In Search of a True Breakout Debut, Young Thug Faces a Career Crossroads

Thug's problem is that even when the music is good, every project only feels like an appetizer before a main course.
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Thug's problem is that even when the music is good, every project only feels like an appetizer before a main course.

If Young Thug’s idiosyncratic nature only existed in his music, who knows what kind of artist he would be, but that’s not the case. When he first emerged, his style of rhyme was so audacious it was as if a Martian studied Lil Wayne’s mixtapes and obscure vocal techniques, and chugged bottles of promethazine―any conventional form of lyricism was absent even before "Danny Glover" blew up online. Any conventional ways of living had long seeped from Young Thug's life; he was in an industry used to tradition without a traditional bone in his skeleton.

Young Thug the man is a walking maker of myths; unpredictable as his rhyme schemes and absolutely impossible to box in a cage like Michael Scofield. He's the type of artist who attempted to carry on the album series of his idol, went on tour for an album that never dropped, and has kept potential collaborations with legends like Elton John and Kanye West vaulted like sacred secrets. He records more than he releases—a mountain of leaked snippets serve as proof—and when records finally see the light of day, they are often thrown out without the proper strategies in place to capitalize. 

"Safe," one of Thug's best song releases of 2017, has 11 million views on his YouTube page but has yet to find its way onto any streaming services. Neither has "All The Time," released two months later. This is a common frustration with Thug; Lyor Cohen once said he treats his songs like orphans, but I believe he simply doesn’t care to babysit them. He's too busy working on the next batch. An artist who loves creating so much that he's in a constant state of recording. 

This form of constant creation goes beyond the endless recording process made famous by studio rats like Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane. Wayne knew how to separate Carter albums and Dedication mixtapes, Gucci has material for the streets and for retail, but Thug exists in an era where there’s no separation.

Upon its release, Barter 6 was expected to be Thugger’s debut album. The concept of a debut album was already beginning to feel dated in 2015, an old tradition from a time long ago, but Thug insisted The Barter 6 was only a mixtape. Despite being his first retail release through Atlantic and 300, Thug promised Hy!£UN35, his true artistic debut, would be in stores later that year. He promised the album would be more focused, less lucid rhymes and more concise songwriting. The Atlanta alien even said the project had doses of J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, artists you wouldn’t expect to be channeled for a Thug project. 

Hy!£UN35 has yet to get a release date or confirmation if it will ever be released.

Since he releases everything under the mixtape umbrella, Thug isn’t always acknowledged for receiving rave reviews. From a critical standpoint, every project since Barter 6 has received a warm reception. The problem is, the album build-up never extends beyond release day. Post-release promotion for leak compilation tapes like Slime Season seems interchangeable with high-profile retail projects like Slime Season 3. All eyes were on Jeffery, which felt like a reintroduction project that was set to change Thug's narrative, and yet it came and went with the same speed as Slime Season 3 and I’m Up before it. Even when the music is good—at times great—every project feels like an appetizer before the main course. 

Thug's most recent, Beautiful Thugger Girls, the album that he labeled as a singing-focused alternative project, is some of his most precise and inventive work to date. At this point, I'm not even sure if this is being sold as his debut album or another mixtape, but the music is impressive. It may not have the sound of the original Hy!£UN35, but it does fulfill the promise of a body of work with real songs constructed. There are no big guests outside of Future and Snoop Dogg, but you can hear that Thug had a bit more direction with what type of project he wanted to make. Sadly, even an album of this caliber didn’t explode sales-wise. With no rollout, no build-up, no campaign, no attempt to grab listeners who exist outside of his current orbit, Thug delivered—again—what feels like an appetizer that had the potential to be a much bigger main course.

It would be different if Thug was seen as a singles artist, someone who is mostly known for big songs and low-quality albums. Music is in the era of the viral single, and Thug has had some success in this department, but the charts recognize him as a featured artist more than a solo star―alongside Rich Homie Quan on their popular Rich Gang single “Lifestyle,” giving T.I.’s “About The Money” a necessary spark and Travis' equal on the now double-Platinum “Pick Up The Phone.” Only the viral “Best Friend” was able to soar to a Platinum plaque without another artist attached. 

It’s not like Thug doesn’t have records with reach, either. “Stoner” was an early success, but his records tend to blossom in bubbles and not widespread blazes. Since his recent releases aren’t being handled with traditional rollout methods, there’s no clear single being pushed. This works well for artist of Drake’s caliber, even Future has entered the legion of artists who can drop surprise albums and all their records skyrocket, but even the best music from Jeffery and Beautiful Thugger Girls isn't effectively crossing into the mainstream. Thug is famous, he resides in the same peer group as Travis, Migos and Future, but his approach to music liberation doesn’t allow him the same prosperity. Thug isn’t stagnant, he’s elevating musically, but his cultural real-estate is expanding much slower.

Thug is in an interesting phase of his career. He releases retail mixtapes but the big debut continues to elude him. His artistry continues to improve but the mainstream hasn’t completely embraced his melodic style, unlike some of his frequent collaborators and co-signs. Fans still arrive in droves to see him in concert, though, and by keeping the fans fed he continues to eat. The cycle of releasing acclaimed appetizers keeps hope alive for what comes next, but time isn’t on his side. Unless Thug sits down to record a debut album with intentions of making it his biggest release yet, I don’t see how he’ll continue to escalate. Thug and his label have to see the flaws in their marketing plan.

Jeffery was supposed to be a leaf-turning release, a rebranding to make Thug into a star that could hit the next plateau, but the same shortcomings holding back his previous project continue to haunt him. Imagine if Future released Monster, Beast Mode and 56 Nights without DS2? Or if Travis was stuck in a cycle of Owl Pharaoh and Days Before Rodeo releases? Even progressive music doesn't equate with progression when mishandled. 

Young Thug is the furthest thing from a follower and continues to resist the template of those that came before him. He is in a self-centered orbit; his own dimension. Watching the way he has entered and waltzed through the music industry has been both frustrating and fascinating. I don't think I've seen an artist seem so close to breaking through and continuously fall short. The question is, who will take the blame if Thug doesn't live up to his potential?

Thug has always been peculiar, his unorthodox approach to rap is what grabbed our attention, elastic and eccentric―the kind of unconventional oddity that draws you in with alluring bizarreness. It’s a charm that is still apparent, but the ceiling is lowering itself upon him. The label has to shoulder some of the blame for their artist, but Thug cannot point fingers without accepting that change begins by looking in the mirror. If change is what he wants―he could very well be comfortable selling 30k albums and pleasing all the fans who have already bought in.

Underground legend or commercial darling? Mixtape mastermind or creative dysfunction? I don't know what this stage of his career should be considered, but Young Thug is coming up on a crossroads. I believe in his potential to be much bigger than he is today, and the problem isn't the music, but the overall presentation. Releasing and working singles, building anticipation, creating lasting awareness, and finding inventive ways of promotion. There are ways of making a project feel larger than life; bigger than a mixtape. 

The industry is changing, old rules and traditions are no longer the status quo, but Young Thug may need to take a few steps back if he plans on taking any large steps forward. 

By Yoh, aka Hy!Y0hUN35, aka @Yoh31