The Evolution of Young Thug
Words | Armand Manoukian, Staff Writer
Illustration | Shamayam Sullivan, Creative Director
2014. Scrolling Vine (RIP).
White kid with six pack doing backflip.
Black kid doing dance that will be
appropriated, poorly, in four years.
Rap music video clip where they seemingly shout gibberish.
Wait. Hold up. What?
Checks the comments. “What song is this?” “Lifestyle by Rich Gang, Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug.” Google search “Lifestyle lyrics.”
Livin' life like volcano / And this is only the beginnin'
Ohhhhh. Stupid. Keep scrolling. Child asked what 9+10 is. Nice.
That’s how I was introduced to Young Thug. More than half a decade later, with a god-tier discography and his dress exhibiting in the MFA, he’s my favorite rapper, and potentially the most important figure in modern rap.
Jeffery Lamar Williams, better known as Young Thug, Thugger, or “SEX,” as he asked to be called on Twitter, was born on August 16, 1991 in Atlanta. He grew up in the Jonesboro South Projects, also home to Waka Flocka Flame, 2 Chainz and Ludacris.
After local mixtapes in 2011 and 2012, Young Thug was signed by Gucci Mane to 1017 Brick Squad Records. Thug’s first project on the label was the 1017 Thug mixtape, which ended up on both Pitchfork’s and Complex’s end-of-the-year “Best of” lists.
Gucci Mane served as Atlanta’s Rap Godfather for this era, but the diamond in the rough he found in Young Thug was hardly trying to replicate Gucci’s style.
They rapped over similar trap beats, often working with the same producers, but what caught people off guard enough for Thug to enter lists about up-and-coming rappers was his original, croony, syrupy voice. Think of Gucci’s "Guwop Home," featuring Young Thug. Gucci gives a standard verse, a good, but par-for-the-course verse. Thug, on the chorus, whines “Guwoooooop,” before ad-libbing himself with a full-on, rough, raspy BARK. Simply put, Thug was built. different.
Since he arrived on the scene, Thug has been absolutely prolific. In just two years, he released four of his most well-received projects, Barter 6 and Slime Season 1, 2 and 3. Between 2016 and now, he’s also released Jeffery, Beautiful Thugger Girls and So Much Fun.
But being a prolific rapper with a string of consistent releases is nothing new or groundbreaking in the streaming age. Young Thug arrived before Soundcloud rappers like Lil Pump could make a career off singles that get more plays than their poorly received albums, inundated with stream-fishing remixes of those singles. Nevertheless, he was built for that shit.
Thug emerged with another Atlanta trap sensation, Migos. Migos has their own legacy: the triplet flows (and over-inflated albums for streaming revenue), but Thugger crossed cultural boundaries and befuddled the music world in ways Migos never could.
In a profile by Fader in 2013, Will Stephenson wrote, “In a typical Young Thug verse, he slurs, shouts, whines and sings, feverishly contorting his voice into a series of odd timbres like a beautifully played but broken wind instrument.” All that to say, what Thug was doing with his sound had not been done before, so much so that he stumped music critics across the board.
The crowded rap scene of a major rap city is hard to break through, but break through Thugger did. Why? Because he was fucking weird. He was a slender, gangly man with the locomotion of a serpent, big hair — often colored and dreadlock-ed — spray-on jeans and Cartier glasses.
Thug is weird as hell, but he’s coherently weird. If his music is an inversion of what rap should be — he’s high pitched, jangly, and charmingly incoherent — so too is his persona an inversion of what a rap star should be.
By 2016 Young Thug had already cemented his place as a major player in the rising profile of Atlanta rap. He then turned his sights to other passions. During a VFILES Season 7 runway show, for which he was brought on as a sort of advisor, Thug brought the whole thing to a halt, with a lit blunt in mouth, to correct the clothes of a runway model. Because when Thugger decides to do something, not many people will get in his way. Not many people can.
And while a freshman music student who thinks they know “real music” may dismiss Young Thug as a mumble rapper with no dedication to the craft itself, music legends like Elton John find themselves singing his praise. "Young Thug, who I love and have met, he dropped a track. It's a remix of ‘Rocket Man,’” he said. “And I don't usually play my own stuff on this show, but this is so cool and so good.”
