Right now Young Thug is that rapper people love to hate, which only makes those who love him, love him even more. For some, being a Young Thug fan is as much about defining themselves in opposition to the haters as just inherently enjoying the man's music. It's a phenomenon that's been going on since time immemorial the dawn of modern hip-hop, well before Thugger, and it will continue long after him. I'm old enough now to have learned no rapper's going to kill hip-hop, whatever that means, so I've just been enjoying him for what I enjoy, ignoring what I don't, and maintaining my sanity by staying out of interwebs debates and think pieces.
I wrote all that to assure you that this isn't about Young Thug, not really. You can leave your love or hate or if you're like me acceptant indifference out of this. This is about how the early decisions an artist makes can affect their career for years. This is about how the songs you hear get on the radio. This is about what indie artists can learn from Young Thug, no matter what they think of his music.
First, a quick recap, via BuzzFeed's admittedly excellent original reporting:
1. Way back when, Young Thug signs a production deal with Gucci Mane's 1017 Brick Squad. Basically, this means Gucci gets to negotiate a piece of any major label deal Thug may sign in the future.
2. Gucci goes to prison at the same time Young Thug start to really catch some buzz.
3. Apparently unaware of Thug's existing deal with Gucci—it appears Thug thought the deal was void with Gucci locked up?—powerful record exec Mike Caren signs Thug to his Atlantic Records venture, APG (Artist Publishing Group), under a 360 deal, reportedly for only a $15K advance. Related note, Atlantic/APG and Gucci don't exactly have a warm and friendly relationship.
“Gucci was in jail. I think at that point, [Thug and his team] felt like the Gucci contract was void. Thug is a real street kid — paperwork and legal shit, it don’t register to him like that.”
4. APG runs a "ghost signing" strategy where they fund and promote Thug, but don't announce their affiliation with him so his rise appears more natural/organic/from the streets. (I TOLD YOU SO. I've been talking about these "ghost signings" for a year now. I feel so validated.)
5. APG has big plans for Thug and outlines up to six upcoming projects for him, including four full albums, but the relationship sours. After disagreements over tour support and other problems, Young Thug no longer communicates with APG at all.
So now Thug is dragging around two deals worth of baggage with him, which might help explain some of the "he's signed to Cash Money....wait, no he's not signed to Cash Money" confusion that's been happening lately. Now that I know the background story, I'm assuming Cash Money wants to sign him and is happy to have Thug "affiliated" with them, but before he's legally signed to Cash Money, they'd have to either buy out and/or negotiate with both Gucci Mane and APG, neither of which will be easy.
Remember, this is how 50 Cent ruined Young Buck's career, by refusing to let Buck (still legally signed to G-Unit) go to another label for anything less than an absurdly high buy-out price, essentially leaving Buck trapped on G-Unit while 50 simultaneously refusing to give a fuck about him as a G-Unit artist.
So what's the takeaway? For Young Thug...who knows? In two months Birdman could work everything out, bring Thug officially over to Cash Money and boom, he's on a world tour with Lil Wayne. Or he could never really get with a major and continue to do well independently. Or the baggage he's carrying around from his existing deals could prove to be an albatross that stalls his career before it's even started. As this story shows, unraveling the whos and whys of what's happening behind the scenes of an artist's career can be absurdly complex.
But there are a couple important takeaways that apply to fans and artists. One, you can really never be too paranoid. An artist doesn't always blow up because he's got some shadowy big-name, deep-pocketed backing....but that's usually the case. Thug's original buzz may have been more organic, but no one's getting radio play on Hot 97 without someone applying some pressure behind the scenes.
And two, artists, be very careful of any contract you sign early on. It can be almost impossible to turn down a $15K advance (or less) when your rent's due in a week, but short-term decisions can have a huge long-term impact. Ask Miguel, who spent the first few years of his career trying to get out of an early bad deal. Ask Freddie Gibbs, who's been trapped by from two bad deals now in his career (Interscope and CTE).
Or you could always ask Young Thug.