From Dazed and Confused, September 2015
PHOTOGRAPHY HARLEY WEIR
STYLING ROBBIE SPENCER
TEXT PATRIK SANDBERG
In Georgia, the heat is astringent. To step into daylight without sunglasses is an act of masochism. Nature is encroaching, the rolling hills, peppered with wealthy estates, are lush with dense trees. The days are long. The temperatures high. Everything’s bright. It’s a region of extremes—extreme wealth, poverty, politics, violence, and community, faith, and family. Reality television has become a booming local business due to the outsize personalities that are found roaming the city’s 242 neighborhoods, NeNe Leakes, Joseline Hernandez, and Waka Flocka Flame among them.
In a city of misfits, 23-year old rapper Young Thug might be the most outré of all. In a deluxe mansion rental in the sweltering height of summer, Atlanta’s eccentric new prince of rap stands beneath a fluorescent halo in a fetishistic plastic tunic that declares WARNING: EXPLICIT BEAUTY, switching up one diamond-encrusted bauble for a weed leaf pendant in between glugs of codeine-laced lean. “Me and Travis Scott tour our shit like a rodeo, so it isn’t about clothes” Thugs says of his style, of late. “But still we played 29 shows? I brought like 32 Balmains. I switch clothes every set. He don’t. That nigga wear the same shoes, boxers, pants, every fuckin’ day. I’m like, bro. Hell no. I’m a man. I have a girl. I have kids. My girl notice.” The 23-year old has a knack for self-accessorizing, and Thug has earned a significant amount of attention for wearing leopard-print dresses, pleather baby tees, miniskirts, circular Elton John sunglasses or draped, unconventional tunics. His personal style comes across one part rock star, two parts Cockette, with flourishes of hip-hop Mallrat and Venice Beach stoner dude rolled into one ceaselessly entertaining package.
His wild style has helped establish his singularity as he’s risen from a woozy, psychedelic mixtape rapper on the fringes of Internet download culture to a front-and-center heir apparent to hip hop’s empire. “I was like, this nigga is on another level,” said Nicki Minaj last year after releasing a remix of Young Thug’s mixtape cut “Danny Glover”. “He’ll just say the most reckless shit.” In another recent interview, Thug claims Kanye West refers to him as Bob Marley, and went as far as to buy him a pair of Yeezy Boosts on eBay. For an entertainer with such a far-out attitude when it comes to dressing, it comes as a surprise when a disagreement erupts over an outfit on set.
“Take it off!” a woman’s scream bounces off the mansion’s marble walls. It’s Amina, Thug’s sister and day-to-day manager, none too pleased with her brother’s choice of a gray tulle dress with a tutu skirt by Molly Goddard. “TAKE THE TUTU OFF, NOW!” Thug shrugs – he’s already posed for the shot. It’s a rare disagreement between the rapper and his team, but one that perfectly illustrates the turning point in his career.
Over the past four years, cultural consciousness of Young Thug has been on a slow and steady incline, as he’s gone from releasing a wild three-part mixtape series, I Came From Nothing, to being taken under the wing of Birdman to appear on his band Rich Gang’s “Lifestyle”, one of the most dominant hip-hop anthems in years.
Equal parts stoned, nihilistic, and celebratory, the single was a perfect storm in that it ushered in Young Thug as a force to be reckoned with, just as he simultaneously narrated the alienating path he took in order to make it. It’s equal parts struggle and success, something anyone with ambition can relate to, executed over a piano melody that packs the nostalgic punch of Bone Thugs and Harmony’s greatest hits.
It’s questionable whether a figure as flamboyant as Thug could have ever come from a city other than Atlanta, where the come-up is real and wealth is flaunted in such an ostentatious way that taste often takes a backseat. The city’s outsize gay population – ranked the fifth gayest city in America by The Advocate in 2014, beating places like New York, Miami, and San Francisco –also breeds a refreshing attitude of tolerance. It’s a city that lets its freak flag fly. It’s also the center of the universe when it comes to hip hop. Long since Kriss Kross, TLC, and Arrested Development made it big in the ‘90s and Outkast revolutionized soul and rap in the early 2000s, the city of Atlanta has initiated a distinct southern sound into the mainstream, its influence heard everywhere from Iggy Azalea to Miley Cyrus.
