Young Thug Finds A New Galaxy
One day in the fall of 2018, Young Thug posted a series of short Instagram-story videos of himself smoking a blunt and deeply enjoying “Some Nights,” the 2012 song from the band Fun. There were a lot of those videos. Some were in color, some in black-and-white. The clips would pick up at different parts of “Some Nights,” which suggested that Thug was just playing the song over and over. In some videos, he sang along. In some, he lip-synced. In others, he stayed silent and just held up his jewelry for his phone camera. In all the clips, it was clear that Thug was just sitting there, loving this song, and that he’d decided to share that love with the world. For a rapper who lives his whole life off in outer space, this was a startlingly basic and relatable moment. This great but vaguely cheesy song from this pop-rock band that no longer exists? That one night, it was Young Thug’s favorite thing in the world.
Three years later, performing on Saturday Night Live, Young Thug stood next to the former Fun. singer Nate Ruess. Ruess and most of the other people onstage wore bright red. Thug wore pink. A few years earlier, it would’ve seemed vaguely transgressive for a rapper to perform on SNL rocking head-to-toe pink, his fur coat and skinny jeans almost glowing iridescently. Young Thug made that kind of thing normal, though, so the real transgressive thing about that SNL performance was the sight of Thug co-signing a fashionably unfashionable pop-rocker like Ruess, linking up with him to sing a triumphantly soft lullaby about being in love. It turns out that Young Thug and Nate Ruess make so much sense together that I have to wonder whether Thug’s album So Much Fun is named after Ruess’ old band.
Young Thug had been talking about making an album called Punk for a long time, and he made it official in July when he taped a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR. Thug’s new album would indeed be called Punk, and he made the announcement by performing a few songs with a live band in a fancy backyard. Travis Barker sat in on drums, just as he would on SNL a few months later. I was skeptical. Thug had made a bunch of sleepy auto-pilot records in the recent past, and I’m not even sure I made it to the end of Slime Language 2, the label compilation that Thug released earlier this year. Thug seemed like he’d hit a creative ditch, and the idea of him enlisting Barker and attempting to pull a Machine Gun Kelly was not especially enticing. Neither was “Tick Tock,” the fine but forgettable single that Thug had just released.
You would think that I would’ve stopped underestimating Young Thug by now. You would think that everyone would’ve stopped underestimating Thug by now. Young Thug rose from mixtape eccentric to inescapable hitmaker in just a few years. He has rapped on three different #1 pop singles, and that’s not even a proper measure of his influence and importance. Watching the new Velvet Underground documentary two nights ago, I was struck by how much Lou Reed clearly absorbed from Bob Dylan, something I’d never fully noticed before. Everyone else saw what Dylan was doing and said, “Yeah, cool, acoustic guitars, folk music, jingle-jangle morning, got it.” Reed saw Dylan and realized that he could just enunciate his words like an absolute maniac. About a decade ago, Thug looked at Lil Wayne and took the same lesson. Since then, about a thousand rappers have learned that same thing from Thug. These days, every new rapper who achieves any level of national prominence is either a Young Thug disciple or someone who consciously and knowingly rejects Young Thug’s influence. He’s a titanic figure in ways that go far beyond his vast discography.
But that vast discography can be an issue. Young Thug spends so much time rapping that he inevitably lapses into autopilot sometimes. He’s on every big rap album, and he often seems to repeat variations on the same flexes over and over. A long time ago, Thug mostly lost his ability to say memorably demented out-of-nowhere shit, which makes his records significantly less entrancing. When Thug came out with his supposed official debut album So Much Fun a couple of years ago, I was surprised at what a solid rap album it was. I figured that Thug was just going to stay in that same diminishing-returns groove forever. He didn’t, but he went back into that groove after the album was done. With Punk looming, I figured Thug would either make more of the same, or he’d take the obvious left turn that so many other rappers are taking right now. Instead, Thug found a completely new way to make something crazy.
Punk is the kind of album that you only make if you really love the band Fun. That doesn’t exactly fit my definition of the word “punk,” and that’s a good thing. “Punk” doesn’t have to be a finite genre descriptor. It can be a way of orienting yourself, a signal that you’re operating on a different frequency. From that perspective, Punk qualifies as a punk album because it represents one more break from conventional wisdom. Rather than the sing-songy Atlanta trap album that he could probably make in his sleep, Thug has made a record full of tender, soothing melodies and theatrically twinkly gestures. I love that.
