A LOSS FOR WORDS
Listening to the post-verbal brilliance of Young Thug
If rap music is an attempt to make sense of this world out of rhythm and rhyme, then the music of Young Thug is the sound of that world being dismantled. You can hear what he’s doing as a sluice of electric gibberish. Or you can hear it as the post-verbal eruption that best reflects the incomprehensibility of the right now, an inside-out soliloquy for our scrambled American mood. Either way, he’s a thriller.
We like to treat pop stars like deities, but sometimes our affection starts to feel indecent, and it helps to think of greatness as a roving vibe, an immaterial current that flows through the coolest people in the room. Whatever that shimmering antimatter is, it’s gushing through the soft tissue of this 23-year-old Atlanta native who has already released more than 100 songs in the past year, nearly all of them as unpredictable as they are alive.
His voice might get on your nerves, but it does amazing things once it’s on them. Which is to say, when you start listening to Young Thug’s music, the notion that he might be the most exceptional rapper going seems laughable. And when you finish, it seems irrefutable.
The entry points are everywhere. He just dropped a new mix tape, “Slime Season,” to celebrate the launch of a national tour. He recently promised a new commercial full-length, “HY!￡TUN35,” by the end of the year. Even compared with his too-prolific role models, Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane, he has already released half-a-career’s worth of material in 2015. His expertly woozy mix tape “Barter 6” arrived in April, followed by a series of leaks, including one gusher in May that set nearly 60 unreleased Young Thug tracks adrift on the digital winds.
It didn’t feel like spillage so much as an unceremonious supernova, dispersing a trove of wildly inventive rap songs across the wastelands of YouTube and SoundCloud. “Like my ring ain’t worth a solar system,” Young Thug smirked later in the summer on a song called “Paradise,” sounding more like the creator of his own cosmology than a piracy victim.
For listeners, the breach helped create a gyre of music that still feels formidable, even in these gimme-gimme times. This wasn’t a tidy little album rollout. It was an unscripted data dump, and it precipitated a different kind of listening – the kind that rewards curiosity with fireworks, and stamina with fluency. And fluency is important, because at first, Young Thug is pretty much impossible to understand.
If you ever tried to sing along with the hook of “Lifestyle,” a hit duet between Young Thug and his former foil Rich Homie Quan, you may have logged on to Genius shortly after. The popular annotation site is the watering hole around which today’s rap enthusiasts gather to parse lyrics and ponder the meaning of life. Young Thug has pages upon pages of lyrics posted on Genius. Many are riddled with debates not over what his words might be trying to convey, but what’s actually being said in the first place.
The refrain of “Lifestyle” crescendos with Young Thug’s syllables piling up like rush-hour wreckage. The crowdsourced consensus at Genius states that the rapper is “livin’ life like a beginner and this is only the beginning,” – but “beginner” sounds a lot like “volcano,” and the garbled ambiguity of the whole thing elicits a distinct pleasure.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped conservative rap fans from turning Young Thug’s inscrutability into a punch line. Less-than-imaginative listeners simply hear it as a stylish quirk. But it’s really a mode of being. Instead of skipping off into the hyper-communicative valleys of the Internet, Young Thug conceals things. He mangles his words in mumbles, swallows them in yawns, annihilates them in growls. He’s not concerned with being understood. So we listen a little closer.
Before social media, back when it was commonly believed that excessive attention could corrupt the integrity of an idea, listeners liked it when art behaved this way – when an artist resisted an audience’s crushing embrace. It was called mystique.
If (Young Thug) lived inside a comic book, his speech balloons would be filled with Jackson Pollock splatters.
The British critic Kodwo Eshun once described hip-hop as “an omni-genre, a conceptual approach towards sonic organization rather than a particular sound in itself.” What he meant was that through samplers and synthesizers, every little sound in God’s green garden has been made available to the producers of hip-hop. It allows the music to reflect the true vastness of our world.
Young Thug’s voice sounds like a biological response to that conceit. Oblivious to the lyric sheet, he raps as if reciting every sound his lungs, throat and mouth are capable of producing. He appears to be exploring the possibilities of the human breath with the same improvisational zeal that yesteryear’s jazz masters must have felt when they tried to blow the universe through their horns.
Despite taking all of these liberties, much of Young Thug’s delivery is governed by recyclable techniques. He likes to leap octaves without warning, often vaulting from a purr to a squawk. He likes to let certain vowels buzz in the back of his throat so that they become percussive enough to imply rhythm. He likes to create tension by coasting through swaths of dead air – just as much as he likes to tamper with momentum by filling other empty spaces with nonsensical blah-blahs. He has an incredible ear for melody and detail, which helps him make a more convincing mess. If he lived inside a comic book, his speech balloons would be filled with Jackson Pollock splatters.
What’s more, the flexibility of his voice allows him to pull from a wider, weirder spectrum of sensations. He can rap melodically, emotively and wordlessly, as if he’s suffering hiccups of ecstasy, or choking to death on a Funyun, or sobbing hysterically into a silk pillowcase. He knows that certain feelings can elude language, but not music.
One of the most casually powerful strategies he has tucked into the pockets of his skinny jeans is his consistent allergy to consonants. He extracts them from words as if he were plucking obstacles from his life path, making his blurriest mewls sound particularly free.
