Why Young Thug Is One Of The Greatest Of All Time

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Disrupt (verb): To successfully challenge (established businesses, products, or services) by using an innovation (such as a new technology or business model) to gain a foothold in a marginal or new segment of the market and then fundamentally changing the nature of the market [via Merriam-Webster].

Throughout the history of Hip-Hop, there have been artists who have embraced the established rules of the genre and aimed to create their best work within the confines of what rap is “supposed” to be. And then, there have been the weird rappers. The ones who were not taken seriously due to their unorthodox style, peculiar dialect, or unusual spin on the genre. While many of them fade into obscurity, a select number are able to break into the mainstream and become widely regarded as true disruptors, and one of the music industry’s most popular disruptors is Jeffrey Lamar Williams or, as he is more commonly referred to, Young Thug.

Known for his wild vocal performances and his unapologetic fashion choices, the Cleveland Avenue-bred rapper has been a visual and sonic embodiment of chaos for a full decade, with creative whims that span from wearing ornate dresses on his album covers to creating an entire country-rap album at one of the most visible moments of his career. A polarizing figure in music, fashion, and every other aspect of his identity, Young Thug is a disruptor to the core, and although the Atlanta native isn’t even three full years removed from his debut studio album — which is a captivating conversation all on its own — a strong case can be made that he is one of the greatest Hip-Hop artists of all time.

With everything from his breakout years to his newfound role as a simultaneous superstar rapper and record executive considered, Young Thug has played an integral role in the progression of Hip-Hop in the 2010s and the early 2020s, and following his reveal of a visceral, bloody, and very Slime Season-esque album cover in April as well as the unsettling news of his RICO arrest, now is the perfect time to reflect on the one-of-a-kind artist’s legacy. Young Thug is a GOAT, and here is why.

Editor’s note: This op-ed was originally written as a tribute to Young Thug’s impact on Hip-Hop in anticipation of his rumored “Slime Season 4” project, and it has since been edited for timeliness to reflect the superstar rapper and record label executive’s current legal situation.


He came from nothing.

Recording artist Young Thug attends 106 & Park at BET studio on October 27, 2014 in New York City.
Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty Images

Hip-Hop loves a good rags-to-riches story, and Young Thug has irrefutably compelling rap-origin story. Growing up in South Atlanta alongside 10 other siblings, a young Jeffrey Williams fought back against authority — in some cases, literally fighting his teachers in middle school — and got involved in the streets at an early age. In his 2021 Breakfast Club interview, the soft-spoken rapper revealed that he was first shot between the ages of 12 and 13, and anyone who’s listened to his Punk album intro “Die Slow” knows his past is riddled with similarly mind-blowing narratives. Whether it was divine intervention or sheer good fortune, Young Thug was able to escape poverty and violence through his music, and his confounding journey as a rapper began with his sincerely titled mixtape, I Came From Nothing

Released in the summer of 2011, the low-quality, DJ Swamp Izzo-hosted project made Young Thug a hot commodity in Atlanta, and although it sounded more like a heavily Lil Wayne-inspired mixtape than a full-fledged Thug project, the reception from I Came From Nothing was strong enough to warrant a sequel roughly six months later. DJ Swamp Izzo returned at the helm of I Came From Nothing 2, and a sea of more well-known Atlanta artists were present for Thug’s second mixtape, from the late Shawty Lo, Future, and Jose Guapo to Ca$h Out, London Jae, and Lil Duke (formerly known as MPA Duke). Spawning early favorites like “Who’s On Top” and “Fuck My Tattoos,” ICFN2 saw Thug make a huge step forward in establishing his own style, which was then characterized by the vexatious nature of his screeching vocals.

With another six months came the third and final installment of Thug’s attention-grabbing I Came From Nothing mixtape series, which presented listeners with the most realized and developed version of Young Thug yet. Although it kept the high-profile names to a minimum, I Came From Nothing 3 eased listeners and, for the first time in his career, mainstream critics from media outlets like Pitchfork into Young Thug’s unpredictable and peculiar brand of rap. In the wake of ICFN3’s success, Thug linked up with Gucci Mane, and after joining the infamous 1017 Brick Squad, Thug kicked off 2013 by releasing the epitome of his early work: 1017 Thug.

