Young Thug and Hip-Hop as a Further Quest for Self

The most popular rap station in Phoenix is Power 98.3, which claims to be “where hip-hop lives.” I don’t own a car or listen to the radio all that much, so when I do, it’s a good opportunity for me to try and gauge what kind of popular music is hitting the radio. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the backseat of a Lyft on my way to work. The driver put on 98.3 and I was listening quietly, bobbing my head along to the beat of some minor hit that I had heard before but never cared to identify.

Then a song came on — a very scary song. No, it wasn’t the latest ICP or Hopsin hit. It wasn’t some horrorcore jam that had somehow wiggled its way into the mainstream. The song was called “For Everybody,” by Memphis’ own Juicy J, with features from Wiz Khalifa and R. City. It had an undeniably catchy beat, but my face turned from mild amusement to complete horror after the song’s hook began pouring out of the speakers.

(These hoes) They for everybody
Pass them all around, they at every party
They ain’t gon be loyal, not for anybody
Still I love these hoes
(These hoes) They for everybody
Oh, that was your girl? Oops, I’m sorry
Don’t bring her around, this just too much money
Yeah I love these hoes

The song — hilariously edited to “These bros,” making it seem like some kind of misanthropically gay anthem — is a panic-inducing reminder of just how carelessly hateful a lot of hip-hop music can actually be. Claiming that hip-hop is a legitimate art form can prove itself to be a fruitless endeavor, if only because of how much evidence there is to the contrary.

Hip-hop has played a major role in my life for as long as I can remember. I was only eight years old when Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” took the airwaves by storm, but I remember listening to it and feeling like it meant something. Years later, West would perform “Runaway” at the 2010 Video Music Awards. I sat, mesmerized by the audacity of the performance while my father sat next to me on the couch, dismissing it with the usual barrage of comments he often aimed at Mr. West for no other purpose than to frustrate me.

This would continue on for years to come. I distinctly remember listening to Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid m.A.A.d city” in my room and watching someone in my family mock it for the lyric, “suck a dick or die or sucker punch,” as if eight words from an eighty minute record was enough context to make any kind of judgment call. Then, some months later when Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” radically questioned the artistic and social contexts within which hip-hop had existed for the past three decades, my uncle demanded I turn off the pacifistic anthem “The Blacker the Berry” because he didn’t like it when Kendrick spoke too aggressively about race in America. This being the same person who had introduced me to some of the first rap songs I’d ever heard.

These moments actually help define exactly why I love hip-hop so much. The more I listen and the more I study, there’s one inescapable commonality amongst fans of all sub-genres and regions: for every hip-hop fan who appreciates the artistry and follows the rapidly growing capabilities of the genre itself, there’s another who simply uses their iPod as another tool on a utility belt of appropriation. Similarly, certain hip-hop artists are well aware of this distinction and feed into the latter because they know that a lack of substance can often equate to a growth in popularity.

And who’s to blame them? For every critical darling like “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” or “Run the Jewels 2,” there’s a Wiz Khalifa song with nearly 500 million streams on Spotify. If that’s not enough to elicit some kind of reaction, Major Lazer’s crossover hit “Lean On” has been streamed over 720 million times since its release in March of 2015, with another 1.3 billion views for the music video on YouTube.

“But what about Drake? He’s a popular rapper with a lot of radio play and firm artistic sensibilities.” This is true, and when it comes to maintaing this kind of balance, Drake is probably the most significant example in recent memory. He’s likable, talented, and has enough integrity to appeal to Pitchfork snobs and hip-hop enthusiasts who avoid the radio like the plague. However, the sad truth about Drake’s popularity has stemmed, at least since 2015, from the almost entirely rap-free “Hotline Bling,” which outshines the popularity of every one of his other songs with margins in the three digit millions. Going back through Drake’s most popular singles, one could argue that Drake hasn’t — depending on individual definitions of what makes a song hip-hop or pop — topped the charts with a rap song since 2011, when “The Motto” went triple platinum.

