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Who I Do It For: Young Thug’s I’m Up

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Young Thug’s latest mixtape, I’m Up, finds the Atlanta rapper/singer reigning things in quite a bit compared to his last few releases, especially the debaucherous weirdo epic that was November’s Slime Season 2. The tape is short — just 9 tracks compared to SS2’s sprawling 22. I’m Up also sees Thugger hold back on a lot of the bizarre (often borderline disgusting) free associative imagery and incredibly off-kilter flows and cadences that, again, hit a fever pitch on his last few releases. I mean, there’s still bars here like “Pussy clean / Ain’t no germs in it” and “Bitch, I’m a zoo not a zebra” (what does that even mean?), but they’ve become exceptions to the rule rather than the standard.

On some level, this surprising restraint makes I’m Up a bit less singular than what we’ve come to expect of Young Thug. But by forgoing some eccentricity, he crafts something I would’ve never seen coming: a focused and thematically consistent body of work.

The majority of the tracks here deal (to varying extents) with the subject of loyalty. The posse cut, “My Boys,” has an airy, uplifting beat, and finds Thugger and company talking about their solidarity as a crew. And even though none of the guests here even approach Thug’s level of skill as a rapper or singer, there’s some great chemistry on display all throughout; Trouble (who delivered a mindbogglingly absurd verse on Thugger’s “Thief in the Night” last year) comes through with an especially memorable contribution, running with the rhyme scheme Thug lays out on the hook through about half his verse.

The following song, “My People,” sticks to similar subject matter, but it’s got to be said that the instrumental here is fucking ridiculous. As it turns out, booming southern 808s and skittering, tropical synth and percussion vamps are a match made in heaven. Thugger Thugger seems to realize this too, taking the opportunity to go absolutely nuts; he cycles through flows and cadences so distinct that I initially thought two other rappers were featured on the song even before the actual feature (frequent collaborator Duke) spits his verse to wind the song down.

Next is “King TROUP,” which is easily the most straight-faced song Thugger’s ever come up with. The mournful bars he spits on the song’s intro are especially poignant: “I just asked God why he called for Troup / When it’s time to ride, if you love ‘em, n****, prove it / You know all your lil n****s gon’ shoot shit up for you / I thought I seen a ghost, ‘cause your son look like you, fool.” As the murky, synthetic beat propels the song forward, he goes on to lament another friend’s imprisonment in equally powerful and uniquely Thugger-like fashion, rapping “Lil Roscoe, he sleeps where it’s nasty / They could’ve freed him ‘cause he grew up with no daddy / But instead they took advantage and did him badly.” He ends his verse by muttering a world-weary “damn” under his breath. I couldn’t have summed it up better myself.

I’m Up concludes with the posse cut, “Family.” Rather than invite on some more shit-talking ATL trap rappers, however, the “posse” Thug assemble consists of his two sisters, who deliver a pair of heartfelt verses about how their brother’s success in the music industry inspires them in their own pursuits. Neither of them purport to be a rapper, and thus neither of them deliver bars that impress on a technical level, but that’s not really the point; I’m Up is all about the ties that bind, and after exploring relationships that span from girlfriends to his crew, it’s only fitting that Thugger concludes with a track about the strongest bond of all. “The only thing more important than money is family,” he declares on the tape’s penultimate bar. What a heartwarming sentiment. Just like Wu-Tang, Young Thug is for the children.

For Thug to have pulled off a coherent project that would seem accessible to an audience beyond the most well-versed of trap music fans is sort of mindblowing. But while I’m Up is a perfectly good release, it finds the ATLien entering dangerous territory; the more adept he becomes at making immediate, straightforward, and radio-ready music, the more he runs the risk of losing the out-of-this-world absurdist edge that’s made him something of an icon in new-school hip-hop.

Circling back to the mixtape’s fantastic opener, “F Cancer,” it’s apparent that Thug already knows how to strike a good balance between accessibility and insanity. “Hey fuck cancer, shout out to Boosie,” he declares on the song’s intro; with this and just a few more scattered bars, Thugger Thugger expresses his well-wishes to fellow Southern hip-hop star, Boosie Badazz, who’s been battling with kidney cancer. Beyond that, though, he’s back to his usual oddball antics, employing hypnotic flows and spitting bars like “Energizer Bunny, you see these carats, ho / I’m Rey Mysterio, my life on HBO.”

This comfortable combination of the earnest and the over-the-top feels vital at a time when most popular music strives for one or the other.

Young Thug may have come to prominence by basically convincing people he’s an alien, but damn if it hasn’t been fascinating watching him become more human.