Loaded with features from PeeWee Longway and Gucci mane, 1017 Thug repackaged all of the eccentricities of the I Came From Nothing series into a considerably more polished and robust effort. From his howling deliveries on tracks like “Tabernacle,” “Ball” with OG Boo Dirty, and the Young Scooter-assisted “Fuck With It” to his quirky beat selections on “Dead Fo Real” and “Why Order,” Young Thug was in his bag on his 1017 Brick Squad debut. Fresh off a major Gucci Mane co-sign, Thug was dropping unbelievable lines like “L-E-A-N-I-N-G/Lean, lean, lean, lean, lean, lean, lean” and “I miss you/I want kiss you/I want lick you/Pubic hair/Oh my gosh, I’m going there” with his chest, and for the most part, he made otherwise cringe bars work in the context of his strange sonic playground.

Furthermore, the energy on songs like “2 Cups Stuffed” and “Picacho” was infectious, and nearly a full decade removed, 1017 Thug’s youthful energy hasn’t waned in the slightest. Although it pales in comparison to many of the mixtapes and albums released throughout the course of Young Thug’s career, 1017 Thug was undoubtedly the Cleveland Avenue upstart’s first definitive body of work, and after some rave reviews as well as placements on editorial rankings like Spin and Rolling Stone, Young Thug seemed poised for takeoff.

Before 2013 was over, his debut commercial single “Stoner” was previewed on DJ Spinz’ HPG 3 mixtape — alongside other major Atlanta hits like Future’s “Honest” and Migos’ “Hannah Montana,” interestingly enough — and once its unofficial release started gaining tractions in the streets, Young Thug officially released “Stoner” at the top of 2014 via 1017 Brick Squad Records, Asylum Records, and Atlantic Records.

A strange single even by today’s standards, “Stoner” exemplified that Young Thug was only just starting to push the boundaries of mainstream rap. Compared to 1017 Thug and his work prior to that, “Stoner” was even more unhinged, as his beat selection improved and his off-the-wall lyrics grew increasingly animated and unintelligible. Still, “Stoner” became a solid commercial foundation for Thugger, and two years after its release, it was finally certified gold by the RIAA.

Yet perhaps what was most interesting about “Stoner” is that it sparked one of the strangest label bidding wars in recent memory, and that’s when Young Thug’s story got even more interesting.

Birdman and Young Thug perform at the BET Hip Hop awards at Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center on September 20, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Prince Williams/WireImage/Getty Images

With Gucci Mane behind bars, Young Thug soon found himself in a not-so-friendly working relationship with Atlantic Record’s APG (Artist Publishing Group). Then, the young Atlanta rapper started to regularly pop up alongside Birdman, and the rumor mill started churning immediately. Was Thugger still signed to 1017 Records, APG, or was he about to become the new prince of Cash Money records? At the start of 2014, no one — from fans to journalists — had a strong understanding of Young Thug’s business ties to all of those powerful entities, but many people speculated that thug’s label situation was a disastrous one. Months after the release of Thug’s Black Portland mixtape with Bloody Jay, it was revealed that the “Danny Glover” artist’s business had been smoothed out, and somehow, he had been able to slither out of a potential career-stifling label situation by officially signing with Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment.

To have been able to make it out of multiple messy dealings at such an early stage of his career is an impressive feat that isn’t often discussed when reflecting on Thug’s beginnings, but it makes the Atlanta native’s accomplishment of being a successful record label executive — with little to no complaints from his loaded roster of artists since its inception in 2016 — all the more noteworthy. But before we move on to the subsequent stages of his career, the tangled web that is Thug’s entry into the music industry wasn’t over yet.