And sometimes he doesn’t even have to bother. Throughout “Iowa” a song leaked earlier this year, he repeatedly blurts the name of the Hawkeye State as if chanting some blissed-out Midwestern mantra. If he sounds ecstatic, it’s not because he’s planting his freak flag in the middle of the country. It’s because he found a word that doesn’t require him to close his mouth.
He unloads his most unsettling shocks in a song called “Guarantee” in which his sweet-nothings suddenly mutate into recklessness. “If you got AIDS, I want it,” he raps. “If you got herpes, I want it.”
There is, however, a bludgeoning thematic uniformity to Young Thug’s verses that eventually begins to grate. Nearly every lyric that comes splashing out of his mouth is either a brag or a taunt, tethering him to the reflexive misogyny and violence that continues to infuse the evolving language of hip-hop. Without making excuses for him, he may need to speak that language to better explode it. Or perhaps he’s just trying to purge the pervy stuff floating around inside his head. Instead of “CNN for the streets,” maybe this is “Pornhub of the brain.”
Regardless, he unloads his most unsettling shocks in a song called “Guarantee” in which his sweet-nothings suddenly mutate into recklessness. “If you got AIDS, I want it,” he raps. “If you got herpes, I want it.”
This is a hyperbolic provocation, (and it should also be noted that this song was leaked presumably without the rapper’s consent), but when Young Thug chooses to articulate his most dangerous thoughts, we can choose whether or not to feel galled or insulted. We can also choose to recognize it as an expression of extreme truth. In any case, it feels shocking to feel to shocked.
He’s standing closer to rap’s center than we might think. With the rise and reign of Kanye West, Drake and Kendrick Lamar, hip-hop has essentially been airlifted out of America’s streets and dropped off inside the minds of its superstars. Street credibility no longer matters. Emotional honesty does.
And while Young Thug’s psychedelic trash talk seems to exist completely outside of these shifting tides, he might actually be steering rap into deeper sub-levels of insularity. Instead of using self-exposure to cultivate empathy, he raps as if he’s pulled the curtains back completely, risking ridicule by offering a verbatim transcription of whatever happens to be churning in his messy brain — a new kind of autophilia.
Maybe it would be more useful to measure him against a spaceman such as David Bowie. Or an enigma such as Prince. Or a maniac such as Little Richard, who could shout his face off, then coo, “Oooh, my soul.”
All three of those pop icons dabbled with androgyny, and so has Young Thug. He occasionally shops in the juniors section, and he sometimes refers to his male friends as “hubbie” and “love” on Instagram. But his choice of words and blouses has always felt more like a winking provocation than a formal declaration of identity. More and more, fans expect pop stars to serve as avatars to represent them in the greater cultural firmament. Young Thug doesn’t seem capable of representing anything or anyone other than himself.
“Leak” is a perfectly lovely word for how most of these songs materialized. He raps obsessively about wetness, frequently bragging about the drippiness of his diamonds and the viscosity of his sexual encounters. He references Michael Phelps with puzzling regularity, sometimes making the Olympic swimmer’s last name sound like the onomatopoeic word for a soft splash.
A couplet from “Mine” – probably his most hypnotic song to surface this year – compresses his lethal aura, his sexual ambition and a bling-dusted smile into one slippery, surreal image: “Wet diamonds in my mouth/If I kiss her, she drown.”
He’s getting into some elemental and eternal stuff here. Halfway between the ancient flood myths and those dystopian science-fiction scenarios where melted polar ice transforms the Earth into one contiguous ocean, we have the opportunity to listen to a 21st-century rapper create his own waterworld, sloshing syllables around in his mouth, cultivating a new kind of fluidity.
A couplet from “Mine” – probably the most hypnotic song to surface in the big leak – compresses his lethal aura, his sexual ambition and a bling-dusted smile into one slippery, surreal image: “Wet diamonds in my mouth / If I kiss her, she drown.”
He does earth, wind and fire, too. “I pull up and arson all over your garden” he raps on a “Slime Season” track called “Freaky,” offering his most evocative threat while transforming a noun into a verb.
This mischievous defiance courses through all of his music. He reshapes the vowels of certain words in order to make them rhyme. He relies heavily on oddly broken similes, replacing the word “like” with the word “no.” He brags about the sex he won’t have. He promises “no cussin,’ ” then explodes into streaks of profanity. When he raps about specific drugs, he might torque his voice to sound like he’s impervious to the effects of those very drugs. It’s all a strange, playful display of power: Young Thug will not follow the rules of logic, English, seduction or pharmacology.
Ultimately, he’s building metaphorical riddles out of encrypted slang – constructions that can disintegrate into non-linear nonsense, or twist themselves into pop songs, or both. The music’s cumulative thrill comes from being repeatedly plunged into a space between understanding and not understanding at all.
If there’s really no time like the present, why are so many listeners perpetually obsessed with futurity? We always seem to have our ears pointed toward something that hasn’t arrived yet, or something that may never show up, or something that we won’t understand until tomorrow anyway. It’s a problem. Committed listening isn’t a speculative exercise. We’re not placing any bets.
Which is why we should do everything we can to resist thinking of Young Thug as a futurist. Yes, he’s fantastically unique, but the music he’s making isn’t happening tomorrow. It’s happening right now. And it’s every bit as rich and complicated and gnarly and dazzling as right now, too.
We have no choice but to live in the present, but we still get to choose whether or not we’d like to listen to what it really sounds like.