And after reaching all of these conclusions — from popularity vs. artistry to the general lack of social consciousness in most “radio friendly” rap— I thought I had a pretty decent idea of what differentiated good and bad hip-hop. Like all good art, it begins with intention. In other words, starting a project with a specific point of view or purpose and executing that to the best of that artist’s capabilities. Additionally, I’ve always viewed hip-hop as a predominantly verbal medium. Yes, a great rap song needs a great beat, but there’s very little that can be done to mask a set of lyrics without direction, subtext, or linguistic prowess. Whether it’s the politically charged lyrics of someone like Kendrick Lamar or Mos Def, or the more introspective braggadocio of Kanye West or even A$AP Rocky, great hip-hop is defined by a willingness to bare one’s soul in a way that’s relatable, memorable, and catchy.

Then, I discovered trap music.

For the uninitiated, trap music is a sub-genre of hip-hop that originated in the southern United States. Its title derives from a lifestyle that revolves around “the trap,” or a house where drugs and prostitution are the currency, usually run by someone known as a “trap lord,” or some similar moniker. The music itself is punctuated by heavy bass lines and EDM-inspired melodies, all in service of cultivating a sound that can be described as grimy or even off-putting to some.

My initial attraction to trap music was purely visceral. One of the only complaints I have about the lyrical substance is that trap music lacks the narrative and politically progressive qualities that characterize most of my favorite hip-hop songs and artists. It’s an unquestionably transportive experience for some, opening the doors to a lifestyle with which the average hip-hop fan (see: middle class white male) isn’t exactly familiar.

At first, trap music was something of a guilty pleasure for me. I knew, deep down, that it wasn’t the forward-thinking and morally just music I was most comfortable championing. But the more I listened to it, and the more I became familiar with its pioneers, the less I cared. Not necessarily because I threw my own beliefs out the window for the sake of a clean conscience, but because I realized that the intention was different, which lead me to a new, more open-minded understanding of what hip-hop was and what it could be.

All of this came to a head when I discovered Young Thug. A local sensation in his hometown of Atlanta, Thug (nicknamed Thugger) garnered some national attention after his debut album, “Barter 6,” was as artistically fulfilling as it was headline inducing. Originally named Carter 6 as a tribute to Lil Wayne’s still-unreleased “Tha Carter V,” the album’s name was changed after the threat of a lawsuit from Weezy himself all but forced audiences to pay attention. Having already released a steady stream of mixtapes, including the critically acclaimed “Slime Season,” the album solidified Thug as a trap artist with melodies in his mind and an ear for what could possibly be the future of trap as a whole.

To understand why this is the case, it’s important to break down exactly what Thugger is doing different, and — just as importantly — why. The reasons for his success can be broken down into three major categories: the music, the leaks, and the “rumors.” Some of the specifics are more significant than others, but the story behind the artist’s seemingly sudden fame is entirely reliant on a healthy dose of each, extending beyond the music and revealing the relatively unexplored prejudices of many modern hip-hop fans.

The Music:

One would think that to become a successful musician, the priority would be making great music, but pop music and the people who make it have proven otherwise. Superstardom is as much about music as it is about persona, so it’s a relief that Young Thug’s music is actually really good. Collaborating with a number of young producers with raw talent — including London on Da Track, Metro Boomin, and others — the appeal of Thugger’s music contradicts all of my prior definitions regarding what differentiates good and bad hip-hop.

It should be noted that Thugger is, first and foremost, a legitimate artist. While he can be criticized for a quantity-over-quality approach, especially in the earlier years of his career, one thing he’s not is lazy. Listening to Young Thug is an experience unlike any other. The trademark mumbles and general incoherence of Thugger’s lyrics are not only an artistic decision — much of it treads the line of a linguistic revolution. By intentionally obscuring his own voice, Young Thug is rebelling against the preconceived notions of what hip-hop represents; the exact same notions that lead me to my original definition of good hip-hop. His percussive vocal tics are more of a sonic accentuation than they are a guiding instrument through which he is verbally disseminating a particular message or mantra.

