Young Thug has led a decade of hip-hop covered in slime. Take one look around the current hip-hop landscape, and you’ll see waves of artists—some under his wing, most not—taking after Jeffery Williams.
During a decade in which Atlanta’s grip on hip-hop supremacy tightened, what makes Thug’s style so irresistible? His sing-songy cadences are elastic, crashing against the walls of beats like an out-of-control Tilt-A-Whirl before slipping into whispered chirps or a country twang the next. Thug is the only rapper I feel comfortable describing as having a “chortle,” the kind of throat scream only achievable by someone confident enough to name a song “Harambe.”
Young Thug’s approach to songwriting is similarly varied: non-sequiturs (“She want my pickle, you know we make deals” from his Gucci Mane collab “Stoner 2 Times”) and ad-libs that could easily be written into any of Futurama’s fake alien languages are abound. But Thug’s subject matter has never been his primary draw. From his I Came From Nothing series to years worth of leaks, to his 2019 “debut” studio album, So Much Fun, Thug’s inventiveness—his willingness to take it there and retain his sense of identity—is what has kept his career alive (and well). Thug’s music encompasses every feeling on the emotional spectrum, but all the flavors are decidedly his own.
Above all else, Thug’s music is entertaining. His Auto-Tuned yelps, once considered by fans and critics alike as inaudible, have become the guiding light for an entirely new generation of stars. His fashion sense has shocked and challenged the rap status quo. Thug’s cavalier approach to rap music made him an icon. In defining a decade of Young Thug, the five songs I’ve chosen exemplify the death grip he exhibited throughout the 2010s.
“2 Bitches (Danny Glover)” (2013)
What a song to open with. “Danny Glover” takes a simple concept—being rich and saving women like Danny Glover’s character from Lethal Weapon—and turns it into a fashion runway from hell. Thug yelps about balling so hard he’s “leaving ten bands in a motherfuckin’ cab” as he hopscotches across Southside’s booming production. In the video for the record, Thug flexes in a pirate jacket before standing in front of a wall, shirtless, while hands grope him from head to toe. The experience is overstimulating and completely unpredictable, which is why it’s one of Thug’s best songs.
The raps themselves are nothing special (“Balling in New York like a motherfuckin’ Knick”), but Thug’s delivery makes them punchy. His vocal inflection at the end of each line of the song’s hook is a jagged earworm, but an earworm nonetheless.
“2 Bitches” was Thug’s first taste of mainstream success, but its legacy runs deeper than recognition. You can pause the record at any moment and find something Gunna and Lil Baby would eventually employ with great success years later. “2 Bitches” cemented Young Thug as a fun and unpredictable talent to watch.
“Lifestyle,” featuring Rich Homie Quan (2014)
Admit it, when you read the title, you could already hear the hook in your head. “Lifestyle” is, to paraphrase music writer Brooklyn Russell, the Millenial answer to Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ but a G Thang,” a song responsible for a million terrible drunk karaoke sessions. From the mouths of Young Thug and collaborator Rich Homie Quan, though, it might as well be a siren call. London On Da Track’s beat moves with the motion of the ocean as Thug lets off bars about the splendors of being a rapper.
If “2 Bitches” is the song that catapulted Thug into the mainstream, then “Lifestyle” shot him into the stratosphere: The song peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2014. It also solidified the working relationship between Thug and Quan, which was on full display on their influential debut group effort, Rich Gang: Tha Tour Pt. 1. Their relationship wouldn’t last, but “Lifestyle” remains as a relic of Millenial Atlantan bacchanalia.
The rap world came to a screeching halt for a few brief moments when, in 2015, Young Thug announced his major-label debut, Barter 6. Initially named Carter 6 as both an ode and a middle finger to idol Lil Wayne, the project faced down a landscape ready to swallow it whole.
The project gave Thug the solo platform his fans had been waiting for, but its most triumphant moment is also one of its weirdest. As “Halftime” begins, it sounds like business as usual. Near the end of the song’s first verse, though, Thug does the unimaginable: he lets off an epic “skrrt” ad-lib underneath a handful of bars. It’s only 11 seconds long, but it might as well have lasted a lifetime.
The “skrrt” heard around the world would set a precedent Thug would follow for the rest of his career, brandishing gonzo vocal tics the way most rappers would use similes. The mountaintop yells at the beginning of the second verse of 2019’s “Hot” might not exist if it weren’t for the urge to try something so ridiculous four years earlier. “Halftime” is how you become an original in a world full of imitators.
“With Them” (2016)
“With Them” is the record that turned me into a full-blown Young Thug fan. The opening track to his Slime Season 3 project is energetic and wacky in ways I wasn’t prepared to handle.
No, “With Them” isn’t particularly deep, nor did it set any sales or streaming records, but the record is viciously entertaining. When someone asks me for a Thug recommendation, it’s the first title out of my mouth. Thug’s flows are slippery, his ad-libs are pointed, the bars are hilarious (“I got a white bitch and she gave me that Becky but her name is Sari”), and the Mike WiLL Made-It beat is springy. It’s a perfect mix.
I’ll leave you with the beginning of the first verse:
“I wanna fuck her but she play more games than the NBA / Monday morning, got a dentist appointment, lil’ bitch you can check out the dentures plate (Check it out) / I got so much jewelry, baby I got so much water this shit like a mini-lake / Fuck nigga play I’ma send him to meet his maker then ask God for forgiveness bae (Brr)”
In 2016, Young Thug founded YSL Records, a label imprint under 300 Entertainment. Over the past three years, its roster has grown considerably, including Gunna, Lil Keed, and Lil Duke. While each artist is distinct in his own way, Thug’s influence over his flock is undeniable. The family tree is most apparent when they appear on projects together.
On Thug’s self-proclaimed debut album, So Much Fun, a sense of community brings out the best in each of the YSL soldiers. Lil Duke’s verse on “I Bought Her” is energetic and Lil Keed’s appearance on “Big Tipper” delivers slinky charm, but its Gunna’s verse on the triumphant “Hot” that feels the most like a coronation. Gunna’s hook floats over Wheezy’s blaring horns before student and teacher each get their verses off.
“Hot” is Thug’s best single in recent memory because it displays two generations’ worth of rappers at the peak of their powers. The hard work has paid off, and Thug is sharing it with the next in line.