Throughout the 2009 documentary The Carter, we see Lil Wayne recording mixtape freestyles in an Amsterdam hotel room. He drags out the mic, stands, and a pop filter from an oblong gym bag. A true-crime show with Dutch subtitles plays on a muted television, which he watches while he records. Taking a break, he outlines a vision of his future, and of music in general: “My past is a lie … when I’m about 28, 29, you’ll be looking for a Lil Wayne album, you’ll be looking for it to be full of rap — the best rap — full of singing — the best songs. Not the best singing, the best songs. And I don’t want that to only be for me; I’m creating the face of music, period. We can have a world full of just rappers and just singers … but in order to be an ultimate artist, I believe you have to be like me.” At the time of this interview — early 2008 — Wayne was on his way to becoming the most popular rapper in the world.
One might argue that Wayne’s sketchy vision has come to pass. Today, he is 32, not 28, and the work he did on the first three Carter installments and the mixtapes surrounding them still casts a shadow across rap. His influence is audible in many of the most unusual voices of the past half-decade, from Kendrick Lamar to Chance the Rapper to Danny Brown to (most infamously) Lil B. Drake and Nicki Minaj, once just Wayne’s protégés, incorporated parts of his effusive style into their music. The gently percolating Auto-Tune rooted in the Wayne lineage is still a staple on major rap singles from “We Dem Boyz” to DJ Mustard’s impressive run of Hot 100 hits. And hints of golden-era Weezy still crop up in a certain style of hip-hop humor — daisy-chained similes, for starters — in the free exchange between rapping and crooning, and in a looser, more gestural approach to verse writing.
But perhaps no one’s rap career has had such a direct relationship with Wayne’s music as the feather-rustling Atlanta hitmaker Young Thug. A few months ago, Thug was doing nothing but singing Wayne’s praises. But today the two are sworn enemies in the public eye. The drama surrounding Weezy’s fallout with his lifelong label Cash Money Records, or YMCMB (Young Money Cash Money Billionaires), and its cofounder/his surrogate “daddy” Birdman (now Thug’s impresario) began to snowball in December. Thug’s personal devotion to Birdman, coupled with his admiration of Wayne, has added a mystifying third level to the conflict. By now, the controversy surrounding the title of Young Thug’s brand-new album, Barter 6, has made him an active player in the conflict. It’s exacerbated the schism, and given birth to an altogether new type of rap beef.
Thug’s idea to originally title his album Tha Carter VI can be traced back over a year. Last March, Wayne claimed in an interview that his upcoming Tha Carter V would be his last solo project. Two weeks later, Thug let slip that he wanted to make Tha Carter VI after his mentor hung up the gloves; Thug wanted to take on Wayne’s implied challenge (“’Cause he feel like can’t nobody make music like that”). In September, Thug raised the idea again — he would make Carters VI through X, but only when Wayne had retired. Most interpreted the comments as facetious, even cute. Thug had only just started running with Birdman and become the new addition to the impresario’s unofficial, rotating collective of artists known as Rich Gang; Young Thug was probably just gleeful and acting out. Possibly a second Carter series could come to fruition as a set of mixtapes (maybe in collaboration with Wayne) if Thug one day signed with YMCMB. Maybe he could even become the label’s fourth-hottest commodity, behind Nicki, Drake, and his idol. Or maybe Thug would just recede into the background, becoming one of those Cash Money artists who never gets a release date or who sues, and the idea would vanish.
By the look of it, though, Birdman had his eye on bigger and better things for Thug. “YMCMB and Rich Gang can make him a superstar, a rock star,” he murmured at a Complex photo shoot in May, after comparing the rapper to Wayne and Drake. As Birdman began to appear, rubbing his hands, in more and more of Thugger’s videos — from the loping banger “Stoner” to the Rich Gang mixtape cuts with Rich Homie Quan — Wayne’s absence became increasingly noticeable.
When the first Thug-Wayne collaboration, “Take Kare,” dropped (one of “a million,” if we are to take Thug at his word), perhaps it should have been clear that the two men could not be of any real help to one another, artistically or otherwise. Both Thug and Wayne were guarded on the track; it was hard to tell them apart. It was chilly, forgettable. They were similar charges repelling each other.
Three months later, Wayne was corralling his lawyers, suing Birdman to the tune of $8 million — no, $51 million — for suppressing the release of Tha Carter V and other skullduggery. Just when it was becoming clear that we would probably not hear Wayne’s album for a long time (or ever), Thug confirmed that his Tha Carter VI would be coming any day now, and yes, it would be called Carter VI, come V or no V.
In the press, Thugger repeatedly said that his favorite rapper was “Lil Wayne, Lil Wayne, Lil Wayne”; his insistence was almost irritating. But as Thug put it to GQ in February, rappers who are “30, 40” don’t get listened to “by minors,” and when you’re “50,” forget about it: You’re washed up. So where did that leave 32-year-old Weezy? Wayne assured fans that “there’s only one motherfucking Carter”; Thug stuck his tongue out.
It’s easy to call Young Thug a Lil Wayne–esque artist: It’s become a kind of lazy shorthand for “weird, verbally choked, cosmic, and Southern,” and Thugger bears a clearer resemblance to Weezy than nearly anyone before him. Both rappers have voices that are frayed at the edges, as if blown out from the night before. They shift suddenly between vocal registers like they’re stomping on guitar pedals. Their punch lines, even the best ones, rely on flimsy logic; they rhyme words with themselves and sometimes just with noises. And their shared history of syrup use has been noted, romanticized, and often used to explain their music’s alien otherness.
But Thug’s love affair with Wayne’s music runs deeper than first impressions. Across his short but busy career, he’s scrutinized Wayne’s approach from all angles, mixing elements of Weezy’s phrasing, delivery, and songwriting with other regional influences and processes. Going beyond the growling and yelping highlights a dramatic musical progression.
Today, Thug’s first mixtape, I Came From Nothing, is an unnerving listen. From the punch lines to the elocution to the verse architecture, Wayne’s influence hangs over nearly every song like a cloud. On “Jungle,” the tape’s opening salvo, Thug lags behind and ahead of the beat, sort of cooing the end of the thought (“Yeeah, and this be crazy / I been fucking weak, that’s how I got two babies”), landing firmly at the end of the phrase, using it to hop lithely into the next. He punctuates his bars with quintessential Weezy “eee-yeeaa’s,” and the Auto-Tune patch scrambles to react. You can even choose which “Eat You Alive” you prefer: Wayne’s or Thug’s.
But Thug had a knack for melodic hook writing, something which — with notable exceptions — has never been Wayne’s strongest suit. The ATL swag-rap that Young Thug cut his teeth on — acts like Rich Kidz, Travis Porter, and Roscoe Dash — dealt in sugary, indelible hooks, exuberant, clipped rhymes, and sunny Casiotone beats. Thug scored one of his earliest local hits with a feature on Rich Kidz’ “100 Dollar Autograph,” a song designed for playing video games in the sunroom of Soulja Boy’s mansion. It’s amazing to look back at old videos of Young Thug when he was “Yung Thug”; in one for TruRoyal’s “She Can Go,” he murmurs in a coy, conversational flow wearing a sideways fitted Young Dro polo and cargo shorts. He smiles like he’s getting his senior picture taken.
On I Came From Nothing 2 and 3 — released in late 2011 and early 2012 — Thug’s music grew closer to Wayne’s most outré material. For Wayne, Auto-Tune and intonation were never the center of his craft, just the trappings; only on certain experiments did they become the focal point. But Thug’s emphasis was, from the jump, more on form than content; he focused on connecting on record through arcs of sound rather than strings of lyrical clinchers, filling the space appropriately even when he couldn’t find a word to fit. See, for instance, ICFN2’s “The Plug,” which leads off with a sneering string of internal “baby” rhymes, which would have been Weezy-esque in the extreme even without the inclusion of “I’m a motherfucking Martian, baby,” one of many direct lyrical Wayne references in Thug’s catalogue. The song, like any good Wayne wyle-out, features affected changes in tone and accent (faux-Jamaican, specifically), clouds of Auto-Tune detritus, and spelling games: “I’m so high right now, I’m B-E-A-D / I’m so fly, F-L-Y-E-E.”
This all might not have worked as well if Thug’s songwriting weren’t concurrently getting stronger and more distinctive. The Atlanta scene of the late ’00s and early ’10s was focused on big hooks and beats that snapped — verses, generally speaking, moved the action along. In 2011, Future, another disciple of Wayne’s broken digital melodicism, was the city’s biggest up-and-coming street rapper, and his style of tight, explosive hook writing is heavy on Thug’s tapes. Thug was revealing rapidly that he had no problem picking out a sticky melody, and he began to adapt and complicate Future’s fluid, dancehall-infused phrasing.
A lot had changed by the time 1017 Thug, Thug’s first mixtape with Gucci Mane’s 1017 Brick Squad Records, came out in early 2013. He sounded nearly like a new artist, with warbling, oversize hooks and wispy, highly asymmetrical flow patterns. On tracks like “2 Cups Stuffed,” he bides his time, punctuating the beat before popping out, shrieking, like the bathtub-dwelling shapeshiftstress in The Shining (“L-E-A-N-I-N-G / Lean, lean, lean, lean-lean-lean”). He lights into and twists his knotty micro-melodies obsessively, spinning them into complete songs. The tape’s most infamous track, “Picacho,” builds off the line “My diamonds, they say Pikachu / They gon’ wink at you,” a line only Wayne would have gotten away with five years earlier; “Condo Music” found Thug “shoot[ing] at you and your ho like a porno movie” and nodding to Wayne’s flip of “We Takin’ Over” and “The Rapper Eater” (“Feed me, feed me / I don’t rap for free, the opposite of free, B”). The tape’s songs sounded like they could have been built piecemeal out of pitched-up phrases from Dedication 3–era freestyles.
Over the following year, new Young Thug tracks came from all odd corners of the rap-music Internet (due in part to a convoluted label situation), but they kept getting better. Thug ramped up and pulled back his flow dramatically, depending on subtle changes; the music he was supplied with improved, too, coming from an all-star team of young hometown producers with a subtler touch, among them Sonny Digital, 808 Mafia, Nard & B, and Thug’s neighborhood buddy Metro Boomin.
At the end of 2013, a skeletal Thug track with an unforgettable, mournful chorus called “Danny Glover” leaked to YouTube, and was then quickly removed. This didn’t prevent it from soon becoming a part of Kanye’s preferred turn-up soundtrack; by January, Nicki Minaj had released a remix. “Stoner” proved to be an even bigger breakthrough, a loping, sample-heavy track from mid-2013 that hit the Hot 100 in February. The song basically abandoned standard verse-hook structure, instead rotating between a handful of short, hooklike ideas — the changes were choreographed to the eccentric fault lines in producer Dun Deal’s beat. With these two songs (both his biggest and best tracks to date), Young Thug — an acquired taste even for die-hard rap bloggers only a year earlier — became the South’s most promising rookie.
In the coming months, Thugger took a new, more pyrotechnical tack with his rapping, while working with higher-profile collaborators. Always an expert imitator, he adopted the triplet flow favored by ATL trap trio Migos, forcing the rigid pattern up against more amorphous, eerie melodies. It was the cadence in the catchy sub-hook of his T.I. collaboration, “About the Money” (“I pack an 11, I pack an 11, oooh / I ride in a gator, my shoes are Giuseppe, oooh …”), and the anchoring rhythm in “The Blanguage,” an ominous, multi-sectional opus that stands as the best single expression of Thug’s adeptness and contradictions. It’s both fussily rhythmic and all sixes and sevens; dead-eyed and warm; mysterious and completely unserious. Like many of Wayne’s best songs, it was a classic without a hook to hang its hat on.1
An analogous track in Wayne’s catalogue — in form, not quality — would be the collagelike 2009 loosie “Told Y’All.” Wayne really throws everything at the wall, going for Twista’s pot of gold with untold levels of motormouthing, before relaxing back into lethargic word games when the cymbals cut out.
“The Blangauge” set the template for Thug’s work on Tha Tour Part 1, his Birdman-produced Rich Gang album with Rich Homie Quan, released last September. On tracks like “Flava,” “Lifestyle,” and “Givenchy” — which builds to Thug’s most magnificent moment of catharsis — he brackets his ideas into dynamic little units that might seem unstable and unlikely on their own, but which play off of one another to stunning effect.
In his essay “I Saw The Light,” music critic Alex Ross begins by recalling various moments (1966, 1978, 1985, 1997) when critics had written about Bob Dylan as if Dylan were dead (or, essentially, wished death on him) so that the singer’s “younger self [could] take its mythic place.” There is an isomorphic group of Lil Wayne fans who talk about him as if he died in 2009, after the No Ceilings mixtape. Between his omnipresence on the charts (50 Cent called him an industry “whore,” in a laughably unself-aware move) and 2010’s lemon-on-arrival Rebirth, the rapper’s egomania became harder and harder to stomach following the release of Tha Carter III. In early 2010, he disappeared to Rikers for the better part of a year on a weapons possession charge.
Wayne’s lost year also marked Thug’s earliest appearances — the young rapper’s first two solo tapes arrived the following year, which Weezy devotees spent waiting for Tha Carter IV, the album that was supposed to redeem him. No matter Wayne’s transgressions and absence, Tha Carter was a brand name that stood for something. But when the album finally materialized, it evidenced Wayne falling headfirst into all the traps that continue to plague his work today. The delivery was cold and lacking dynamism; his intoned and Tuned vocals were bland, not expressive and prankishly at odds with the beat. The style of the music was all over the place, and usually ill-advised. The first track alone packed in some of the worst rhyming of his career: sub–Rick Ross hashtag raps and other unconscionable phraseology (“I got some money on me, and the weed nice / My shit won’t ever stop, suck my green light”), which made some wonder what, exactly, that old Wayne je ne sais quoi had really been. Was it worth going through all this for him?
With each subsequent release, the Wayne stans began to drop like flies. Yearly “Best Wayne tracks” lists devolved into “worst Wayne lyrics” inventories. But even while he was being eulogized, his Young Money label had become one of the dominant forces in the industry, and Wayne played the semi-mogul well. His imprimatur was a fact of life; his voice was a sound you had internalized long ago — if you tried, you could almost hear past it.
Paras Griffin/Getty Images
The recent Rich Gang–Young Money fracas reads like an age-old story — something out of a mob movie or maybe Game of Thrones. The aging, faithful lieutenant is phased out until he’s broken and almost begging to be bumped off. The gangster resonance is not lost on Lil Wayne, who decried the situation on his “Coco” freestyle: “Cash Money is an army, I’m a one-man army / And if them n----s coming for me, I’m going out like Tony.” Listening to this song — a riff on the most irritating (rap) hit of last year — and, indeed, all of the Sorry 4 the Wait 2 tape, is a disheartening experience. Weezy attempts to stunt on his daddy using his trusty, but now increasingly outdated, model — flipping the beats and interpolating the hooks of popular songs. More deliberate and literal than he ever was in his glory days, Wayne sounds only slightly less corny and more sympathetic than he was in the five years previous.
When evaluating the dead weight, dying idols, and ever-evolving dynasties of Cash Money, consider Juvenile. Throughout the late ’90s, Juvenile was the poster boy for the label and its flagship group, the Hot Boys, of which Wayne was only the third-most popular member. Juvenile’s third album, 400 Degreez, was the label’s commercial breakthrough in 1998, mostly thanks to a single that the rapper didn’t even want to include on the record. Three years later, the record’s multiplatinum status had not prevented Juvenile from butting heads over his payout with Birdman (then just Baby) and the label. Weezy was in the midst of making ever-bigger bids for the spotlight, and in the summer of 2002, Cash Money’s big release was Wayne’s 500 Degreez, a play on Juvenile’s previous album. On the continuum from dis to friendly competition, it’s unclear even now how Juvenile interpreted the title, but the message came across to the public; Juvenile was the only Hot Boy absent from the record. It’s unclear whom Wayne refers to as “them there” on the title track, but feuds have been built on less. Juvenile formally left the label a few months afterward.
The great irony of today’s Cash Money melodrama is that Thug is one of the artists who has most fully realized “Weezy Music,” as we might conceive of it from Wayne’s prophecy in the Amsterdam hotel room. Unfortunately, Weezy is not, as he had imagined, presiding over Thug’s ascent.
Thug’s new, awkwardly renamed album, Barter 6, arrived last week; the name change was apparently the result of a threat of legal action from Wayne. It evidences a Thug who is flipping the flows and tropes of 2010s Southern street rap on their heads, and who is ready to become a new standard by which the genre can be measured. The closest thing we get to Wayne’s influence is a hoarse mimic Thugger pulls out on the hook of “Can’t Tell” to sneer the album’s one explicit dis: “Pussy boy, I’ll leave you dead and call it Dedication.” The music is restrained, skeletal, and often somber; it’s the work of just two producers. If anything, the smoother, plaintive melodies in these songs recall another member of the Young Money roster, one whose albums aren’t liable to be canned by Birdman any time soon. (After all, every song on his last one charted on the Hip-Hop R&B charts at the same time in February.)
The songs on B6 lack the wild flights of fancy that Thug has released in the last year (see “Eww,” “OMG,” “Treasure,” or any of the Metro Thuggin’ leaks) and the bigger-than-life choruses that propelled his breakthrough singles. However, it exudes confidence and control. Thug seems to be settling into the idea of having “a voice,” and has succeeded in making a unified statement capable of extending his fan base, or at least the number of people who are willing to treat him seriously. More important, Barter 6 sounds not only entirely of-the-moment, but is also united by a unique post-Wayne-and-Future aesthetic — one that points toward hip-hop’s future. Wayne’s last tape (and last several albums) have done the opposite, or just nothing at all: trying to lay low his competitors using obsolete weaponry, recycling moves borrowed from himself, and painting no clear musical picture.
Still, Wayne’s music is inextricably tied to Thug’s narrative. The realms Thug has explored by bending Wayne’s style have made him one of the most inventive and promising voices in hip-hop, and have even opened the doors for new acts; Rae Sremmurd’s crossover hit SremmLife owes a lot to Thugger’s delivery and post-swag-rap ambition, as does ILoveMakonnen’s vibrato crooning. Barter 6, inasmuch as its backstory binds Thug further to Wayne, is also the younger rapper’s most definitive musical step away from his idol — toward solidifying his own discrete musical category. The era of prophesied Weezy Music is ending. Thuggerism may well be the new frontier.
Winston Cook-Wilson (@ratsonly) is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn. His writing has also appeared at Pitchfork, Wondering Sound, and in the Village Voice.