Young Thug on Punk: New Album, YSL Plans, Sharing the Wealth

Young Thug stands swaddled in a blue Versace bathrobe. We’re inside a lounge on the

Young Thug stands swaddled in a blue Versace bathrobe. We’re inside a lounge on the fifth floor of a luxurious building in downtown Atlanta, where the team of realtors that just sold Thug a house have presented him with the lavish garment as a gesture of gratitude. Buying property is a complicated dance: Sign here, double-sign there, transfer oodles of money here. A gift exchange helps break up the monotony.

The house in question is a birthday present for Thug’s mother. Known to friends and family as Big Duck, she raised 11 kids, mostly on her own; Thug, born Jeffery Lamar Williams, was number 10. He tells me one of the first things he did when he became famous was buy her a car. A few years later, on his 26th birthday, he gifted her $50,000 in cash. Now, he’s decided to go a step further, purchasing a sprawling property about an hour outside of Atlanta. “When you come from where we come from — when you make it, it’s all about extravagance,” says the 29-year-old rap star. “It’s all about what you can do.”

By now, Young Thug can do a lot. He’s responsible for some of the past year’s biggest records, pandemic be damned. Slime & B, his collaborative effort with Chris Brown, arrived in the midst of nationwide lockdowns in the spring of 2020, but managed to spend almost a whole year on the charts. Meanwhile, Thug’s YSL Records imprint has become one of the strongest brands in rap music. The label commands a level of respect reminiscent of Bad Boy or No Limit in the Nineties. YSL’s most recent compilation, Slime Language 2, featured appearances from superstars like Drake, Travis Scott, and Lil Baby, along with Thug, Gunna, and the label’s other top talent; it debuted at Number One this past April to the surprise of approximately nobody. Now, Thug is readying Punk, his second studio album, which is set to be released on October 15th. Thug says it’s more connected to real situations in his life, and to the people who surround him each day.

Photograph by Jackie Nickerson for Rolling Stone. Hair styled by Morgan Mills. Set design by Bette Adams for MHS Artists. Makeup by Holly Silius for R3 MGMT. Tailoring by Diana Aghajanyan. Styled by Bobby Wesley. Shirt by Balenciaga. Pants by Monfrere. Jewelry by Rafaello & Co.

Earlier that afternoon, Thug arrived at the real estate closing with a handful of his family members. He dressed casually, in a silk work shirt, slim blue trousers, and a forest-green snapback from the streetwear emporium Concepts. His dreadlocks were a vibrant blond (he’ll dye them pink a few weeks later) and draped neatly beneath his hat. Thug, who is known to love extravagant jewelry, also wore a custom Audemars Piguet Royal Oak watch on his wrist and had several diamond chains guarding his chest. An impossibly large purple stone sat atop a pinky ring on his right hand, which might as well have been superglued to the Styrofoam cup that never seemed too far from his grasp.

Inside, Thug greets a pint-size nephew like a peer. Scientists believe babies’ brains are in a constant state of psychedelic wonder, which might explain how naturally the two seem to communicate. It could also be the thick sense of joy in the air. Thug has often spoken in broad strokes about his childhood: How he grew up in Atlanta public housing. How violence and poverty engulfed his adolescence. How, as the title to his first mixtape puts it, he came from nothing. He couldn’t be further from all of that now. Today, he only knows abundance.

The small, celebratory function is replete with catering, which star-struck guests peck at and nibble on. The lender on the deal is a handsome and well-kept man with the look of someone you might see on the cover of a Black entrepreneurs’ magazine. (We talk briefly about whether or not I have plans to buy a home. I don’t.) He introduces Thug to his son, a 13-year-old aspiring rapper, and it’s like something out of a movie: Being John Malkovich, but about Young Thug. The lender’s progeny sports blond dreads — shorter than Thug’s, perhaps thanks to the deficit of years he’s had to grow them — plus skinny jeans, a gray hoodie, and a red-and-white trucker hat, his hair similarly tucked. Thug greets him with a warm smile.

