In 2013, Young Thug released 1017 Thug, a crackling warning shot of a mixtape that promised the Atlanta rapper as hip-hop’s latest, greatest talent. Since then, he’s been a man of juxtaposition, existing in a state between adoration and ridicule, ordainment and dismissal. The above headlines — and there are many more like them — capture the defining narrative around Thug, a hyperbolic figure who arrived during the dying gasps of the mixtape boom and the slow birth of the streaming age. Universally recognized as preternaturally talented, but without the clear commercial dominance that would follow in a perfect world, it seemed like more writers, fans, and armchair A&Rs have prognosticated about Young Thug’s superstardom than people who have streamed Young Thug’s last three projects.
The problem is simple: listeners wanted more from, and for, Thug. That means the complaints are numerous, and difficult to follow. His later mixtapes (I’m Up, Slime Season 3) didn’t sound enough like his earlier mixtapes (Barter 6, Slime Season); the albums were too conceptual (My Beautiful Thugger Girl); the full-length duets were either too ahead of their time (Rich Gang: Tha Tour Pt. 1) or creatively devoid (Super Slimey). His fans kept leaking his music, which seemed to eternally delay his proper debut, (whatever that means in 2019) Hy!£UN35. Compared to peers like Future and Migos, no one felt like Thug was living up to his potential. Why that was remained up for debate: Perpetual leaks, rumored mismanagement by his label 300 Entertainment, a fickle fanbase, a shifting artistic viewpoint from the Atlanta rapper who had all the potential in the world, but rarely could string that together for a full-length project.
This year, though, slowly and methodically, Young Thug started moving like the superstar so many complained he’d never be. In late May, he released “The London,” featuring J. Cole and Travis Scott, a proper, star-studded single. The song peaked at Number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, Thug’s highest-charting single as a lead artist. It didn’t matter if Cole smoked him on a technical level, whether the single was “peak Thug,” or how much of the song he’s on. “The London” is a single with a proper rollout that had the potential to lead to something more.
From there, the pop floodgates opened. Thug’s feature on Ed Sheeran’s “Feels” is easily among the best moments on Ed’s uneven collaboration album, No. 6 Collaborations Project. His verse on Post Malone’s “Goodbyes” is the most enthralling part of an otherwise subdued cut from the juggernaut singer — and, given Post’s recent output, is as close to a guaranteed hit as they come. The Atlanta rapper’s turn today on Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus and Mason Ramsey has a good chance of blocking Billie Eilish’s Justin Bieber-featuring “Bad Guy” remix and his own aforementioned Post Malone feature from the Number One spot.
None of this means Young Thug is destined to become more popular than he is at this moment. Part of the folly surrounding Thug is how much the very people touting him as the best rapper alive fail to agree on what the idealized version of Thug would even look like. He is, and always has been, an insanely talented and mercurial musician, uninterested in conforming to the traditional ways superstars are manufactured. He’s behaving like a superstar at this instant, but the thrill of Thugger is that we still have no idea what’s coming next.