opinion by BROOKLYN RUSSELL
Hip-hop, as you presumably already know, is like a vacuum. I mean that not in the metaphorical sense of the word but in the literal. You know: you’ll get sucked in and never to be seen or heard from again. Just like a vacuum. That’s it. One day you’re in. And the next day, you’re out. You are the weakest link, goodbye. Auf Wiedersehen! Most dedicated rap fans don’t just stay put, they move around and are always on the hunt for the next big thing in rap. Nowadays its one click away. And right now fans see the potential in 22-year-old Atlanta native Young Thug.
A lot of has happened to Jeffrey Williams a.k.a. Young Thug in the last two years. He released his 1017 Thug mixtape in February of 2013, which, despite being Thug’s fourth official solo mixtape at the time, marked an unexpected shift in his brief rap career—he was finally getting some much deserved attention from critics and fans alike. Thug was beginning to carefully establish himself as one of rap’s most perplexing and refreshing new voices, warranting plenty of comparisons to the mid-late 2000s drug/experimental-era Lil Wayne. By the winter of 2013, global rap icons like Drake and Kanye West were captured on iPhone cameras rapping and dancing respectively to Thug’s latest street single “Danny Glover”. And shortly thereafter, hip-hop’s own supreme queen Nicki Minaj took it a step further and remixed the track while adding her own colorful inflections. As New York Times writer Jon Caramanica put it: “The way we learn about a song’s potency these days is by watching others lose their mind to it on Vine or Instagram.” And clearly, Thug’s brand of rap is pure, unadulterated, grade-A stuff.
In the world of post-internet rap phenomena, Young Thug continued abusing his recently utilized superstar power like Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day—arresting any and all attention throughout 2014. And your particular enjoyment of mainstream pop/rap music that year is more than likely closely tied to whether or not you care for Thug’s intoxicating blend of the two. Consciously or not. He effortlessly dominated 2014 with his dynamic features (“About the Money”, “Hookah”, “YRN”, “In Too Deep”), singles (“Danny Glover”, “Stoner”, “The Blanguage”, “Ew Ew Ew”), music videos, on social media (Instagram, Twitter, Vine, hashtags, memes), in the streets, in the clubs, tabloid/gossip (sexual ambiguity, his flamboyant fashion sense, idiosyncratic stream of consciousness rap style). 2014 was the year where Young Thug completely altered the gravitational pull of hip-hop. From “Stoner” to “Hookah” to “About the Money” to “Lifestyle”, Thug became an unavoidable presence in the rap landscape. This sentiment couldn’t be more true than on the chart-topping “Lifestyle”—a sort of Millennial version of Generation X’s “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” as an all-encompassing generational hip-hop party track. Thug comes through over a breezy instrumental and casually gives us the now iconic opening line: “I did a lot of shit just to live this here lifestyle.”
Both Thug and New Atlanta sparring partner Rich Homie Quan contribute equally memorable moments on “Lifestyle”, but it’s Thug with his quietly seething and befuddling unintelligible verses that summon repeated listening. The tandem of Thug and Quan worked so well on “Lifestyle” that the chemistry spawned a terrific collaborative mixtape under Birdman’s Rich Gang imprint. What we got from Rich Gang: Tha Tour, Part 1 was essentially the chapter of Young Thug’s career we’re currently turning the page on now with Barter 6, his latest digital album. Initially touted to the press as Young Thug’s first proper crack at a commercial studio album Barter 6 would eventually be released on iTunes as Thug’s fourth solo digital album (following two solo throwaway projects released by Gucci Mane’s 1017 Records—in a last ditch attempt to capitalize on the fervent Thugger mania). With that being said, the Thug you’re getting on Barter 6 is more in line with Rich Gang: Tha Tour, Part 1 Thug than any other previous incarnation.
With Barter 6, Thug finds himself reunited with the man behind “Lifestyle” and responsible for a bulk of the beats on Rich Gang: Tha Tour, Part 1, producer London on da Track, which, fittingly, gives the project a polished and mature sound. While some Thug listeners might scoff at Barter 6 for its lack of tried-and-true bangers like “2 Cups Stuffed” and “Danny Glover”, the slow burners here give Thug’s narrative some much needed clarity. Released on his mother’s birthday (April 16) Barter 6 positions Young Thug as a sentimental figure in rap, whose peculiar style and bizarre characteristics aren’t mere methods or technicalities but arise from a genuine place of hurt and confusion—where the brief glimpses of joy are intertwined with the sorrow. With more than half of the material on Barter 6 falling in line with this foreboding sense of fatalism the subsequent ruminations of lines like: “Having the time of my motherfuckin’ liiiiife/ I’m gonna buy everything I want, I can’t think twiiiice,” add even more gravitas to his hoarse, elastic timbre.