 

The kid wouldn’t be the first or even the 10,000th miniature Young Thug out there. As he nears the end of his twenties, Thug seems more like an adult member of Gen Z than a rap elder. He was an anomaly to the rap world when he arrived, but today he is the blueprint for a generation. You can hear it in the chirpy mumbles of Playboi Carti, or in the emotional sensibility of Lil Uzi Vert, or in the melodic ethos of Mooski’s recent hit “Track Star,” which one of Thug’s friends hums along to when I meet him after the real estate signing. None of this has come as a surprise to Thug, who tells me he expected people to follow him from the start: “I literally knew that people were going to do what I do, because it’s cool, I’m fire.”

Over the past decade, Thug has refigured the contours of hip-hop and pop music at large. He’s released a dizzying catalog since 2011’s I Came From Nothing, the first in a trilogy of mixtapes that captured the attention of Atlanta’s buzzing 2010s rap scene like few others. Back then, Thug rapped something like Lil Wayne in his prime — except that if Wayne was giving off-the-dome dispatches from Mars, Thug’s came from a yet-to-be-discovered universe outside our own. Following the I Came From Nothing tapes was 1017 Thug, which featured the vocally acrobatic “Nigeria,” where Thug raps like he’s balancing marbles on his tongue, rhyming “Siberia” and “Nigeria” to spellbinding effect.

Thug’s 2014 single “Stoner” introduced him to the mainstream, becoming his first song to reach the Hot 100. The single illustrates Thug’s appeal in a nutshell. He raps in emotionally textured vibrations instead of words, which might sound absurd until you hear it. Each verse seems to find Thug’s delivery growing more viscous. He manages to pour out the phrase “I feel like Fabo,” and convey exactly what that might feel like, never mind the general public’s lack of familiarity with Atlanta rap lore.

So far, Thug has released 19 mixtapes, three EPs, 21 singles, two compilation albums, and one proper studio album. His audience might even be a tad spoiled thanks to the pace of his early releases, when he was known to drop multiple album-worthy projects in the same year. The mythology of that period is enshrined in the way fans tend to think of Thug in terms of eras — little epochs of Thuggian magic. According to one popular illustration, there are 12 Young Thug eras, each typified by a daring aesthetic departure.

With Punk, he’s ushering in a new moment. The songs I hear from the album are unlike anything Thug has released. His manager tells me Thug recorded a track with the working title “Die Slow” a few years ago, at a hotel in Italy, providing the spark for the rest of the album. The song is something like a spoken-word poem. It features Thug describing his surroundings in literary terms over a mix of gentle trap drums and Nirvana-esque guitars. “I actually did good, only drank a pint this whole tour,” he confesses on the song. Thug’s ability to use his voice as an instrument of emotion is made more poignant when it’s turned inward. Here, he’s reflective, revealing an unsurprisingly perceptive interiority. He reminisces about high school (“My coach told me I was slow, but I was moving at a fast pace”) and he offers a sobering commentary on race (“They say you poor cuz you Black, right to your face”).

Young Thug photographed in Los Angeles, California, in July 2021. Coat by Lanvin. Shirt by Marni. Jewelry by Rafaello & Co.

Jackie Nickerson for Rolling Stone.

What’s most apparent on Thug’s new songs is the clarity in his voice. He’s spent his career translating the unintelligible, making audiences feel what they couldn’t speak. On Punk, he’s found a way to convey the rich emotional gradients of his vibe in words. A track titled “Droppin Jewels” finds Thug at his most articulate. It features lush pianos that give the intricacies of his voice a worthy spotlight. Thug can sing. Like, really sing. He can rap, too, of course. The song features classic Thug bars that’ll stop you in your tracks. At one point, he raps: “I just hopped out that ghost, I been driving a dead body.”

