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Young Thug’s ‘Punk’ Makes the Most of His Pop

The Atlanta rapper’s new album is full of smooth and effective pop songcraft that doesn’t sacrifice much of the weirdness that first popularized him

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In July 2015, Young Thug released “Pacifier,” a curious and now largely forgotten single, produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, for the rapper’s scrapped debut album, Hy!£UN35 (translation: “Hi-Tunes”). The song presented a challenging question: Would Thug once again reinvent radio, as he and Rich Homie Quan did with “Lifestyle” a year earlier, or would radio ultimately reinvent Young Thug?

Since 2011, Thug had been mesmerizing his earliest fans—and perplexing his detractors—with euphoric absurdities in his early music (look no further than the wild and indecipherable lyrics on “Lifestyle”). There was also an exquisite trolling in his initial marketing; Thug’s debut commercial mixtape, Barter 6, was at once a clickbait stunt —both teasing and honoring the rapper’s hero, Lil Wayne—and a literary masterpiece. Then suddenly “Pacifier,” released just three months later, had Thug sounding a bit less like Mixtape Weezy or James Joyce and a lot more like Maroon 5. It’s an odd song redeemed, at least on creative terms, by the notion of Young Thug sounding like Maroon 5 being genuinely strange, and thus faithful to himself, and to his fans.

In any case, “Pacifier” wasn’t a hit, and the song underscored a certain trickiness in reconciling Young Thug the Flaky Absurdist and Young Thug the Major Label Musician. His countless collaborations with other stars have kept him on the Hot 100 in recent years; his many mixtapes and musical progeny have kept his name in the streets; his debut album, So Much Fun, assembled several guests for a worthwhile celebration of his general influence. But we’d yet to hear a solo album that made his journey into the mainstream make sense for him.

Last Friday, Thug released his second studio album, Punk. It’s by far the strongest of his post-breakout projects, vastly improving upon his pop instincts while, for the most part, preserving the rapper’s foundational strengths. Thug loaded the album with high-profile guests—Future, Gunna, J. Cole, Travis Scott, Doja Cat, and even the late Mac Miller, among others—and yet, unlike So Much Fun with its similar overcrowding, this is very much Thug’s album. It’s dominated by the surreal and engrossing kind of rapping that only he can do.

Thug also manages to bring out the best in damn near everyone who appears on this album (except A$AP Rocky, hopeless as ever). But far more importantly, he’s rediscovered the best in himself. On Punk, he’s a berserker. “Stressed” through “Insure My Wrist”—that’s Track 2 through Track 10—is the most powerful outburst of rap music from Young Thug since 2014’s Tha Tour Pt. 1. Even the lowest, slowest songs on Punk, apart from the solemn, spoken intro, “Die Slow,” hit paradoxically hard and fast. So Much Fun was cool, but Punk is a rush. I can count on one hand the number of streaming-era albums I’ve listened to wishing they’d never end. Punk is one of them.

It can be difficult to repress the urge to overexplain the black magic in Thug’s best music. His fan base tends to emphasize his eccentricity, as if you need a certain level of intelligence and culture to comprehend his genius. There’s his extraterrestrial dialect, his beautiful whine, his uncanny imagery, his furs and his dresses, his tweets. For sure, he’s weird, I won’t dispute that much, but his weirdness feels simplistically oversold. His very best projects aren’t distinguished by “weirdness” but rather by intimacy, candor, and vividness without pretense; without even a hint of self-consciousness about lyricism or virtuosity or year-end rankings. It’s why I’m so loath to overexplain these songs, or even quote them to this white screen, as if lyrics so stark and strange could ever be uncoupled from the music that allows them to make sense.

Thug’s melodies have kept him in the game in the past several years as he churned out features and duets. But he’s sometimes lost his knack for setting immersive scenes and unloading explosive emotion. You hear Thug’s influence all over the hottest playlists in the country but then also hear him struggling to unite his commercial incentives and musical instincts into a single release date. He’s come a long way since “Pacifier,” and yet he’s still cutting through the tension in that song. Punk is a reassuring project that propels Thug back into the center of his own little galaxy, rather than the lunar orbit of everyone else’s. I know where I’d rather reside.