In the summer of 2014, Birdman brought Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan together to form one of the best Hip-Hop duos of the 2010s, and operating under Birdman’s Rich Gang offshoot, they released the now platinum-certified single “Lifestyle.” Over the course of the summer, 1017 Records would go on to drop multiple unauthorized Thug projects — including 1017 Thug 2 and 1017 Thug 3: The Finale — but none of that compared to the joint mixtape that Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan were about to release later that fall. Once Rich Gang: Tha Tour was released on September 29, 2014, the Atlanta upstarts became two of the hottest commodities in Hip-Hop.

Complete with unforgettable solo tracks from Thug (“Givenchy” and “730”) and Quan (“Milk Marie” and “War Ready”) as well as classic collaborations like “Tell Em (Lies),” “I Know It,” “Pull Up,” and “Freestyle,” Tha Tour Pt. 1 was undeniable. Unfortunately, that project was the last full-length collaboration between the two influential Atlanta artists, and in the months following the tape’s release, a beef — that is still somewhat unresolved to this day — began, with media coverage portraying Young Thug as the cause of the rift between the two rising stars. As it quickly became clear that Rich Gang was no longer a priority for Young Thug nor Rich Homie Quan, Thug’s focus shifted to his debut album, but in the lead-up to the highly anticipated record, more drama threatened to hold him back once again.

Depending on who you ask, Young Thug’s decision to name his debut album Tha Carter 6, while fans were slowly losing patience over the ridiculously long wait for Wayne’s Tha Carter V can either be viewed as homage or disrespect. Regardless of how you spin it, the timing was horrible, and as a result, Thug courted beef with his idol, one of the most beloved rappers of all time, in the months leading up to his debut. Legal action, alleged shootings, and more took place in early 2015, making the rollout and promotion for Thug’s debut album all the more ugly, but once the newly titled album-turned-commercial mixtape arrive, it became evident that Young Thug had officially broken through.

Everything from the project’s nude artwork to the unforgettable controversy surrounding its title set Barter 6 up to be dismissed by Hip-Hop fans. The only problem was that the 13-track record was phenomenal. Far less brazen and far more cohesive than anyone could have anticipated, Thugger’s official 300 Entertainment debut was lauded upon arrival, and in the seven years since its release, Barter 6 hasn’t aged in the slightest. Countless fans and critics presumed that Young Thug’s eccentricities were a fad, but Thug’s first commercial mixtape laid the groundwork for an exceptional career from an unassuming musical genius.

Young Thug came from nothing, endured some pretty insane music industry hazing, beefed with Lil Wayne (and countless others as a result), and managed to still deliver a classic that foreshadowed the next direction of mainstream Hip-Hop. Most of us didn’t know it then, but Thug had already proven that he was a GOAT in the making.

Baby, you know that I might be
The realest lil’ nigga you ever gon’ see
Baby, you know that I might be
The trillest lil’ nigga that you wanna be…
All of these niggas they know that they fallin’
And everyone wanna be me…
All of these rappers I swear they watering down
And I’m the chlorine

Young Thug – “Just Might Be” (2015)


His musical output is super slimey.

Young Thug attends Gucci Mane
Prince Williams/WireImage/Getty Images

Following the unexpected denomination of Barter 6 as a commercial mixtape rather than an album, the anticipation for Young Thug’s official debut album was palpable, and thus the myth of Hy!£UN35 began. Just in case you aren’t aware, Thug’s otherworldly titled album (pronounced by us humans as HiTunes) never saw the light of day, but thankfully it didn’t because along the strenuous and unbelievably misleading road to Hy!£UN35, the Hip-Hop community, and the music industry altogether, was able to witness the most prolific, creative, and influential period of Young Thug’s career.

