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Young Thug's Victory Lap

On April 27, 2021

Photo by Richard Martin

A victory lap is a phrase used in rap to describe a song or album that exudes triumph. More often than not, the victory lap comes after years of songs, albums, mixtapes, features and tours. This moment of celebration is earned. A well-deserved exhale. Allowing the artist to reflect on their journey and all the storms they weathered.

So Much Fun by Young Thug is both his 2019 debut album and his 19-track victory lap, a rare duality that only a few artists in this era of hip-hop newcomers have successfully combined. Released August 16, the same day as his 28th birthday, the Atlanta-born rapper made an album of anthems throughout the 62 minutes perfect for a party.

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“If you’re not partying, if it’s not Friday you just got your paycheck you in the car with your friends, if you not in the club drunk, if you not just having fun doing whatever you feel like, don’t play this album,” Thug told Rolling Stone following the release, a mission statement that speaks to the music and how its curation proposes an experience with the audience in mind. These songs were made thinking of you, the listener, to soundtrack your best of times.

Take, for example, the Gunna-featured “Hot,” a Platinum record primed for half-time at the Super Bowl. Its boisterous production has all the elements of a marching band classic. There’s no other song in Thug’s catalog that seemed orchestrated to reach football fields and basketball courts. Or “What’s The Move,” the melodic warmth from the vocals is like sunbathing on an exotic beach or an expensive yacht. It’s sugary as ’90s bubblegum and bright as a 64 pack of Crayola crayons, creating the kind of infectious rap-sing song that slips into your shoulders and spreads throughout your bones, encouraging the body to bounce as if spellbound.

The pop-friendly production lays the foundation for the anthemic atmosphere. Bringing together a slew of modern hitmakers like Pi'erre Bourne and Wheezy, T-Minus and Supah Mario, DJ Mustard and Southside created a seamless palette of easy-on-the-ear jams. I can't stress this enough: These aren't records to challenge the listener, but entice them to live in these songs repeatedly. If there's a formula for making breezy, melodic rap songs, So Much Fun aims to uncover the winning recipe, making the album Thug at his most accessible. Nothing says world domination like irresistible earworms crafted to be shared in the world. To be played in bars and clubs, concerts and festivals, playlists and proms.

Even in this ever-evolving digital era, major-label debuts remain sacred, for they represent a starting point. Although So Much Fun isn’t to Young Thug what Reasonable Doubt is to JAY-Z, the old saying “you have your entire life to make your debut album” still rings true in this case. This album represents the life Thug always saw for himself: A wealthy, famous rap superstar — one who can enjoy the spoils of his stardom. The luxury cars, the high fashion, the rockstar sex, it’s all embedded in the lyricism, all common themes in the Thug rap pantheon, but there’s a looseness that feels like carefree freedom. Even his threats are said with whimsical ease, instead of venomous hate.

"I prayed for it my whole life," he said to Rolling Stone of being a celebrity and the attention he receives from an audience of fans who want to take pictures and receive autographs. Most Atlanta-natives who have been following the last 10 years of Thug will remember his iconic feature on the rap duo Rich Kidz's 2009 single, "100 Dollar Autograph." Both Rich Kidz and Young Thug were emerging acts at the time, but naming a song "100 Dollar Autograph" is a nod to how they viewed their forthcoming celebrity. In their early 20s, they were young adults, not yet industry mainstays, but they saw it for themselves. Music aside, the song title recalls a Pablo Picasso anecdote. As the story goes, during the height of Picasso’s popularity, a patron approached him, asking for an autograph. The artist obliged, swiftly jotting his signature down on a napkin. Before handing the paper over, Picasso paused and asked for $10,000. “$10,000!?” the man responded, “But that took you two seconds!?” to which Picasso replied, “No, that took me a lifetime.”

"That’s Young Thug: A post-verbal poet that has mastered the art of rhymes; a dress-wearing, gun-toting cowboy who says what he wants and does what he pleases."

Over the last 10 years, Young Thug has released ― leaks and mixtapes included ― what feels like a lifetime’s worth of music. Throughout it all, he proved himself to be more than your traditional rapper, but an anomaly, a spectacle, a living, breathing sensation. Looking back on his early 20s, Thug was a rapper of the present and the future. Even at his most off-kilter, the Atlanta-born rapper carried the most impressive arsenal of jackknife flows and memorable, inventive melodies. Fans believed him to be the artist of this next generation, as did Drake, Kanye West and Nicki Minaj, following standout releases like his 2014 face-melting single “Stoner” and the industry-stopping “Danny Glover.”