“You can’t learn how to keep inventing. You just keep learning how to keep learning,” Thug tells me later. “What’s in you is in you. There is not any way I can tell you — I just do what I do. I don’t even fucking know I’m doing it.”

 

A day after he buys his mom a house, I’m scheduled to meet Thug at his studio, near Atlanta’s residential Loring Heights neighborhood. His manager seems hopeful that he’ll be working on the album. By 3 a.m., everyone at the studio is wide awake. Rappers roam the premises like excited teenagers at a high-school party; a still-burning Backwoods sizzles on a table in the booth, its aroma mingling with a lit candle near the mic stand. Across a clear, soundproof window is the control room, where a flatscreen TV is playing the 2011 rom-com The Change-Up. At least a dozen people are there, paying no mind as Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman switch lives on screen. Young Thug is nowhere to be seen.

Later on, with The Change-Up long over, word arrives that Thug wants to talk upstairs. I find him holding court with a handful of longtime friends, playing poker on a pool table under a cloud of weed smoke. Thug is wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, skinny leather pants, and Rick Owens Doc Martens. His thick blond dreads now peek out of a backward trucker hat, while a stack of hundreds that would easily change my life dangles from his back pocket.

The first thing one learns upon meeting Young Thug is that he has a million-dollar smile. It arrives like a flash of lightning as he gestures at the empty seat next to him. “We can do the interview right here,” he says.

In between bites of takeout food, with the game still very much in progress, he tells me that he’s only been playing poker seriously for about two weeks. He decides what he likes to play based on which game he’s winning, and tonight he’s emptying wallets. “The rich get richer,” one player jokes as the pile of twenties, fifties, and hundreds in front of Thug grows.

Thug is as playful and mischievous at poker as he is at rapping. Soon after I take my seat next to him, he jumps from his chair to sneak a look at another player’s cards. Thug, who stands at six-feet-three, hovers over a burly gentleman in a white T-shirt referred to as “Big Boy.” The other guy tries to hide his cards, but not before the Grammy-winning musician can catch a glimpse of a strong hand and decide it’s time to fold. “OK, get your money, boy,” he says in a cadence that’s nearly as experimental as one of his otherworldly choruses.

I ask Thug if he sees any similarities between rapping and gambling. He says he’s addicted to both.

“You know what?” he proclaims, growing animated. “If I had a lawn service and I made the money that I got right now, I’d retire. If I had the money that I got right now from any other thing, I’d retire. I got enough money just to chill. I can’t retire from rap music, I like rap too much.”

 

When I ask Thug if he listens to any other kind of music, he says he listens to “fucking pop-star music.” He says he also listens to jazz. Most importantly, he listens to “sounds, but not actual words.” He recently collaborated with Elton John on a project that no one involved is at liberty to say much more about, and the songs on Punk sound decidedly experimental, including one (tentatively titled “Hate the Game”) that’s a bona fide pop-punk banger.

One of his favorite songs is “RiRi,” from his 2016 mixtape Jeffery. (“Jeffery is like a more thoughtful person,” he says of his alter ego.) The track finds him in a universe of his own making. The beat, by YSL’s in-house producer Wheezy, gallops triumphantly. There are familiar trap drums and high-hats, but they arrive augmented by a sparkling loop reminiscent of championship sports soundtracks. Thug is particularly skilled at translating those types of intangible vibes. His imagination seems nonlinear. The track is titled for its resemblance to Rihanna’s “Work,” and Thug sings with intuition, allowing his cadence to communicate. “If you want it, you gotta earn it,” he hymns, before reinventing syllables in real time. “You gotta earn it, you gotta earn-earn-earn-earn-earn-earn it.”

There’s a case for Thug’s other favorite song, “Family Don’t Matter,” from his underrated 2017 Beautiful Thugger Girls mixtape, to have been included on country music charts. Here, he modifies his delivery for a viable version of what one might describe as a country voice, intoning bars like “I was gettin’ protected by my savages” with the vocal affect of Garth Brooks. This kind of juxtaposition is at the core of Thug’s brilliance. He genuinely doesn’t care. So when he decides to drop a mixtape of “country-trap,” one where he raps “Country Billy made a couple milli’/Tryna park the Rolls Royce inside the Piccadilly,” as if he were Billy Ray Cyrus, it works.