“I honestly wouldn’t move,” Thug says of his town. “The people might make you leave, but I’m a people person.” It’s difficult to tell if he’s joking. Despite his outgoing personal style and his off-the-wall lyrical hijinks, Thug has a curtness and standoffish disposition about him. He speaks softly, in short, complete sentences and is a fan of one word answers when questioned. “How was your show in Nashville last night?” I ask.
“Perfecto,” he says. Each time he speaks more than five words it feels like an astounding gift from the universe. But depending on his mood, he can be quite open.
“I stayed in the ghetto,” he continues. “Then I stayed in condos, then I stayed in penthouses, and then I stayed in mansions. It’s like, why am I gonna move to LA? Why am I gonna move to Miami? Atlanta is the number one place to live. Luxury. You live better, you eat better, the rides are better, vehicles is better deals. It’s better people. More mean people, but when you’re on the level I’m on you want it to be about business, so it’s perfect for me. I’ve got a condo in Miami but I don’t live in it. I don’t wanna be there. That shit be rented out.”
The only music that I hear during my time with Young Thug is Young Thug. A seemingly endless stream of wild, unreleased tracks flood the room from his phone, including a solo take on Jamie xx’s irresistible “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”, on which he features with Popcaan. “I did a whole song,” Thug says of the collaboration. “And I sent it to (Jamie xx) and then he put, like, another Jamaican guy on it? I want to meet both of them. I was supposed to perform it at Coachella, but I missed, like, two or three planes. And I was like, awww. I don’t know what I was doin’.”
Thug will release this version as his own single next, trailing his debut album Hy!£UN35 (pronounced HiTunes), and giving it the song life on FM radio in the United States that it would not have otherwise earned through the indie labels XL and Young Turks. Because of this, the eyes of the record industry are firmly fixed on a young oddball with gold teeth, blond dreadlocks, and facial tattoos. Thug’s ability to cater to mainstream urban audiences and more progressive tastemakers alike will define the magnitude and staying power of his work—something that isn’t lost on Amina, whose sharpness and focus on the big picture is impressive.
“There are old school bands here in Atlanta,” Amina reasons. “Earth, Wind & Fire? They come every single time and sell out Chastain Park in one second. They haven’t made a new song in like 50 years. I’m like, guys, how many times can you hear Earth, Wind & Fire? A million times. The music industry is about longevity. If you have diehard fans, it’s something that can sustain you for the rest of your life.”
Growing up in the lower income slums of Laurens Valley, our current pre-fab, faux-Rococo setting is far from where Young Thug – then known by his birth name Jeff Williams – started out. His own just-purchased mansion is only a couple blocks from the one he sits in now, but he’s wasted no time talking pricing with the homeowner, an imposing Persian impresario named Amir, who has a habit of chain smoking Cuban cigars.
“If you’re serious about it, I’ll sell it to you for three million, and I will show you the replacement value,” Amir says.
“If I wanted to buy it right now, I wouldn’t give you the whole three,” Thug replies.
“Give me two and give me a million in a month,” says Amir.
“I don’t make a million a month,” Thug replies. “But I will be, shortly.” He smiles, revealing a panoply of gold teeth. “The main reason I want this house is because of the elevator,” he says. It’s true that despite the kidney-shaped pool with a rock waterfall, the private movie theater, home gym, sauna, and indoor jacuzzi, the accoutrement Thug is clearly most taken with is a small service elevator that goes only to the second floor. His friends spend nearly ten minutes OOOHing and AAAHing over everything from the doors to the lighting to the five-second ascension upstairs. It’s bizarre.
As Amir quizzes him on family, Thug reveals he has six kids—quite a lot considering he’s only 23. Their ages? “Oldest is seven. Then it’s four, three, three, and…” Thug’s voice trails off.
“Three and three. You have twins?” Amir asks.
“Nope.” Thug smiles again and everybody laughs.
Six kids already may be a lot, but Thug was raised with ten siblings himself. “Six girls and five boys,” Thug says. “I’m the youngest boy. It was hard at times. Especially where we come from, it was so hard. But it was amazing because a lot of people don’t have the immediate family that we do. So people like you will probably be like, Wow. Ten of us, brothers and sisters. But it would be so fun, you know?” Naturally, he says, his family are his biggest fans. “I didn’t finish school. I did everything stupid. So when they hear metaphors and good lyrics, they think, wow. How did you know that? Why did you think like that? They’re kind of my biggest fans because they know me better. It can be amazing to them.”