He’s deceptively intentional and artistic. Thugger’s unorthodox, bizarre inflection is the point. Perhaps he finds commonality in this with other emerging stars from Atlanta. Nothing on the surface about 21 Savage is artistic. As he’s said himself, he “makes murder music.” But the very duality of Informal & Unorthodox + Very, Very Good is the path they — along with the ever present ATL superproducer Metro Boomin — have carved. 21 Savage is meticulous with his bars and his rhyme patterns, and Boomin sees a beat in everything. Could you play their songs at church? No. But if you showed someone who writes gospel music Savage Mode 2 they’d agree with me.
Young Thug is generational, and I really don’t know what to tell you if you don’t believe it. There is a madness to liking Young Thug; you need to almost relinquish yourself to his weirdness. “Pull down your pants / I want crack,” isn’t a corny, dumb lyric when he raps it. Because the corny and the dumb and the yelling and the moaning and the slurring suddenly works when it comes from him.
Here’s a fun disclaimer to write: I’m a white guy (maybe the only one at Charcoal) from Glendale, California. Since I illegally downloaded Tupac’s entire discography in 6th grade, there always has been a fear that I am out of place as a rap fan. Thug doesn’t care! Thug is boundless; if he cared about the type of person who listened to his music, he would stay in a specific box, but he doesn’t, and so neither do I.
Each song off his 2016 mixtape Jeffery was named after a hero of his (ignore Harambe). Between Young Thug and the namesake of the opening track, Haitian superstar Wyclef Jean, the respect is mutual. Wyclef and Thug, at least according to Wyclef, are fused through their common heritage.
“[H]e has a natural love for Haiti, understanding the history of Haiti. Haiti is the first Black republic. He reminded me of a modern Tupac, in a sense—in a revolutionary sense.”
"He reminded me of a modern Tupac, in a sense—in a revolutionary sense.”
“HE REMINDED ME OF A MODERN TUPAC, IN A SENSE—IN A REVOLUTIONARY SENSE.”
Gucci Mane held his hand out to the young, raw talent in Jeffery, and it only took him a short amount of time to make his claim as the leader of this New Atlanta (which, coincidentally, is the name of Migos’ best song ever). It was Thugger’s turn to do the same thing.
And do so he did. Young Thug is the fuse for our current crop of rappers. He’s the supportive big brother, the archetype, the blueprint.
Lil Baby said Young Thug was the first person that paid him to rap. He also signed Gunna and is said to have cemented the blossoming rap bromance between the two of the two upstarts. Kingmaker, Thug has become, and crown-taker as well. Following a string of collaborations with fellow ATLien Rich Homie Quan, their relationship dissolved for complicated reasons, and Quan has faded into the background while Young Thug has zoomed to the fore.
A huge moment in Thug’s career, not as a rapper, but as an artist, is the album cover of his 2016 mixtape Jeffery. Thug, in an Alessandro Triccone dress, ruffled and draped and elegant, nodding with his massive hat. In terms of costuming, it was love at first sight for Thugger: as soon as he saw the dress online, he had it shipped directly from Triccone’s home in Italy to Atlanta.
"There is a madness to liking Young Thug; you need to almost relinquish yourself to his weirdness."
Young Thug in Alessandro Trincone dress for 'JEFFERY' album cover
Photo | Garfield Larmond
And so there he was, a gangster rapper from the projects of Atlanta, in a big and loud and blue and ruffled dress.
I can’t convince you that doesn’t fucking rule. And I can’t convince you that it’s not a massive moment in the history of rap.
Even the most devoted hip hop heads in the world will admit to you that rap has a history of grappling with toxic masculinity, homophobia, transphobia and sexism. Thug has had issues with plenty of this: most notably, he intentionally misgendered former NBA star Dwayne Wade’s daughter, Zaya, after the 12-year-old came out as transgender.
In a very-quickly-deleted tweet, Young Thug wrote, “All I wanna say to dwade (sic) son is 'GOD DONT MAKE MISTAKES' but hey live your true self.”
But when it comes to presenting himself, Young Thug is one of the most fluid rappers in history. Wearing the dress is one thing, but presenting it as an aspect of his gangster credentials, as opposed to a rare exception, is all the more lane-swerving.
In the opening track off So Much Fun, Thug raps, “Had to wear the dress ‘cause I had the stick,” explaining that the dress was used to conceal his gun.
Young Thug yells and whines and moans on Metro Boomin beats. He wears skirts and dresses and weird coats. He stares the tradition of gritty, rough ATL rappers in the face and moonwalks into Hell. He’s the first postmodern rapper.