Thug’s approach has always been this unapologetic. As he was coming up, it wasn’t uncommon for him to give interviews where he offered unfiltered opinions about other rappers. He trolled his muse, Lil Wayne, by naming a mixtape Barter 6. (A barrage of bullets mysteriously made their way toward Wayne’s tour bus around this time, though Thug strongly maintained he had nothing to do with it.) In 2016, he posed for a Calvin Klein campaign where he refuted the existence of gender. That same year, at the VFiles runway show in New York, he paused the festivities to adjust a model’s clothes.

Underneath that devil-may-care ethos is a perhaps covert political sensibility. More than offering some sort of corrective to stereotypes about Black men from rough neighborhoods, Thug manages to widen the lens. Beautiful Thugger Girls is a mixtape full of acoustic, country-sounding ballads in which he raps about guns, drugs, and women in equal measure. Early in his career, outsize attention was given to questions about his sexuality — he’s been known to wear dresses and skinny jeans and call his male friends “love.” Without even trying, Thug is able to refract the public’s confusion with him and point it right back at them. He plays with gender and masculinity (“I’ma username, like who is he?” on Drake’s “Sacrifices”) while at the same time extolling its excesses (“Hop up inside that pussy like a trampoline, boing boing” on “Raw”).

Being at the center of pop culture suits Thug, who at one point tells me he is also addicted to Number One records. In its first week, Slime Language 2 garnered as many streams as Taylor Swift’s rerecorded version of Fearless. The cover of the project features 14 artists from YSL, posed regally in a palatial living room, looking not unlike the fictional scions of Succession. Thug, like his mentor Gucci Mane before him, has an undeniable eye for talent, and the confidence to back it. “If I have 100 artists, at least 97 or 98 of them going to prosper,” he tells me. “That’s just the look we got, you know what I’m saying?”

Consider “Ski,” the viral dance-ready single from Slime Language 2. Unlike Drake’s less impactful “Toosie Slide,” Thug managed to harness the power of a catchy song and dance to pitch-perfect effect. The beat has the type of hard-hitting drums that made “Hot,” from 2019’s So Much Fun, a banger. Vocally, Thug flutters. There’s an added gentleness to his guttural delivery. And he remains as devilishly clever as ever. “Lamb chop, I just pulled up in some food,” he raps. Gunna’s contribution to the track seals the deal. Both have an understanding of language that’s unmoored from anyone else rapping right now, and together they build something wholly original.

Even with a roster of developing talent, Thug makes it a point to give his artists space to develop. “Everybody grown,” he says. “I got them, but it ain’t nothing like I’m going to sleep thinking that I got to raise them. I just got to help.”

Coat by Lanvin. Shirt and pants by Marni. Jewelry by Rafaello & Co.

Jackie Nickerson for Rolling Stone.

Raised in the Jonesboro South housing projects in South Atlanta, Young Thug played football in high school, and he maintains an astonishing number of childhood friends today. He has six children, with four different women, and remains devoted to each of them.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of loyalty in his life. For most of his career, he’s been quietly fighting a legal battle on behalf of his older brother, who raps under the name Unfoonk — a name that can be heard ad-libbed across a number of Thug’s early tracks. Unfoonk was sentenced to life on charges that Thug doesn’t specify and served 11 years before being released in October 2019, after Thug was finally able to invest money to help Unfoonk beat the case. Shortly after that, Unfoonk signed with YSL. He’s there in the group shot on the cover of Slime Language 2, and he and Thug appear together on “Real,” a somber ballad about love and loyalty. A talented artist, Unfoonk has an affecting croon, more decipherable than Thug’s untethered warble, but a clear heir to the emotive delivery that’s made his younger brother a mainstay in music.

