Understatement of 2016: it’s hard to understand Young Thug. The thoughts of many attempting to get a read on the prolific artist are exemplified by hip-hop blogger Doggie Diamonds, who exasperatedly asked if Thug was “’trolling,’ or if he’s really a flagrant dude” after seeing him in a dress on the cover for his latest project, JEFFERY. Beyond the disdain for Thug’s visual aesthetic, there are a great deal of hip-hop traditionalists who chide Thug for being about as enunciative as Donald Trump is tactful.
Thug has been deemed a purveyor of “mumble rap,” hip-hop’s newest buzz phrase used to annex genre-bending artists such as Thug and Future who eschew the straightforward lucidity most rappers rhyme with. On songs like JEFFERY’s “Harambe” though, Thug isn’t mumbling as much as emotively bellowing ala a free jazz-era vocalist. Thug blended bits of trap music, electronic, and even dancehall on JEFFERY, wailing in a manner that was indecipherable-yet-striking. He was in the throes of his artistry, on the verge of a derailment with every high-note and guttural utterance, yet masterful enough to keep it together for one of the most brilliant exhibitions of melody and vocal dexterity of the year.
Thug doesn’t approach his rendition of the sing-songy hip-hop fusion as refined as T. Pain or even Future, who tends to save his most brazen vocal running for choruses and bridges. What Thug is delivering as an artist hasn’t been offered since Ol’ Dirty Bastard, an artist who was appreciated but is (perhaps tellingly) rarely compared favorably to his more lyrical Wu-Tang brethren. ODB’s prime was almost 20 years ago, enough time for many hip-hop heads dismayed by Thug’s existence to forget that they’ve heard–and enjoyed—vocal free-wheeling before in a hip-hop context.
Thug is essentially a double-down on ODB’s most experimental work, a fusion of nearly every “hook man” in Hip-Hop history extrapolated over the duration of entire songs. Perhaps if he was merely a frequent collaborator on the work of an electronic artist like Diplo or TOKiMonsta, it would be easier to accept that his appeal is in his ability use his voice to augment production and curate its vibrations.
It seems hard however for many fans to grasp the concept of Thug as a solo act. Old school hip-hop gatekeepers demean Thug, but they should be thanking him. Intentionally or not, Thug is one of the strongest examples of the musical possibilities of the hip-hop genre, of a reintroduction of classic Black musical conceits via a genre that ardent critics still swear isn’t music.
Before the first hip-hop breakbeat was created, there were free jazz bands of the 1960s who collectively crafted abrasive, sonorous compositions that were compared to “noise.” While critics chastised the movement, its architects viewed it as a sonic channeling of the spirit of liberation that defined the ’60s. Could a similar circumstance be at play with Young Thug? Sure, he isn’t a saxophonist, but his industrious efforts to vocally defy convention favor comparably to that of improvisational jazz artists such as Pharoah Sanders and Cecil Taylor.
Not only does JEFFERY harken to free jazz, Thug’s rhythmically contorting vocal inflections compare to the freest of Africa’s vocal music, an innate connection with his ancestry that he may not even understand.
In the early 90s, the production of A Tribe Called Quest, Pete Rock and more had an immeasurable impact on exhibiting the musical malleability of hip-hop from a sonic level—it’s only right that artists like Thug and even Kendrick Lamar introduce previously unexplored segments of jazz on a vocal level.
In time, as Young Thug inspires more artists uninterested in bar-for-bar simplicity to push the boundaries with him, more ears will be primed to accept his sound. Thug is another “cowboy” who, like Jay Z said of Kanye West during Yeezus season, charges over the hill and willingly gets hit with arrows in his exploration. The difference with Thug is he’s so beyond our social constructs that those figurative arrows don’t even hurt him.
It would probably take a dozen more in-depth interviews, two documentaries, and an autobiography to begin to gain a grasp of Young Thug the artist, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair to diminish his music as “not hip-hop,” or castigate him as the downfall of the craft. Especially when he’s more artistically ambitious and steeped in the traditions of Black music than the average “real hip-hop” artist.