"Blast some Thugger and scream it out."
This was my dear friend Nate’s advice last Friday. The world seemed to be burning down around me, and a former congressman had just threatened a sitting president. I told Nate how useless and distant I felt from everything; I couldn’t feel shock, or sadness, or anger, or much of anything. After a full night of watching Twitter users try to win a Pulitzer for investigative journalism by being the first to identify the sniper in the Dallas shootings, I needed to stop what felt like a slow and steady loss of humanity — to shake myself loose, to reclaim saneness.
The choice to listen to Young Thug as our nation plunged into despair wasn’t really logical. When you think of Young Thug, "sane" isn’t the first word that jumps to mind. And besides, there are other artists considered more appropriate for times like this. Kendrick Lamar captures the sociopolitical climate with frightening clarity. Kanye West is a self-described shot of espresso, a walking affirmation of personhood in $645 military boots. There are countless others — Dead Prez if you want to burn shit down, D’Angelo if you want to remedy hate with love — but when it all goes bad at once, you don’t get much of a say in what makes you feel less shitty, and Young Thug is the sound of things coming undone.
He can cheat his voice into impossible shapes, yanking melodies entirely out of the abyss, and construct pop hits with little to no effort; it’s as if the music is just in him.
Thug gets a bum rap for spewing unintelligible gobbledygook, and with good reason. He’s proudly admitted to not speaking English. But if anything, Thug’s limiting himself to only the accidental, intermittent use of whole words should be seen as a positive — it’s perfect for the impenetrability of the right now. Thug means whatever you need him to mean.
His soft, melting Barter 6 cut "Numbers" could be about familial bonds, getting even, getting ahead, or just wishing a motherfucker would. Depends on the day of the week. And it’s got Easter eggs like, "I got old hunnids, they wrinkled like a shar-pei." If you can’t enjoy that, you probably pout in a bouncy house.
When Thug belts a pyroclastic "I’MMA TELL ’EM ONE TIIIIIIIIIME," it carries this tephra of anger, sorrow, and frustration that just flattens you right after the second refrain. You’ll punch the roof of your car, maybe shed a tear, and then you’ll start to do the math: Maybe Young Thug isn’t dumb. Maybe he’s just capable of expressing complex emotions with a limited vocabulary. Wait, what’s that saying? "Brevity is the soul of wit"? Holy shit, Young Thug is actually a genius!
The other day, I remembered that I’d paid actual money to watch a livestream of the Yeezy Season 3 fashion show in a Los Angeles movie theater. Thinking back on it, wondering how I’d explain to my future children that the spectacle was worth the price of admission even though I was nearly 3,000 miles away from the real deal, I was collared by one particular moment in an hour-plus-long barrage of "moments."
Kanye had already played The Life of Pablo through one and a half times and shown us the video game he’d made for his late mother twice. Then he ceded the spotlight to a star-studded game of Aux Cord Pass. Thug — hooded up in a shearling duffle coat and wearing a diamond choker with no shirt on (that’s important) — played a cut from his Slime Season 3 project titled "With Them." When it came bounding out of the speakers at Madison Square Garden, one model technically broke three of the 38 (!) rules of the performance:
Kanye probably forgave Model 257-C for breaking up the liturgy of his show. The rules were way too specific to enforce, and besides, Kanye knows a thing or two about how Young Thug’s electric ululation seizes control of your entire body, rewarding just as much on the first listen as it does on the last.
I broke the rules too. The L.A. theater audience had been glued to their seats, sitting in childlike amazement for much of the broadcast. But as Mike Will’s blippy production rippled through the theater, Thug yawped, "Tugga, Tugga, baby," and 30 seconds into it, I found myself doing impromptu bench celebrations and yelping ad libs along with all the teenagers in attendance — you know, the people in the crowd who hadn’t had to knock off work in the middle of the day to watch this.
In the same way I don’t believe in choosing one Kanye album at the expense of the others, it is impossible to have a favorite Young Thug song. There are four different seasons; life can be great but also can sometimes suck.
But there is one song that is good for all seasons, and is apt to improve all moods: Thug’s collaboration with Jamie xx, "I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)." It feels like sunshine on the skin, and sounds how fried plantains and Bloody Rum Punch taste.
Thug’s verse obviously goes all over the fucking place, shoving Walter Payton in between grabbing ass and popping pills, failing to decide whether the thirst or the struggle is realer. But the most important line in the whole thing is the one that’s the most harebrained: "I’mma ride in that pussy like a stroller," Thug squawks with gleeful abandon.
It’s lust for life in its quintessence — just one in a bazillion instances of Thug willing a rager into existence without the help of any language currently taught in schools. "Stoner," his first big success, was recorded in just 15 minutes, according to the song’s producer, Dun Deal. Thug had heard only the partially finished beat when he declared the track a hit. He drew some shapes on a sheet of paper instead of writing down actual lyrics and then went into the booth to hum rough sketches. Those hums snowballed into We don’t, stand in, line, foreign, shoes hurt’cha, feet
Kendrick or Kanye might be more "important" and "political," but there’s something to be said for this 24-year-old space oddity in skinny jeans flying in the face of traditionalists, classicists, and on multiple occasions homophobes, all to achieve some kind of mainstream success. He’s taking on convention itself, and he’s winning. Thug is a reminder that simply existing and creating inside of a paradigm that pushes back against you at every turn is, in itself, a form of protest.
It’s not much, but it’s just enough to make you think that maybe there will eventually be good times again.