I hate having to choose between Young Thug and Future. For one thing, they’re both truly great — bugged-out Atlanta rap rebels who have been shooting the mainstream full of absurd ideas and making themselves truly popular in the process. For another, they should really be on each other’s teams. They are natural allies, so of course they don’t like each other. I’m only choosing between Young Thug and Future this week because Young Thug and Future made it impossible to do anything else. They both released albums on the same day, and they both spent time beforehand sniping at each other on Twitter. It wouldn’t shock me if Future moved his EVOL release date to last Friday just to torpedo Thug’s I’m Up release.
And if I have to choose between them, it’s a difficult choice. Future has the greater cultural footprint, and at his best, he’s better. He’s (slightly) more prolific, and he’s made a year and a half of music about exploring a bleak, soul-dead mood that I find endlessly absorbing. His melodies are superior, and his beat selection is just slightly better. He’s more consistent, too. But Thug’s ideas are stronger and weirder. Thug is capable of going on autopilot for longer stretches, but when he’s on, he’s much more likely to come with something that you’ve never heard before. And on I’m Up, he very much gives a shit. I’m Up is a short album, but it’s a strange and fun and vivid and inventive one. I like EVOL, Future’s new one, but it’s more of a slog than usual, a possible byproduct of Future’s decision to drop a new album only a couple of weeks after his last (great) mixtape. On EVOL, he sounds more joyless and mechanical than usual, and he feels stuck in a way that he’s avoided on his last five-or-so full-lengths. So in this one head-to-head meeting Thug gets the win. This wasn’t an easy decision, but it’s one that had to be made.
Thug was originally going to release I’m Up as the third installment in his Slime Season series, and he was right to change it. The first two Slime Season tapes had high highs, but they were relatively scattered and unfocused. Compared to them, I’m Up is a laser. It’s about half as long as either of the previous two, and it never runs out of gas. Thug covers plenty of moods on the album’s nine tracks — moving from celebratory yammering on “F Cancer” to tender falsetto crooning on “Family” — but he never loses his focus. Throughout, he sounds joyous and unmoored, firing off in all directions without regard to pedestrian notions of coherence or persona.
Consider “F Cancer.” People are talking about the song as a tribute to Boosie Badazz, the great Baton Rouge underground rap hero who just survived a battle with stomach cancer. And it is a Boosie tribute, at least for one bar. Boosie appears in the video, wearing a sombrero to his own congrats-on-not-having-cancer-anymore party. But the song isn’t really about Boosie, and it’s not really about cancer. Thug isn’t the sort of artist who writes songs about any one thing. He’s too restless. For Thug, one line doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with the next. And so before long, he’s rapping about how he’s Rey Mysterio and his life is HBO. And in the context of a euphorically weird, springy, joyful brag-rap track — which is what “F Cancer” turns into — Thug will sometimes come with these strange, evocative images that he never bothers to explain. “I got a bunch of wings surrounding my body” — is that Thug describing the album cover? Is he alluding to his relationship with Birdman? Or is that just a cool thing to say? We’ll never know. He’ll never tell us. It’s better that way.
I’m Up is full of beguilingly off moments like that one, moments where you wish you could follow Thug’s train of thought long enough to figure out how he got there. Consider: “Bitch, I’m a zoo, not a zebra.” Or: “Pussy clean, ain’t no germs in it / My pocket, it look like a book with a worm in it.” I could understand how his pocket looks like a book, but why is there a worm in the book? (I initially heard the first part as “Pussy clean, ain’t no turds in it,” and the great thing about Thug is that this line would be completely plausible coming from him.) At one point, he bursts out with, “I could fuck a bitch on a bus, now she Rosa Parks,” as if that’s how Rosa Parks works. The chorus of “Special” is just Thug wheezing, “I feel special / I feel spesh-uuuuuuuul,” making the word mean everything and nothing at once.
If frantic weirdness was all Thug had to offer, he’d be a fascinating curio and nothing more. But he’s a real musician. His rapping is somehow getting more confident and technically fluid all the time; the way he weaves in and out of the “F Cancer” beat is a beautiful thing to behold. When he sings, he lets his voice creak, like an old-school soul singer. He takes his energy up and down as the song demands. And on I’m Up, he sounds fully engaged, like he’s enjoying himself every second he’s on the mic. And this time around, he picks collaborators who understand his voice, who work well with it. The beats are all tense and springy and quietly melodic. The guest rappers are all technicians who work tiny little hooks into their verses: Migos’ Quavo and Offset, Duke, the double-dipping Lil Durk. And on the album-closing “Family,” he gives half the song over to his sisters Dora and Dolly, both of whom rap haltingly, amateurishly about inspiration and motivation. They don’t know how to rap the way Thug and his friends do, but there’s a real emotional force to hearing Thug on a song with his actual family members: “I get it from Lil Thugga / You know, relations.” It’s a genuine moment of personal connection from one of rap’s greatest enigmas, and somehow it goes perfectly with everything else he’s doing here. These days, Future would never be that vulnerable.
Other albums of note out this way:
• Future’s nihilistic, crushing EVOL.
• Pinegrove’s emotionally cathartic DIY wrecking ball Cardinal.
• School Of Seven Bells’ posthumous goodbye SVIIB.
• Rotting Christ’s epic, badass black metaller Rituals.
• Flowers’ old-school dream-popper Everybody’s Dying To Meet You.
• Merchandise guitarist David Vassalotti’s solo move Broken Rope.
• Pill Friends’ depressed punker Child Sacrifice.
• Radiation City’s glitchy rocker Synesthetica.
• Magrudergrind’s spazz-grind attack II.
• Mu’s II EP.