Hip-hop appreciates change … up to a point. Stir the pot too much and the dish gets a little tougher to sell. Consider Tyler, the Creator, who saw criticism for the abrasive lyrics and corrosive sonics of releases like 2009’s Bastard and 2011’s Goblin, then spent the better part of a decade fine-tuning his music as streams and accolades racked up; take Chief Keef, the Chicago rapper whose 2012 breakthrough was met with intense debates about morality in street rap closer in tone to the cultural mores of the late ’80s than the early ’10s. Thirty-year-old sometime Atlanta rap iconoclast Young Thug began releasing mixtapes around the same time Tyler and Keef were experiencing their early hits and controversies. Thug’s I Came From Nothing mixtapes filtered sharp melodic sensibilities and a natural gift for rhyming through a playful, warbling tone that coolly undercut his formidable talents with an air of levity. Cuts like I Came From Nothing 3’s “I Know Ya” sounded like mutant descendants of the booming, triumphant beats of 2000s Jeezy tapes and the gymnastic lyrical flights of the music Lil Wayne was releasing at the same time. A certain subset of hip-hop head pawned this all off as “mumble rap,” a catchall term demeaning (mostly Southern) rappers for the clarity of their diction, but Thug persisted across releases like 2013’s 1017 Thug, 2015’s Barter 6, and 2016’s Jeffery, evolving his sound and inching a little closer to the top of the Billboard 200 album chart with each subsequent drop. By the time he dropped a debut studio album — 2019’s So Much Fun, discounting many retail mixtapes, EPs, and compilations — he’d amassed the necessary chops, connections, and name recognition to score his first No. 1 album.
Young Thug is attempting a different kind of reign than the hip-hop A-listers he counts among his friends and collaborators now. He’s not like Drake or Future, whose consistencies warrant a guess at the sound of a new release if not the subject matter, or Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, thinkers who don’t much care for the spotlight if their long absences are to be believed. A new Thug release could signal a quick detour into a new genre or introduce new bit players. Last spring’s Slime & B, in collaboration with Chris Brown, saw Thug gracing the slickest production he touched since his chart-topping Camila Cabello collaboration “Havana.” This spring’s Slime Language 2 gave the members of the rapper’s Young Stoner Life collective ample room to shine, ceding some of the spotlight to Dolly White, HiDoraah, and Unfoonk, Thug’s real-life siblings. This year, Thug has been teasing Punk, the sophomore album previewed at an NPR Tiny Desk Concert whose crunchy guitars and cameo from Blink-182 alumnus Travis Barker appeared to convey a renewed interest in the guitar. Would Punk follow the re-influx of pop-punk aesthetics in mainstream music? Would Thug, an avid student of Lil Wayne (whose Barter 6 album title was a provocation to Wayne and his Carter album series), follow his elder into the morass of the awful 2010 butt-rock misfire Rebirth?
Rebirth was sunk by taste and timing. Working with Miami producers Cool and Dre on the cusp of an era that would yield some of the harshest reviews of his career, Lil Wayne set about making his idea of a rock album, dabbling in funk rock, nü metal, blues rock, and pop punk but largely failing to offer anything fresh or modern. A decade later, listeners’ interests seem more varied, and mainstream music is warming up to guitar sounds that looked to be on the way out amid the big tent EDM movement of the early 2010s. Now, we’ve heard Lil Peep’s experimentation with midwest emo samples; Juice WRLD, Lil Uzi Vert, and Trippie Redd’s filtering of pop-punk melodies through trap beats; Justin Bieber and the Kid LAROI’s meld of pop, rock, and hip-hop aesthetics; Willow Smith’s indie-rock album; Olivia Rodrigo’s grunge song; and Machine Gun Kelly’s pop-punk caricature. Thug — a restless talent who seems at ease in every setting, thanks in part to an unpredictable instrument, a voice capable of selling a smooth melody, a coarse rhyme, a high yelp, or a low growl — proved his mettle in a rock setting in 2017 on the Beautiful Thugger Girls jams “Me or Us” and “Family Don’t Matter,” acoustic campfire jams that bordered on country music, and in 2019 on So Much Fun’s Nav collab “Boy Back,” where Thug skates coolly across a twinkling electric-guitar loop.
These songs inform the new album’s approach to rock music. Punk isn’t punk. There’s nothing abrasive in its aesthetic. Punk is a movement about sticking out, breaking the rules, and bucking commercial trends; Punk is slick and cozy. (Destroying a spray-painted Rolls-Royce with baseball bats as a promotional stunt isn’t bucking any system. Is the album’s title tongue-in-cheek, or is the popular understanding of the very concept of punk rock now watered down, misconstrued by commercial projects like Rebirth? Hard to say.) The guitars are soft. The arrangements are plush, soulful. The pace is relaxed. This isn’t a new direction for Thug — or anyone else in a decade where everyone from Alabama’s NoCap to New York’s Sheff G and Sleepy Hallow to Chicago’s Polo G is reaching for beats built around emotional guitar loops — so much as a sampling and a refinement of several ideas that are explored in the rapper’s interim projects.
Split almost straight down the middle between rock-oriented cuts like the harrowing story song “Die Slow,” where a gently plucked electric guitar flanks the rapper as he blurts out a chilling history of family disputes and misfortunes, and trap bangers like “Bubbly,” co-starring Drake and Travis Scott, Punk isn’t cohesive. Cohesion has never been the goal. The appeal, as was the case with So Much Fun, is hearing Thug tear through the strangest beats he can find (though this album’s trap jams seek to sooth, where Fun cuts like “Hot” or “Jumped Out the Window” aimed for bedlam). Young Thug is a chameleon. He traces the lilting melodic lines Post Malone puts down on “Living It Up” with ease and meets Future on even ground as the duo reminisces on past hardships on “Peeping Out the Window.” He gets J. Cole reaching for high notes on the deceptively smooth-sounding “Stressed,” matches Doja Cat’s cooing romanticism on “Icy Hot,” croons alongside The Format and .fun alum Nate Ruess, and effects a singsong old-school flow on the Mac Miller collaboration “Day Before.”
The range is impressive, and rarer still is the star-studded rap album that doesn’t lose its character in a parade of high-profile guest spots. Thug is doing whatever he wants. Everyone else is meeting the challenge. Iron is sharpening iron. The writing’s pliable. In the solo songs, Thug cycles through half a dozen personas — the lover, the family man, the pre-fame dreamer, the affluent rapper. Owning all that he is and ever was, Young Thug rewards longtime listeners with a celebration of every rung of his patient ascent. He’s also primed an audience that no longer finds his quirks forbiddingly quirky. Let’s hope he doesn’t fuck this up.
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