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Young Thug's 'On the Rvn' Is the Rapper Near His Best, but Is That Enough?

Despite mounting pressures, the rush of a ticking clock is mostly imagined by fans and critics alike. Thug is home, and he has plenty of time.

In the middle of July, in 2015––the same week Future dropped DS2––U.S. Marshals raided Young Thug’s home in Silver Springs, Georgia. The Marshals were acting on a search warrant issued by the Dunwoody police, who arrested Thug more than a week earlier at an upscale mall just outside Atlanta. In the earlier incident, Thug was being escorted out when he allegedly told a mall cop he would shoot him in the face. In the Silver Springs raid, Marshals found enough to charge Thug with three counts of felony gun possession and one count each of cocaine and marijuana possession, felonies as well.


It was at that moment that 300, Young Thug’s label, dropped “Pacifier,” a scatting, scattershot song meant to become Thug’s summer hit and to tease his debut album, Hy!£UN35. Mike WiLL Made-It, who produced “Pacifier,” had tweeted about it more than a year prior to its release, suggesting that this was the ace in the hole to trigger a rollout for one of the rap industry’s assumed stars-in-waiting. It never hit the Hot 100. In April 2017, Thug’s lawyers successfully argued that the Silver Springs charges were the result of an illegal search warrant and should be dropped. Hy!£UN35 never did.

Two weeks ago, Thug turned himself in in DeKalb County after a warrant was issued for his arrest. (He was released on bail two days later.) This time, the charges––including possession with intent to distribute meth, weed, and hydrocodone; eight felonies in total––can be traced back to an arrest last year, when Thug was stopped for driving with too-tinted windows. During this ordeal, Thug announced the release of an album, which became this six-song EP, On the Rvn.

On the Rvn is an intermittently impressively, ultimately minor snapshot of where Thug has been since last summer’s Beautiful Thugger Girls. It’s produced in large part by his mainstays London on da Track and Wheezy; it skews bright and glossy, where most songs––the Jaden Smith duet “Sin” being a notable exception––shirk both the mean, maximalist trap Thug sometimes trafficked in before and the weirder, more minimal strains (see: Barter 6). There’s a kind of pop sheen (if not structure) to these songs, which often feel of a piece with Super Slimey, his Future collaboration from last year, and Slime Language, the label compilation he released in August.


Thug floats over these beats, but mostly confines himself to one or two pockets, instead of breaking into new registers or unconventional second and third flows. This is not necessarily, or at least not always a bad thing––there’s a bit of a hypnotic quality to the repetition, and his voice itself is interesting enough to carry nearly any verse––but it removes some of the shock and mystery from his work. The strongest counterexample to this is “Climax,” his collaboration with 6lack, which features a run where Thug pushes his voice to and past the point of breaking in a way that underscores that passage’s emotional weight, but you’d be forgiven if the tape’s opening two songs lull you out of rapt attention.

The best song here is “High,” Thug’s rework of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” which leaked online a handful of weeks ago. Sparked by Elton himself, the record is playful, free, and wholly unforced. It’s an unmitigated bright spot not only on On the Rvn, but in Thug’s catalog writ large. (It’s also reminiscent, in the overall sound and in some of the cadences Thug uses, of the leaked “Love Me Forever,” one of the best songs he’s ever recorded.) But “High” was initially recorded in 2016. What’s been alternately fascinating and frustrating about Thug’s career to this point is that songs sprout up from Instagram snippets and compromised hard drives, seemingly at random, and make for a lot of noise from which it’s hard to distinguish a chronological signal.


Most conversations about Young Thug now sound like a couple of A&Rs plotting out their third-quarter calendars. This has been true since “Lifestyle,” really; when Barter 6, an extremely good but small, almost claustrophobic record came out in the spring of 2015, the framing, even in most of the laudatory reviews, was that this was a sort of half-measure in the presumed long arc of his career, given the lack of hits. Thug’s music from 2013 through the end of ‘15 was, on its face and down to its core, engrossing, exhilarating, and relentlessly innovative. He was, during that stretch, probably the best rapper on the planet. There were suggestions—"Lifestyle," "(I Know There’s Gonna Be) Good Times," "Best Friend," even "Pick Up the Phone" as late as 2016––that he was ready to take over the pop charts. There were also suggestions, like that infamous video where Lyor Cohen loses his temper at him, that Thug had little to no interest in doing the requisite work to meet his stated commercial goals.

There are larger conversations to be had about the way rap fandom morphed first (post-Get Rich Or Die Trying) into a game of sales-watching and, more recently, became a world of armchair executive work where everyone is prospecting and looking to buy or sell stock in whoever might be hot next. There’s little critical space given to artists who failed to become stars but are no longer seen as prospects. It’s why—not to over-read Twitter syntax—rappers like Gunna, who are plainly Thug’s children, are talked about as “replacing” him, when in reality Thug has just turned 27 and, by all indications, has at least a little more left in the tank.

At its best, Thug’s work was volatile and impossible to pin down. That’s part of what made it so exciting, and the reason that a massive leak of unreleased material commanded fans’ attention for months on end. But as his commercial ascent has stalled, that same feeling—that Thug can’t be shoehorned into conventional structures, or marketing plans, or etc.—has been projected onto his career as a whole. This is probably a little unfair, and it reflects some of those strange, exhausting trends in rap fandom that suck attention away from the music itself. But while he’s still a good, occasionally great rapper, the music has, in fact, grown just a little stale. Fortunately, the rush of the ticking clock is mostly imagined. Thug is home, and he has plenty of time.

Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.