Many of Thug’s entourage turn out to be his siblings and cousins. One particularly spunky girl emerges from a carpeted, air-conditioned van periodically holding a plastic cup filled with blue lean. “Stick with me,” she shouts, introducing herself. “I’ll give you that real shit that he won’t tell you. Remember my name: Dolly White. I’m starting my own management and production company.” Clearly, Thug’s drive is infectious. Ms. White has already amassed around 40 K followers on Instagram. With one crucial jacuzzi shot still to take place, Amina suggests that we move the production to Thug’s house a few blocks away. “Do you have a jacuzzi?” Dazed’s photogapher Harley Weir asks. Thug dons an air of relaxed incredulity that comes across comic. “Yes,” he says. “Of course.”
A few left and right turns, up and down a few hills, and we are on course to Thug’s new mansion in the Londonberry neighborhood nestled in the Atlanta hills. Along the way, a giant bag of black Burger King containers flies out of the driver’s side window of Thugger’s white van, followed by an extra large Big Gulp cup. A couple girls following in a convertible take this as a cue to litter also, throwing out their own trash into the middle of the otherwise pristine street.
Thug’s new residence is a hip hop bachelor pad wet dream come true. Inside a gray, gabled house with a circular fountain in front of it, siblings and cousins splay themselves over a massive white leather sofa peppered with guns, eating orange and green pastel-colored ice cream cones. Recently, Thug procured an ice cream tattoo on his face, a tribute to ATL icon and unlikely star of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers Gucci Mane. Locked up for weapons possession and currently serving time until 2017, Gucci’s absence is a gaping void in the room, his name mentioned at frequent intervals. Beneath the white mantle, where a frightening black assault rifle and a silver handgun rest, a brutalist glass and concrete table in the center of the room holds giant stacks of cash and a blunt. In the foyer, two giant clear plastic bags contain an entire pride of black and white stuffed tigers. “This room is black and white themed,” Thug says, when asked about the toys.
Along with his secret penchant for plushies, Thug’s signature is his voice: with a sing-song style of rapping not dissimilar from his friend and collaborator Future, he goes from high-pitched squeals to deep gurgles, raspy, unintelligible mutterings, and cooing, breathless come-ons. Autotune is used intermittently for style, but its absence often reveals perfect pitch. Thug playfully layers his voice over itself, reciting onomatopoetic words that verge on an experimental form of percussion. On one new song, “Check,” taken from Spring’s introspective Barter 6 tape, he repeatedly yells “SHEESH!” behind the chorus. I’m reminded of lo-fi recording pioneers like R. Stevie Moore and Genesis P-Orridge, only rendered for urban top 40 radio.
“Is the album done?” I ask.
“Who worked on it?”
“Is it a departure from your mixtape?”
“Is it different?”
I ask him how he goes about writing songs. “I think as I go,” he says. “I can’t remember 16 bars. Unless you write it, you can’t. I just think as it is and I do it bar for bar. I did a song in eight minutes. I thought everybody could write songs that fast. But working with a lot of them, they don’t. Wayne and Drake, it takes so long for them to do a song. And I understand why, because they want it to be so perfect. But I think I can do a perfect song in 10 minutes. I did ‘Danny Glover’ in eight minutes. ‘Stoner’ took me almost an hour.””
His hubris doesn’t wash with everyone though. “OOOOH! He used to get on my nerves,” says his Mom, known colloquially as “Mama Duck. At her house, charcoal drawings of Young Thug and Gucci Mane hang on the walls, and she brings out Thug’s framed platinum record for “Lifestyle,” which bears an inscribed dedication it to her. She has a gold grill on her teeth and wears diamond “RICH GANG” necklaces. She sits on a sofa, flanked by her daughter, her niece, and her granddaughter. “That boy used to go around and bang on them walls. As he got older, I had a friend that was around my age and he had a studio. To keep the kids out of the streets and keep them out of trouble, I would let him come over and get them to take to his studio. Jeff and my other son would go and write songs and rap and put them on CDs.”
Mama Duck’s favorite Young Thug track is “OD” from his Barter 6 mixtape, released earlier this spring. Intended as a tribute to Lil Wayne, who had announced his retirement after his album The Carter V, Thug decided to carry the torch and release his record as The Carter VI. That didn’t go over well with Wayne, who issued a cease and desist. That both artists are managed under the umbrella of Rich Gang / Cash Money made things even stickier. Thug eventually changed the title and accompanied with an image of himself nude, urinating the album title. “[’OD’] has all my kids’ names in it,” Mama says. “I notice he sings and talks a lot about his brother [Bennie]. He passed when he was 9. I think he misses him a lot.” Recently, Thug bought his mother a house, she says, but she is too tired to move into it. “I went to his house and let me tell y’all something,” she says. “I went through three or four rooms, and they said, ‘Come upstairs.’ I made the first step and I said, I ain’t going. Let me tell y’all something, child. You want me to come over, you’re gonna have to put in an escalator. I’m not gonna climb all these steps. Ain’t no way. I have an enlarged heart. I had like three heart attacks last year back to back.”