Thug’s sonic expansion began with Slime Season, which went on to spark another fan-favorite trilogy in his discography. Laced with popular tracks like “Best Friend” and the aforementioned “Take Kare.” Slime Season served as a last-minute home for countless Thugger tracks that had been leaked in the preceding months, and it also found the Atlanta native in a surprisingly experimental space. “Calling Your Name,” “Freaky,” “Overdosin,” “U Digg What I’m Saying,” and “Wanna Be Me,” are just a handful of Thug’s riskier performances on Slime Season, and his free-spirited creativity continued on Slime Season 2 with tracks like “Dont Know,” “All Over,” “Oh Lord,” “Beast,” “Raw (Just Might),” and “Love Me Forever (Chopped & Screwed).” For the criminally brief Slime Season 3 — which arrived after a brief delay thanks to the surprise release of I’m Up — Thug wasn’t quite as fearless as he was on the two prior installments, but he did manage to deliver his timeless track “Digits” while trying out a few new flows and production styles on cuts like “Memo,” “Drippin’,” and “Worth It.”

Months after capping off an impressive mixtape series, talk of Hy!£UN35 began once more, but as fate would have it, plans for Young Thug’s debut album were pushed on the backburner once more for his fourth commercial mixtape. Originally titled No, My Name is Jeffery, the self-titled effort was arguably greater than any expectations that fans had leading up to its release. Packaged with an unmistakable album cover shot by Atlanta-based photographer Garfield Larmond, Jeffery was Young Thug’s most polished, yet simultaneously the most dangerous, effort to date. A spiritual successor to Barter 6 in terms of cohesiveness and the fact that Thug’s influences were put on full display, Jeffery was the release that made critics and fans take a step back and reevaluate who Thugger was as an artist. Thanks to timeless cuts like “Wyclef Jean” and the Quavo and Travis Scott-assisted “Pick Up The Phone,” an utterly compelling display of the Young Stoner Life founder’s wide range of talents, more mainstream features, and an undeniably original cover and tracklist combination, Jeffery allowed Young Thug to transcend from off-kilter underground rap to high art.

Then — perhaps to prove that Jeffery wasn’t a fluke — the newly realized label head unleashed Beautiful Thugger Girls in 2017, at a time when the music industry couldn’t have ever foreseen the forthcoming success of Lil Nas X’s ”Old Town Road.” While he wasn’t the first Hip-Hop artist to ever blur the genre lines between country and rap — see Nelly’s Tim McGraw-assisted “Over and Over,” Nappy Roots’ “Po’ Folks,” or Mo Thugs Family and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Ghetto Cowboy” — Thug did lead a shortly lived country trap trend with the Millie Go Lightly-assisted “Family Don’t Matter.” Apart from the unbelievably good country-twinged opening track, however, Beautiful Thugger Girls is actually one of Thug’s most genre-fluid projects, as it’s packed with trap, country, R&B, pop, and even Latin flavors.

Following BTG, it was clear that Young Thug was stylistically and musically unlike any of his contemporaries, and the comparisons to Andre 3000, another inimitable Atlien, started to gain steam. Although fans have yet to hear the beautiful madness that would likely ensue if the two ever collide on wax, Three Stacks did have the following to say about Thug in a 2017 interview with Complex: “He’s exciting. There’s no box. He’s all over the place. To do those things he does, you have to have big fuckin’ balls. It’s almost harder than the guy who’s portraying hard, you know? It’s kind of mind-fucking people. It’s saying, don’t get too comfortable with me.”

Over the next 15 months, Thug went on to drop his Super Slimey collaborative mixtape with Future and his Young Martha collaborative EP with Carnage, develop the artists on his burgeoning YSL label with the release of Slime Language, and drop short, yet solid projects like 2018’s Hear No Evil and On the Rvn. Although the last stretch of his mixtape run may not have had any mind-blowing WTF moments like Jeffery or BTG, the quality of Thug’s output did remain consistent, and fans were also treated to some of the most iconic collaborations of his career, including the Nicki Minaj-assisted “Anybody” and the completely left-field “High” collaboration with Elton John. 

