Most Prince tributes have been musical, with artists stretching the limits of their ability to channel and reproduce the Purple One’s genius. In glorious oddball fashion, Young Thug’s homage was physical: The Atlanta rapper skulked onto the sold-out 9:30 Club’s stage Tuesday night in a purple blouse, lace gloves and the slimmest pants imaginable — a mess of arms, legs and charisma. An image of “Purple Rain”-era Prince illuminated the screen behind him. Cardboard cutouts of Prince and Michael Jackson flanked him, and, believe it or not, some fans view him in the same majestic light as those legends. Young Thug captivates by wielding eccentricity and electricity like twin Excaliburs.
That’s not to say that the rapper, born Jeffrey Williams, has become the genre’s most fascinating creature by pure chance. Young Thug’s self-awareness breeds calculated moves, like trolling the conservative rap coalition through his sartorial choices and his idol, Lil Wayne, by originally naming last year’s “Barter 6” project “Carter 6” while Wayne’s “Tha Carter V” album remained mired in limbo. Then, of course, there’s his voice. An overwhelming amount of attention has been devoted to the delivery and intonation that enchants many and confounds others. Young Thug’s voice is an instrument that crawls from growl to screech, with off-kilter bursts adding color in between.
For all of the clamor about Young Thug’s lyrics being occasionally unintelligible, fans treat them like the Pledge of Allegiance. Be it “With That” from “Barter 6” or “F Cancer (Boosie)” from this year’s “I’m Up” mixtape, he evoked the same fervent energy from the soon-to-be-college graduates in the trenches and the nine-to-fivers sprinkled across the upper deck. Ever the showman, the evening’s lone costume change arrived when Young Thug shed the blouse in favor of an “I’m Up” T-shirt, all while teasing the track “With Them.” The song’s popularity has snowballed since its debut during Kanye West’s “Life of Pablo” event at Madison Square Garden, and Thug wisely positioned it as the opener to his most recent mixtape, “Slime Season 3.”
A journey to Young Thug’s dimension would be incomplete without surprises, so he deployed D.C.’s own Shy Glizzy as a special guest and later serenaded women in the front of the crowd with the passionate “Worth It.” Much to the crowd’s delight, he inevitably revisited the breakthroughs “Stoner” and “2 B------ (Danny Glover)” before saluting his success with the exultant “Lifestyle.” He’s earned it.
Shortly after ending the show with “Best Friend,” Young Thug vanished, only to reappear perched atop the 9:30 Club balcony. With his DJ spinning his music and the Prince cutout looking up to the heavens in celebration, Thug looked down at the scene he created and cast his towel into the crowd with nonchalance.