Album Review: Young Thug – I’m Up

Doing more with single syllables right now than most rappers do with whole bars

If Young Thug is, in fact, an alien, then his is a planet of 50-hour days and generation-long seasons. The otherworldly rapper has cut enough great songs in two Earth years to fill seven lifetimes, pulling in sounds more likely to be heard echoing through the mysterious depths of the cosmos than the front page of Datpiff. Since splashdown, its been questioned whether his twisted dialect is truly meant for human ears, some hip-hop purists bemoaning his eccentricities as too distant, too other, and too unintelligible. But the truth is out there, laid bare by last year’s Barter 6 and Slime Season volumes 1 and 2. Thugger — codeine for blood, Gucci frock on his back — is doing more with single syllables right now than most of rap’s head table are doing with whole bars.

The far reaches of the galaxy are just part of his story. The cover art to his latest mixtape, I’m Up, casts 24-year-old Jeffrey Williams as both super-being and deity. There he is, soaring the skies with feathered wings, the whole world resting in his hands. Thug sees himself as part god, part Icarus, part X-Man: less homosapien and more homosuperior. His voice — all squawks, ticks, and hollers — sounds like rap’s next evolutionary step, swaddled in Greek mythology and fueled by mind-bending molly and potent lean. But as the releases stack up and the streak stretches out, we’re left to ponder the inevitable question: Will Thugger fly too close to the sun?

The signs here are not comforting. I’m Up arrived in a din of confusion. Slated to be the third installment of Slime Season, Thug hastily announced the name change just a day before its release (so ramshackle was the rollout that the mixtape initially dropped with incorrect album artwork). With Slime Season 3 still apparently in the pipeline, I’m Up (just half the length of its two predecessors) reeks of a stopgap release of tossed-away sketches to bridge the silence before the main event. Turns out, though, we should have been optimists all along.

Opener and centerpiece single “Fuck Cancer” lays out Young Thug’s disinterest in covering the usual rap star bases. The song is dedicated to Louisiana’s Boosie Badazz, who recently underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his kidney. But there are no somber piano lines here, none of the candle-lit meditations you might expect from a song with such a weighty title. “Ay fuck cancer, shout-out to Boosie,” Thug yells at the off. It’s the song’s only direct reference to the disease.

We tend to humanize cancer more than any other illness on the planet. Maybe it’s comforting to envision this terrible thing as a self-aware force of pure evil and not an indiscriminate affliction that devastates so many for no good reason. Give cancer a face and we can stare it in the eye. Give it its own lifeforce and it can be defeated. Thug’s screamed “fuck cancer” rings of bold defiance; his method of attack is brute strength. Mike Will Made It’s beat crashes down hard, and Migos’ Quavo acts as backup. Thug honours Boosie by celebrating life’s finer things: sex, jewels, and supremacy. He’s his friend’s guardian angel, one hand on his shoulder and the other waving high in the air. The stricken legend can cry because Thug’s going to be strong enough for the both of them.

Fears that Thugger’s music could soon hit saturation point are dissolved throughout I’m Up. Posse cut “My Boys”, which welcomes Chicago’s Lil Durk among the guests, serves as a reminder that the first Slime Season was one the best pop albums of 2015, as Thug returns to the Caribbean island hideout he roamed on “Best Friend” for a nighttime blunt on the beach. The solemn “King Troup” is dedicated to fallen friend Keith Troup, the high-pitched, tuneful vocal showing Thug at his most disarming. Meanwhile, creeping club joint “Hercules” sees him deepening his voice to that of a purple-tinted Adonis. It’s further proof that those skewered vocal cords are one of the most expansive instruments in the game today. If some golden-age heroes rapped like well-tuned jazz percussionists, then Thug fires barbs with the swarming intensity of double drums.

The chief complaint with I’m Up is its narrowness. At just nine tracks and 38 minutes (a lot of which is handed over to guests), there’s just not enough of Thug rapping for this to match up to last year’s releases. But as a thirst-quencher, it keeps Jeffrey in his recent groove. Icarus has found a steady pace without slowing his momentum. The streak continues. Long may the spaceman reign.

Essential Tracks: “Fuck Cancer”, “Hercules”, and “My Boys”


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