When Kanye West ingeniously included “I Love Kanye” on The Life of Pablo, we had no idea just how true the spoken-word interlude’s sentiment—“I miss the old Kanye”—would turn out to be. The Trump-loving era hadn’t quite kicked off yet, but Kanye was already familiar with the dilemma every successful artist faces.
That is, if artists don’t evolve, fans will forget all about them. If they move on from the original music and persona that fans initially latched onto, nostalgia-driven complaints will come flying at their heads.
This thorny dynamic can get more complicated when different stages of an artist’s personal life also coincide with varying levels of quality in their music. Take Chance the Rapper’s newly-released debut, The Big Day. On the day of its release, Acid Rap, Chance’s 2013 sophomore mixtape, was a trending topic on Twitter. It’s a bad sign when your new release reminds people how good your old music used to be. And though TBD is not as bad as the memes would have you believe, the album lacks the dynamism and quirkiness of Chance’s early career output. But what if TBD never stood a chance because it’s less interesting to hear a rich adult’s thoughts on marriage than an angsty teenager’s musings on death, drugs, and nostalgia?
Of course, both Chance and Kanye have attained massive popularity and success as their music has evolved, but the vast majority of artists aren’t so lucky. Most creators have to navigate demands from day-one fans while also trying (and needing) to level up and reach a wider audience.
Enter Young Thug, whose status as a trendsetter and living legend is rarely questioned by the industry, but who has never debuted a solo project higher than No. 7 on the Billboard 200. Available as of August 16, Thug’s debut album, So Much Fun—his fourth debut album, by my count—was released amidst pressures to succeed commercially, please fans who might agree with this self-deprecating bar, and prove his sovereignty over Gunna, Lil Baby, YNW Melly, and the dozen or so other significant rappers who have made themselves in Thugger’s image. Miraculously, So Much Fun succeeds on all these counts, and others, with flying colors.
Young Thug’s seminal mixtape Slime Season, released four years ago this fall, is an exquisitely haphazard collection. Thrown together by Thug’s record label 300 as a response to a disastrous leak of over 100 Thug songs that summer, the tape’s 18 tracks have little in common with each other. In one exceptional stretch, the frantic paranoia of the Metro Boomin-produced “Be Me See Me” is preceded by Ricky Racks’ woozy production on “Overdosin” and followed by the epic funeral march of the Wondagurl-helmed “Freaky.” The tape’s sequel was more cohesive but still brought together disparate sounds and ideas in the name of leak management—on SS2’s back end, house-of-mirrors oddities (“Oh Lord” and “Beast”) rub shoulders with lush slow jams (“Raw,” “Never Made Love”).
This particular era found Young Thug primarily unburdened by the pressures of stardom. He had a critically-acclaimed project under his belt (Barter 6) and a Real Debut Album (Hy!£UN35, still nowhere to be found) on the way. In the meantime, Thug flooded fans with material without gimmicky rollouts or speculation about commercial performance.
For fans, the allure of Thug’s Slime Season era is about nostalgia and belief. The series represents a yearning for the simpler times of 2015 when Obama was president and Fetty Wap ruled the Hot 100; when Thug’s career prospects were higher than ever. Google the phrase “Young Thug potential,” and you’ll find numerous articles imagining the heights Thugger could reach with the right guidance and focus.
To date, Thug’s career has been maligned by leaks, botched album rollouts, and general chaos. The masses have paid more attention to his cover art and music video shenanigans than the actual music. As a result, Thug has been usurped in streaming popularity by his progeny.
After Slime Season, Thug fans saw 14,605,000 possible outcomes for his career. Before So Much Fun, though, the general sentiment among hip-hop fans is that he fell short of the optimal one—becoming a household name.
As a body of work, So Much Fun lives up to its name and then some. To be clear: Young Thug has always had fun, even during the “Why isn’t Young Thug a superstar yet?” era that began in 2016. But on SMF, we find a version of Thug who has never been more joyful. Aside from the album’s opening track, “Just How It Is,” most of SMF isn’t really about anything. Like much of the material on the Slime Seasons, these tracks latch on to a single idea—a melody, a phrase, a vocal trick, calling someone a bad word—and stretch the idea as far as it can go.
Thug’s last solo release, 2017’s Beautiful Thugger Girls, wasn’t exactly a concept album but the project had a narrative that weighed it down ever so slightly. Where nearly every song on BTG was written for or about a love interest, various moments on So Much Fun include Thugger running from the cops, throwing a rave, and taking a beach day. The only thing holding these tracks together is the impish, animated voice of Thug, who sounds like he hopped in a time machine straight from 2015.
A perfect example of So Much Fun’s departure from previous Thug albums is “Sup Mate,” the album’s second track and the second team-up this year from Thug and Future. The two Atlanta legends officially collaborated on BTG’s “Relationship,” which was much like the album it appeared on: structured, polished, and radio-ready. “Sup Mate,” in contrast, is utterly bonkers: the record is built around the idea that Future and Thug believe saying the word “mate” is funny. Neither artist seems to care that much of the song sounds like this scene from SpongeBob, but the sheer amount of fun the two had while recording the track is palpable.
Songs like “Sup Mate” are throwbacks to what drew many fans to Thugger amidst all the leaks and mixtapes of 2015: he let us behind the curtain and into his creative process even if he hadn’t worked out all the kinks yet.
With So Much Fun, Thug has achieved the impossible. The album satisfies longtime fans and newcomers alike, harkening back to what many consider his heyday while existing very much in the present. The material renders the typical Twitter A&Ring irrelevant—there’s no time to fret about first-week sales or casual fan opinions while listening to a song as mind-numbingly enjoyable as “Ecstasy”—which is ironic considering SMF is on pace to become Thug’s most commercially successful album.
Thugger succeeds in finding his old spark on So Much Fun because he didn’t try to recreate the Slime Season sound. Of the 13 different producers from that mixtape, only two (Wheezy and Southside) contribute on So Much Fun. On “Cartier Gucci Scarf,” Thug and his right-hand man Lil Duke bring back the legendary “Harambe voice” from 2016’s Jeffery but do so over a beat made by a pair of producers (Prezzley P & Jayrich) brand new to the Thug canon. On “Mannequin Challenge,” Thug rides a T-Minus and J. Cole beat (the latter serving as the album’s executive producer), but the introspection Cole brings to his work is nowhere to be found, replaced by instant-classic Thuggerisms (“I'm takin' up space and they squish me like sandwiches”). This approach is how you bridge the gap between the old and the new.
The So Much Fun formula doesn't apply to every artist because there isn’t another rapper alive with Young Thug’s unique talents and specific career arc. The cruel reality of trying to please a die-hard fan base is that any attempt to do so (see: A$AP Rocky trying to resuscitate his Live.Love.A$AP or YG trying to make another My Krazy Life) will quickly be met with derision and labeled as desperate or pandering. As much as fans pine for the good old days, we all understand on some level that the only thing worse than moving on is not moving on.
For as much pressure as Thug may have been under to nail So Much Fun from the standpoints of marketability and fan-service, he benefits from the freedom that comes with existing somewhere just south of household name-status. As Yoh wrote in 2017, Drake is so far beyond the relatable relationship anthems of Take Care—personally and artistically—that trying to appease fans who long for those days in his new music would be a fool’s errand. In Drizzy’s case, the best he could do was to re-release the same music people loved years ago with Care Package.
As fans, we should want our favorite artists to grow, and come to terms with the fact that their old selves—and our former selves—are relics of the past. But when an artist successfully turns back the clock and revives the sound and energy that made you a fan in the first place? It’s so, so much fun.