Listeners can really pick up on this by paying close attention to how Thugger’s vocals are mixed in each of his tracks. While most are accustomed to having the vocals laid on top of the beat as an undeniably dominant force, the delivery of Thugger’s lyrics is better suited as an interaction with the other audible sounds, tones, riffs, and melodies. There’s a conversational aspect to the music that feels less like Thugger cultivating a persona and more like him revealing himself in the truest way he knows how.

There’s often an odd dissociation that occurs when listening to artists discuss their music in an interview setting. Compare, for instance, Jay-Z’s vocal dominance in his music and his shockingly mild-mannered demeanor when sitting down with Jimmy Kimmel to talk about the infrastructural developments that have occurred in Brooklyn over the last couple of decades. It’s almost like they’re two different people. This really isn’t the case with Thugger at all. The man talks like he raps, in fragments. He fires off half a thought here and then picks up the second half of a completely different thought somewhere else.

This isn’t to say that he’s unintelligent or even uneducated. The complete opposite is almost certainly true. But it seems like the music comes from a much more honest place because Thugger doesn’t seem to alter any aspect of his truest self to appeal to a larger demographic. The mystery of his being, and the way he allows his lyrics to be impressionistic in their delivery, is exactly why listeners gravitate to him in the first place. Instead of getting a peek into Young Thug’s life, the rawness with which he creates is akin to sitting in a room with him while he spits his lyrics directly in your face. His intentions are present but obscured, and in a genre that houses artists who are often very explicit about how they feel and what it is they’re trying to say, Thug’s music can feel like a dramatic change of pace.

I think this can be pretty intimidating for a lot of listeners. I know it was for me at first, especially in a cultural climate that conditions hip-hop fans to look out for artists who are “saying something.” Where albums like “To Pimp a Butterfly” have incited conversations about race across America, Young Thug’s music seems to initially inspire only confusion. And, as is the case with most things, when people aren’t immediately sure of what they’re being confronted with, they’re prone to dismiss it. It’s understandable that Young Thug’s incoherence can be a daunting thing to unpack for many listeners, but it’s also extremely misguided to then go ahead and deem it worthless.

To paraphrase a Pitchfork article about Young Thug’s eccentric lyrical approach, he’s an artist that almost demands to be seen as a chaotic force. He hasn’t necessarily dismissed a conventional approach to lyricism because of a stunted vocabulary or some other intellectually-related reason. He does it because he doesn’t need or want words — at least not in the conventional sense — to achieve what he wants to artistically, and understanding this is the key to appreciating Young Thug, his music, and what he represents in the larger context of black culture.

The Leaks:

The advent of internet connectivity has sent the music industry into something of a frenzy. It seemed like just yesterday that piracy of already finished music was the biggest financial burden plaguing artists in the digital age, but as the years have passed, the threat of leaked and unfinished material hitting the message boards has become a much more startling reality.

Some artists have done their best to combat piracy at every turn, but if this refusal to acknowledge a more interactive creative process has taught us anything, it’s that there’s a fundamental disconnect between artists and their fans. The most notable example of this is obviously Lars Ulrich’s extreme reaction to Sean Parker’s company Napster, which has resulted in a looming cloud of disdain that’s followed Metallica ever since.

However, rock and metal bands seem to be much less effected by piracy than hip-hop, and I think there are a couple of explanations for this, the most notable being the sheer volume of collaboration necessary to produce a worthwhile hip-hop record. Where most other genres can allow artists to insulate themselves within the songwriting and production process, hip-hop is a fundamentally collaborative effort. It’s almost laughable how little some people understand about this process, as evidenced by a popular meme that highlights the number of people involved with producing a Beyoncé song in comparison to the more individualistic — and by extension “purer” — artistic process of, say, a Queen song.

Fast forwarding to February of 2016, the infamously botched release of Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” sparked a debate about the interactivity between artist and audience. The exclusivity of the release itself — the album was only available to stream on Tidal for the first 6 weeks — paired with the fact that most of the songs on the album were actually unfinished demos, begged the question, “Can music be an evolving organism?” More importantly, should it be?