In your standard by-the-numbers hip-hop album review the writer will often dedicate a paragraph or two to discuss the lyrics and this particular paragraph would probably serve as a good moment to do so with Barter 6. But describing Young Thug’s lyrics by breaking them down into bars seems futile. Hearing the man’s voice is required to truly grasp those lines. The way in which Thug bends and contorts each line into something almost entirely unfamiliar yet completely inviting is a feat—his gift is in the uncanny. If it’s true what they say—Young Thug and the like freestyle their rap lyrics—then Thug has tapped into a part of his brain that oozes some serious creative juices. Unlike renowned hip-hop artists who have been known to leave the pen and pad outside of the booth—Jay Z, for example—Thug’s approach to the technique never feels studied or his session a vocal exercise. If Thug’s idol Lil Wayne was the personification of hip-hop in the mid-late 2000s then Thug is the deconstruction of it. I wouldn't know how else to describe to someone the chills that run down my spine when Thug suddenly blurts out “But we not friendly either, you know it” on “Constantly Hating” or that moment when his voice switches up on “Halftime” into devilish robotic Auto-Tune or when he indiscriminately breaks out into shouting out close family and friends he plans to always provide for on “OD”. There is a wealth of awesome vocal moments too—Thug’s manic ad libs, chirps and squeaks, clever punchlines and metaphors, unusual observations, and heart on the sleeve confessionals—they all add an extra sense of vitality to Barter 6.
Nakedness is usually an expression of vulnerability—at once writer David Thigpen praised Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U” music video, which features Morissette appearing nude, but criticized D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” for being “an in-your-face form of masculinity”. So where does Young Thug’s Barter 6 fit in? The cover depicts Thug buck naked in the spotlight wearing nothing but a red bandana, a couple of gold-chained necklaces and watch. And if you look closely, the cover isn’t just some tattooed gang member flexing. There’s vulnerability in Thug’s facial expression, an awkwardness that’s both endearing and slightly perplexing. He doesn’t look too comfortable; he’s visibly shy and introverted, and properly covering his junk. Lyrically and in mood Thug exhibits a more introspective, thoughtful side as he acknowledges his rise to stardom; tracks like “Check”, with its refrain of “Got me a check, I got a check” over a somber piano and pretty much the entirety of “Just Might Be” are as personal as Thug’s music is ever likely to get.
Even in its breezy fifty minute runtime there are points where Barter 6 drags. Songs like “Can’t Tell” dribble well past the five-minute mark and come across as studio experiments (“Pussy boy I’ll leave you dead and call it dead-ication/ I put Act inside my drink, they call it medication”, raps Thug). The T.I. feature on the track also finds itself repeating successful ideas from the past like those littered all over the two Atlantans 2014 collaboration “About the Money”. Because it worked so well once before shouldn’t mean settling for the familiar—especially for a rapper as exciting and creative as Thug. By the time Boosie Badazz jumps on the track you’ve already opened far too many Google Chrome tabs to be paying it any attention. But when he strikes a delicate balance—“Check”, “Dome”, “Halftime”, “Knocked Off”, “OD”, “Just Might Be”—it’s a thing of dreams. Besides Birdman going for two-for-two, Duke and Young Dolph deliver feasible weed carrier tier verses that accomplish accenting Thug’s strengths while also never promptly taking a personal L either. Duke’s delivery where he magically locks in vocally with Thug—when they both glowingly shout “HOP UP!” after mentioning the obscure early 2000s computer game Icy Tower—feels magical and reminds us of the otherworldly connection Thug and Rich Homie Quan had.
So what, so Young Thug’s Barter 6 isn’t the best representation of his creativity and skill set to date. So what, so Thug and his label(s) pulled a fast one on everyone and changed the format of Barter 6 from physical debut album to another digital, iTunes only release. All of this and more is moot because of one person: Young Thug. Most of Thug’s solo material up until this point feel unfinished, like sketches that were dropped on the public to generate buzz. Thug’s entire approach to his music has never sounded so polished and potent as it sounds on Barter 6. This was neatly summed up by Thug himself: “I would rather you listen to my song a hundred times than listen to it one time and know it.” He would then offer what is ostensibly the most alluring thing about his music, his character: “That’s what I like the most about my music. It’s hard to understand, but when you do understand, you’re sold.” B
A version of this appeared on Brooklyn Russell’s personal blog.