Young Thug Channels His Alien Brand of Sentimentality and Swagger on Barter 6

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An abridged version of this review has been published by the blog Pretty Much Amazing, which you can read here.

Hip-hop, as you presumably already know, is like a vacuum. I mean that not in the metaphorical sense of the word but in the literal. You know: you’ll get sucked in and never to be seen or heard from again. Just like a vacuum. That’s it. One day you’re in and the next day, you’re out. You are the weakest link, goodbye. Auf Wiedersehen! And whatever other game show elimination catchphrase you can come up with off the rip. That’s precisely why diehard Young Thug fans recently took issue with burgeoning Houston rapper Travi$ Scott’s seemingly restless interest in the New Atlanta trap rap scene—particularly in the aforementioned Thug. Things quickly got out of hand following the scathing publication of a Deadspin article leveling steely accusations at Scott for being a “shameless biter”. Titled “Travis Scott Is Worse Than Iggy Azalea” (for obvious clickbait) writer Billy Haisey alleged that Scott offers little-to-no originality and instead opts to steal from the artists he’s worked alongside. In this case: Young Thug. Scott wasted no time in responding to Haisey’s allegations—candidly dropping plenty of F-bombs at the writer along the way. Despite the writer’s good intentions at penning the article, it came off as a blatant smear campaign and largely untrue given that less than a month after its publication Thug would accompany Travi$ Scott on a sold out nationwide tour—further exposing the rapper to new fans. Furthermore, Scott even recruited Thug for two standout tracks on his acclaimed Days Before Rodeo mixtape.

But we shouldn’t nonchalantly cast judgment or place blame on Bill Haisey or anyone else for admirably defending Young Thug at all costs. We’re fans. That’s what fans do. And sometimes fans, in their righteously obsessive glory, get carried away. Besides, it’s not like fans haven’t been disappointed by their favorite grassroots artists. It wasn’t that long ago that Waka Flocka Flame, who built an all-around solid fanbase in both the streets and on the internet, didn’t live up to the hype of his breakthrough debut album Flockaveli. A promising and exciting young talent that Waka was, he sadly fell into the dark and depressing chasm of generic trap rappers for hire. Long story short: he became another face in the crowd. No longer exciting and creatively stagnant, Waka hasn’t cracked the Billboard Hot 100 since 2012, and is now a regular cast member on the VH1 reality television show Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta. And yet, as this is currently being typed out, the long-gestating sequel to 2010’s Flockaveli is set to officially go on sale for retail this upcoming June. That’s five years in the making. But intransigent fans don’t want to be reminded of what could’ve been and instead redirect their ears to what once was. And most dedicated rap fans don’t just stay put, they move around and are always on the hunt for the next big thing in rap. Because nowadays its one click away. And right now fans see the potential in Young Thug, as the 22-year-old Atlanta native has been riding an unforgivable wave for a good part of the last two years.

A lot of has happened to Jeffrey Williams a.k.a. Young Thug within those two years. For starters, he released his 1017 Thug mixtape in February of 2013, which, despite being Thug’s fourth official solo mixtape at the time, marked an unexpected shift in his brief rap career—he was finally getting some much deserved attention from critics and fans alike. Thanks largely to a couple of stellar guest spots on largely disposable Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame projects, and with a dizzying array of tracks like “2 Cups Stuffed”, “Jungle”, “Picacho” and “Condo Music” serving as 1017 Thug’s immediate standouts, Thug was beginning to carefully establish himself as one of rap’s most perplexing and refreshing new voices. Amidst this rousing newfangled approach to rap that is Young Thug has warranted plenty of comparisons to the mid-late 2000s drug/experimental-era Lil Wayne, and with that being said the wheels on the Thug train were now steadily in motion. By the winter of 2013, global rap icons like Drake and Kanye West were captured on iPhone cameras rapping and dancing respectively to Thug’s latest street single “Danny Glover”. And shortly thereafter hip-hop’s own supreme queen, Nicki Minaj, took it a step further by remixing the track while adding her own colorful inflections. As New York Times writer Jon Caramanica put it: “The way we learn about a song’s potency these days is by watching others lose their mind to it on Vine or Instagram.” And clearly Thug’s brand of rap is pure, unadulterated, grade-A stuff.

