Young Thug speaks an intuitive and inimitable language, his vocal textures and contortions expressive, with word-choice oscillating between tactile adlibs and disarmingly candid introspections. Defying rapper stereotypes, Thugger’s more of a Pokemon. His exotic style adapts with a musical output that is a kind of perpetual training, a single-minded goal of stretching his horizons and evolving. It’s a style that’s pocketable in its familiarity yet reliably summonable into any environment, an unfailing adhesion when he stamps his name on any sound. With his new NPR Tiny Desk performance, Young Thug reminds us of all this and introduces his new incantation: an open-hearted, pink, punk-rocker.
The first four tracks of the performance, a couple of which were also debuted at his recent Rolling Loud set, are unreleased cuts off Young Thug’s forthcoming album, Punk, with a 15th October release date. Thugger teased the album a couple years ago. Speaking to The FADER at the time, he explained what the title means to him: “Punk means brave, not self centred, conscious. Very, very neglected, very misunderstood. Very patient, very authentic.” Explaining his desire to make others feel less alone with the project, he said: “I just want to open up. Let people know that I’m not just a rapper, I’m a human being. Let people know whatever they go through, I done been through or somebody done been through it. Those are the things that make people grow. People that want to commit suicide, you might give them another chance.”
The Tiny Desk performance opens with the soft, pensive electric guitar picks and soothing backing-vocals of ‘Die Slow’. Young Thug stands centre-stage in a lavish fairy light and pink flora adorned garden, sporting pink dreads, rose-tinted glasses, and a vest, the two guitarists on either side of him wearing the all-pink album merch. The mixing and cinematography are immediately impressive, the live vocals and instrumentation blending seamlessly with the backing and the camera work making the concert feel like a film. But keeping to Tiny Desk form, the performance does not feel overly manicured. The intimate and confessional tone set by ‘Die Slow’ is expanded when Young Thug naturally breaks his verse following the line, “Got to fightin' with the Deputy sheriff, I almost lost my mother”, to recount, in his elastic speech, a story of familial domestic violence, ending in his mother being run over and suffering from a stroke. The track is a vulnerable expression of Thugger’s insecurities – his desire to be closer to God, to protect his brother from prison – and his discovery of inspiration in-spite of adversity as he grew up – his environment and his skin colour presented to him as a condition upon his success. The following track, ‘Dropping Jewels’, continues the mellow vibe as Young Thug is accompanied by an eccentric-looking drummer with hair half blue half pink. The track has a conviction to it, a palpable wisdom in the lyrics describing the principled aspects to Young Thug’s ethos – his lofty, echoing vocals in the chorus sing: “Show me that I'm done, I'm finished here, but still no fear”. He sums up his new decidedly introspective direction, in a particular ‘jewel’ he drops on the verse: “You gotta go through this shit with your heart, you can't snooze on it.”
The remainder of the Tiny Desk takes a more light-hearted angle. On ‘Hate the Game’, Young Thug celebrates his indulged, winning lifestyle, having started “from the dust”. The track follows a classic rock build, ending with both guitarists shredding as they rhythmically body-rock and lean back into limbo stances. ‘Tick Tock’ starts off what sounds like a more playful version of the horns off ‘Hot’ – the breakout hit from Young Thug’s last solo album. This leads into a nice call and response with the electric guitars, the horn refrain being mimicked in the pink dudes’ shredding. Young Thug’s typical charisma is written all over the lyrics. In a moment of impressive breath control, he effortlessly delivers a series of tightly packed bars reiterating the adversities he’s had to rise above, ending with “But Saint Laurent still tryna cease-and-desist me”. Again, the band’s animated, passionate playing embroiders rather than eclipses the casual, warm disposition radiating from Young Thug.
The last performance on the Tiny Desk is a rock rendition of the Slime Language 2 hit, ‘Ski’. Young Thug is joined by Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, as the illuminated set takes a climactic atmosphere against the surrounding darkness of sundown. The band give it their all with Travis’ wild drumming stealing focus by the song’s close. With Young Thug turned to face him, a shot of the back of his vest ends the Tiny Desk, the pop art style lettering of the Punk album logo hanging above its scheduled release date – a reminder that a complete project from Punk Thug is not far off. Many rappers have tried the rock-rap angle in the past, but few have pulled it off. But if anyone could, it would most certainly be Young Thug, an artist with versatility and creativity coursing through his veins, who sounds just as good partnered with Travis Scott as he does with Travis Barker.
Watch Young Thug's NPR Tiny Desk performance: