His lyrics are barely discernible. His style and choice of words confound gender norms. Even his stage name sets him apart; so generic it almost feels like a satirical comment on rap. And yet, somehow, Atlanta rapper Young Thug has become the up-and-coming artist that hip-hop heads have collectively shifted their focus on.
Born and bred in Atlanta, Young Thug (real name Jeffrey Williams) is just a part of a growing crop of young rappers making waves out of Georgia’s capital. Guys like Future, Migos, Que and Rich Homie Quan are all making hits — but for some reason, none quite have the kind of palpable buzz that 21-year-old Young Thug has. It’s buzz that’s come in the form of: Instagrams of Kanye West and Drake getting hype in clubs to “Danny Glover”; Complex Magazine calling him one of “the Beatles of 2014”; and, especially, the flurry of journalists attempting to dig deeper into Thug’s mystique. Sure, being rap’s hypechild doesn’t always guarantee talent. But Young Thug seems to have some staying power. Part of it is his songs: the aforementioned spooky club banger “Danny Glover” has been blowing up both on Twitter and in the clubs, while his most recent single, “Stoner,” a riveting neo-snap masterpiece, has been a hit on terrestrial radio. His rapping style is unique, mixing the slurred, codeine-drenched vocals of “Future” and “Ca$h Out” with the humor and self-sure attitude of Lil Wayne in his prime. Artfully using AutoTune to robotize and smooth his percussive delivery, Thug’s voice has a tendency to transform from song to song — sometimes even from verse to verse. And over block-shaking beats like “Glover” (produced by TM88 and Southside), he sounds almost alien. To many hip-hop purists, it’s the type of rap that is threatening the genre as a whole. But to a new, younger set of fans, it’s the type of rap that’s pushing it to new artistic heights.
2013’s 1017 Thug, his debut mixtape on Gucci Mane’s Bricksquad label, is a definite sign of progress from his earliest efforts. On his I Came From Nothing tape series (released in 2011 and 2012), he sounds less like the messiah of Southern rap and more like a above-average emulator of Lil Wayne. Void of the AutoTuned weirdness, his lyrics come through clearer. And instead of being the captivating performer he’s now known as, he was just another rapper from Atlanta. The appeal is in the uniqueness. That’s exactly where he will thrive in 2014.
The other weapon Young Thug possesses is that magic mixture of personal charisma and genuine quirkiness. In an age of artist overexposure — where rappers’ every minute are documented via Twitter and Instagram and music news is available 24/7 on blogs — much of Thug’s mystique had, until recently, remained a general mystery. But now with the spotlight on him, people are beginning to take notice of his distinctive flair. Check his Instagram: Thug rocks a septum piercing, dresses in tight t-shirts, and paints his nails. He calls his boys “love” and “babe.” Some even believe he may become the first openly gay “thug” rapper. Young Thug is so aggressively himself that it’s almost hard not to be drawn to him as an artist. He, in the words of Complex’s David Drake, has that “mysterious quality commonly referred to as it.”
Thug recently told Mass Appeal that he’s officially signed with Cash Money Records, the label responsible for his admitted idol Lil Wayne, as well as Drake and Nicki Minaj. As the writer Brian Padilla explains, “Cash Money is a perfect place for Thug to grow, remain sexually elusive, and best of all make music with the dudes running hip hop right now. Drake, Young Thug, Lil Wayne all in one studio. I’m going to let you think on that while I pick up the pieces of my skull.” He has a good point. With a major label budget and a ridiculous group of stars around him, Young Thug’s got the necessary resources to become a superstar. However, the real worry for Young Thug is whether his distinct brand of weirdness has enough substance to last in an age where 15 minutes is all many rappers get. If he doesn’t continue to innovate, audiences will brush him off as a novelty and move onto the next. It’s just the reality of today’s fast-paced, ever-shifting music scene.
If it’s not his talent, an important attribute that could help push Thug to the top is his work ethic. He recently told Complex that, in addition to recording “a couple songs” with Kanye, he’s got loads of material on deck. First, Rich Homie Thug, a collab tape with Rich Homie Quan; then HiTunes, which he says is “just stoner music”; and finally, True Blood, featuring longtime partner Bloody Jay. That’s not even including his highly-anticipated joint mixtape with another young prince of rap: Chief Keef. 2014 truly is Young Thug’s year to lose.