“People think I am falling off because I put out music I like but I always know the music y’all like,” declares Young Thug. In creating So Much Fun, his goal was to release an album for the people. He was certainly correct in his assessment, as the album was his first to debut at number #1 on the Billboard 200. Debuting at #1 signifies that Young Thug’s music, which once existed at the fringes of hip hop and certainly pop music, is now part of the mainstream culture. Pop culture embraces Thug’s experimental approach that goes beyond vocal experimentation; a rapper that wore a ruffled dress on the cover of his nominal album; and an artist that can capture the natural rhythm of language by blending words that simply sound good.
“I would never even attempt it,” exclaims T.I., in conversation about those who try to imitate Young Thug’s sound. Indeed, imitating his sound requires a boundless approach to creation, where ‘too much’ does not exist and the ability to truly create sound is inherent. Young Thug’s diverse discography exemplifies his ability to communicate with listeners amidst the chaos of sounds he creates. Yet, the ingenuity of his music lies in its auditory ambiguity, as the most ambiguous moments are the boldest expressions of music. He immerses the listener in nuanced melodies and layered beats that are sometimes clouded by his seemingly nonsensical lyrics though. The transcription of his lyrics is variable while the meaning assigned to lyrics is ambiguous (and sometimes politically questionable). His unpredictable, endless stream of chirps, gasps, howls, whispers rarely enables the listener to fully make sense of the sonic rapture they experience but appreciating his music does not require fully comprehension.
Despite the difficulty of imitating Young Thug, that is exactly what wildly popular, and consequently profitable rappers like Gunna, Lil Keed, and Lil Baby have attempted. All three of these artists’ careers were propelled by Thug’s guidance while the former two are currently signed to Thug’s record label, YSL Records. Interestingly, Gunna’s debut studio album, Drip or Drown, charted at #2 on the US Billboard Charts while Lil Keed’s debut album, Long Live Mexico, has been critically deemed as very promising. The commercial and critical success of these rappers, who emulate Thug’s warbled, reiterative ad-libbing rap, is directly linked to Thug’s success in creating space for himself and consequently, his proteges. His guidance has constructed the mainstream of hip hop today so that artists like Gunna and Lil Baby are at the tip of most rap fans’ tongues.
Thug has also simultaneously kept a pulse on hip hop and expanded his own musical capabilities. His recent songs, like “Bad Bad Bad” reflect this expansion and also portray a considerable departure from his earlier records like “Pacifier”. His rapid rapping that was often layered on repetitive ad-libbing and changing beat has been transformed to a more consistently paced rhythm and beat. Some critics have stated that Thug’s change of style is a result of his desire to commercialize his music. However, I disagree as this transformation exemplifies the ever-changing and fluid nature of Thug’s artistry. He has never branded himself as a certain type of rapper but instead has created versatile music throughout the years. For example, Beautiful Thugger Girls, a mixtape that showcases emotional songs that are an amalgamation of country, dance, rap, differs drastically from Jeffery, his mixtape from the previous year, that was a collection of memorable trap and rap songs. His ability to stay relevant, despite his changes, is a testament to his artistry and continues to inspire upcoming rappers.
When I listen to Thug’s music, whether it be a past song or one from his recent albums, it can be hard to replicate the actual sound of the music or even describe how it makes me feel. His music is meant to invoke feelings, regardless of whether they can be described in words as his process of creating music does not always involve concrete words. For example, he sometimes draws symbols on a piece of paper to guide his recording sessions in studio, rather than lyrics. He starts with the barest form of music so that he can bend and mold it to the shape of the song he has created in his mind. The improvisation involved in his methodology resembles the scat singing involved in vocal jazz. However, Thug’s influences are hard to pin down as his varied approach to music seems to be inspired by anything and everything. Young Thug’s lack of articulation, coupled with his improvised sounds and jumbled words, has become an instrument that stretches the conventions of hip-hop music, and in certain moments, the conventions of musical expression. His vocal experimentation and his willingness to set a new precedent, whether it be in music or fashion, reinforces one of the purposes of art, which is to challenge convention and usher in new, creative forms of expression.