Both of the singles were high-voltage examples of what made the rapper, raised in the Jonesboro South housing projects, an exciting oddity. A certain magnetism drew people into his orbit, while his style's absurd shape-shifting nature repelled others. But even at his most daring, the executives were never far. Next to Gucci Mane, who signed Thug in 2013 to his 1017 label, he felt primed to be the heir to the So Icy throne. Next to Birdman, who placed Thug under his wing for a short time as a manager in 2014, he appeared like the next incarnation of Lil Wayne, but more of a mutation than a Martian. Next to Lyor Cohen, the President of 300 Entertainment who signed him in 2014, Thug exuded a giant's pose, as if an industry takeover of hit records would be knocking down the doors at any moment.

Speaking of labels, fans of Thug who have been following the rap trailblazer since 2015 will recall the original title for his YSL Records/300 Entertainment/Atlantic Records debut, Hy!£UN35. The spelling, which translates to “Hi-Tunes,” reads how his music used to sound back when he was dedicated to being unbound, unhinged and completely off the rails. Words didn’t leave his lips in the form of rhymes. They would bend and fold, collide and crash. Melodies, syllables, consonants and vowels slammed into one another like drunk drivers in a traffic jam.

When the Mike WiLL Made-It-produced “Pacifier” was released as Hy!£UN35’s first single, sonically, the song was another unbelievable display of stunning acrobatics. The melodic mastery is captivating, but how it’s delivered, like a frantic war cry, is unlike anything on the radio — then or now. I remember hearing it, thinking, “He’ll never settle down.” That he’ll continue being this mad scientist stuck being too unpredictable to be the superstar his talent was capable of producing.

If there was ever a rap version of the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil, 2013-through-2017-era mixtape Thugger is the most likely candidate. Go back and listen to Barter 6, 1017 Thug or Rich Gang: Tha Tour Pt. 1, all three classic mixtapes, and you'll hear an expressionist who treated beats how Picasso treated canvases during his Cubist period. Abstract, avant-garde trap music. Chris Richards of the Washington Post wrote a lengthy article in 2015 that ultimately described the music from this genius period as "post-verbal." Following So Much Fun's release, Richards wrote another essay, less lengthy, but went on to say how he was wrong.

“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,” wrote Richards in his piece “I was wrong about Young Thug.”

It's a fair retraction, but there's some truth in how the unorthodox form went beyond rap conventions. "Halftime," or "Givenchy," or "2 Cups Stuff," or his verse on Travis Scott's "Skyfall," all embody Picasso's belief that reality must be torn apart. That's what made Thug the most exciting artist of his era. No one coming out of Atlanta — or anywhere else — was as destructive, hysterical, clever or funny. When he rapped, "I'm an Earthling in disguise," on "Stunna," the fourth track featured on the first Slime Season mixtape, you believed him. Although he contained all the qualities that made Future a melodious hitmaker, Wayne a double-cup rockstar and Gucci Mane an iconic workhorse, there was something about Young Thug that pushed ordinary limits. He was a prodigy who refused to color within the lines. If rules are meant to be broken, he broke them all.

On March 26, 2016, a trailer for a Hy!£UN35 tour was uploaded to YouTube. The highly anticipated debut appeared to be coming soon, but never received an official release. After the album was shelved, I like to think that we entered the next phase of Young Thug’s career. The music was still elastic and explosive, but he started to tone down. It’s as if the frantic energy that possessed him began to relax. Simultaneously, rappers who followed his blueprint, building songs with crafty lyrics and robust melodies, emerged from different corners of the world, all carrying hypnotic kinetic energy. There was Gunna and Lil Keed, two artists signed to the YSL label that Thug started in 2016. You also had fellow Atlanta rappers Lil Baby and SahBabii, who weren’t YSL signees, but drew from Thug how Thug drew from Lil Wayne. Roddy Ricch, another stylistic offspring, broke out of underground obscurity as mainstream rap music started to feel the ripple effects of a boundary-pusher's rise.

Picasso believed that art must tear reality apart, but after destruction comes reconstruction. A new world has to be built, replacing what no longer exists. We’ll look back on rap and see there was pre-Young Thug, then what came after. So Much Fun represents the rebuilding of pop music after the boundaries have been pushed. His ability to iron out some of his most eccentric traits, without losing the flavor, is what makes him such an enthralling character.