In the world of post-internet rap phenomena, Young Thug continued abusing his recently utilized superstar power like Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day—arresting any and all attention throughout 2014. And your particular enjoyment of mainstream pop/rap music that year is more than likely closely tied to whether or not you care for Thug’s intoxicating blend of the two. Consciously or not. He effortlessly dominated 2014 with his dynamic features (“About the Money”, “Hookah”, “YRN”, “In Too Deep”), singles (“Danny Glover”, “Stoner”, “The Blanguage”, “Ew Ew Ew”), music videos, on social media (Instagram, Twitter, Vine, hashtags, memes), in the streets, in the clubs, and tabloid/gossip (sexual ambiguity, his flamboyant fashion sense, idiosyncratic stream of consciousness rap style). 2014 was the year where Young Thug completely altered the gravitational pull of hip-hop. From “Stoner” to “Hookah” to “About the Money” to “Lifestyle”, Thug became an unavoidable presence in the rap landscape. With each new vocal presentation that hits the net, Thug gives the listener something completely fresh; a difficult task for any ol’ rapper in this day and age, especially one whose “weirdness” often sells him short. Make no mistake, each time Young Thug gets in the booth there is a highlighted distinct facet of his skill set. This sentiment couldn’t be more true than on the chart-topping “Lifestyle”—a sort of Millennial version of Generation X’s “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang”—an all-encompassing generational hip-hop party track. Thug comes through over a breezy instrumental in full-fledged futuristic kid on summer vacation mode and casually gives us the now iconic opening line: “Done did a lot of shit just to live this here lifestyle”.

Just like “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” before it, whenever “Lifestyle” would miraculously pop up on the radio sandwiched between a bunch of drab horseshit like Eminem’s “The Monster” or whatever Sam Smith song is the most emo, it unmistakably sounds like it was beamed in from another, much happier, universe. A place where you’re free to explore, a place without judgment, a place where every bit of liquid is the color purple, and most importantly, a place without fuckboys and pesky law enforcement. “Lifestyle” is a song where you can move your shoulders all around to instead of just up and down. It requires your undivided attention. Both Thug and New Atlanta sparring partner Rich Homie Quan contribute equally memorable moments on “Lifestyle”, but it’s Thug with his quietly seething and befuddling unintelligible verses that summon repeated listening. The tandem of Thug and Quan worked so well on “Lifestyle” that the chemistry spawned a terrific collaborative mixtape under Birdman’s Rich Gang imprint. What we got from Rich Gang: Tha Tour, Part 1 was essentially the chapter of Young Thug’s career we’re currently turning the page on now with Barter 6, his latest digital album. Initially touted to the press as Young Thug’s first proper crack at a commercial studio album, Barter 6 would eventually be released on iTunes as Thug’s fourth solo digital album (following two solo throwaway projects released by Gucci Mane’s 1017 Records—in a last ditch attempt to capitalize on the fervent Thugger mania). With that being said, the Thug you’re getting on Barter 6 is more in line with Rich Gang: Tha Tour, Part 1 Thug than any other previous incarnation.

So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the lifer Young Thug fans have responded positively to Barter 6 from the moment it was released on iTunes a day in advanced. Conversely, for those casual, entry-level Thug fans who might’ve heard “2 Cups Stuffed” faintly playing in the background of a college party or “Stoner” on some hot girl’s Instagram video may basically find Barter 6 to be a bitter pill to swallow. Still, like all of the best Young Thug releases to date, there is always plenty of replay value; so revisiting and discovering (or rediscovering) some bright spots is surely a given. With Barter 6 Thug finds himself reunited with the man behind “Lifestyle” and responsible for a bulk of the beats on Rich Gang: Tha Tour, Part 1, producer London on da Track, which, fittingly, gives the project a polished and mature sound. While those novice Thug listeners might scoff at Barter 6 for its lack of tried-and-true bangers—and promptly bloodlust after—tracks like “2 Cups Stuffed” and “Danny Glover”, the slow burners here give Thug’s narrative some much needed clarity. Released on his mother’s birthday (April 16), Barter 6 positions Young Thug as a sentimental figure in rap—whose peculiar style and bizarre characteristics aren’t mere methods or technicalities but arise from a genuine place of hurt and confusion—where the brief glimpses of joy are intertwined with the sorrow. With more than half of the material on Barter 6 falling in line with this foreboding sense of fatalism, the subsequent ruminations of lines like “Having the time of my motherfuckin’ liiiiife/ I’m gonna buy everything I want, I can’t think twiiiice” add even more gravitas to his hoarse, elastic timbre.

