When I was in high school, I was a big fan of this history channel on YouTube called CrashCourse hosted by John Green who is known more famously for writing the commercially successful book The Fault in Our Stars. John Green had a running joke in the show that the Mongols were the great exception of history, and anytime Mr. Green would speak generally about historical themes through the ages, he would be frequently forced to add the disclaimer: “...unless you’re the Mongols.”
My relationship with rap music is a bit of a complicated one. I find the vast majority of rap to be most enjoyable as background music to be bumped while doing something else that requires the lion’s share of your focus, like lifting weights or manual labor. When it comes to the gym, rap is pretty much the supreme clamor to be thumping in your headphones, but when it comes to cerebrally engaging music that suits active listening, rap just doesn’t work for me.
...unless you’re Young Thug.
Young Thug is a rapper from Atlanta that started his career in 2010 as an uninteresting Lil Wayne clone, but gradually developed his own sound and by around 2015 he became an exceedingly consistent and inventive artist. His work can best be described as quirky; using unique and strange flows with his barely intelligible, and often nasally, melodic voice.
One of his biggest creative risks is also the aspect of his work that gets the most criticism: his minimization of lyrics. Young Thug’s brilliance lies largely in his ability to show and NOT tell through abstract expression by diminishing his lyrics to the point where they become effectively gibberish. This decision creates a parallel to the development of extreme metal where the intelligibility of lyricism was de-emphasized so that the focus of the listener would be placed on the more immaterial communication of riffs and atmosphere. Similarly, when confronted with Young Thug’s undecipherable lexicon, the more cerebral elements of his work are pushed to the forefront of the focus. In a genre so deeply rooted in lyrical competition amongst artists, this is a bold creative choice.
With lyrics out of the way, the listener’s concentration can be placed on the more important facets of Thug’s material: flow and melody. Young Thug’s flow spontaneously soars above and into the crevices of the production like puzzle pieces being fashioned and then fitted into place. The versatile nature and malleability of Thug’s voice conjures some impressive and engaging melodies that almost behave like guitar riffs in that they carve out the landscape of the song while developing and contorting in very exciting ways. This effect is created by way of rapping, singing, and quirky vocalizations that transform his voice into a lead instrument that is capable of much more than a vehicle for lyricism.
Unfortunately, Young Thug’s debut album Beautiful Thugger Girls was disappointing because it presented a more “toned down” Young Thug with more cookie cutter mainstream rap conventions. It has good moments, but is mostly weak. Young Thug’s music is at its best when no one else is featured on the track, because it allows Thug to flow seamlessly without any awkward interruptions. His best work is the 2015 mixtape Slime Season which is a great starting point for anyone interested in delving into his music.
Young Thug is a true testament to the expanse of rap music into more artistic and outlandish realms, and is the only rapper that I can always listen to without getting bored. His aesthetic may be distracting or cringe-worthy at first, but if you really give it a genuine chance and push everything you know about rap conventions to the back of your mind, it is bound to click.