Much has been made of Young Thug's chosen alias: Is the rapper's handle ironic, sincere, or simply the first face-palm-obvious thing that popped into 22-year-old Jeffrey Williams's head? The name is just one piece of the puzzle that makes up the breakout Atlanta star, whose off-the-wall squawk has laced many of the biggest rap anthems of the past two years, cleaving hiphop fandom down the middle in the process.
His voice is the first thing that lets you know Thug's far from generic, and one can't discuss the man without talking about it. For rap heads, the clearest precedent is Lil Wayne during his robo-tripping Auto-Tune phase, with a bit of the pained paranoia of vintage Dizzee Rascal and some old-school Jamaican toasting thrown in. It's a slippery, shrill, mutating, and manic instrument, a froggy croak/croon that's never quite either. Calling his style "divisive" would be an understatement. While his lyrics tread turf familiar to anyone listening to current rap (lean, ladies, lucre), he's got an intuitive, abstract-minded way with imagery that elevates him above his contemporaries. You won't hear Jeezy rhyming "Let that chopper sing to her like Pandora/And I hope you got insurance on your daughter."
Even apart from that ineffably strange voice and unorthodox songwriting, Thug's managed to stir controversy among the hiphop cognoscenti with his decidedly un-PC interview style. Here's his response to police violence, following Ferguson: "Leave that up with the critics and the laws and all that other shit. We having fun, we iced out, we having money. That's how we doing it." Here's Thug's take on Jay Z's career as an aging rapper: "[He] has some of the sickest lyrics ever, but I would never buy his CD, just because of my age and because of his age." As if dissing Hov weren't attention-grabbing enough, his sexual orientation has also become a lightning rod for rap pundits, as his proclivity for cross-dressing and fondness for calling his friends "hubbies" have prompted endless message-board theorizing about what goes on in his bedroom.
None of this should come as a surprise, really. His insular sensibility, out-there fashion choices, and blatant disregard for what's "acceptable" for a modern rapper slot him neatly into the "weird Atlanta" scene, stretching back to eccentrics like Goodie Mob and Outkast through to oddball peers like Gucci Mane or Future. Beyond the regional connection, though, Thug should rightly be considered the progeny of underground heavies who stand even further afield, love-'em-or-leave-'em savants like Kool Keith or the endlessly prolific mystery that is Lil B. In other words, he probably doesn't give a shit what someone's saying about him rocking a dress.
Which is precisely what makes him the most exciting new voice in hiphop: The man just wants to rap his ass off. What tends to get lost in all the blog babble is the undeniable technique and commitment he brings to something like "2 B's," a brute of a song that's brooding, sensual, and maniacal all at once. The song's strain of gothic trap finds Thug ricocheting off the beat from a million angles, spitting in skewed cadences, and subverting the music's menace with inspired inanity. Who could deny a line like "Money stand eight feet tall/Just like TWOOO midgets"? And easily two dozen of his tracks are equally brilliant: "Picacho," in which the twinkling beat cushions a typically faded stream-of-consciousness rap, or the aquatic and gorgeous drug ballad "Strange Things," or "OMG," which finds him riding minimal Bay Area bounce with an irritatingly catchy patois. His best performance to date is on T.I.'s "About the Money," whose video provides helpful sing-along visuals for Thug's syncopated singsong flow as he rattles off slang at a breakneck pace. It's on tracks like these that Thug's charisma crystallizes and becomes undeniable, even for those who loathe him.
The hand-wringing about his sexuality or his politics or his ability to play nice is just that: a distraction from the magnetic pull of an astonishingly talented and creative new voice in the rap game, who's moved up the ranks at light speed and shows no signs of slowing down. Maybe there's not a mystery about Young Thug at all: We're just in the presence of a restless young mind with better things to do than come up with a cute moniker.