Why Young Thug is the most influential rapper of the 21st century

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The Atlanta star has become her own genre; he is the sun king at the center of the rap solar system

If you haven’t heard of Young Thug, chances are you’ve heard someone who sounds like Young Thug. The Atlanta rapper, born Jeffery Lamar Williams, has been a rising force in hip-hop for the better part of a decade. His recognizable high has slipped and climbed the charts for nearly a decade, but the past 24 months have seen Thug rise to become the instant sun king at the center of rap’s solar system.

In 2019, Young Thug became its own genre. He won his first Grammy for backing vocals and improvisations on Childish Gambino’s This is America. Thug’s latest album, So Much Fun, debuted at number one in the US, a commercial climax that showcased the artist’s musical contrasts in all their glory. It’s his answer to Lil Wayne’s career-defining Tha Carter III, a cleverly constructed distillation of his appeal (more crowning than classic) that dilutes his crazed experimentation in favor of a restrained fluorescent playfulness that might appeal to teens from the suburbs discovered by vaporizers and rap. for the first time.

In addition to topping the album chart, he briefly held 11 spots on the Billboard Hot 100, including his collaboration with Post Malone, Goodbyes, which still receives over a million streams daily. And yet Thugga’s most impressive legacy is his army of imitators; young artists who discovered that money and fame can be made from idiosyncratic rhymes and offbeat sounds.

In the early 2010s, Thug emerged from Atlanta, the city that has largely set the tone for hip-hop this decade. The conventional narrative around the Thug’s convention-melting shrieks and warbles always saw him as too alien, idiosyncratic and hostile to the promotional demands required to become the chart-topping festival headliner his talent warranted.

Young Thug was even featured on Childish Gambino's This Is America, one of the biggest tracks of the decade (Credit: Getty Images)

Young Thug was even featured on Childish Gambino’s This Is America, one of the biggest tracks of the decade (Credit: Getty Images)

Yet the 10th of 11 kids from Atlanta’s Jonesboro South projects has become ubiquitous on Spotify’s US Top 50, even when he’s out of sight. Consider Camilla Cabello, the former Fifth Harmony singer: Her biggest solo record of hers is Havana, her 2017 collaboration with Young Thug. Or Drake, the most commercially impactful rapper of the decade, who has repeatedly criticized Thug’s slippery electric eel cadences, most notably on last year’s song Mob Ties.

In rap, the influence usually starts at the regional level and spreads outward. So it’s no surprise that virtually every recent Atlanta artist owes fatherhood to the rapper briefly known as SEX. For example, Gunna’s February Three Headed Snake, a rapper signed to Young Thug’s YSL label. Last year, Gunna and another Thug protégé, Lil Baby, broke Rolling Loud’s speech with Drip Too Hard, an unofficial spin-off of Future and Thug’s Drippin on Me.

The difference between homage, imitation and learning can always remain cloudy. The old line of rap held that no biting was allowed was summed up by Wu Tang Clan’s Raekwon: “I don’t want anyone to sound like me on any album.” A more even view came from TS Eliot: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets disfigure what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least into something different. Even someone as revolutionary as Thugger couldn’t have existed without his renowned idol, Lil Wayne, whose slurred codeine hexes fragmented the possibilities of rap in a thousand directions.

Listening to early Thug mixtapes from earlier in the decade, the high-fashion dragon croaking and Jabberwocky rhyme schemes that followed are absent. It’s all muted Wayne riffs. Even in his first notable project, 2011’s I Came From Nothing 2, he remains a slave to his hero, though songs like Keep in contact Revealed your limitless potential. Like all of Thug’s best work, the track is resistant to critical ramblings. It builds on the puppy-dog romanticism that might have come from Motown… if he’d been kidnapped by a 6-foot-4 ex-high-school quarterback with nose rings and a gambling-obsessed skid row.

Young Thug's style of rap owes a lot to his predecessor Lil' Wayne (Credit: Getty Images)

Young Thug’s style of rap owes a lot to his predecessor Lil’ Wayne (Credit: Getty Images)

Young Thug’s breakthrough came with 2013’s Stoner. It was a completely different breed from what had come before, forged from a DNA mutation whose bloodstream was equal parts strawberry, promethazine, weed, molly, and merry ranch. esoteric dusts transmitted from the Betelgeuse plug.

