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Young Thug Defies Expectations Again

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Young Thug Defies Expectations Again

For the better part of a decade, the enchanting rapper Young Thug has grown exponentially more unpredictable, even as hip-hop has shifted in the direction of his style. Top Forty radio has become more attuned to his frequency in recent years, especially with the rise of his pupils, the chart-toppers Lil Baby and Gunna, but Young Thug remains too lively to get a permanent read on. Just when you think you’ve finally made sense of him, he sheds his skin once more.

Since his days on the mixtape circuit, in the early twenty-tens, Young Thug has been a weirdo rapper who relies on an extraterrestrial approach to using Auto-Tune, a cartoonish disposition, and a unique vocabulary of squeals and squawks. From the start, he was one of the most exciting musicians working, but that didn’t translate to fame immediately. It seemed like his inscrutability might keep him off the pop charts; some albums were downgraded to mixtapes and some releases were delayed and ultimately shelved. That changed in 2019, when his album “So Much Fun” topped the Billboard 200 charts, propelled by “The London,” a more by-the-numbers single with J. Cole and Travis Scott. Young Thug was now a full-fledged rap star, and everyone awaited his encore. In the interim, during the pandemic, he released a duet project with the singer Chris Brown, “Slime & B,” and a compilation promoting his record label, YSL, called “Slime Language 2”—standard obligatory trappings of modern-day rap king making. But it seemed that he still had another dramatic shift in him.

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True to form, his new album, “Punk,” defies expectations once again, only more subtly: instead of a thrashing provocation, Young Thug presents a meditation set primarily to gentle piano and guitars. He has often been exacting in his work, particularly in his performances, which can carry the tics and the dedication of method acting, but his lyrics have rarely been as polished and as distinct as they are on “Punk.” If Young Thug is a rapper who usually performs in scribbles, then this album is a clear move toward legibility and precision. (As if to further emphasize this point, each song has its own official lyric video on his YouTube channel.) These tracks show a new composure, one seemingly brought on by the incredible comfort of his star status and a desire to be heard.

This is a substantial about-face for an explosive artist, but the concept isn’t wholly without precedent in the Young Thug discography. In 2017, he released a mixtape called “Beautiful Thugger Girls,” self-described as a “singing album”—the implication being that he was setting aside the hardness associated with rapping for greater vulnerability. The mellowed-out energy and distant, bubbling synths of his first full-length, “Barter 6,” also feel like a precursor to the abstracted music on “Punk,” which can sound zoned out and nearly New Agey. But “Punk” stands alone as the only Young Thug album that could truly be considered sentimental and deliberately biographical. There aren’t many linear time lines in Young Thug songs—it’s usually a montage of “MTV Cribs”-level flamboyance and extreme debauchery—but “Punk” has an overarching narrative: long the obfuscator, he wants to be understood, chiefly as someone trying to provide for his family, and secondly as someone who overcame the long odds of a hood lottery. The explanation for his nonstop, travelling bacchanal is obvious, then: when you win, you celebrate.

Unexpected motion has long been key to Young Thug’s rapping, and there is still plenty of that, in smaller bursts, bringing on the head-rush sensations of spinning until dizzy—but a selling point of these songs is their sensitivity, the muted palette that offsets the revelatory details in his writing. Young Thug has always had a knack for embellishment and hyperbole, and now he has developed a keenness, too, for increased fluency. Enunciation has never been his priority, but, on “Punk,” he is more delicate with his delivery. The one-liners expose matters of class (“I told my teacher, I’ma buy more watches, ’cause I was tardy”; “I’m so wealthy, I done bought out all my cavities”) or hint at the double-edged sword of Black prosperity (“I can always see the devil harassing me / Telling me he loving me while stabbing me”; “I’m just seeking for God’s soul ’cause I know something’s missing / Comme des Garçons boxers and I came from penny-pinching”). In the understated productions of “Die Slow,” “Recognize Real,” and “Contagious,” he fussily considers his ascent, lamenting the disruption of his personal peace in soft coos.

At times, it can feel like the big featured guests on “Punk” are merely encroaching on Young Thug’s meditation. The histrionics of fun.’s Nate Ruess feel misplaced here, in a hook that verges on musical theatre, and Young Thug already made his definitive rock piano ballad in 2018, repurposing the work of his mutual admirer Elton John. “Stressed” doesn’t even have a verse by its front man, and while J. Cole does bring his best Young Thug impression to the song, it can’t sustain momentum without the real thing. The dirtbag pop sensation Post Malone and the fashionista A$AP Rocky sound like they are FaceTiming in from separate parties on “Livin It Up.” And the album’s most star-studded collaboration is also its blandest: Drake and Travis Scott, two of music’s most viable commercial commodities, team up again for “Bubbly.” Scott performs on the track like a bizarro Young Thug, incapable of wringing any enthusiasm out of his voice, and delivers some egregious groaner punchlines, while Drake continues to burrow into narcissism.

But, pleasantly, a handful of the “Punk” crossovers reëstablish Young Thug as a creative chameleon. The Pi’erre Bourne-produced romp “Rich Nigga Shit” unites him and the late Juice WRLD in gleeful skylarking, as the beat hops along like a subwoofer come to life. The pop multi-hyphenate Doja Cat mirrors his prancing cadences and alien yips on “Icy Hot.” “First of all, I’ve been in the trap for a lifetime,” he mutters, which now feels as true of his music. And the closer, “Day Before,” with the late Mac Miller in his last days, brings a fitting end to the proceedings, with Young Thug’s vision of quietude seemingly aligned with Miller’s. “Punk” is an act of refinement. There’s something thrilling about a being of pure chaos discovering control.


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Young Thug Defies Expectations Again