In your standard by-the-numbers hip-hop album review, the writer will often dedicate a given paragraph or two to discuss the lyrics, and this particular paragraph would probably serve as a good moment to do so with Barter 6. But frankly, describing Young Thug’s lyrics by breaking them down into mere bars almost seems redundant by default, as you always require hearing the man’s voice to truly grasp those lines. The way in which Thug bends and contorts each line into something almost entirely unfamiliar yet completely inviting is a feat—his gift is in the uncanny. If it’s true what they say—Young Thug and the like freestyle their rap lyrics—then Thug has tapped into a part of his brain that oozes some serious creative juices because it’s hard to believe these things he raps can be anything but improvised. And unlike renowned hip-hop artists who have been known to leave the pen and pad outside of the booth, Thug’s approach to the technique never feels studied or his session a vocal exercise. If Thug’s idol, Lil Wayne, was the personification of hip-hop in the mid-late 2000s, then Thug is the deconstruction of it. Like, how else would you begin to describe to someone the chills that run down your spine when Thug suddenly blurts out “But we not friendly either, you know it” on “Constantly Hating”, or that moment when his voice switches up on “Halftime” into devilish robotic Auto-Tune, or when he indiscriminately breaks out into shouting out close family and friends he plans to always provide for on “OD”? There is a wealth of awesome vocal moments too—Thug’s manic ad libs, chirps and squeaks, clever punchlines and metaphors, unusual observations, and heart on the sleeve confessionals—they all add an extra sense of vitality to the project.

Nakedness is usually an expression of vulnerability; at once writer David Thigpen praised Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U” music video, which features Morissette appearing nude, but criticized D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” for being “an in-your-face form of masculinity”. So where does Young Thug’s Barter 6 fit in? The cover depicts Thug buck naked in the spotlight wearing nothing but a red bandana, a couple of gold-chained necklaces and watch. And if you look closely, the cover isn’t just some tattooed gang member flexing. There’s vulnerability in Thug’s facial expression, an awkwardness that’s both endearing, and slightly perplexing. He doesn’t look too comfortable; he’s visibly shy and introverted, and properly covering his junk. Lyrically, and in mood, Thug exhibits a more introspective, thoughtful side as he acknowledges his rise to stardom; tracks like “Check”, with its refrain of “Got me a check, I got a check” over a somber piano and pretty much the entirety of “Just Might Be” are as personal as Thug’s music is ever likely to get. “I think these hoes piranhas, excluding my baby momma/ I take care my daddy momma by pullin’ up with them bundles/ If I ain’t treat you good little baby just know it’s karma/ You did my nigga wrong, I know it, it was last summer” raps Thug. But continue complaining about what he “isn’t talking about”. As Andrew Nosnitsky writes, “The entire history of rap music is just one long string of filler bars and hollow boasts interspersed with brief moments of beauty, clarity and depth.” That’s just how the genre works.

In many ways, Young Thug’s Barter 6 is reminiscent of Lil Wayne’s 2008 opus, Tha Carter III. Prior to the releases of their highly-anticipated albums, both artists embarked upon equally brilliant marketing plans revolving around one simple format: giving away more worthwhile free music online than most artists of their stature ever release officially. They both used the free-for-all ethos of the mixtape market (and for Thug, the endless dustbin that is music streaming services à la SoundCloud and Audiomack) as a battlefield, expanding their respective personas, voices, and talents while preemptively scaring off thousands of wannabe MCs thinking their shit is going to get by nowadays. The two also made a name for themselves as being dependable feature artists, always bankable whenever some sucker rapper needs a quick hit. In addition, despite all of the aforementioned accomplishments the two were able to amass within a short period of time, they were still largely unappreciated by the critical sphere and reactionary (“real”) hip-hop crowd. But perhaps the most glaring thing—barring the evident name similarities—in their likeness is that neither output can be called the best representation of their work to date.

We’re not being hyperbolic here either, this perspective isn’t entirely unfounded on Young Thug’s Barter 6. With the tremendous buzz Young Thug has generated over the past two years off one solo mixtape (1017 Thug), a collaborative tape (Rich Gang: Tha Tour, Part 1), zeitgeist capturing singles (“Danny Glover”, “Lifestyle”, “Stoner”, “About the Money”) and plenty of viral tracks sprinkled about in between, his long-awaited project (Barter 6) like Tha Carter III before it, feels a little disconnected from the instantaneous earworm catchiness of his earlier output. And if you’re one of those Thug fans who feels letdown by Barter 6, then it’s okay. It’s okay to feel this way because it’s not your fault—you’ve trained yourself to feel a certain way about your favorite rapper. And with the past two years Thug has had—what with a series of reputation-cementing mixtapes and songs—it’s only logical for you to feel somewhat disappointed with this more polished and refined Thug. It’s a Thug for the mass market, if you will. In a way Barter 6, while not his physical debut album it was originally touted to be (that’ll be the forthcoming HiTunes; arriving August 28), is a test to see if Young Thug will end up working in bigger market cities like New York or Los Angeles. Thug has the South pretty much blanketed right now, so there’s nowhere else for him to go but global. Currently, the two lead singles off of the project (“Constantly Hating” and “Check”) are generating over 360k and five million views on YouTube respectively. In addition, Barter 6 is looking to sell roughly 16k copies in its first week (both statistics as of April 21). While neither piece of data is all that impressive, like Lil Wayne before him, very few in the industry know what to make of Thug right now—he’s too much of a wildcard. Despite his well documented questionable principles (or lack thereof) as a businessman and all-around human being, Birdman in record executive mode helped cultivate tremendous young talent (Hot Boys, Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj) and with that Thug should be in good hands.