Suddenly, the mystery of Thug’s fascination with elevators is explained, his closeness with his family made endearingly apparent. It’s customary for Thug to drop money off at his mom’s house—he comes over for family dinners twice a week. Then again, at the climax of Thug’s triumphant first verse on “Lifestyle,” he says as much with statement of intent in regard to his success as a performer: “I got a moms, bitch / She got a moms, bitch / I got sisters and brothers to feed / I ain’t goin’ out like no idiot / I’m an O.G.”
“I am very proud of him,” Mama Duck says. Her eyes well up with tears and she smiles. “No more struggling. No more worries.”
Back at Thug Towers the following day, it’s late afternoon and Thug is crouched over a power strip, charging a strange, shiny black object that he refers to as a “skateboard.” Amina sits on the sofa with her baby son, reading the instruction manual with a skeptical expression on her face. It’s actually a Samsung Lithium-powered electric drifting scooter, that will soon become a fixture on Thugger’s Instagram profile. The man of the house is wearing slim-fitted black cableknit trousers by Raf Simons, a keepsake from his Dazed shoot. Paired with immaculate Retro Air Jordans and hordes of gold and diamond-encrusted necklaces and rings, he looks ready to host an episode of MTV Cribs. A gigantic wad of cash rests in one of the small front pockets of his pants, a silver handgun rests in the other. Dolly is braiding Thug’s peroxide dreads while he mixes a fresh batch of lean in two chilled, plastic, blue soda bottles, administering a fuchsia syrupy substance from a baby bottle into each. Two assault rifles rest on the sofa only inches away from Amina and the infant.
Currently, Thug is at a place Nicki Minaj famously described as “50K for a verse, no album out,” an amount he also charges to perform. Bookers and promoters are happy to pay in order to boast the attraction of having hip hop’s next big thing take to the stages of their venues, even if it loses them money.
“When you’re a real superstar, you can book shows,” Thug says. “You don’t have to wait for somebody to call. You can’t ever just go broke.”
“He wants to do eight to ten shows before the tour,” Amina says, “But he’s supposed to be fixing his teeth.”
“We used to do four or five shows a week!” Thug argues.
“But you’re gonna do 30 shows!”
Thug jokes about his good friend Travi$ Scott, who he says will play for as low as seven grand, just as an excuse to perform. “He’s a real superstar, he could go out and get 100 thousand for a show if he wants to. But he don’t have a family. His mom has like three kids and they’re all computer whizzes.” Thug’s clan is clearly much larger, and his work has undoubtedly changed all of their lives. His music has become the family business. Maybe it’s sheer cockiness, or maybe it’s the lean, but Thug doesn’t feel stressed about the rollercoaster his career is beginning to take.
“I always felt like I was gonna be the man,” he says. “I guess that’s why I became it. I always felt like I was gonna have money, even when I was young. If it’s something you want, you just keep going and strive for it. I always wanted this.”
Suddenly, a BMW i8 sportscar pulls into the driveway and the door opens vertically, like a Lambourghini. Out steps a stunningly gorgeous young woman in a bikini and a sheer pool cover-up, barefoot.
“The hell you wearin?” Thug asks, shaking his head. She shrugs.
“I’m Jerrika,” she says, smiling and taking my hand into hers. She’s the fiancee.
As soon as the sun sets, a monstrous chorus of chirping frogs surges from nowhere and I realize they’re everywhere like a biblical plague. Lightning bugs gleam and fade from the surrounding brush and we retreat to Thug’s bathroom to see his jacuzzi. Submerged in a bubble bath in front of a stained glass window (in Ed Marler silk boxer shorts), the rapper appears angelic, saintly in his domain. He plays a new song from his forthcoming album off his cell phone, connected via bluetooth to a Beats By Dre pill speaker. It’s a ballad, possibly a love song, and he stares at Jerrika while he sings along to himself. I can’t understand a single word of it and it’s beautiful.
Hy!£UN35 is out on August 28