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The Success of Lil Keed Cements Young Thug's Legacy

The YSL rapper’s 'Long Live Mexico' album proves Thugger's hard-won influence over rap’s new generation.

by Gary Suarez
Jun 26 2019, 11:00am

Photo of Lil Keed by Amy Sussman/Getty Images for BET; Photo of Young Thug by Prince Williams/Getty Images

It's easy to mistake Lil Keed for Young Thug. Listening to "Proud Of Me," the dance pop- interpolating lead single off the young Atlanta rapper's debut album, it's not a surprise to learn that the Goose-produced cut started as a Thugger track. Pay attention to the elder rapper's intro hook, which calls to free Gucci Mane, who was released from prison in 2016. When Keed takes to the mic for the first verse, he nails it. With his tone obscenely high and gratifyingly screechy, it sounds an awful lot like his boss is still going in.

Influence is often tough to quantify, but in the case of Keed, who coincidentally grew up in the same residential part of Atlanta that Thug came from, the impact of the rapper born Jeffery Lamar Williams is undeniable. Keed is signed to Young Thug's label Young Stoner Life, and his recently released Long Live Mexico—named for his departed friend rather than some statement of solidarity with the nation Trump loathes most—finds the 21-year-old rapper openly embracing the style of his record label benefactor. He drops breathy stream-of-consciousness bars over the money-machine sound effects of "HBS," while waxing poetic and hyperbolic with his actual brother Lil Gotit on "Pass It Out." True to the bit, he even appropriates Thug's serpentine emoji aesthetic on "Snake."

That said, Keed's approach on the fundamentally engaging and rewind-worthy project exemplifies just how much has changed since Thug first emerged as trap's nonconformist outlier. Back in 2014 when "Stoner" dropped, he was scarcely much older than Keed is now. While he'd been on the mixtape circuit for a minute, catching critical attention roughly a year prior for the Gucci Mane-sponsored 1017 Thug, the single made it to No. 47 on the Hot 100 while a re-release of standout "Danny Glover" repackaged as "2 Bitches" simmered. Both tracks demonstrated his unique modus operandi, a freestyle technique closer in execution to William S. Burroughs cut-ups than battle rap bars. Breaking with staid expectations of rap masculinity, Thug's voice on these seminal cuts broke through the acceptable upper register in ways rap fans had rarely encountered since the days of Flavor Flav.

While Thug's differences set him apart from the pack in favorable ways, it also presented hurdles and barricades to success. It didn't help that, soon after "Stoner" took off, the market was subsequently flooded with early recordings, semi-authorized releases, and glorified bootlegs exposing an artist still finding his way. Though 1017 Thug 2 and Young Thugga Mane La Flare assuredly had their fans, not the least of which were professional music critics, these and the other projects that dropped during his mentor Guwop’s days of hard drive dumps and hard time served didn't necessarily showcase the young rapper thriving in the moment, but rather in an unfiltered archival glut. Too much attention was paid to Thug's unapologetic sartorial choices, leading to maliciously homophobic whispers and shouts from detractors about his sexuality. But he seemed keen to lean into it as part of his active social media presence, famously tweeting about smoking penises on at least two occasions.

Whether Thug intended to goad his haters into telling on themselves or did so because he just doesn't care remains unclear. As we'e learned over the years he's not much interested in transparency. The uncompromising mystique that surrounds his perplexing public persona plays no small part in what made, and continues to make, him such an intriguing and viral figure in hip-hop. After battling numerous leaks of his work with the first two volumes of archival Slime Season tapes, 2016's sanctioned new music releases I'm Up and Jeffery showed folks what he could do and how well he could do it.

Those projects no doubt resonate with Keed's generation, one that has witnessed and experienced plenty of success from those who followed Thug's unconventional lead. The singsong teases of "Wyclef Jean" has a direct line to work by the likes of Lil Uzi Vert and Nav, while the transformation of Travis Scott from gloomy Kanye West protege to outsized hip-hop superstar assuredly comes from his time touring and recording with his Houston peer. I'm Up and Jeffery are also where many of Keed's YSL labelmates made their first notable appearances, including Dolly, HiDoraah, Duke, and Billboard-charting talent Gunna.

As large as Thug looms over Keed's work, the younger rapper does more than merely imitate the master. Even when paired up on Long Live Mexico‘s squirmy banger "Million Dollar Mansion," he finds his own cadence while accumulating his own distinct reference points. Like those who grew up with Jay-Z or Ye or Kid Cudi or whomever, his appreciation for the rapper transcends emulation and, now more than on last year's Trapped On Cleveland 2 and Keed Talk to 'Em tapes, they've become his own. What separates Keed from Thug is the manner with which he expands off the latter's lexicon and discography, not unlike how classic rock acts absorbed blues scales into their own music. He takes a proprietary method and broadens it into an open-source universe that retains the original's credibility, something certainly served by both artists coming out of the Cleveland Avenue apartments.

Keed gets to go further with his peers. He contends with Moneybagg Yo on the hard-edged trap of "Child" and goes toe to toe with Uzi and YNW Melly amid the fluff and flutes of "Pull Up." His coziness on the popwise "Make U Proud" recalls that of his guru, more than hinting at how well he could anchor a hit like Camila Cabello’s "Havana" or Usher’s "No Limit." And while we likely still have some time before that game-changing crossover moment happens, Long Live Mexico nonetheless does more than present a burgeoning talent to a wider audience; it legitimizes an established artist who fought tooth and nail to get there.