The Rise of Young Thug

The first time I heard Young Thug, I was in my car. I had just downloaded his 1017 Thug mixtape and put it on my iPhone. The first song I skipped to was the one that garnered a considerable amount of buzz among message boards and tastemakers alike – a song entitled “Picacho.” “My diamonds just say Picacho,” Young Thug shouted, his voice almost cracking before heading into the second line. Though the wordplay itself was not necessarily the best I had ever heard, it was certainly noteworthy because of the yelping vocal delivery. It’s a pulse of energy that you can feel in your chest with each listen, and you just want to sing along during every chorus. You want to imitate that weird style and see if you can pull it off yourself. You are not Young Thug though, and you cannot perform this to desired results. It is, however, extremely fun to try and do so.

Fast forward to January, and Young Thug drops Black Portland with his booming cohort, Bloody Jay. On this effort, you hear gargles, warbles, whispers and that esophageal sound that you’d only hear when watching The Grudge. The signature sonic hiccuping from 1017 Thug is still present, but it is flanked by Young Thug using the low end of his voice. There’s a lot more mumbling, which starts from a high squeal, but it slowly degrades into something you are hardly able to discern. This is most evident on “Movin,” where Young Thug devolves into someone who hasn’t quite remembered the words to his favorite rapper’s song and starts uttering them with the confidence of a backing track. It’s one of the many things on Black Portland that makes it such a great listen. It can go from ALL-CAPS to 8-pt wingdings at the drop of a fast-paced snare roll.

Since the drop of Black Portland, there has been an increased interest in Young Thug. “Danny Glover” is heading towards hit territory. The New York Times published a profile and a podcast about Young Thug’s place as a vocal stylist in hip-hop. He has also garnered co-signs from Drake and Kanye. The rise of the Gucci Mane protege, however, is not without detractors.

I’ve waxed poetic before about hip-hop’s growing strangeness in the summer of 2013. It has only gotten more off-the-wall as we have passed the Grammys. The Recording Academy has awarded Macklemore the distinction of best rap album, and everyone who has paid a small iota of attention to hip-hop has cried foul. Kendrick Lamar is the reigning lyricist who can move units, and the mainstream has acknowledged as such with the vitriol pointed at the Grammys. Lyrics and clever wordplay are now a hot commodity. In other words, pop music is embracing the 1990s again. This explains the uptick for artists like Kendrick. But it also explains the detractors of the sound of ‘New Atlanta.’

Most of the music coming from Atlanta does not adhere to the TDE blueprint for success. Most of the lyrics and sound do not share the same love for nostalgia as anyone from the A$AP Mob harbors. It sounds like aliens attempting to make trap music. I am not trying to malign any of the artists who make up New Atlanta; I say it as someone interested in the development at hand. While artists like Future and Migos have grabbed prominence in the mainstream, there is still a larger dismissal of Young Thug despite his style being somewhat in the same vein as the two aforementioned.

As Jon Caramanica and Ben Ratliff have mentioned in last week’s New York Times Popcast, doubters have decided that there is simply no room at the table for someone like Young Thug simply because of the subject matter for which he chooses as his material. Forget the fact that some of the marquee names in hip-hop have endorsed him – where are the lyrics? He didn’t even receive a shout out in that “Control” verse tho. And neither did Macklemore.

Music is not a mono-culture that can be somewhat compartmentalized in 2014 like television or movies can. Your favorite record of the year changes from month-to-month, and your favorite artist is never your favorite artist for more than two weeks in the age of the Internet. With the way hip-hop has moved for the past few months, there is enough room for Young Thug to be included among other contemporaries. Is he a lyricist? No. But he can mangle his voice to make the sound of his record appealing. Kendrick has intricate wordplay, and he can change his tone, but he can’t toss his words around, chew them up and spit them out the same way Thugger can. He can try, but he will never be able to do so, and in the process, I am sure he will have every bit as much fun as I have had trying to do the same.

In the end, there is room for Young Thug to be popular, and he is just as much a part of the conversation of the direction of hip-hop as A$AP Mob, or Earl, or Kendrick. It’s up to him as an artist to decide what he will do with his popularity. Will he make absurdly lose himself in his own mythology like Lil’ B, or will he became as corny as early mixtape dominaters like Wiz Khalifa and Wale? I am hoping that he keeps doing himself and continues to make music as interesting as Black Portland. 

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