Young Thug: Moron or Genius?

Young Thug has become one of the most divisive artists in hip-hop. Some see him as the poster boy for the death knell of hip-hop, coming to represent the antithesis of everything that once made hip-hop great. His growing success only mirrors the decline of true hip-hop. Where old school rap championed wordplay, Young Thug mumbles indecipherable nothings. Where old school rap detailed the struggle of urban life, Young Thug revels in the ‘hood rich’ lifestyle. Where old school rap had soulful crooning, autotune now works overtime to make Young Thug’s utterances barely listenable. At the same time, Young Thug is respected as a pioneer, creating a new type of music that transcends the need for words. Where the substance of music is more important than its façade. He’s said to be Shakespearean in his exploitation of language, stretching our understanding of how linguistics work. His music can capture a haunting loneliness that is uncommon in the boastful world of rap. So which is he, prophetic genius or talentless imbecile?

The phrase “worst freestyle ever” gets bandied around with some regularity. But there’s little doubt that this regurgitation delivered by Young Thug on French breakfast radio is a serious contender.

Delivered on 16 November 2015, this freestyle was the first of two atrocities levelled against the French people in one horrific month.

The freestyle is interesting because it features all the classic criticisms that are hurled at Young Thug: indecipherable mumbling, exchanging actual English words for a series of sound effects that would make Michael Winslow turn in his grave. Then there’s his tendency to warble off into the distance and leave lines unfini… The few bars that Thug does successfully deliver are either asinine or nonsensical. Futhermore, Young Thug cares for time signatures like his own children- neglectfully. It’s also inexplicably delivered over what sounds like the backing track from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

It’s like listening to the Scatman trapped in a K-hole. And the scariest part is that it’s not that different from a quickly churned out studio recorded single. It’s not hard to image that with a bit of autotune tweaking and some thumping trap drums, it could become track 7 on Slime Season IV.

The internet is awash with rumours of Young Thug’s unique song writing process. Producer Dun Deal shed some light on Thug’s method in recording his first smash hit Stoner. Dun Deal examined the notepad which Young Thug had been consulting in the studio. Instead of finding written words he found “weird signs and shapes.” When questioned, Thugger responded, “I don’t need no words.” In an interview, Thug then told Dazed Magazine that he can “write a perfect song in ten minutes.”

Now had these claims of savant-like recall come from say, Kanye West, they would be quickly dismissed as childish boasting. But I personally don’t doubt for one second that Thug is being prompted by pictures of crop circles, and is producing songs in exactly double the time it takes to sing them. It would go along way to explain the manic, unconventional, and occasionally, shoddy nature of his work. There is little doubt that Young Thug is at his absolute worst when squeezing out B-sides to fill his voluminous collection of free mixtapes. The complete lack of structure or accountability means an overall drop in the quality of Young Thug’s work.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about then please look no further then Track 9 from the third 1017 Thug mixtape, You The World.

To call it a poorly mixed supercut of Young Thug’s best adlibs would be generous. You The World does contain two of Thug’s most popular adlibs, a noise to express someone’s failure (rraeegh) and a P.C exultation of shock short of blasphemy (sheesh). But one adlib is notably missing: SKRRRT, Thug’s charming impression of a car skidding uncontrollably off a bridge.

Instead, You the World sounds like this internet farting sound board played over the beat from the start up menu on Dance Dance Revolution. In fact, Thug himself finds the perfect word to describe the song right at the 2:29 minute mark. Garbage. I can say with confidence that it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever heard.

For many, hip-hop is fundamentally about one thing: verbal excellence. Many rap fans consider the mark of a legendary MC to be a razor sharp tongue, a head for poetics, and a crisp delivery. In fact, it could be said that rapping, by definition, means to speak clearly and coherently over music, as distinguished from singing which involves bending or warbling words to fit music. It’s easy to see why so many people think that Young Thug, with his Marlon Brando mumbling and use of Pentacostal gibberish, can never fit this traditional mould.

The rise of the “warble rapper” is not a phenomenon that has gone unnoticed or unmocked. Hip-hop satirist Hopsin was quick to spoof the scarily growing trend, taking particular aim at Future and Young Thug.

Hopsin picks up on the hip-hop devolution currently in progress. We went from “consciously unconscious” lyrics, where rappers like Chief Keef and Wacka Flocka flaunted their “ignorance” for street cred. Now the latest trend is a further reduction; not even lyrics, just a collection of utterances heavily reverbed. Rhyming hasn’t been a precondition of hip-hop since 2005. In 2016, English isn’t a precondition either.

Is this a new language only understood by its practitioners? Doesn’t seem to be. In fact, Thug’s lyrics seem unintelligible even to himself. GQ had Young Thug read out his own lyrics to Best Friend in the hope of deciphering them for fans.

You would maybe assume that in recording and performing a song the lyrics, whether actually written or largely adlibbed, would quickly become burned in your memory. When Thug is handed that piece of paper, his careful analysis and lack of confidence really suggests that this is the first time he has seen any of this information. Several lines he reads with an inflection at the end, as if questioning whether that really is the actual wording (or alternatively, if he really could have authored something so ridiculous).

You know it’s a bad sign when lyric annotation super database Genius has trouble deciphering your lyrics. Surrendering, the Genius annotators behind Young Thug’s Foreign simply left several lines marked with a (?).


If you think this was an act of laziness, please listen to the song and appreciate the Rosetta Stone level of archaeological translation that was required to illuminate even the first 4 lines. Having said that, collaborator Yakki Divioshi kills Thug on his own track, with an impressive 9 recorded (?)’s instead of actual words.