When we meet, Thug’s Instagram profile photo has been a picture of his sibling for several weeks. He is determined to help Unfoonk, who stands a solid foot shorter than his younger brother, every way that he can. “That’s loyalty. That’s all it is, loyalty and love,” Unfoonk says when I reach him a few days later over the phone. “That’s the best way I can describe it.”

Unfoonk tells me that it was clear Thug would become a star, even when they were kids. “The boy is smart, man,” he says. “The boy is a real genius. He’s very intelligent.”

Still, violence was part of their world. When Thug was just a kid, another one of his older brothers was killed in front of their house over a gambling dispute. (This makes his present gambling habit especially troubling to his mother, who doesn’t want to see another one of her children perish.) Unfoonk took it upon himself to keep Thug out of trouble as best he could. “We used to just run around doing all types of things. I used to try and steer him away from the street life,” he says. “I used to run in the streets, and he would try to follow me. I’d be like, ‘No, bro. Go to the house.’ He always used to want to be around me.”

As a testament to Thug’s determination, his brother recalls a time when they were kids and a pint-size Thug tried to do a backflip for the first time. “The man flipped five times and landed right on his face,” Unfoonk remembers. “He ain’t even know how to do a backflip. But he got right up. I’m like, ‘Bro, you just crazy, bro.’”

It’s hard to imagine Thug ever staying down for too long. He is clearly guided by an understanding of how impossible it is for all but a fraction of a percentile of people to make it out of the circumstances he’s lived through. He thinks a lot about paying something he calls “life’s fees.” I ask him what that means. “You know, just reaping what you sow,” he says. “That’s life fees. Karma.” He describes himself as a spiritual person: “Yeah, of course. I don’t go to church, though, but I’m probably more spiritual than a motherfucker in church.”

That spirit comes through in a commitment to giving. One of the most common headlines associated with Thug is his sharing large sums of cash and gifts with his friends. He gave Gunna four watches as a get-well present after the rapper was recently hospitalized. He gave Lil Keed a Mustang for his birthday. He’s given countless pieces of jewelry and cars to friends and associates — just search YouTube for “Young Thug gift.”

Thug explains his generosity as a matter of simple math. “Now listen, if you pick and choose who you give something to, it’s too much to worry about,” he says. “If it’s 100,000 people and you give 2,000 people something, you holding these people out.”

The answer is clear to him: “I’ma give 100,000 people something — whoever,” he adds. “I overdo what’s right, you get it? That’s what’s different about me.”

 

Thug tells me that the pandemic gave him something valuable: time to think about things in the world that he might not have otherwise, all of them informing his upcoming album. “With Punk I tapped into more real world,” he says. “I’m just rapping more about life situations, because I had time to sit down and actually reflect and think.”

Another word for it might be “empathy.” Thug says he’s found an enlightened perspective on the women in his life. “You start to see shit from your girl’s point of view, because you always had your girl in the house locked up. We never actually felt what it would be like to be locked in the house ourselves.”

Instead of touring, a big part of Young Thug’s quarantine year was getting into video games, which he sometimes will play with one of his sons. “Now I’m in this motherfucker changing the passwords on my sign-in,” he says, laughing. “I done got so fucking tied into video games, I’m telling my son, ‘Don’t touch my fucking controller, bro.’ This shit crazy.”

He could see himself getting more into Twitch, the livestream gaming platform increasingly popular with young musicians. “Not for residuals, but just to fucking interact with people,” Thug says, “I talked to so many niggas on Call of Duty, shit’s crazy. Just bored. ‘Hey, what’s up, what you got going, bro?’”

As he talks about it, you can tell Young Thug really did not like quarantine. He compares the pandemic to prison, a circumstance he knows too much about: “Prison is the worst thing, but being in the house not being able to do nothing — and you can die from air!?”