In Stoner, he shrieks and moans, spewing out nightmarish cantillations and euphoric wails, stretching syllables until they collapse under stress, disappearing at the vanishing point. He yells out a spell like “INCENTED” like a spoiled child begging to open his Christmas presents early, only to discover that the only things under the tree are Styrofoam and codeine. Thug’s voice twitches into neon lava; he uses it like Jimi Hendrix using a wah-wah pedal. It is a live power cable that is twisted in the street during a lightning storm.

The next three years marked a streak that can match almost any creative streak in history. There was the Rich Gang project with fellow Atlanta MC Rich Homie Quan (whose own stylistic influence is often overlooked), which somehow lived up to Quan’s boast that they were the “toughest duo since OutKast.” As for Thug’s solo work, the first two volumes of the Slime Season series are deliriously improvised masterpieces, often overlooked because, like the Rich Gang, they never made it to streaming services. The zenith may have been 2015’s Barter 6, his first project available for commercial release. Arguably his most innovative song, Halftime, where he presents half a dozen different flows, changing direction with the initial agility and blinding speed of a Simone Biles floor routine.

Camila Cabello (second from the left) is one of the artists who has achieved success thanks to the influence of Young Thug (Credit: Getty Images)

Camila Cabello (second from the left) is one of the artists who has achieved success thanks to the influence of Young Thug (Credit: Getty Images)

To date, his rap family hasn’t gotten the full rundown of what has made Thug immortal. Each of his protégés seems to work within a small parcel of his vocal flows, melodies and textures. It is almost impossible to guess who will end up surpassing it, or at least annexing new territories. It could be his “little brothers” Gunna and Lil Baby, whose collaboration Drip or Drown 2 reached number three on the Billboard album charts earlier this year. This summer, Thug and Future announced that the little brothers would team up with their older ones for a sequel to Super Slimey, forming an Atlanta rap Avengers.

That said, there’s an argument that the first half generation of Thug-influenced rappers have already turned their innovations into something singular. Travis Scott criticized Thug’s famous Pick Up the Phone as one of his first big solo hits, and it’s obvious that the Houston rapper’s ad-libs, vocal tone and melodies are derived from Thug, albeit mixed with 808 and Kanye from the Yeezus era).

Playboi Carti has become one of the biggest artists of the moment by triangulating Chicago artist Chief Keef with Thug. Philadelphia-born Lil Uzi Vert rapped as Meek Mill until he moved to Atlanta, signed with DJ Drama’s label, and appeared on the second season of Slime.

Of course, weighing art is more complex and inscrutable than just playing a game of detecting influence. A hit song like Lil Uzi Vert’s XO Tour Llif3 was clearly influenced by Uzi’s own life and emotions, not to mention the mall punk of the last decade. But it’s hard to imagine it existing or having the impact it did without Young Thug laying the groundwork.

Eminem's flashy 2000 VMA show: Young Thug is this generation's equivalent (Credit: Getty Images)

Eminem’s flashy 2000 VMA show: Young Thug is this generation’s equivalent (Credit: Getty Images)

Twenty years have passed since those MTV Music Awards in which Eminem burst onto the stage with a hundred doubles with bleached hair, white T-shirts and blue jeans. The idea was for him to embody the millions of rap-obsessed, aggrieved white kids in America who until then had not seen themselves credibly represented within the genre. For a year or two after the Eminem explosion, every major record label tried to come up with their own Eminem replicant, but none survived (save for a few classic Bubba Sparxx singles).

But now tastes and music distribution models have changed, and with it, the desire to listen to better or at least different artists. If you were to redo that same awards show today, you could do it with 100 Young Thugs standing in a straight line on stage, the alien visionary in front, his descendants in designer clothes and dyed hair, following his lead and simultaneously rapping. . It would be hard to hear the difference over the sound of applause.

More on BBC Music’s Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time:
The 25 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time
What critics had to say about the top 10
Full list of critics who participated and how they voted
Trends and surprises in the survey (not available in UK)
Why are there so few women in hip-hop polls?
Top 25 Songs Playlist (Spotify)

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