Five Years Ago, Young Thug’s “Lifestyle” Changed My Life
In the summer of 2014, the rap internet spent much of its time vacillating between laughing at Young Thug and being angry at Young Thug. His unconventional (read: feminine) fashion sense, and his penchant for referring to his homies as “hubby” or “bae,” meant he was either gay or not afraid of people thinking he might be. In an unfortunately large sector of the hip-hop community, either was unforgivable. Then there was the exaggerated squawk with which he delivered his lyrics, and of course the lyrics themselves. No, his detractors would admit, we don’t know what he’s saying. We just know we don’t like it.
In his native Atlanta and among a growing subset of the hip-hop media, though, Thugger was recognized as being at the forefront of a wave of bubbling Lil Wayne, Future, and Gucci Mane-influenced hitmakers like Migos and Rich Homie Quan. Whether this was driven more by genuine interest in his music or some combination of curiosity and mockery mattered less than the fact that Thug’s buzz was growing louder by the day. In the last week of June 2014, he had three songs on the Billboard Hot Hip-Hop/R&B Songs chart: “Stoner” (no. 32), “Hookah” (no. 40, a collaboration with Tyga), and “About the Money” (no. 46, with T.I.), the latter two of which were new to the chart that week, painting the picture of a rapidly ascending rap star. And then, on June 29, the music video for “Lifestyle” hit YouTube:
In August of 2013, I didn’t yet know who Young Thug was. I did know, from pretty much the moment I stepped onto the campus of my small liberal arts college in New England (henceforth referred to as SLACNE), that it was not the place for me. By the end of orientation, I found out that the school had been knowingly dubbed “Camp SLACNE” by generations of overwhelmingly white and wealthy students; they treated it like summer camp, a low-stakes place to goof off. These were some of the most sheltered teenagers imaginable — in my first week, I discovered that I was the only one in a class of 15 first-years who had gone to a public high school.
I was sheltered in my own way, having grown up in a relatively diverse area, where my family’s complex South Asia-by-way-of-East-Africa origins were rarely a punchline, and where I made friends who looked like me and shared my cultural sensibilities. One had joked when I chose SLACNE that I was going to “come back white.” I scoffed at him, because I knew myself enough to know that my core beliefs and personality weren’t going to be transformed by my surroundings. During my first semester, my roommate walked in while I was watching an old Chapelle’s Show rerun and laughed hysterically at a Black Star musical performance, mistaking it for a comedy sketch. A few weeks later, I showed a classmate a new Chief Keef song I loved. The good news was that he loved it too. The bad news was why: “It’s just so stupid. I love ignorant music like this.”
Young Thug’s ultimate gift, the one he used to create his masterwork debut Barter 6, as well as on genre- and mind-bending moments across Jeffery and Beautiful Thugger Girls, is his ability to convey raw emotion through his voice. I cannot stress enough that both of the following can be and are true: 1) Young Thug is criminally underrated as a lyricist, and 2) the particulars of what he is saying are very often irrelevant. On “Lifestyle,” his exact words are of far less consequence than the fact that he delivers them with pure, unbridled joy, the kind that comes with being on a high made possible by the lows it took to reach it.
Just over 30 seconds into the song, Thug rap-sings, “Nigga livin’ life like a beginner, but this is only the beginning,” except it sounds more like Ni-gli-lym-lyga-bligin-budis-owly-bligiiinaaan. Later on, just past the minute mark, “Hop up in my bed full of 40 bitches, I’m yawnin’” (almost certainly not his precise phrasing, but even I, fluent in Thugger-ese, had to consult Genius for their best guess) becomes: Hupumabablibonibichisiyoanih. He doesn’t slow down or enunciate for your benefit or mine, because he doesn’t have to. “Lifestyle,” along with much of Thug’s early output, was a test of our ability to take someone as they are, and to embrace the parts that they can’t or won’t dilute. On “Lifestyle,” Thug sounds like someone who realizes that his own self-possession is more important than any confusion his lack of elucidation may cause. “Lifestyle” sounds like self-assurance.