Hip-Hop heads often bring up Lil Wayne or Future when arguing which rapper had the best mixtape run of all time, but Young Thug’s output from 2015 to 2018 isn’t brought up in that conversation nearly enough. Over the course of four years, the Cleveland Avenue-bred rapper pumped out 11 projects, and apart from one ten-month gap between Jeffery in 2016 and Beautiful Thugger Girls in 2017, all of those projects dropped within 6 months of each other, with many actually releasing in much closer proximity. With his commercial mixtape run, Young Thug’s creativity proved to be as stretchy as slime, and his amorphous sonic identity is the second reason why he should be regarded as a generational talent and one of the greatest Hip-Hop artists of all time.

Now I ain’t worry ’bout you gettin’ past these fuckin’ bouncers
Tell the critics that they talkin’ ’bout the fuckin’ founder
Tell Scott I’m on the way, I’m gettin’ fuckin’ faded
Call your mama, Thugger, tell her that you fuckin’ made it

Young Thug – “Real in My Veins” (2018)


He’s been having so much fun as a superstar rapper and label executive.

Young Thug via HNHH
Image via HNHH

It’s important to note that during Thug’s creative pilgrimage between 2015 and 2018, he wasn’t necessarily “liked” nearly as much as he is today, but by the time he was finally ready to release his debut album in 2019, the public’s perception of the YSL rapper was at an all-time high. While many fans and critics had learned to appreciate Young Thug by embracing his boundless creativity and fearless musical output, a whole new wave of fans was falling in love with Thug due to his selfless mentorship of some of the hottest up-and-coming rappers of the late 2010s. 

For nearly one full year following the release of the Slime Language and On the Rvn in 2018, Young Thug took a break from music to help push his rising YSL artists. During that time period, Thug put his full support behind Gunna, Lil Keed, Lil Duke, Strick, and Karlae, and he would go on to assist in the release of several notable projects, including Lil Baby and Gunna’s Drip Harder, Lil Keed’s Keed Talk to ‘Em and Long Live Mexico, Gunna’s debut studio album Drip or Drown 2, Lil Duke’s Blue Devil 2, and Strick’s See You When I Land EP. As a result, Thugger and all of his YSL artists and affiliates had amassed a tremendous amount of hype months before the label executive’s debut was even formally announced, and once it was, Thug had finally achieved a proper commercial breakthrough.

On August 16, 2019, the Atlanta native released So Much Fun — which originally bore the very Hy!£UN35-esque title of GØŁDMØÜFDÖG — and the sprawling 19-track album featured nearly all of his YSL artists as well as some of the biggest names in Hip-Hop, such as J. Cole, Future, Travis Scott, 21 Savage, Juice WRLD, Quavo, Lil Uzi Vert, NAV, and Machine Gun Kelly. Essentially an hour-long romp of fun, surface-level rap hits, So Much Fun really lived up to its title, and although the experimentation that Thug fans had grown accustomed to was practically non-existent, it was hard not to enjoy his joyous debut album. After nearly a full decade into his career, Young Thug had finally arrived, and the moment became even more special when So Much Fun debuted atop the Billboard 200, marking Thugger’s first US chart-topper.

While promoting his debut album during a 2019 CRWN interview with Elliott Wilson, Thug revealed that he already had his sights set on his sophomore album, and although Punk didn’t arrive as fast as the Atlanta native initially suggested, the following two years were likely even more special because of its delay. In 2020, Thug’s sole release was his joint mixtape with Chris Brown titled Slime & B. The project was first released for free on May 5 before hitting streaming platforms as a commercial release later that month, and it spawned “Go Crazy,” which has since been certified triple platinum by the RIAA. However, months after the single was certified double platinum in January 2021, unleashed his most notable collaborative effort to date — his record label’s sophomore compilation album, Slime Language 2. Thanks to the record’s warm reception, loaded list of guest features from heavy-hitters like Drake, Big Sean, and Kid Cudi, the viral success of “Ski,” and an endless barrage of great album cuts, Slime Language2 was able to easily nab the top spot on the Billboard 200.

