Young Thug I’m Up

[300 Entertainment/Atlantic; 2016]

Styles: hooks, hits, bangers, confidence, positivity
Others: Barter 6, Slime Season 2, I Came From Nothing 2

Pay no mind to its messy rollout, impromptu title change, or last-minute album cover swap-out. Ignore the fact that what you get here, in lieu of the promised third installment in his Slime Season series, is essentially a measly nine-song consolation prize, a proverbial ticket stamped “sorry for the wait.” But Young Thug isn’t anyone’s textbook example of a rapper; he’s always been something of a wildcard, thriving off unorthodox recording processes and freewheeling sensibilities. “Sometimes, some songs you wanna start smooth,” he says in a video describing his recording methodology. “Sometimes you don’t wanna come, just ‘boom!’ Because then they fall off fast.” Likewise, I’m Up, the latest effort from Thug — whose every career move is increasingly difficult to pin down — feels more like an appetizer than the main course. Still, where I’m Up might not be the monumental, crossover release many had been anticipating all this time, it’s nevertheless a satisfying addition to the rapper’s insatiable canon of off-kilter rap music.

But I’m Up doesn’t have to be overtly thoughtful or elaborate to accomplish the noble goal of creating exciting rap music. Where Slime Season 2 looked to showcase Young Thug’s developing narrative, I’m Up aims to streamline his experimental proclivities into a more refined essence, a sound that accumulates many of the styles he’s toyed around with since releasing last year’s Barter 6 retail mixtape, assembling them to form a more coherent, commercial sound than any of his other releases. That isn’t to say Thug’s exhausted all of his vocal creativity — there’s actually a slew of signature Thug dexterity throughout I’m Up’s breezy 38-minutes — as he not once compromises his exceptional rapping and thrilling flows. “Special” is perhaps the best example yet of Thug’s elusive ability to ride a beat, regardless of the words he utters, flipping a grand total of six five-star flows in a span of 60 seconds. Since his humble career beginnings, flow has always been Thug’s saving grace as a rapper, and son could basically read a phone book over some cut-and-paste hi-hats and still impress any ol’ pair of ears.

In contrast to the murky and hazy soundscapes Young Thug’s confidently explored over the past 12 months, I’m Up plops him directly into noticeably “simpler” sonic territories, occasionally hearkening back to the playfulness of 2012’s terrific (and underrated) I Came From Nothing 2 mixtape. Here, songs blend together into extended pop suites; there’s the infectious cluster of bouncy 808s and frolicking synths on the Mike WiLL Made-It produced “F Cancer (Boosie),” the lighthearted and straightforward catchiness of “Hercules,” which ultimately finds both wunderkind producer Metro Boomin and Thug playing well together, and “My Boys,” a tonally wistful song that builds on a swell of bliss-out psych and snappy drums. I’m Up also boasts a pair of individual appearances from Migos’ Quavo and Offset, respectively, further hinting at the seemingly buoyant ambitions Thug has for the project. After all, this is a release that bear a colorful, cartoony album cover depicting what appears to be an anthropomorphic Young Thug flying high above a melting planet earth, inadvertently serving an aesthetic indicator of what’s to come.

Sure, seasoned fans will be hard-pressed to dismiss I’m Up as a release chock-full of throwaways, but it’s truly a testament to Young Thug’s radical talents as a rapper for keeping an audience thoroughly engaged, even when the studio experiments aren’t always entirely convincing. When they do click, with Thug firing on all cylinders, like on the Lil Durk-assisted “Ridin,” I’m Up is a fundamentally necessary project, one that extracts everything from the rapper’s slimy headspace and congeals it into a gumbo that, when infused with his puzzling vocal spices, make even the hardest Wu-Tang songs appear tissue paper soft. Even compared to Future, the Atlanta trapstar that brought his city’s alien DNA on the map and who’s managed to spawn a cottage industry on a similar persona of conflicted consciousness, Thug is far more naturally believable and compelling. He’s also one of hip-hop’s most fearless rappers right now, sticking up a middle in the face of cancer (“F Cancer”), penning a heartfelt ode to a murdered comrade (“King Troup”), and dedicating an entire four minutes for his people (“For My People”). There’s even a song titled “Family” featuring bold verses from Thug’s sisters, Dora and Dolly. Rather than making a show of how he’s perpetually torn between sin and salvation, Thug uses his songs to carefully and searchingly work though the knottier and most nagging problems that plague not just himself but other folks as well. “Stop it, stop the killin’/ We get millions/ We together, get the cheddar,” he raps achingly, remembering the life of a friend, over Wheezy’s appropriately somber instrumental.

Following last year’s lightning rod success of “Best Friend,” the big ol’ Southern bounce dick slap across the face of the Top 40 charts, it’s not entirely farfetched for Young Thug’s management to strike while the iron is hot. He’s already established himself as a rapper who is in complete creative control over his own brand, deciding how he wants his product to be presented to the world, but ultimately I’m Up isn’t his strongest argument in the “best rapper alive” conversation. Certainly a refinement of his jubilant persona is okay — even warranted for artistic growth — but it’s evident that Thug refuses to be pigeonholed as a “good-for-you” granola rapper through caustic wit and a willingness to embrace his individuality. With his best music still in the works, these nine songs serve to merely undercut any (and all?) expectations. In turn, his “I feel special” refrain on “Special” feels less like a proclamation of self-love than an I-told-you-so moment, beamed in from a not-so-distant future. Of course, you can do what you want when you’re Thugger.

Links: Young Thug - 300 Entertainment/Atlantic

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