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Review: Young Thug Is ‘Up’ for Whatever With New Mixtape

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: February 5, 2016
Label: 300 Entertainment/Atlantic

The video for “F Cancer (Boosie),” the first single from Young Thug’s latest mixtape offering, I’m Up, is the best kind of fever dream. The skeletal Atlanta rapper spills out of an ambulance in pink scrubs and $30,000 in jewelry. A bored nurse follows an empty gurney into an empty McMansion, no hospital. Eventually, Boosie shows up — the song opens, “Hey, f**k cancer / Shout out to Boosie,” in reference to the Baton Rouge cult hero’s kidney-cancer diagnosis. He’s ready for treatment, which comes in the form of colorful furs and a silly stringed-out house party that recalls MTV Spring Break circa 2003.

The truth is that other than that opening line, neither Thug — nor Quavo from Migos, who guests on the song — return to Baton Rouge or hospital rooms. “F Cancer” spirals wildly away from its thesis, as is the case with most of Thug’s best work. The visuals alternately rip the song away from its intended context and loop back around to it: If you watch closely, all of the Actavis and foreigns of all variety are in service of Boosie’s rehabilitation. (And another line, “I got a bunch of wings surrounding my body,” takes on a new life when he raps it while bouncing around a private plane hangar.) As he says later in the song, “My life a video, I’ma let you caption it.”

When I’m Up works, it does so in the same manner as “Cancer”: by coming unmoored from reality, then hopping back up through the rabbit hole to real life. “King TROUP,” ostensibly about Keith Troup, who was killed in Atlanta earlier this winter in a still-unsolved shooting, pays tribute to him and his son and has Thug warbling through vocal filters, “Stop… stop the killing.” But it also spools out in a million different directions — slow-moving Porsches and naked women waiting in hotel rooms.

Thug’s greatest gift as a writer and a vocalist is his ability to re-contextualize all of those things to fit his chosen atmosphere. It’s why “Lifestyle” had that creeping sadness, it’s why on “Pacifier” he was able to make a focused, cogent point despite essentially scatting in the hook. On I’m Up, “King TROUP” is followed in the excellent middle third by the Lil Durk-featuring “Ridin,” in which a ceaseless string of threats are injected with a heavy dose of dread.

That darker end of the spectrum is rounded out by the masterful “Hercules,” a Metro Boomin-produced tour de force that was first released late last year, and the closer “Family,” which sees two of Thug’s sisters rapping alongside him — and possibly taking oblique shots at Future, with whom Thug has been trading barbs on Twitter for a week now. (I’m Up came out the day we were supposed to get Slime Season 3, which Thug’s camp says is coming later this month; he announced the switch just an hour after Future unveiled his second full-length record in as many months.)

Occasionally, the tape falters. Though Thug and Trouble have always had exceptional chemistry, “My Boys” — which also features Ralo and Durk — is formless and aimless. Fortunately, it’s followed by I’m Up’s most exciting, confounding song: the Wheezy-produced “For My People,” which sounds like a footwork/calypso mashup that soaked in rainwater for two days. Duke uses “Farrakhan” as a verb.

I’m Up is not a major work in Thug’s catalog. It’s brief and feels disconnected at the beginning and end, and for the most part doesn’t exercise his considerable chorus-crafting muscles. But it’s a fascinating creative time capsule, and feels like a welcome detour during a hugely prolific four-year period. Last spring, when more than a hundred demos and previously unheard songs were dumped unceremoniously onto the Internet, it became clear that that April’s Barter 6 had likely been an attempt to preempt the leak; September’s Slime Season made use of many of those songs that had been heard in a half-finished state. (Even “Pacifier,” which was intended to be Thug’s big summer single, was well over a year old when it officially dropped.)

This new record joins Slime Season 2 as the material that best expresses where Thug is at creatively at the beginning of 2016, and where he might go next: a sound that is sometimes faster and more skittering (“F Cancer,” “For My People”) but otherwise conflicted and paranoid, as in the tape’s middle third. Where most people have long expected his retail debut to be bursting at the seams with potential crossover singles, Thug might be circling his most pained, personal material yet.