Having already been a proven chart-topper on his own, Young Thug solidified his legacy as a label executive with the success of Slime Language 2, and the insanely stacked compilation album also served as a testament to Thug’s reputation as an artist with a good heart, as most of the shining stars on the project were his own YSL artists, his family members, or both. In addition to putting his loved ones in an incredible position to succeed, Young Thug also went beyond the fun, playlist-friendly music of Slime Language 2 and made a real difference in his community. Following the release of the compilation album, Thug visited the egregiously overcrowded Fulton County Jail — which is infamously referred to in Atlanta as Rice Street — and paid bond for several people who had been stuck there for minor and petty offenses due to their inability to afford their release. That act of generosity garnered local and national media attention, and it soon became the backdrop for the Gunna, Lil Baby, and YTB Trench-assisted video for “Paid The Fine,” further bolstering the cultural impact of Slime Language 2. With Young Stoner Life Records now legitimized as one of the best artist-led record labels in the music industry, Young Thug once again returned his attention to his sophomore outing, and six months after the release of Slime Language 2, he casually dropped off Punk

Punk featured a return of a pre-So Much Fun-era Thug, as the YSL founder once again delivered a genre-fluid body of work that expanded his artistic capabilities. Despite its exciting list of features that includes artists like J. Cole, Drake, Post Malone, A$AP Rocky, Mac Miller, and Doja Cat, among others, Punk is actually one of Young Thug’s heaviest albums to date. One could even argue that such an introspective and low-key record could have used more space to breathe following the whirlwind of YSL’s compilation album earlier that year, but somehow — even without the inclusion of his popular 2021 single “Tick Tock” — Punk was able to beat its competition and debut at #1 on the Billboard 200. 

In a truly amazing feat, Young Thug has added three Billboard 200 chart-toppers to his resume in less than three full years. For him to be teasing yet another project just six months after the release of Punk is insane, but what would likely be career suicide for any other artist will undoubtedly be an intriguing new chapter for the enigmatic artist. The 30-year-old rapper boasts one of the wildest discographies in the history of Hip-Hop, comparable only to the likes of underground veterans like Kool Keith, and the sheer idea that Young Thug is only just getting started makes him all the more remarkable. His ability to dominate the mainstream Hip-Hop scene as both a solo artist and record executive is a brilliant display of longevity, neverending artistic development, and commercial achievement, and it further justifies his designation as an all-time great. 

Yesterday my daughter told me, “Daddy, you the best”
I told her, “I’m makin’ it back tonight, baby, pass me that vest”
I know I’m livin’ the fast life, but I sign niggas and I sign checks
I put a quarter mill’ on my fingers just like Lil Baby and they all baguettes

Young Thug – “Contagious” 2021
 


With the mysterious project that he teased back in April losing all momentum following the YSL RICO indictment, as well as his upcoming trial set for January 2023, we do not yet know exactly what the future holds for Young Thug, but honestly, when have we ever?

Regardless of the outcome of his impending legal battle, there’s no doubt that the Young Stoner Life Records founder has built a formidable career as an eccentric and relentlessly hard-working creative, whose vast discography is unlike any mainstream rapper who came before him. From his early days as an unlikely oddball from Cleveland Avenue to his experimental sonic pilgrimage during the mid-to-late-2010s to his current commercial dominance, Young Thug has time and time again proven that he is one of Hip-Hop’s most intriguing disruptors, and as a result, his contributions to the progression of Hip-Hop will always remain invaluable. Jeffrey Lamar Williams is a once-in-a-lifetime artist, and even as he faces career- and life-threatening criminal allegations, his legacy as one of the greatest Hip-Hop artists of all time is already solidified.

Free Thugger Thugger.


This piece is part of an ongoing series where we make the case for specific rappers to be included in “greatest of all-time” discussions. The more obvious choices (such as André 3000, Lil WayneEminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, 2Pac) will be ignored in favor of artists who tend to get overlooked these days, for one reason or another. Previously, our writers have made cases for Pusha TIce CubeDJ QuikBig BoiDMXGhostface KillahBusta RhymesDr. Dre, 50 Cent, Nicki Minaj and Big Sean.

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