The Genius of Young Thug
How the Atlanta rapper shaped the newest wave of hip hop
All my friends know that I’m the biggest Thugger stan alive.
Truth to be told, it started ironically — around 2018 when Thugger released the EP On the Rvn (which imo is one of the best EPs of the 2010s, don’t @ me).
At the time, I didn’t really have a favorite artist per say.
I didn’t have that kind of relationship of music.
I just listened to what was popular on the Top 40 charts, and I couldn’t really discern between artists (‘Is this Selena Gomez or Taylor Swift?’) — let alone identify the song name and the album that is appeared on.
Which — as a quick aside — is a huge implication of the times we’re in, with streaming sites like Apple Music and Spotify. We’ve become estranged from the music that we listen to — they become 5 second clips on TikTok instead of fitting into a larger narrative of an LP.
Anyway, I was pretty uncomfortable whenever someone asked me what my favorite musical artists was.
Uh, Drake I guess? But I couldn’t name any of his songs outside of what appeared on the charts…
So I decided to pick an artist that would — at the very least — garner a pretty decent response from someone, whether it be positive or negative.
At the time, Thugger wasn’t the superstar that he is right now, but he was still well known with some hits like Stoner and and notable features in Havana by Camila Cabello and Lifestyle with Rich Gang.
And, oh yeah, he was super controversial.
With a mumble-like delivery and nonsensical lyrics — like “I put the crack in my crack”, Young Thug raised a ton of eyebrows when he broke into the mainstream psyche in 2014.
People dismissed it as a gimmick.
Others claimed that his silly, borderline non-English lyrics was an insult to rap, a musical genre founded on social activism and lyricism.
Notably, critics claimed that Young Thug’s feature on Mamacita by Travis Scott ruined the song for them.
So I knew that if I said that my favorite artist was Young Thug, it would either garner a reaction like,
…or an incredulous look and a laugh of disbelief.
Oh, you better believe it.
OK, so Young Thug was my favorite artist now — which wasn’t super unbelievable because I have been a fan of rap/hip-hop for years, and I do love some of his songs in albums like Slime Language.
But, in order to really sell it, I should probably listen to his entire discography — starting with his most loved songs from communities like r/YoungThug.
And yeah… that fated moment led to me to stay up all night listening to Young Thug, and saving nearly 50 songs on Spotify.
Since that day in 2018, Young Thug has been my defacto favorite artists.
Every December since, when Spotify Unwrapped — an analytics product that shows you for well listened-to songs and artists for the year — is released, Young Thug would be my outright number 1 artist.
When Young Thug released his debut album (everything before then was a mixtape or LP) So Much Fun and made his ascent to super stardom, I listened to his albums hundreds of times so that he could top the Billboard Hip Hop charts and, for the first time in his career, break 100K units in the first week.
OK, so happened?
How did I, basically overnight, become such a huge mega-stan of an artist that I started listening to ironically?
And why does this controversial rapper have a devout community of ultrafans — despite being criticized so much before So Much Fun?
The simplest answer is that I realized that Young Thug was ahead of his time. He saw the future that no one else did and willed it into existence.
Three double clicks on that statement:
- He created music that no one heard before
- He isn’t afraid to challenge the norms of the hip hop genre
- He understood the power of absurdism and memes
Young Thug pushed the boundaries of music
In a now-viral music analysis video, Vox analyst Estelle Caswell broke down the genius of Kanye West as a producer, deep diving into his ability to use the human voice as an instrument: editing and distorting melodies into parts of the song’s instrumental backtrack.
And while Kanye pioneered the exploration of the human voice in music production, Young Thug took the ethos of that exploration and channeled it directly into his rapping — merging the melodies of the song with the flow and cadence of his lyrics.
In doing so, he created an entirely new genre of music, mumble rap, which started as an insult toward the style of music, but eventually grew into one of the most popular styles of hip hop today.
Like a saxophone leading the way in a jazz song, Young Thug’s autotuned voice was the star of the show—while still maintaining a fine balance with the instrumentals.
“Young Thug mixes together lyrics with a series of syllables that just sound good together, like scat,” says [linguist Darrin] Flynn. “It’s a guide to a natural rhythm of language.”
The rapping placed much less emphasis on the story or the lyrics, and more the feeling of that it created for the listener.
And as a result, Young Thug placed less significance on writing lyrics, saying absurd lines like “She want my pickle, you know we make deals”.
Thugger has stated many times that he doesn’t write down any lyrics for a song before heading into the recording booth — opting for the right words to best convey the feeling of the song.
He notably bragged that it takes him less than an hour to create song from start-to-finish.
“Oh, man. He’s recorded songs in 10 minutes, man. He’s really, really, really quick.” — Bainz, Thugger’s sound engineer
Hip hop critics and other rappers in the scene didn’t like that.
In an industry that champions stories and lyricism — with the likes of J.Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Nas, MF Doom — it was a slap to the face to see a so-called rapper find success from creating songs with “funny” lyrics.
“You can’t even understand what he’s saying, all he does is mumble!”
