Jeffrey "Young Thug" Williams has to be rap's most acquired taste. Start with Lil-Wayne-at-his-weirdest as a stylistic soup-base, then simmer through the earliest days of Atlanta's Future-ist melodic renaissance, and throw in dashes of what might be ODB and Marilyn Manson—I would expect more than a few to opt for the Mickey D's drive-through, where the sauce is cheaper and sweeter, instead.
Young Thug's detractors are loud. Yeah, people endlessly hate on and argue about Kanye, but trad rap heads hate Young Thug And All He Stands For, view him as the cultural Antichrist. The reasons why are legion.
Firstly, there's the upstanding hiphop homophobe vanguard that dismisses him immediately in a spray of phlegmy slurs up and down the comment sections of countless blogs and YouTube clips. Thug's singular style extends beyond his rapping and wardrobe—seemingly to his views on rap's traditionally rigid rules about gender expression and sexuality.
He claims to wear mostly women's clothes because they fit him "like a rock star," he's expressed love for his friends by calling them "loves" and lovers and joked about getting married to them, and he's tweeted about "smoking penises" (twice!).
He's either rap's arch troll, the first superstar rapper to posit a fluid definition of sexuality and gender, or someone simply raised without a single solitary fuck to spare (he did say he Came from Nothing, after all). Or all three.
Of late, though, he's leaned more on calling himself and his partners "slimes," and professing his love to his fiancée Jerrika Karlae on social media. True love or label-mandated PR? Is the ridiculous fake he wore in the "Big Racks" video not his only beard? Who cares? Who Thugger fucks on, to use the parlance of the times, is probably the least interesting thing you could try to figure out about him. Yet the fact that he's rocketed to rap's elite while keeping the world guessing about just that—something fairly unthinkable just a few years ago—is one of the most.
As is figuring out exactly what Thug says in his raps. Besides those who say his subject matter is generic, or say they can't stand his voice, still more say they simply can't understand a word he says—that he's not even saying words! (As E-40 famously said to similar criticisms: "Y'all just listening too slow.")
Still—how many of you sang along to Young Thug's hook on "Lifestyle" while knowing exactly zero of the words—except "lifestyle" and "beginning." It's kinda like when I listen to old Brazilian records to relax and try to sing along at home, since I don't speak or understand Portuguese. I don't know Spanish either, but I've heard 100-year-old boleros that brought me near to tears. There's just something greater than language that conveys feeling.
But more importantly than any grandiose ideas about his universality is this: Young Thug's inscrutability, his once-gradual and now extreme eschewing of traditional rap delivery is an essential function—the spirit of which should be better understood on a cultural level if rap wants to stay vital and not merely be the best-selling skin for one of history's most insidious apps.
See, rap has been defanged, dissected, cataloged, toe-tagged, broken down into scientific classifications. Whereas a fan's deeper understanding once came only with a greater level of actual cultural engagement, i.e., via other people—now all you need is the wi-fi password, Genius.com, and Urban Dictionary.
(Meanwhile, none of this access has necessarily fostered any more empathy or understanding for the people who keep creating popular culture—it's just created new ways to sell pancakes, stacked new echelons of cultural colonization, hewn sharper tools of white supremacy.)
Rap music is the child of original ingenuity, a meme of cultural survival and proliferation that extends far beyond (and before) the South Bronx. The same things that made the slaves in the field switch their lingo, to couch it in subversive, instructive song—the spirit of the trickster, the finesser, the slime.
Of course, Young Thug's not immune to the lyrics sites and pedestrian analysis (obviously), but his unprecedented way of warping and chewing the air makes his voice an as-yet-uncolonized mode of expression, a living technological advancement of Black art, one of the few things in the rap canon that White people haven't yet learned how to emulate.
The syllable-perfect bar-for-bar narrative style—the one that roughly began with Rakim's ballistic poetry and was brought to an excessively logical conclusion by Eminem's lyrical spreadsheet—has been duped, mastered, and distributed for years now. Similarly, Drake's (and Migos's!) cadences and self-centered confessionals are a loonie a dozen today.
Veteran rap radio and TV host Sway Calloway remarked that Thugger "disrupt[s] the status quo," he "redefined the pocket," and he has reinvented presentation in hiphop, vocal and otherwise. Whatever you think of his content (which doesn't fundamentally differ from any of his peers), it's hard to question that his unbridled form, for better or worse, has helped make what is said subordinate to how it's said.
(Maybe that's a terrifying thought to some, but consider that so-called "woke" rappers can basically say anything they want, to play the role—it doesn't mean they stand for shit, be they social issues or old ladies on the bus. If they actually got some funk, though, it might make for some good music, which is literally their one job.)
And what is Young Thug actually about? Near as I can tell, his family above all other things—from his street family (just check I'm Up's deeply affecting tribute "King TROUP"), to his parents, to his siblings (he's the 10th of 11), to especially his six children. (He's previously promised some problems to rappers Plies and The Game for talking down on his kids on the internet.)
But my favorite thing I get from years of listening to Thug is that he really loves women, amorously and otherwise, in a way rare for rappers in general, but especially among the kind of rappers who constantly talk about their guns, drugs, and, well, "bitches." Somehow, even when he talks about the most brazen of sexual escapades, even about sharing women with his friends and what have you—while it's often explicit, it rarely veers into the demeaning. Thug doesn't strip the women of agency, doesn't play them as disposable or less than him. This is a very fine line—maybe even one I misread, being a man—and one, perhaps, that not everyone will appreciate, but I find it telling nonetheless.
He's a sucker for love, a "romantic type nigga" who suddenly gushes to his boo on "Flaws": "Baby I love ya, in a house full of grown folks, baby I love ya / swear to god, you my bread and butter." (The mixtape that song is on, Slime Season 2, is chock-full of the most unexpected rap love ballads of all time—which make LL Cool J's "I Need Love" look about as cynical as it really is.)
The first solo song of Thug's that caught my ears was 2013's "Keep in Touch," a disarmingly tender plea-ballad to his favorite lady not to forget about him, a promise to treat her like she's "never ever been treated."
Just peep the video for Slime Season's "Best Friend" (which was recently Thug's first single to be certified gold). In one scene, he comes upon a woman meditating in the woods, and as he gives her his hand to lift her up, he gives her a kiss on the cheek and embraces her playfully, and it scans about a million times more natural and loving an interaction than anything you'll see in a music video in 2016. In another, he sits at his dinner table, dabbing and celebrating with four women. They aren't the prop-models that rappers used to pretend to wake up between while taking business calls—they're his equals, his partners, his family. Literally: Two of them are his sisters Dolly and Dora, who rapped on I'm Up's "Family" (and who I'm pretty sure were running his merch booth last time he came through town).
In his interview with Sway, Thug admits that maybe his feminine dress code owes something to all the women—well, he calls them "Coke bottles," of course—that he surrounds himself with, who help dress him. It's a tossed-off joke really, but an amazing thing to hear a rapper admit, and part of the reason Young Thug's been my favorite voice in rap for going on four years now—he really seems to understand and welcome the future better than anyone. Young Thug has, in ways subtle and not so subtle, changed the way we talk about rap today—though the talk is only one thing. It's the walk that gets you there. But why walk when you can gallop?