But is Young Thug’s vocal style simply lazy mumbling, or is it a revolutionary new approach to music and wordplay?

To hear some critics describe Young Thug’s vocal style, you would think they were reviewing The Marriage of Figaro. Will Stephenson from the Fader describes Young Thug “feverishly contorting his voice into a series of odd timbers like a beautifully played but broken wind instrument.” Paul Thompson from Vulture notes Thug’s “guttural bark” which “bleeds into a falsetto” on the track 2 Cups Stuffed, which yes, is a song about having more than one cup of codeine-infused lemonade. Young Thug blends sounds and syllables in a manner that, meaningless or not, simply sound good to the human ear. It’s not very different from a modern form of scat (as in the type of singing, and not faecal matter, although you could be forgiven for thinking the latter). And say what you will about the overuse of autotune, and its ability to transform a terrible singer into a passable one, but Young Thug only uses it intermittently, and its absence often shows that he has perfect pitch.

Young Thug might be seen as the next step in a linguistic evolution. He uses a new form of primal screaming to express feelings for which there are no words; convey emotions that cannot be articulated. For Charlie Locke at Wired, Young Thug strips back extraneous words and leaves us with pure sound, in order to “distil a feeling.” Young Thug “doesn’t explain; he expresses.” Sheldon Pearce notes Thug’s unique ability to “do an entire song without words and we’d still get it.”

For example, look no further than Young Thug’s greatest song Best Friend. The lyrics are either nonsensical (I’m bleeding bad, like a bumble bee) or filled with meaningless gangster rap platitudes (hundred thousand dollars inside my pants, my shit on fleek). But the message of the song is loud and clear. Young Thug has transcended the need for words. With the literary assistance of a sensational video clip, the feeling of Best Friend is inescapable: a promenade through a Grimm-esque forest where an unseen danger stalks you through the dense trees. A boom of bass emerges ex nihilo from complete silence indicating the suddenness of capture. The effect of the song is haunting, but rugged. All these different feelings elicited from a song with the actual lyrics “me a horny goat, I’m boolin’ at the bull shop.”

Much like Future, one of the most remarkable things about Young Thug is his ability to imbue his music (intentionally or not) with a tragic quality. The mumbling where words trail off into the distance almost exhibits a lack of confidence. The inability to look someone in the eye, the lack of conviction in your own words. Thug is at his absolute best when doing tragedy, some haunting piano keys behind him, and a weak longing in his autotune coded voice. Check is ostensibly a song about how Young Thug has in his possession, a personal cheque, presumably for a lot of money. But the soft wavering beat combined with Thug’s soft wavering voice, undeniably suggests the hollowness of this type of existence. Thug has a wad of cash in his hand, surrounded by faceless retainers, but is he happy? Again, the song Numbers presumably refers to dollar figures, but the piano keys and incoming thunderclouds make this song thoroughly depressing. Love Me Forever is as good as any rappers’ ode to a lover. But the vaguely oriental beat and Thug’s crooning give the song a stalker-ish eeriness or a death mask beauty. For a rapper talking so much rubbish, there is a dark resonance to his music.

It’s also simply undeniable that Young Thug has been responsible for some of the hardest cuts of the past two years. If trap music is the future, it has been inextricably tied to the fate of Young Thug. The Metro Thuggin’ partnership is responsible for more than just one of the best shoutout DJ tags in the game (before it was cruelly usurped by ‘if young metro don’t trust you, I’mma shoot you’). Hercules and The Blanguage are two Metro Boomin bangers, where Young Thug’s falsetto pierces through the deep bass for a stunning effect.

Young Thug is more disciplined under Metro’s guidance. You can automatically hear a noticeable improvement in lyrical quality. Whilst Young Thug is at his worst when filling B-sides, he is at his best when shackled by more mainstream collaborators. Preparing a song for the radio with Travis $cott or Kanye West serves to rein Thug in, and enforce a stricter work ethic. Young Thug was the standout on Travis $cott’s Maria I’m Drunk, his signature apparent on the memorable line “call your friends and let’s get druuuunkk.” Similarly, Young Thug earned his spot on the guest-heavy The Life of Pablo, a refreshing break from gospel choirs. On an album curated by a 38-year-old rapper, Young Thug’s was a moment of vitality and an effort to connect with modernity. And who can forget the surprise collaboration of Young Thug, Popcaan and Jamie xx on the dancehall smash I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times? Thug somehow manages to ride the reggae beat, creating one of the most innovative and memorable hits of the summer.

People seem to be perfectly split on whether Young Thug is a genius or a moron. Each camp has a variety of reasons for making their choice. Many fans of ‘intellectual hip hop’ cannot abide Young Thug. But just as many of the same fans love him, and can see how he slots in with their own paradigm of what makes hip-hop “intellectual.” There are countless articles on the Internet that make the “for” and “against” case for Young Thug. At the risk of leaving this open-ended I will offer this writer’s opinion. In the course of writing this article, I listened to many, many Young Thug songs. I listened objectively and with an open mind. I think the vast majority of what Young Thug produces is steaming garbage. With occasional flashes of absolute brilliance. His mixtapes are littered with some of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. But when pushed by a collaborator or talented producer, and when Thug expends slightly more energy on the making of a song, he is capable of something both revolutionary and profound. As he collaborates with more respected artists some of his “eccentricity” (read: ineptitude) will be watered down. As Young Thug continues to escape the underground and move further into the mainstream, this brilliance will only become more apparent.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 4.40.45 am

Image: GQ