How does one “keep learning how to keep learning,” as Young Thug told Rolling Stone earlier this year, ahead of his new album, Punk, which he released last week? It’s a question central to the mythos of Thug, one of hip-hop’s most compelling and dynamic provocateurs. With his latest LP, the 30-year-old rapper finds himself in a landscape that has, in large part, been constructed in his image. To Thug’s credit, he doesn’t concern himself with shape-shifting for the sake of it on Punk, instead choosing to deliver his longest full-length project (20 tracks), filled with tried-and-true Thugger hits, as well as a taste of a burgeoning new sonic direction.
Punk’s closest corollary is Thug’s 2017 mixtape, Beautiful Thugger Girls, where the endlessly experimental MC constructed country ballads on which he rapped in a Southern twang. On Punk, acoustic-guitar melodies are a prominent feature throughout. Album opener “Die Slow” finds Thug in a contemplative mood, as gentle guitars guide a stream-of-conscious, meditative verse. “Drinkin’ a lil’ lean, I actually did good, I ain’t drink but a pint this whole tour/Yeah, on tour, I done missed my son’s birthday, it’s on July the 15th,” Thug raps.
Elsewhere, like on the A$AP Rocky and Post Malone–assisted “Livin it Up,” that same guitar-driven sensibility falls flat, in part due to the guest artists’ lackluster performances. The song feels like a fumbled radio hit — more like a B side from a Post Malone record than a Young Thug single. It is, fortunately, the album’s only misfired guest feature. J. Cole’s verse on “Stressed,” where the Dreamville MC manages to match Thug’s distinct vocal range to perfection, is easily one of his best verses. The Future and Bslime cut, “Peepin Out the Window,” has the feeling of classic Atlanta rap hits, before the city’s rap scene took control of the mainstream. Here, Thug’s vocals — soothing and angelic — float delicately over the beat while Future harmonizes with him, displaying the pair’s unmatched musical chemistry.
On “Bubbly,” Thug is joined by Travis Scott and Drake, forming something of a Holy Trinity of rap success. The song is peak-boast rapping, with every artist coming with some of his best work in years. Scott, for his part, is energized, infusing his familiar delivery with a pleasantly varied cadence. Drake, naturally, does his Drake thing but sounds like he’s finally having fun making music again.
Lyrically, Thug is at his most grounded on Punk. While the album lacks the kind of straightforward bangers he’s known for, he offers more internal perspectives and more self-reflection. On “Droppin Jewels,” he’s giving us free game, sharing the kind of wisdom that comes from being one of the most prolific musicians of his era. “Yeah, I told my nigga I’m-a drop the jewels on him,” Thug raps. “You gotta go through this shit here with your heart, you can’t snooze on it.” On “Fifth Day Dead” he’s flexing with what sounds like new dexterity, about his capacity for generosity, rapping, “Half a million to my dad, salad dressing, bought a ranch.”
Still, Punk offers very little in terms of Thuggian magic, the type fans might be accustomed to after the rapper has so prolifically reimagined himself in the past. With his latest album, you get the feeling that these are songs Thug needed to get off of his chest. While not a dazzling record, it opens a door to exciting opportunities. Who knows what Young Thug will do next?