossed-off style. He’s making that water-treading work for him.
In a recent piece, the Washington Post music critic (and former Q And Not U member!) Chris Richards writes memorably about the effect of listening to nothing but Young Thug for months at a time, making his way through the tangled ton of Thug tracks that leaked this summer. To Richards, Thug’s words don’t matter as much as his delivery; he describes Thug’s rapping voice as both “a sluice of electric gibberish” and “the post-verbal eruption that best reflects the incomprehensibility of the right now.” (Chris Richards can write.) Thug loves to keep his voice garbled, revving it in 15 different directions at once, using it as an agent of disruption. And there’s merit to what Richards says. Even when you can’t make out what Thug is saying, the way he flings that voice all around makes for jolting, unnerving listening. On the “Slime Season” track “Calling Your Name,” for instance, Thug turns his voice into an aggrieved-puppy yip so that he can sing along with a pitched-up trance sample, and it sounds nuts. At times, he sounds the way circa-2006 Lil Wayne would’ve sounded if he’d taken quick hits of helium in the middle of his rapping binges. And the way Thug can switch from an oddly beautiful blues-croon to a straight-up cat screech is both disorienting and exciting. Heard from a certain angle, Thug’s entire rap style makes a glorious argument for style over substance, or for style becoming its own kind of substance. After all, here’s a guy who sometimes feels more important when his words get lost in his pterodactyl caw.
But for me (and for Richards, too, I think), Thug’s delivery is only part of the story. His actual words are just as freaky and sideways and expressive. Thug plays around with the same tropes as all his other rap peers — sex, drugs, guns, cars, gang affiliations — but he finds strange and memorable ways to arrive at those same places. In those moments when you can understand him without radically retraining your ear, he’ll say something like “I pull up and arson all over your garden” or “My fuckin’ weed smell like a turd, I just made 10 mil off of merch.” With lines like that, the question isn’t what he’s talking about; it’s how he got there, which brain synapses had to fire for him to arrive at that particular set of words. Other times, it won’t be the words, exactly, but the emotion that he puts into them. “When you’re so successful, all your cars glide,” he’ll say, and that’s not an especially original thing. But the way he says it is he gasps, like he’s overcome with the beauty of what he’s saying even as he’s saying it. Thug isn’t just chaotic, innovative vocalist; he’s also a chaotic, innovative writer, whether or not he’s actually writing these words down before he puts them on record.
Once upon a time, I had to recalibrate my entire listening instincts so that I could understand André Benjamin, too. On the first couple of OutKast albums, he rapped so quickly, through such a thick accent, using such slightly unfamiliar verbiage, that what he was saying sounded like it was only half in the same language that I spoke. Those early OutKast records still sound great, but they don’t seem as incomprehensible as they once did, at least to me. I think that’s a measure of how André was ahead of his time, figuring things out before the rest of the rap world did. Time will tell, but Thug, even when he’s in a stylistic holding pattern, seems like he might be ahead of the rest of us, too.
1. Tate Kobang – “Bank Rolls Remix”
Baltimore club music, my city’s raw hyperspeed house music substrain, has historically been inhospitable to rappers. But slow that elemental boom-clap down a step or two and leave a whole lot empty space, and you can just crank a kid up and let him go. Tate Kobang sounds like he’s 12 and dances like he’s Bobby Shmurda, and there’s a lighthearted fluidity to the way he raps here. People talk about Baltimore like it’s the depths of hell, but it’s a beautiful place. And when Tate talks about loving his city while that tingly little house piano comes in, you can hear just a tiny piece of what I’m talking about.
2. Jay Electronica – “Holladay”
Jay Elec must’ve popped up and seen his own shadow for once, so after the typical months of silence, he suddenly pops up over those Bob James bells and old-soul strings, rapping about walking on the moon like Swagger Jackson and how you’ll never catch him slipping on the grassy knoll. He sounds so confident and in-control that you can’t help but wonder why he doesn’t do this all the time. One lo-fi, chorus-free burst of dizzy verbiage every six months is just not enough.
3. Cam & China – “Run Up”
The all-female L.A. jerk music crew Pink Dollaz were around and making great, fun, minimal dance-rap long before the DJ Mustard wave took over the West Coast. Two of them are still in here, talking expertly husky gutter shit over a beat that sounds like an 808 hijacking a spaghetti western soundtrack. When this is on, there’s a very real danger that I will suplex my nextdoor neighbor off his front stoop.
4. Rich Homie Quan – “A.M.”
I honestly don’t know what’s going on with Rich Homie Quan’s new DTSpacely Made This. It feels slight and cobbled-together where every other Rich Homie tape sounds like a manifesto. But on this one opening track, he’s a sharp, forbidding crooner flexing a drawling update of Nate Dogg’s icy “Regulate” style. “I sleep with my Bible, say my prayers every morning / Wiping cold out my eyelids while I’m pissing and yawning” — that is one hell of an opener.
5. Gangsta Boo – “Can I Get Paid (Pt. II)”
We hear so, so many rap songs about strip clubs. We almost never hear them from the perspective of the stripper. This one and its 2001 predecessor are rare exceptions. Boo isn’t interested in a stripper’s inner pain; “Get your broke ass out the club if you ain’t gon’ tip” is just common-sense advice. Boo is all ferocious snap, and strip-club enthusiast Beatking supplies a beat that would probably start a moshpit in the exotic dancing emporium.