And they insults at him, calling his style of music mumble rap. And he took it as a point of pride.
Where have we heard that before?
In the Impressionism movement — that took its name from an insult from an art critic. Critics of the movement called the style “unfinished” and “resembling wallpaper”.
And then it took over the art world.
Young Thug constantly breaks the mold of what it means to be a rapper
It wasn’t enough to be a controversial rapper for lyrical reasons.
In 2016, Thugger releases JEFFREY, a 10-song “EP” named after his real name.
On the album cover, Thugger is depicted wearing a purple dress made by renowned designer Alessandro Trincone.
While hip hop moved from the ultra-macho gangster rapper image of the mid-2000s from the likes of 50 Cent, Lloyd Bank, and the Game, the consummate image of a rapper was still a masculine figure — certainly not someone who wears dresses.
Along with Frank Ocean, Thugger challenged the industry’s conception of what it meant to be a male rapper.
Thugger said that he actually prefers wearing women’s clothing — because “they fit how they’re supposed to fit. Like a rock star.”
“Because women’s clothes are [slimmer] than men’s clothes. The jeans I got on right now, they’re women’s jeans. But they fit how they’re supposed to fit. Like a rock star.” — Thugger
So Thugger broke the mold of what it means to be a rapper — both from a lyrical perspective and an aesthetic one.
But he was finished — Young Thug sought to blur the lines between hip hop and other genres.
In 2017, Thugger releases Beautiful Thugger Girls a country-rap fusion album that showcased Thugger singing his signature autotune drawl over acoustic guitar riffs.
A country-rap fusion that flew relatively under the radar — now popularized by singles like Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road and RMR’s Rascal.
Thugger actively mentors the next generation of rappers
More than just a talented musical artist, Young Thug plays an active role in fostering the careers of the next generation of rappers.
Raised in Atlanta, Thugger is heavily involved in the Atlanta rap scene — having himself been mentored and brought up by Gucci Mane and Birdman.
Thugger is a known mentor to Lil Baby and Gunna, two rising rappers that have been called Thugger’s sons due to their younger age and closely matching styles.
Lil Baby has publicly stated that Thugger financially supported his rap career, and Gunna calls Thug a mentor and the best rapper alive.
Now, Thugger strategically places his features in up-and-coming mumble rappers like Lil Keed, Duke, and Gotit.
Despite mumbling, Young Thug is insanely talented
Let’s analyze two features of Thuggers — revisiting Mamacita by Travis Scott and also looking at Trap, Trap, Trap by Rick Ross (links are timestamped to Thugger’s verses).
I won’t get into the rhythm technicalities, but just do a quick ear test on Thugger’s flow in the song vs. the hook from Rich Homie Quan.
They sound so different.
Rich Homie Quan has a pretty standard flow. Rhymes are a straightforward ABAB structure, and every word he emphasizes is aligned to the beat of the song.
Contrast this to Thugger.
I mean — I have no idea what to describe what he’s doing. He’s riding beats that I didn’t even know existed.
It’s just nuts.
And yes, it’s a polarizing delivery style, and arguably changes the overall pace of the song.
However — regardless of what your preference is — you can appreciate that Thugger’s delivery is unique compared to his peers. And he’s worked hard to perfect his craft.
Trap Trap Trap
Again, contrast Thugger’s verse with Wale and Rick Ross.
Now, contrast this verse with Thugger’s verse in Mamacita.
It has NOTHING in common — in terms of delivery.
Thugger consistently puts out incredibly unique flows that break the conventional beat structure — and he even innovates from song-to-song.
And that is no accident. That’s innate talent.
Thugger understands the power of memes
As Thugger stans, we realize the absurdity of his lyrics, and we embrace it wholeheartedly.
In fact, the unconventional nature of his songs is actually a rallying cry for our community.
The weirdness of his music actually brings us closer as a community of fans — because we can be self-aware and share laughs about it.
It’s even a challenge to guess what the lyrics are for a new song and feature — before they’re officially released on Genius or a lyric music video.
“I put the crack in my crack”
“Horses don’t stop they keep going”
“Imma use a name like, who is he? Get it? I said, Imma use a name like, who is he?”
“I got lots of spots, like a tiger”
“I need 4 wheels like a tricycle”
There’s no way you can look at those lyrics and not laugh.
Add in the fact that linguistics professors are literally doing research on Young Thug’s songs and claiming that it is the next evolution of language, and the absurdism evokes so many laughs in the community.
To translate a sense of pure feeling, [mumble] rap turns to sheer sound — a form of communication that linguist Darrin Flynn sees as closer to “spontaneous speech” than rhyming, metaphor-laden poetry.
Young Thug is well loved by his standom
I think there’s any other modern day rapper that is labeled a genius as much as Young Thug.
That’s because there’s so many layers in which to appreciate him: his unique flow, his genre-bending music, his challenge of societal norms, and — honestly — just because his songs are damn catchy.
And despite him being seemingly impossible to understand, and despite him apparently speaking nothing but gibberish — he’ll still have crowds of fans singing his songs word for word.