And he has reason to take health seriously. Last April, during a livestream benefit concert, Thug revealed a recent brush with death. In the video, he turns somber for a moment, telling the story of when he lost most of the feeling in his body.

“I kinda just stayed in the bed and I was like, ‘Yo, call the ambulance. I can’t move my body,’” he says to the camera. “Then later, when the ambulance came, I couldn’t get out of the bed. They had to get me out of the bed, basically. I felt like my whole body was numb and I couldn’t move. I went to the hospital and I had found out that I had liver and kidney failure. And I kinda had sorta passed away, like I kinda died.”

It’s unclear what caused Thug’s organs to shut down, though he ended his performance with a not-so-subtle message: “Drugs aren’t good, don’t do drugs.”

Back in the studio, he evades giving any specifics about his health scare — or possibly he’s just focused on the poker game. But he offers simple wisdom when I ask him what his biggest lesson of the past year has been. “I think it’s just a lesson for everybody,” he says, “to just let you know that shit’s real, you know? Life is real.”

Jewels by Holly Silius for R3 MGMT.

Jackie Nickerson for Rolling Stone.

Music isn’t all Thug has on his plate these days. It was recently announced that he’ll make his acting debut in the Tiffany Haddish-produced musical drama Throw It Back. He’s also putting in time on his clothing line, Sp5der, whose name he shouts out at the start of most of his newer releases. The company’s name comes from when he was a kid, climbing the walls of the housing project he grew up in. Naturally, Thug says he is his own favorite fashion designer, and he has big plans for the label as the world reopens and gets back to normal.

I ask if he plans to approach the professional lifestyle of rappers like Kanye West or Jay-Z, for whom music sometimes seems a secondary concern. He offers his response before I can finish my sentence: “Yeah, I want to be the richest Black man in the world.”

Outside his studio, the parking lot is brimming with lavish cars and expensive jewelry — a tableau of hip-hop’s capitalist excesses but also of a sort of radical generosity. I notice a young man, no older than 21, fiddling behind the wheel of a Lamborghini, an “oh shit” smile plastered across his face. There’s no telling where he got the car, but it’s a pleasant thought, imagining how many people are grinning behind the wheel of a sports car right now thanks to Young Thug and his philosophy of “overdoing” the right thing. If he does indeed become the richest Black man in the world, he might be the first truly benevolent billionaire to ever exist.

Back inside around 5 a.m., I ask Thug what his favorite thing about Atlanta is. He says it’s the hospitality. Atlanta is known, like many Southern cities, to possess an innate sense of generosity. It’s also home to America’s highest rate of income inequality, second only to San Juan, Puerto Rico: According to Bloomberg, the bottom 20 percent of people in Atlanta make an average annual income of $9,400, while the top 20 percent make more than $256,000 a year. Thug’s hometown is experiencing some of the worst gentrification in the country — it was the fourth-fastest gentrifying city in the U.S. between 2000 and 2014. Throughout the city, demolition sites loom ominously.

About a decade ago, Atlanta became the first city in the country to have demolished all of its housing projects, despite being one of the first cities in the country to introduce public housing in the first place. The projects where Thug grew up, where he busted his ass trying to do a backflip, and where he used to climb between the walls like a spider, were torn down in 2008. He tells me his family was among the last residents in the building, holding out against the forces of financialization.

At the real estate signing, I noticed Thug hunched over a laptop as another broker showed him another property: a 40-acre plot way outside of the city. When Thug repeated the acreage, the number left his mouth like a missile: “Forty!?”

Now, at the poker table, as the sun begins its daily ascent, Thug lets himself brag a little. “We doing some more shit,” he says, casually, as he counts his winnings. “I just closed on the house, shit got 40 acres. Closed on that shit today.”

I ask if he’s familiar with the term “40 acres and a mule,” a post-Civil War promise America made to give land and livestock to former slaves as reparations. He hadn’t heard of it.

“Oh, wow,” Young Thug says and keeps counting.