Punk is a deeply soft album, which, if you’re Young Thug, must be a hard thing to make. A song like “Livin It Up,” the album’s Post Malone/A$AP Rocky collaboration, is basically a folksy campfire singalong, with blockbuster-pop effects all over its acoustic-guitar/finger-snaps simplicity. If Post Malone were to make a song like this, then it might come off pretty pedestrian. (And Post Malone kind of did make that song; he’s on the track more than Thug is.) But tracks like that one clearly challenge Thug, and he responds by steering right into him, letting his excitable falsetto-squeaks find new textures and meters and melodies.
Thug has used the word the word “personal” to describe Punk, and I think that’s a good word for it. But the personal side of Punk isn’t necessarily the lyrical side, even if Thug does begin the album with a strange and digressive narrative about his mother getting hit by a cop car mid-argument. (One of the first lines that Thug raps on the album is “I always knew I wasn’t gon’ be gay,” and I don’t know whether that’s personal or not, but it’s definitely pretty dumb.) Most of the lyrics on Punk are about clothes and sex and money, and on paper, Thug doesn’t even come at those subjects in the same kinds of unpredictable ways that he once would. But Thug’s delivery puts these songs in a different zone.
On “Stupid/Asking,” for instance, Thug goes into a strange little meditation about a particular girl: “This bitch say I was good for her just like melatonin/ I wanna lay with you every night, and we never bone/ Good hair, only comb in her house is a silicone/ She done put her thong in my mouth, and we made a song.” Those lines are ridiculous, and Thug delivers them in a kind of lovestruck sigh. He’s not trying to seduce anyone; he’s just delighting in the moment, letting his voice get all soft and craggy over echoing 808s and fluttering pianos. He sounds like he’s floating on fluffy pink clouds. For most of Punk, Thug either keeps that sustained vibe, or he knowingly zags against it, as on the warped and noisy posthumous Juice WRLD collab “Rich N***a Shit,” with its berserker Pi’erre Bourne/Kanye West beat.
Punk has its issues. The album is way too long, with too many songs and too many collaborators. Some of the tracks are a little too comfort-zone for Thug, and it’s easy to get a little numb by the time the album is over. I don’t know whether I’ll keep listening to Punk in the months ahead. Right now, though, the album sounds pretty great, and it sounds pretty great in unexpected ways. Young Thug clearly challenged himself to make a different kind of record, a vulnerable melodic pop album that would catch the world off-guard. He succeeded. Young Thug might go through uninspired stretches, but when he lands on the right idea, he can still set the world on fire and burn brighter than the sun.
1. Zack Fox – “Shut The Fuck Up Talking To Me”
“Kick your baby out the carriage, then I flee the scene/ Hop up in that big body bitch like it’s Gundam Wing/ Then go and do a speech like Dr. King.” I had to wipe away a tear at that one. Zack Fox’s whole album is better than anyone could’ve possibly predicted and certainly better than some other critics are saying. The things that he does to this Alchemist beat are so beautiful.
2. City Morgue – “What’s My Name”
I’ve been pleasantly perplexed by City Morgue for a couple of years now, but when I think about them as a Halloween-themed rap group, everything starts to fall into place.
3. Celly Ru – “Chicken Strips” (Feat. Cash Kidd)
Every time underground shit-talkers from the Bay and Detroit get together, we all win. The age-old connection between our two most disrespectful rap scenes is a glorious thing.
4. Offset Jim – “Chinese K” (Feat. Aitch)
I don’t know whether there’s any previously established connection between the rap scenes in the Bay and London, but this is a development that we should all encourage. Aitch’s existence on this track makes no sense and tons of sense at the same time.
5. Suspect – “Encore”
Videos like this one make me wonder. Many of the scenes are shot outside, where Suspect is wearing a ski mask and a sweatsuit and the girl with him is wearing a bikini so small that it basically doesn’t exist. So what was the weather that day? Was one of them really uncomfortable? Were they both really uncomfortable? Do they just have radically different internal temperatures? Song bangs, though.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO