With his reckless swagger, rows of gold teeth and explosive sense of style, Young Thug has gone from cult hero to headline concern, in a rags-to-riches story that’s both familiar and completely surreal
Taken from the Autumn 2015 issue of Dazed:
In Atlanta, Georgia, the heat is astringent. To step into daylight without sunglasses is an act of masochism. Nature is encroaching; the rolling hills, peppered with wealthy estates, are lush with trees. The days are long, the temperatures high. Everything’s bright. It’s a region of extremes – extreme wealth, poverty, politics, violence, community, faith and family. Reality television has become a booming local business due to the outsize personalities found roaming the city’s 242 neighborhoods, NeNe Leakes, Joseline Hernandez and Waka Flocka Flame among them.
In a city of misfits, 23-year-old rapper Young Thug might be the most truly outre of them all. On a sweltering summer’s day, the Peach State’s eccentric new prince of rap stands in a deluxe rental mansion, wearing a fetishistic plastic tunic that declares ‘WARNING: EXPLICIT BEAUTY’. Switching up one diamond-encrusted bauble for a weed leaf pendant in between glugs of codeine-laced lean, he shares his style philosophy. “Me and Travi$ Scott tour our shit like a rodeo, so it isn’t about clothes,” Thug explains. “We played 29 shows, and I brought, like, 32 Balmains. I switch clothes every set. He don’t. That nigga wear the same shoes, boxers, pants, every fuckin’ day. I’m like, ‘Bro. Hell no. I’m a man. I have a girl. I have kids. My girl notice.’”
In hip hop, Thug’s knack for self- accessorising has earned him plenty of attention: on any given day, he could be wearing leopard-print dresses, pleather baby tees, miniskirts, circular Elton John sunglasses or draped, unconventional tunics. His personal style comes across one part rock star, two parts Cockette, with hints of hip hop mallrat and Venice Beach stoner dude rolled into one ceaselessly entertaining package.
“I was like, ‘This nigga is on another level,’” said Nicki Minaj last year after remixing Young Thug’s mixtape cut “Danny Glover”. “He’ll just say the most reckless shit.” In a recent interview, Thug claimed that Kanye West compared him to Bob Marley, even gifting him a pair of Yeezy Boost trainers from eBay, where they fetch a premium of $10k. For an artist with such a far-out attitude when it comes to dressing, it comes as a surprise when an altercation erupts over an outfit on set.
“Take it off!” a woman’s scream announces, bouncing off the mansion’s marble walls. It’s Amina, Thug’s sister and day-to-day manager, alarmed at the sight of her sibling in a grey tulle dress with tutu skirt by Molly Goddard.“TAKE THE TUTU OFF, NOW!” Thug shrugs – he’s already posed for the shot. It’s a rare disagreement between the rapper and his team, but one that neatly illustrates the crossroads moment his career is at.
Over the past four years, Thug’s wild style has accelerated his trajectory from a fringe psychedelic rapper to front-and-centre heir apparent to hip hop’s empire. On the back of his three-part mixtape series, I Came From Nothing, the dreadlocked dandy was taken under the wing of Cash Money exec Birdman to appear on his band Rich Gang’s “Lifestyle”, one of the most dominant hip hop anthems in years. At once stoned, nihilistic and celebratory, the single was a perfect storm, ushering in Young Thug as a force to be reckoned with, even as he narrated the alienating path he took in order to make it.
Could a figure as flamboyant as Thug ever have come from a city other than Atlanta? It’s questionable. Here, the come-up is real and wealth is flaunted in such an ostentatious way that taste often takes a backseat. The city's substantial gay population – Atlanta was ranked the fifth gayest city in the US by The Advocate in 2014, beating places like New York, Miami and San Francisco – breeds a refreshing attitude of tolerance. It’s also the centre of the universe when it comes to hip hop. Since the likes of TLC, Arrested Development and OutKast made it big in the 90s, the city of Atlanta has initiated a distinctive southern sound into the mainstream, its influence heard everywhere from Rihanna to Miley Cyrus.
“I honestly wouldn’t move,” says Thug of his town. “The people might make you leave, but I’m a people person.” It’s difficult to tell if he’s joking. Despite his outgoing personal style and off-the-wall lyrical hijinks, Thug has a curtness and standoffish disposition about him. He speaks softly in short, complete sentences, and is a fan of one-word answers when questioned. “How was your show in Nashville last night?” I ask. “Perfecto,” he replies. Each time he speaks more than five words, it feels like an astounding gift from the universe. But, depending on his mood, he can be quite open.
“I stayed in the ghetto,” he continues. “Then I stayed in condos, then I stayed in penthouses, and then I stayed in mansions. Why am I gonna move to LA or Miami? Atlanta is the number one place to live. You live better, you eat better, the rides are better, vehicles is better deals. It’s better people. More mean people, but at my level you want it to be about business, so it’s perfect for me. I’ve got a condo in Miami but I don’t live in it. That shit be rented out.”
The only music that I hear during my time with Young Thug is Young Thug. A seemingly endless stream of wild, unreleased tracks flood the room from his phone, like new single “Pacifier”, produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, and a solo take on Jamie xx’s irresistible “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”, on which he originally featured with Popcaan. “I did a whole song,” says Thug of the collaboration. “I sent it to (Jamie xx) and then he put another Jamaican guy on it. I want to meet them both. I was supposed to perform it at Coachella, but I missed, like, two or three planes. And I was like, ‘Awww.’ I don’t know what I was doin’.”
Now, Thug is releasing this version as his own single ahead of his imminently due debut album Hy!£UN35 (pronounced ‘HiTunes’), giving the track life on FM radio in the US that it would not otherwise have earned. His ability to cater to mainstream urban audiences and tastemakers alike will define the magnitude and staying power of his work – something that isn’t lost on Amina, whose sharpness and focus on the big picture is impressive.
“There are old-school bands here in Atlanta,” she reasons. “Earth, Wind & Fire? They come every single time and sell out Chastain Park in one second. They haven’t made a new song in, like, 50 years. I’m like, ‘Guys, how many times can you hear Earth, Wind & Fire?’ A million times. The music industry is about longevity. If you have diehard fans, it can sustain you for the rest of your life.”
Thug is already building a real estate portfolio, with a newly purchased mansion only a couple of blocks away. Even so, he’s got his eye on this one, and wastes no time talking prices with homeowner Amir, an imposing Persian impresario who has a habit of chain- smoking Cuban cigars.
“If you’re serious about it, I’ll sell it to you for three million, and I will show you the replacement value,” says Amir.
“If I wanted to buy it now, I wouldn’t give you the whole three,” replies Thug.
“Give me two and another million in a month,” says Amir, changing tack.
“I don’t make a million a month,” replies Thug. “But I will be, shortly.” He smiles, revealing a panoply of gold teeth.
“The main reason I want this house is because of the elevator.” Despite the kidney-shaped pool with a rock waterfall, the private movie theatre, home gym, sauna and indoor jacuzzi, the accoutrement Thug is clearly most taken with is a small service elevator that goes only to the second floor. His friends spend the best part of ten minutes ooh-ing and aah-ing over everything from the doors to the lighting to the five-second ascension upstairs. It’s bizarre.
As Amir quizzes him on family, Thug reveals he has six kids – a fair amount, considering he’s in his early 20s. Their ages? “Oldest is seven. Then it’s four, three, three, and...” Thug’s voice trails off.
“Three and three. You have twins?” asks Amir.
“Nope.” Thug smiles again, and everybody laughs.
“It takes (Wayne and Drake) so long to do a song. I understand why, because they want it to be perfect. But I can write a perfect song in ten minutes” – Young Thug
Born Jeff Williams in the tough lower-income neighbourhoods of South Atlanta, Thug was raised with ten siblings himself. “Six girls and five boys,” he says. “I’m the youngest boy. It was hard at times, especially where we come from. But it was amazing because a lot of people don’t have the immediate family we do. It was so much fun, you know?” Naturally, he says, his family are his biggest fans. “I didn’t finish school. I did everything stupid. So when they hear metaphors and good lyrics, they think, ‘Wow. How did you know that? Why did you think like that?’ They’re kind of my biggest fans because they know me better. It can be amazing to them.”
Many of Thug’s entourage turn out to be his siblings and cousins. One particularly spunky girl emerges from a carpeted, air-conditioned van holding a plastic cup filled with blue lean. “Stick with me,” she shouts. “I’ll give you that real shit that he won’t tell you. Remember my name: Dolly White. I’m starting my own management and production company.” Clearly, Thug’s drive is infectious: Ms White has already amassed around 40k followers on Instagram. With a couple of crucial shots still to take place, Amina suggests that we move the production to Thug’s house a few blocks away. “Do you have a jacuzzi?” asks Dazed’s photographer, Harley Weir. Thug dons an air of relaxed incredulity that comes across comically. “Yes,” he says. “Of course.”
A few left and right turns, up and down a few hills, and we are on course to Thug’s new mansion in the Londonberry neighbourhood nestled in the Atlanta hills. Along the way, a giant bag of black Burger King containers flies out of the driver’s-side window of Thugger’s white van, followed by an extra large Big Gulp cup. A couple of girls following in a convertible take this as a cue to litter as well, throwing out their own trash into the middle of the otherwise pristine street.
Thug’s new residence is a hip hop bachelor pad wet dream come true. Inside a grey, gabled house with a circular fountain in front of it, siblings and cousins splay themselves over a massive white leather sofa peppered with guns, eating orange and green pastel-coloured ice cream cones. The sweet treats neatly mirror Thug’s latest acquisition – an ice cream tattoo on his face in tribute to inked-up ATL icon and star of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Gucci Mane. Beneath the white mantle, where a frightening black assault rifle and silver handgun rest, a brutalist glass and concrete table in the centre of the room holds giant stacks of cash and a blunt. In the foyer are two giant, clear plastic bags filled with black-and-white stuffed tigers. “This room is black-and-white-themed,” says Thug when asked about the toys.
Along with his secret penchant for plushies, one of Thug’s most distinctive characteristics is his voice. With a sing-song style of rapping not dissimilar from his friend and collaborator Future, his intonations go from high-pitched squeals to deep gurgles, raspy, unintelligible mutterings, and cooing, breathless come-ons. Autotune is used intermittently for style, but its absence frequently reveals perfect pitch. Playfully layering his voice over itself, Thug’s reciting of onomatopoeic words often verges on an experimental form of percussion. On one new song, “Check”, taken from spring’s introspected Barter 6 tape, he repeatedly yells “SHEESH!” behind the chorus. I’m reminded of lo-fi recording pioneers like R Stevie Moore and Genesis P-Orridge, only rendered for urban top 40 radio.
“Is the album done?” I ask.
“Who worked on it?”
“Is it a departure from your mixtape?”
“Is it different?”
I ask him how he goes about writing songs. “I think as I go,” he says. “I can’t remember 16 bars. Unless you write it, you can’t. I just do it bar for bar. I did a song in eight minutes. I thought everybody could write songs that fast. But working with a lot of them, they don’t. Wayne and Drake, it takes them so long to do a song. I understand why, because they want it to be perfect. But I think I can do a perfect song in ten minutes. I did ‘Danny Glover’ in eight minutes. ‘Stoner’ took me almost an hour.”
His hubris doesn’t wash with everyone, though. “OOOOH! He used to get on my nerves,” says his mum, known colloquially as ‘Mama Duck’. Her modest one-storey home is a veritable shrine to the family’s prodigal son, with charcoal drawings of Young Thug and early mentor Gucci Mane on the walls, and a framed platinum record for “Lifestyle”, which bears an inscribed dedication to her. Today, Mrs Thug has a gold grill on her teeth and wears diamond ‘RICH GANG’ necklaces. She sits on a sofa, flanked by her daughter, niece and granddaughter. “That boy used to go around and bang on them walls. I had a friend with a studio, so I would let him go there to keep him off the streets and out of trouble. Jeff and my other son would go to write songs and rap and put them on CDs.”
“I always felt like I was gonna be the man. I guess that’s why I became it” – Young Thug
Mama Duck’s favourite Young Thug track is “OD” from Barter 6. Intended as a tribute to Thug’s former idol Lil Wayne, who announced he would retire after his still- to-be released Tha Carter V, Thug decided to carry the torch and release his record as Tha Carter VI. That didn’t go over well with Weezy, who issued a cease and desist. Thug eventually changed the title and accompanying artwork to a picture of himself nude, urinating on the album title. The saga took a dark new turn when an indictment was filed in June alleging Thug and Birdman’s involvement in a conspiracy to kill Wayne, whose tour bus was shot up in April. “(‘OD’) has all my kids’ names in it,” says Mama. “I notice he sings and talks a lot about his brother (Bennie). He passed when he was nine. I think he misses him a lot.” Recently, Thug bought his mother a house, but she is too tired to move in. “I went to his house and let me tell y’all something,” she says. “I went through three or four rooms, and they said, ‘Come upstairs.’ I made the first step and I said, ‘I ain’t going. Let me tell y’all something, child. You want me to come over, you’re gonna have to put in an escalator. I’m not gonna climb all these steps. Ain’t no way. I have an enlarged heart.’ I had, like, three heart attacks last year, back to back.”
In a flash, the mystery of Thug’s fascination with elevators is explained, his closeness with his family made endearingly apparent. It’s customary for Thug to drop money off at his mum’s house when he comes over for family dinners twice a week. Then again, at the climax of Thug’s triumphant first verse on “Lifestyle”, he says as much: “I got a moms, bitch / She got a moms, bitch / I got sisters and brothers to feed / I ain’t goin’ out like no idiot / I’m an OG.”
“I am very proud of him,” says Mama Duck, her eyes welling with tears. “No more struggling. No more worries.”
Back at Thug Towers the next day, it’s late afternoon and the man of the house is crouched over a power strip, charging a strange, shiny black object that he refers to as a “skateboard”. Amina sits on the sofa with her baby son, reading the instruction manual with a skeptical expression. It’s actually a Samsung lithium-powered electric drifting scooter, which will soon become a fixture on Thugger’s Instagram. The rapper wears slim-fitted black jersey trousers by Raf Simons, a keepsake from his shoot. Paired with immaculate Retro Air Jordans and hordes of gold and diamond- encrusted necklaces and rings, he looks ready to host an episode of MTV Cribs. A gigantic wad of cash rests in one of the small front pockets of his trousers, a silver handgun rests in the other. Dolly is braiding Thug’s peroxide dreads while he mixes a fresh batch of lean in two chilled plastic soda bottles, administering a fuchsia syrupy substance from a baby bottle into each. Two assault rifles rest on the sofa only inches away from Amina and the infant.
Currently, Thug is at a place Nicki Minaj famously described as “50k for a verse, no album out”, an amount he also charges to perform. Bookers and promoters are happy to pay in order to boast the attraction of having hip hop’s next big thing take to the stages of their venues, even if it loses them money.
“When you’re a real superstar, you can book shows,” says Thug. “You don’t have to wait around for somebody to call. You can’t ever just go broke.”
“He wants to do eight or ten shows before the tour,” says Amina, “but he’s supposed to be fixing his teeth.”
“We used to do four or five shows a week!” argues Thug.
“But you’re gonna do 30 shows!”
Thug jokes about his good friend Travi$ Scott, who he says will play for as low as seven grand, just as an excuse to perform. “He’s a real superstar, he could go out and get $100,000 for a show if he wanted to. But he don’t have a family. His mom has three kids and they’re all computer whizzes.” With a much larger clan to take care of, Thug’s work has become the family business. Maybe it’s cockiness, or maybe it’s the lean, but Thug doesn’t feel stressed about the dizzying turn his career is beginning totake.
“I always felt like I was gonna be the man,” he says. “I guess that’s why I became it. I always felt like I was gonna have money, even when I was young. If it’s something you want, you just keep going and strive for it. I always wanted this.”
Suddenly, a BMW i8 sportscar pulls into the drive and the door opens vertically, like a Lamborghini. Out steps a stunningly gorgeous, barefoot young woman in a bikini and a sheer pool cover-up.
“The hell you wearin’?” asks Thug, shaking his head. She shrugs.
“I’m Jerrika,” she says, smiling and taking my hand into hers. She’s the fiancee.
Later, as the sun sets, a monstrous chorus of chirping frogs surges from nowhere, like a biblical plague. Lightning bugs gleam and fade from the surrounding brush, and we retreat to
Thug’s bathroom to finally get a shot of him in the jacuzzi. Submerged in a bubble bath in front of a stained glass window (in Ed Marler silk boxer shorts), the rapper appears angelic in his domain. He plays a new song from his upcoming album off his phone, connected via bluetooth to a Beats By Dre pill speaker. It’s a ballad, possibly a love song, and he stares at Jerrika while he sings along to himself. I can’t understand a single word of it, and it’s beautiful.
Hy!£UN35 is out on September 24
In cover image Young Thug wears plastic top Walter Van Beirendonck, jersey trousers and leather cuff Raf Simons, jewellery his own. Grooming Courtney Perkins, props Deidra Tyree Smith, photographic assistant Jessica Silva, fashion assistant Erin Doster, on-set production Amanda Bertany, special thanks Jordan Motors, Karen Tauches
Subscribe to Dazed magazine here or pick up your copy from newsstands now