"He was a prodigy who refused to color within the lines. If rules are meant to be broken, he broke them all."

Gunna, Lil Keed and Lil Baby appear on So Much Fun, as does the late Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert and the Candian rapper-producer Nav. All carry in their artistic DNA bits of post-Thug. There’s no better example of this than J. Cole’s verse on “The London,” So Much Fun’s 3x-Platinum lead single. The Atlanta enigma inspires it. From the Auto-Tune textures on his stretching vocals to the multiple flow switches, he puts on his best Thug performance.

Instead of breaking the rules, So Much Fun rewrites them. It's made clear on the intro, the Wheezy-produced "Just How It Is." From the first second, there’s a notable clarity to the lyrics that rhymed at a pace slower than the breakneck velocity of his most inventive songs. "No time for gibberish, all the critics hearing this," Thug raps on the second verse, acknowledging critics like Richards. The self-referential lyrics don't stop there. The standout line, "Had to wear the dress 'cause I had a stick," refers to the internet-breaking skirt-like garment by Italian designer Alessandro Trincone that he wore on the cover of his 2016 mixtape, Jeffery. There's always been an androgynous quality to his fashion sense. Thug’s never shied away from what has been conventionally considered “women's” clothing, but claiming he only wore the dress because of a “stick” is humorously on-brand. It's sensational, but not serious.

That’s Young Thug: A post-verbal poet that has mastered the art of rhymes; a dress-wearing, gun-toting cowboy who says what he wants and does what he pleases. Drugs are his vices, women are his weakness, sex is his name and rapping until there’s no money left to acquire appears to be the driving force behind his endless rhymes. Social media and the internet, which played a massive role in cultivating his audience, weren’t imaginable in 1991, the year Young Thug, born Jeffery Lamar Williams, came into this world as the 11th child to parents Big Duck and Big Jeff. And back then, Atlanta, his birthplace, was not a hub for hip-hop music.

At large, the music business didn't foresee the rise of the South and Southern artists, not during the late 1980s and the early 1990s. In this period, rappers below the Mason–Dixon line couldn't attract the same cultural awareness or commercial prominence as their peers in Los Angeles or New York. The South was something of a secret. The way Southern hip-hop grew into a cultural phenomenon through adventurous artistry and constant readoption mirrors Jeffery Williams' extensive growth from 2010 to 2020 as the Atlanta rap supernova Young Thug.

When Williams decided to rap under the moniker Young Thug, hip-hop's dynamics in the South had drastically changed. His hometown was thriving as the epicenter of constant rap evolution. Radio-friendly street rap, bubblegum, snap music and all styles in between began to cultivate a garden where new sounds grew, and unpredictable artists blossomed. Lil Wayne, his New Orleans-born idol, was a God among men. More of a deity than a rapper. It's only right that, much like Wayne, Thug decided to be the most prominent artist in the world and was able to do so by making an album made to last. As a snake sinks its fangs into an adversary, Thug sinks his lyrics into listeners. The bite isn't poisonous, but euphoric. This absurd, yet alluring, music hooks you. Music that punctures the eardrum and enters the bloodstream. It's nearly impossible to listen and not carry a lyric, a line or a sound throughout your day.

So Much Fun is a celebration of coming from nothing, escaping the noodles on the stove and the roaches on the walls. No more rats scurrying around the floors or minor stick-ups just to eat. This is where destroying reality has brought him. What breaking the rules affords you when you learn to rewrite them to be shared on a massive stage. It’s an audible achievement — the incredible thrill of a winning conquest. Thus far, Young Thug’s decade-long career should be studied as a guide for breaking barriers and transformative reinvention. The 29-year-old artist BBC called “The 21st Century’s most influential rapper” earned his first No. 1 album with So Much Fun, but it won’t be his last. We live in Thug’s world, and luckily he wants us to have a good time. Enjoy the party.

Profile Picture of Travis "Yoh" Phillips
Travis "Yoh" Phillips

Atlanta-born music journalist Travis “Yoh” Phillips is the author of the hip-hop anthology, Best Damn Hip-Hop Writing: The Book of Yoh, co-host of the high-end southern hip-hop podcast, Sum’n to Say, and the executive producer and co-creator of vérité music documentary series Rap Portraits. He spends his days missing Limewire and discussing hip-hop's blog era.

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