Young Thug experienced a similar phenomenon in May of 2015, albeit unintentionally. Roughly 100 of Thugger or Thugger-related songs were leaked online by an anonymous poster (some have claimed that Thug’s nephew is responsible), leading to a statement from one of the engineers, Alex Tumay, whose music was involved in the leak:

These songs were a huge part of the past two years of my life. Most of those tracks probably would’ve ended up coming out for free when they were completed and the time was right, but they are for the most part unfinished. Whoever leaked them has no respect for music or the work that goes into creating it. Now there is a very real chance that these unfinished versions will be the only ones that people ever hear. I don’t have the time to devote to mixing/arranging the leaks for free, and I doubt there’s any interest to pay to have them mixed now that they leaked, so these will be the most complete versions people hear. We spent months on months, more or less living in the studio, creating these tracks. I don’t do this for the money. I do it because I care greatly about making something new and unique. Making my client’s music better. Making quality sounding music in a genre that change/experimentation/sonics often become an afterthought in. I want to change the world of rap music, and the less these songs are heard, the less of an impact they will make. I’m incredibly disheartened that this occurred and the fact that it will probably result in less official releases and will reduce the impact of some amazing tracks, that deserved a proper release. I’m glad that the songs are getting heard, just wish it could have been in a better context. I hate to give any extra attention to these leaks, but I felt like I had to say something.

Thug’s response to the incident seems to kind of sum up his attitude towards the music industry itself. When faced with a leak of this magnitude, artists have a tendency to retaliate against listeners, by trying even harder to prevent future songs and albums from being leaked. But, being the prolific twenty-something that he is, Young Thug’s approach to the entire ordeal is exactly what makes him so appealing. He is entirely a product of his era, forcing him to be proactive and use the incident as an excuse to do what he was put on this planet to do: make more music. Soon after, Thugger released the two “Slime Season” tapes, resulting in 2015 being the year of Thug. At this point, he was an unstoppable force to be reckoned with.

Because, unlike other artists, when he loses 100 songs to the internet, there’s 100 more just swimming around in his brain, and that’s what makes him the fascinating, inspiring, and ridiculously talented artist that he is.

The “Rumors”:

I’d like to end this analysis with something that may initially seem arbitrary, but is actually a key ingredient to what makes Young Thug such an enigma, and it has way more to do with the fans themselves than any of us want to admit. In fact, I’m willing to say that is has almost nothing to do with him and everything to do with why, exactly, hip-hop hasn’t broken into the mainstream in the ways that it probably should have by now.

We’re currently living an era where, despite the “Make America Great Again” stickers that are plastering the entire midwest, the American public is ready for change. And it’s not necessarily political or social or economic. At least, not exclusively. What it does boil down to, however, is that hatred based on superficiality is no longer “cool.” It’s not fun or charming or lighthearted anymore to make jabs at people based on their race or sexual orientation. Look at it this way, when’s the last time a mainstream rapper called somebody a faggot in a radio hit?

The hip-hop collective Odd Future, an LA clan lead by the energetic Tyler, the Creator, is one of the only examples I can think of. Between him, Earl Sweatshirt, Hodgy Beats, and Domo Genesis, that word has crept into their music more times than I care to count. But let’s also not forget that they fostered the emergence of Frank Ocean, one of the most famous and openly gay R&B/hip-hop artists of the 21st century. So to say that their music comes from a hateful place isn’t just disingenuous, it’s also completely false. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing their usage of the word. But, and I think this is true for a lot of what I’m talking about here, the context in which it appears is really the most important thing about it.

This brings me to Young Thug, who has quietly become something of an icon in the LGBTQ-community. While he is undoubtedly representative of the Atlanta gang life, one who has no problem talking about his Blood affiliations and how many women he shacks up with on a daily basis, he’s also opened up the conversation for speculation on his sexuality.

The “no homo” motto that seemed to define a lot of hip-hop in the mid-2000s (Lil Wayne drops the phrase in “Tha Carter III” more than once in an album that went on to win Best Rap Album at the Grammy’s) doesn’t apply to Young Thug. Sure, you can look at some of his lyric for hidden messages — the “Like Shaq’s feet/I bengay” bar has been put under a microscope for about five years now — but that almost seems redundant when Thug clearly has no problem showing affection for his friends and collaborators on social media.