On Halloween 2013, someone at SLACNE dug a Dashiki out of their closet and asked me to put it on. It would be funny, he said, and we could pretend I was a visiting student from Africa, thereby enabling us to possibly gain entry to an exclusive frat party. Never mind that only the most ignorant person would mistake my racially ambiguous appearance for West African (actually, considering the types who worked the doors at frat parties, this plan probably would have worked). The worst part of this particular memory is that I didn’t call out the obvious racism in the moment. My mother, an American Studies professor, had not raised me to stay silent. Yet there I was, unable to find the words, staring at the Dashiki in my hands.
By the time winter break rolled around, “Should I transfer?” had given way entirely to “Where should I transfer?” I’d learned from the handful of fellow students of color that surviving at SLACNE meant choosing between assimilation or commiseration: you either immersed yourself in SLACNE culture, signing away your individuality and identity, or found a small tribe and quiet spaces to swap stories and count down the days until graduation. That spring, I applied and was accepted to a large university in Boston. (A word to the wise: when you find yourself in a place that makes you see Boston, Massachusetts as a beacon of diversity, you need to get out of that place. Fast.)
Returning home that summer and seeing my friends again was a godsend. I felt closer to them than before; the tiniest details of our friendship, like personalized daps and obscure slang, felt monumental. Once you know what it feels like to constantly have to explain yourself, you come to cherish the feeling of being wordlessly understood.
In October, the same crew from “Lifestyle” — Thug, Rich Homie Quan, and Birdman as Rich Gang — released Tha Tour, Vol. 1 (there would be no Vol. 2 — please don’t ask me what happened between them, as I don’t want to get tears all over my laptop). The tape was an instant classic, finding Thug at his most experimental and balancing out his madcap energy with Quan’s more accessible crooning and Birdman’s hand-rubbing.
I played it on an endless loop, compensating for the fact that the Rich Homie to my Thugger was nowhere to be found — my new school was a lot like my old one, and its student body was nearly as pale and priviledged. One weekend night, unenthused by the prospect of another Tha Tour-and-NBA2K session in my cramped single, I brought my Xbox and my bluetooth speaker out to the common room, even though I knew my hallmates worshipped at the altar of J. Cole and considered Yeezus the best Kanye album. Within minutes, heads began to poke out of doorways, and a few of them joined me on the common room couch.
The crowd around me grew as the night went on — some laughing at Thug’s more oddball vocalizations, others asking for the name of a song so they could download it — -and the more we talked, I recognized in them the same uncertainty I had felt at SLACNE. As I belted out Rich Homie’s “oooh’s” as “Tell Em” played over the speaker, I realized the unmoored version of me that let others dictate when and how I expressed myself was gone. In his place stood someone with the confidence to loudly embrace Young Thug in a room full of J. Cole fans.
Several of those present in that room became my close friends, and reminisced on that night often. When you’re in a new place surrounded by new people, it’s easy to start questioning yourself, to stay quiet when you know you should speak up, to pick which parts of yourself to display and which to tuck away. Having someone show you what self-assurance looks like can go a long way. After “Lifestyle,” I was able to do for others what Thugger had done for me.
In November, as I settled into a new friend group and newfound confidence, “Lifestyle” reached its peak of #16 on the Billboard Hot 100. His momentum as a hitmaker stalled after that, even as his influence and mentorship sent the likes of Lil Uzi Vert, Gunna, and Lil Baby skyrocketing to streaming-era stardom. Earlier this month, Thug’s new star-studded single “The London” became his highest-charting track as a lead artist. It may be a step toward Thug realizing his mainstream potential, but I’d bet almost anything that he couldn’t care less about whether or not that happens, or about the fact that his stylistic offspring have breezed past the interrogations about fashion, identity, and artistry that he had to deal with. When you’re secure in who you are and what you’ve been through, all the rest is just noise.