Here’s proof: He landed his first No. 1 album in August; he gripped his first Grammy back in February; and his songs currently saturate the charts, the radio waves and playlists of varying repute. More important than that, Young Thug’s unmistakable vocal delivery has transformed from an inimitable style into a popular mode. Now, when his influence isn’t manifesting directly in the squeaky-tight precision of his apostles, Lil Baby, Gunna and Lil Keed, it’s bleeding into every last corner of the hip-hop hive mind like errant glow stick goo.
And though he’s never been more visible, Young Thug’s musical peak is at least 43 months in the rear view. From autumn 2014 through the spring of 2016, greatness could not stop leaking out of his mouth — or onto the Internet. And then, after generating this impossible profusion of agenda-altering music, he quietly plateaued.
I’ve been retracing that arc lately, listening to his music as a whole. It confirms my long-standing belief that Young Thug is the greatest rapper of our time. But I was wrong about why.
If rap music was ever about capturing sounds inside words, Young Thug seemed to be flipping those priorities like blueberry pancakes back in 2015. To my ears, he was a true radical, a visionary who sounded as if he was trying to get outside of language itself. Eager to champion the bravery of his imagination, I wrote a splashy essay that described his rapping as "post-verbal," encouraging listeners to marvel at how Young Thug used the nuclear fission in his voice to atomize his words into a dust of negligibility.
This was a mistake. I was writing in a hyperbolic reverie while closing myself off from at least half of his excellence.
The sounds that rush out of Young Thug’s airways in song — his brake-pad screeches, his sneaker chirps, his death rattles, his birth gasps, his meta-mewls, his princely whimpers, his fluorescent howls, his cosmic hiccups — have almost always been words. And listening back to his monster run circa 2015, those words were arranged in ways that still feel as ravishing, unpredictable and inventive as they sounded when they first hit the air.
On “Mine,” he envisioned a gunshot through a white T-shirt in conspiratorial staccato, syllables throbbing and oozing like the wound: “It’ll be a peppermint or a baseball.” On “Numbers,” he collapsed at least three metaphors into a single cash-brag: “I got old hundreds, they wrinkled like a Shar-Pei.” On “Just Might Be,” he seemed to be describing the delirium of devotion, his voice squeaking like windshield wipers: “Her heart like an old diaper, I can’t leave it.” On “Dome,” he affirmed his position in the psychic wilderness: “I’d rather be a coyote than a coward.” He began “Amazing,” one of his most transcendent lullabies, by asking, “Have you ever dreamed?”
After my “post-verbal” blunder, I heard someone else describe Young Thug as a “post-structuralist.” That felt like an improvement, but it still wasn’t quite right. These were just different structures. Yes, Young Thug was delivering convention-smashing lines in expectation-pulverizing timbres, but he was ultimately building a different kind of rap music — one that felt otherworldly but still largely obeyed this planet’s laws of melody and rhyme. For all of its dizzying spontaneity and dazzling breadth, his best music remains meticulous and coagulant, holding its own form.
Unfortunately, this only began to click with me in 2017. Once the mutant lyrics stopped blooming in Young Thug’s verses so frequently, the illusion of looseness that his music created became a real looseness. I had underestimated his lyricism, but I didn’t realize my mistake until the peppermints and Shar-Peis began exiting the picture.
Had I been another white music critic misinterpreting black art for a majority-white readership? I’m sorry to say so, yes. Had I ever described Kurt Cobain’s blurry roars or Björk’s torqued vowels as post-verbal? Nope. Today, my regret feels as acute as my enthusiasm originally did. I still like the idea of critics doing their learning in public, but this was an existential flub. I had done a disservice to the music that had made me feel the most alive.
Young Thug's new album is titled "So Much Fun," and while it offers plenty of that, the messaging surrounding the rollout has been weird. In a contortionist act of branding, his label is calling this thing his official debut album — a marketing trick commonly used to convince the public that a veteran rapper's career is only just getting started.
With Young Thug, that feels like an insult to all the unmitigated brilliance that came before. He already has some of the best rap albums of the decade under his belt. Somehow, some of them — including “Slime Season” and “Slime Season 2” from 2015, not to mention “Rich Gang: Tha Tour Pt. 1,” his stunning 2014 collaboration with Rich Homie Quan — don’t exist on most streaming services. What kind of world is this?
So yeah, it’s bittersweet to see Young Thug’s nth-best album go No. 1 on Billboard, but presciently, he has a tune that sums up the mood, titled “Just How It Is.” It’s a reflective, this-is-your-life ballad that veers warm and cool, wild and lucid. “I can tell you how to talk the most impeccable s---,” he raps, self-awareness surging. It’s as exquisite as anything he’s ever recorded.
Performing it in concert on Tuesday night, Young Thug stood behind a slime-green microphone stand, delicately eking out the song’s perfectly playful hook: “Ooh-woo, diamonds peekaboo.” A few lines later, he was channeling his 2015 self, cloaking metaphors in absurdity: “Kidnap a kangaroo, I could send a moose.” He kept rapping. About legacy, about life, about destiny, about death. Words became sounds became words again.