Out of respect, I’m not going to link any examples and start creating some Illuminati-themed flowchart that tracks the level of gayness involved in Thug’s day-to-day life, but I will say that the pictures themselves aren’t necessarily indicative of his sexuality so much as the accusations are a sobering reminder that hip-hop is still not as socially conscious as we’d like to believe it is.

And the best part? Not only does Thug not deny these rumors, he actively encourages them, and the people who are infuriated by this are aggressively missing the point. Thugger isn’t quietly admitting that he’s gay, he’s openly flaunting that it doesn’t fucking matter. Regardless of whether or not Young Thug is, in fact, gay, the art he produces is still astounding. He is still one of the best rappers working today, one of the most talented and innovative MC’s to hit the microphone in years. The sooner people accept this, the sooner that hip-hop, as a genre, will be able to truly move forward and fulfill its potential as a genre of constant innovation and social influence. I think Young Thug knows this, and he’s just sitting by while the message boards explode with speculations based on word choice, the framing of a certain Instagram shot, the subtext of a particular set of lyrics.

Or maybe, and this is also a possibility, none of this matters to him and he just enjoys making music.

So, What?:

In the grander scheme of things, why does any of this matter? It’s a valid question. It’s nearly impossible for one man to revolutionize an entire industry, and that democratic approach to music-making is what keeps it interesting. That’s the way it should be. However, it’s difficult to deny the impact that Young Thug is having on hip-hop as a concept of expression. He’s an artist who has found an original and exciting way to express himself, and I think that scares a lot of people. As I said before, when people are unsure of what they’re confronted with, they’re prone to dismiss it, and that’s never been clearer than it is when I listen to people talk about Young Thug.

Most are at a complete loss for words. Some dismiss him for superficial reasons, citing his voice as “annoying” or “incomprehensible.” And hey, if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. There’s really nothing wrong with that, the music is definitely not for everyone. But the artistry is absolutely on display, and, if you love art inclusively, it’s almost irresponsible to try and refute that.

So why do I care enough about this to write 4,000 words on the subject? The answer to that question isn’t easy for me to put into words. My love for hip-hop has hinged almost entirely on the notion that, as a genre, it’s often an agent of change. Hip-hop has consistently pushed boundaries, from NWA to Death Grips, and it will continue to do so for as long as it can. But I think I became so caught up in this idea that I, too, as a person of color, was beginning to construct a narrative in my head of what hip-hop artists should be trying to do, who they should be trying to emulate, and why it was important to always be focusing on an artistic and thematic thesis statement, of sorts.

But that’s wrong. Listening to Young Thug, and on a grander scale trap music in general, has forced me to come to the realization that my definitions of good and bad hip-hop are, frankly, complete bullshit. It’s foolish of me to assume that an entire genre of music, with artists spanning the globe, should have any commonalities. Because not only is that not how music works, it’s not how life works. Am I always going to love every rap song that I hear? Of course not, that’s absurd. But it’s also not necessarily my place to be giving everything I hear a label of “good” or “bad,” because there’s a global spectrum in place, social contexts, and personal approaches to the art itself that I know nearly nothing about. Not really, at least.

It’s easy to listen to something and, based entirely on how it makes you feel, deem it “good” or “bad.” But in doing so, you begin to pigeonhole yourself by always looking for a commonality in all the music you like, trying to make sense of it by saying, “I like this music because…” But the real question we should be asking ourselves, especially when we’re confronted with something we don’t understand, is “Why does this make me feel this way?”

Asking “Why?” in response to any art is probably the best thing you can do for the art, the artist, and yourself. Intention is so unimaginably important, and just because the intention doesn’t align with what you think it should be, that doesn’t make it bad art. It shouldn’t be seen as a reason to disregard that particular artist or song or film or book or show or whatever. It should be seen as an opportunity to do what art is meant to do in the first place: step into someone else’s shoes and accept the fact that your perspective on the matter might not mean anything because it’s an experience you know nothing about. And that can be a really scary idea. But it’s one worth accepting, if only to allow more artists like Young Thug, artists with a true and singular vision, to have the courage to share themselves with the world.

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