Elton John is no Rich Homie Quan, 6lack is the anti-Gunna and On The Rvn is a pit stop that could been an entire road trip. Young Thug’s latest EP, which dropped late Sunday night, is a pop-leaning journey where the Atlanta rapper cedes the spotlight to a Rolodex of more streaming-friendly guests. The gambit works, and creates an intriguing conundrum in its wake: Where does Thugger go from here?
Thug’s defining characteristic since 2013’s 1017 Thug is an obsession with experimentation. His flows relentlessly spill over beats, non-sequitur rhymes bleed into subtle punchlines, melodies are compulsively developed and easily thrown away. All of these traits earned the Slime Language rapper a cult-like following and admiration from fellow hip-hop technicians, but rarely resulted in the type of commercial success his clear talent should lead to. Over the past few years, it has looked more and more likely that Thug would never be remembered as a pop star, but a formalist genius who never quite broke big.
But On The Rvn — which likely won’t change that perception on its own, given its brevity — proves that mainstream-appealing songs are still well within his wheelhouse. Thug cedes over half the EP to guests, and each appearance balances his pyrotechnic tendencies with deliberate songwriting.
“High,” featuring Elton John, is the EP’s standout. It’s also likely one of the best songs in Thug’s discography (or, at the very least, one most suited to pop radio/playable for your mom). The Stelios Phili-produced song samples 1972’s “Rocket Man,” and the brilliance of the track comes from its charting how far the art of singing has come in the nearly 50 years since John’s Honky Château hit. Thug transitions between rapping, singing, crooning and wailing. His imperfect, processed, “I’m a rocket man” clashes with Elton’s ghostly voice and ends up creating an ambient, soothing effect — a surprisingly subtle juxtaposition, given the incongruity of the pairing.
“Sin,” Thug’s collaboration with Jaden Smith, isn’t as transcendent as “High” — that’s a tall order. Smith is a captivating rapper, more entertaining than most admit. Here, he provides the rare opportunity to see the son of Will Smith shrug off his novelty designations and attempt to outshine one of the best rappers of the last decade. The act is futile, but we are left with lines like, “She tryna act like she perfect / I see all the masks that you leave on the surface / She made me write all my verses in cursive / She need all them purses at Hermes.” It makes zero sense, but it’s a great listen. 6lack, fresh off his latest album East Atlanta Love Letter also makes an appearance, drawing Thug into his more laconic, melody-forward style for the even-handed “Climax.”
On The Rvn arrives nearly two weeks after the rapper was booked on felony drug charges stemming from a 2017 arrest. Thug was released on bond on Thursday, September 13.