Complex’s Justin Charity recently wrote in his review that Young Thug’s Barter 6 “ain’t got no hits” basing his argument around the album’s unobtrusive airy production. But the production on the project—informed by London on da Track’s bed of succinct, energetic-but-slightly-warped brand of New Atlanta trap—gives Thug free reign to do as he pleases. Perhaps had the album opted for a more urgent opener (à la Tha Carter III’s “3 Peat”) Charity’s opinion would be slightly different. Though “Constantly Hating” is a fine song with it’s bouncy yet tropical beat and standout Birdman feature, a track like the anthemic “Check” or eclectic “Halftime” could’ve set the album up as the “blockbuster” someone like Charity hoped it would be. Even in its breezy fifty minute runtime there are points where the release drags. Songs like “Can’t Tell” dribble well past the five-minute mark and come across as studio experiments (“Pussy boy I’ll leave you dead and call it dead-ication/ I put Act inside my drink, they call it medication”, raps Thug). The T.I. feature on the track also finds itself repeating successful ideas from the past; like those littered all over the two Atlantans 2014 collaboration “About the Money”. Because it worked so well once before shouldn’t mean settling for the familiar—especially for a rapper as exciting and creative as Thug. By the time Boosie Badazz jumps on the track you’ve already opened far too many Google Chrome tabs to be paying it any attention. But when he strikes a delicate balance—”Check”, “Dome”, “Halftime”, “Knocked Off”, “OD”, “Just Might Be”—it’s a thing of vivid dreams. Besides Birdman going for two-for-two, Duke and Young Dolph deliver feasible weed carrier tier verses that accomplish accenting Thug’s strengths while also never promptly taking a personal L either. Duke, in particular, brings a solid verse on “Dome” rapping, “I creep right up on them/ Hit ’em with the AK, 7 in the morning/ No Christmas Eve, caught him by surprise, he was still yawning”. Duke’s delivery, where he magically locks in vocally with Thug—when they both glowingly shout “HOP UP!” after mentioning the obscure early 2000s computer game Icy Tower—feels magical and reminds us of the otherworldly connection Thug and Rich Homie Quan had.

So what, so Young Thug’s Barter 6 isn’t the best representation of his creativity and skill set to date. So what, so Barter 6’s naming controversy ultimately overshadowed the release of the project itself. So what, so Thug and his label(s) pulled a fast one on everyone and changed the format of Barter 6 from physical debut album to another digital, iTunes only release. All of this, and more, is moot because of one person: Young Thug. Most of Thug’s material up until this point (leaving Rich Gang: Tha Tour, Part 1 out of this because frankly Barter 6 sounds like it was recorded during the same session) feels largely unfinished or mere sketches that were dropped on the public to generate buzz. With all praise due to his 2013 breakout mixtape 1017 Thug, then, Thug’s entire approach to his character has never sounded so polished and potent as it sounds on Barter 6. And although Thug has kept relatively quiet during Lil Wayne’s unrelenting assault on all things Cash Money and Birdman over the last four months or so, it’s important to note that, right now, Thug is making the music many Wayne fans imagined he would be making post-prison sentence. And we know no matter how much you say you dislike Thug, you know Wayne can’t possibly concoct anything as perfect as half a dozen or so songs on Barter 6. If you’re still on the fence about Thug in general, or you’re simply just unsure about the content presented on Barter 6 in contrast to his previous, more cheerful material, then read this telling quote from the man himself: “I would rather you listen to my song a hundred times than listen to it one time and know it. People can listen to ‘Lifestyle’ now and hear something new, and say ‘Whoa– that’s a good metaphor.'” Thug would then offer what is ostensibly the most alluring thing about his music, his character: “That’s what I like the most about my music. It’s hard to understand, but when you do understand, you’re sold.”

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Freelance writer based out of NYC with a focus in pop culture, music and film.