Young Thug saves the best for last on his new EP: The final track, “High,” is a striking, AutoTune-slathered duet between the rapper and Elton John, whose voice is imported via a sample of the classic hit “Rocket Man.”
Fervent Young Thug fans — is there any other kind? — have been waiting impatiently for this song to surface. Rumors about the possibility of a collaboration with John started circulating early in 2016 after the two artists met in Atlanta and photos of the pair appeared on Instagram. A version of “High” leaked online in August, more than two years later. The SoundCloud link was quickly pulled. An official version finally arrived when On the Rvn came out Sunday at midnight, roughly two weeks after it was promised, amid the latest period of instability for Young Thug, who was arrested earlier this month on felony drug charges.
“High” is the result of a what-if thought experiment. In December 2015, Stelios Phili stumbled across a Noisey article in which Elton John asserted his love for Young Thug. “I read it like, ‘this is amazing!'” Phili says.
Phili is a producer best known for his work with A$AP Ferg, and he was already in touch with Young Thug’s A&R, Geoff Ogunlesi of 300 Entertainment, about a different record. “He reached out to me like, ‘wouldn’t it be crazy if you did an Elton John-Young Thug song?'” Ogunlesi remembers. “Right away, I’m like, of course.”
John has collaborated with rappers before — for example, he is credited on A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service — but Ogunlesi wasn’t sure about the feasibility of getting the busy star in the same room as his mercurial rapper. So the A&R suggested that sampling John might be a safer bet. “I read the lyrics to almost every single Elton song,” Phili says. “I intentionally tried to avoid ‘Rocket Man’ — it’s one of his most famous songs; it’s untouchable.”
But his research hit a wall. “A lot of Bernie Taupin’s lyrics just don’t make sense for Young Thug,” Phili says. “‘Bennie and the Jets,’ ‘Tiny Dancer’ — these are out of the context of Young Thug. I was trying to find a lyric that would align with his world, and at the time, he was talking about putting out an album named HiTunes [That album, which never came out, is typically stylized as Hy!£Un35]. The lyric in ‘Rocket Man’ is, ‘and I’m gonna be high.'”
The synergy proved too tempting to resist. Phili rarely works with samples, because it can be difficult to obtain clearances, and a sample cuts into a producer’s publishing income; his first attempt to re-work “Rocket Man” was a failure. “I tried to loop the whole chorus and build a beat around that,” the producer says. “It didn’t make any sense. I started over and tried making something with just that first lyric [‘and I’m gonna be high/ I’m a rocket man’].” Phili added his own piano in an attempt to transform John’s “wistful” instrumentation into something “more euphoric.”
Phili finished the “High” instrumental in roughly a week and passed it along to Ogunlesi. “I played it for Thug, and he just went in and did it in less than 30 minutes,” the A&R says. “I can’t even take credit for it — I didn’t have to convince him. He obviously respects Elton John, as we all should. And he’s melodic naturally, so it wasn’t forced for him at all.” After Young Thug recorded his vocals, Ogunlesi sent a congratulatory message to Phili. “I woke up to a text in the middle of the night that Thug had cut it,” the producer remembers. “Then I went to sleep. And nothing ever happened with it.”
Not quite nothing: Ogunlesi was hard at work trying to get John to hear the song, knowing that without the star’s approval, the clearance process would be dead in the water. “I never say ‘if’: I’d say, ‘when we meet [John], we’re gonna have this song,'” Ogunlesi explains. “Coincidentally, Elton has an apartment in Atlanta, and it isn’t even that far from Thug’s place. We went over to his apartment, Thug played him the song over his phone, and he loved it.”
In particular, John was drawn to Thug’s vocals. “When we met him, he said, ‘I love it when you sing’ — I’ll never forget it,” Ogunlesi says. “He said, ‘Your singing is special. I love your melodies. Keep singing.'”
Young Thug records rapidly and stockpiles material, and “High” still needed to go through the official clearance process, so it languished in the rapper’s digital vault. “We were waiting for the right time to drop it,” Ogunlesi says. But in August, the song leaked. “Although that was unfortunate, it forced us to put it out,” the A&R adds.
The leak meant that Phili finally got to hear his beat paired with Young Thug’s vocals. “He’s actually the only person who could coexist on a ‘Rocket Man’ sample,” the producer says. “I can’t think of what other rapper would want to do it — or would sound so at home.”
Though John did not respond to a request for comment by press time, he briefly addressed the release of “High” on his most recent Beats 1 radio show, Rocket Hour. “It’s so cool and so good,” he said. “These things are the great surprises in what I do — sometimes you hear something that you never knew is going to happen or never thought was going to happen in a million years.”
“[Elton John] said, ‘Your singing is special. I love your melodies. Keep singing.'”
According to Ogunlesi, when John heard the “High” leak, he thought it was an official release, and dialed Young Thug to thank him. “He called — I wish I’d recorded the conversation — [and] he’s like, ‘I’m so honored that you would do that, it’s so flattering,'” Ogunlesi recounts. “That was the second blessing. Then getting [the sample] cleared was no problem.”
Roughly ten days ago, Young Thug’s team sent On the Rvn songs to Joe LaPorta, who has mastered the rapper’s recordings since Barter 6. He perked up instantly when he heard “High.” “I can tell this is gonna be one,” he recalls thinking.
LaPorta set about polishing the song so it “consistently slaps hard, has all the right frequencies.” “Quite often in hip-hop, because of deadlines, rappers end up working over two-track beats — just the instrumental with the rapper cutting vocals on top,” he says. “So often you can hear nuances, things you wish you could make better, but you don’t have the access to say, ‘bring up the kick drum, raise the snare.'”
But in this case, Alex Tumay, Young Thug’s longtime mix and recording engineer, had access to all the different parts of Phili’s original beat, allowing for “more flexibility and freedom” in the mixing process. LaPorta then mastered “High” in ways that helps it stand apart in the crowded hip-hop landscape. “So often with trap records, they’re bright and they’re pressed and flattened really hard,” LaPorta continues. “If the songs are so pushed, so squeezed, once they get to digital platforms, they can sound noticeably smaller. So Alex and I always try to not over-compress and make sure the track has life. [‘High’] has more depth and oomph.”
The arrival of On the Rvn was tumultuous, which is to say it was a project by Young Thug. On September 9th, the rapper said he would release the project in two days. But two days later, he was arrested in Atlanta. The day after the rapper’s run-in with the law, Tumay said clearances were responsible for the delayed release. The following day, Thug got out of jail, and On the Rvn finally arrived on streaming services midnight on Sunday.
But what’s two-ish weeks when you’ve already been waiting two-ish years? “I didn’t forget about [‘High’],” Phili says. “I was like, one day [it’ll come out]. Maybe.”
I just didn’t think it would be today,” he adds.