Perhaps the last Atlanta street-rap mixtape that brought to mind the sounds of a college quad on a summer Friday afternoon was Rich Homie Quan’s If You Ever Think I Will Stop Goin’ In Ask Double R, back in 2015. The second half of Quan’s overstuffed project, which most notably boasted his solo hit “Flex,” was punctuated by acoustic guitar strumming and conga drums that seemed borrowed from the playbook of O.A.R., as well as turn-of-the-millennium Latin-explosion pop music. The most glaring example of this was Quan’s “Set It Off,” helmed by the then-breakout ATL producer Wheezy: a somber, melodic ballad based around some earnest, “It’s Been Awhile”-esque chording.
That same year, Wheezy’s uniquely gutted-sounding beats (absent guitars this time) would define the sound of Barter 6, Young Thug’s first full-length commercial release and strongest mission statement. Wheezy, now a proven master of economy and atmosphere, is now back defining the conditions of Thug’s musical universe on the rapper’s newest commercial release, Beautiful Thugger Girls, on which the producer serves as co-executive producer. The beats he has corralled together, with the help of fellow project heads London on da Track and (for some reason) Drake, make the anomalies of that Rich Homie Quan tape look like mere embryonic visions of a future, ruminative take on trap music. The results are something to behold. In its sonic specificity and imaginativeness, Beautiful Thugger Girls makes for Thug’s most unified project since Barter 6, mixing a more direct aim at crossover hits with the same inspired flights of stylistic fancy that have characterized his patchy but always-imaginative releases over the past two years.
The reference point for Beautiful Thugger Girls’ boomy strums and gentler cooing feels tied to reference points outside of the “country music” the album was identified with on arrival, thanks to a “yeehaw”-punctuated Instagram teaser snippet. Instead, something like Thug’s sole collaboration with Frank Ocean, a remix of “Slide on Me” from Endless, more accurately encapsulates the DNA of Beautiful Thugger Girls’ singular sound. On that song, Ocean and Thug pit wispy curlicues of melody against melancholic fingerpicking before a beat that sounds like a decelerated version of a Metro Boomin drum loop is dialed in, changing the song’s emphasis entirely. The juxtaposition between acoustic guitar and bare-bones Southern rap drum sounds is key to several of Thugger Girls’ best musical moments. As on Blonde, guitars are presented as flexible things–sometimes intimate and dry, sometimes fed through more weird effects chains than the hi-hats spluttering on top of them. They can either be salves accommodating emotional honesty (“Me or Us,” featuring a loose Bright Eyes interpolation by guest guitarist Post Malone, who knows a little something about “country”-rap), playful, alien-sounding, spidery things (the sped-up flamenco flourishes of “You Said”), or the sound of unadulterated relaxation (the early-‘00s-Santana detailing on “For Y’all”).
All these contrasts are present on the opening track, “Family Don’t Matter,” which boasts both the record’s most tender and most absurd moments. The first thing you hear on the album is the whirlwind sound of a backwards acoustic, which eventually about-faces into a strum-along about the joys of Xanax, designer clothes, and dog-sitting. It has the arc of a Lumineers anthem, culminating in a stomping power chorus invested with a passion for love and companionship. And yet, Thug happily retains his goofiness by leaning into a sudden bayou swampiness: “Country Billy made a couple milli,” he raps with an exaggerated twang. “Tryna park the Rolls Royce inside the Piccadilly.” As usual, Thug refuses to paint himself into a corner.
Thug vacillates between extremes of vulnerability and grotesqueness through the album, both musically and lyrically. There’s plenty of wheedled and growled phraseology in the vein of past experiments like Jeffery’s “Harambe” or Slime Season 3’s “Drippin.’” But there’s just as much balmy and tuneful melodic writing, too. “She Wanna Party” is an unusually well-groomed Young Thug song, borrowing a strain of the culminating melody from Ty Dolla $ign and YG’s “Toot It and Boot It” to result in one of the albums’ most explicitly romantic (and, inevitably, explicit as hell) tracks. “Do U Love Me” capitalizes on rap and pop’s current fascination with dancehall, making it the album’s clearest candidate for the potential crossover solo hit that has mostly evaded Thug for his entire career to date.
But even when the hooks on BTG are startlingly symmetrical and intelligible, the verses still wind off into slithering oblivion, reminding us that it’s unlikely that Thug could ever convincingly render himself anonymous through pop overwriting. Nor should he: “Do U Love Me”’s visceral appeal is enhanced by two of the album’s best and strangest verses as much as its beatific chorus, which erupts into unabashed, joyful “la la la”s. The first breaks into tinier and tinier fragments every four bars, until Thug is simply yelping monosyllables (“You need, yeah, lessons, watch, bae”), whereas the second explodes into playful, fake-pompous blubbering (“Bumped my self esteem and now I think I’m adored / Let me through the door or else I’ll come through the walls”). The latter makes perhaps the album’s best single moment, since part of the fun of Young Thug projects comes when he finds ways to twist his voice into new shapes. Like most tracks on BTG, Thug finds a way here to highlight every element of his artistry that fans find compelling: an organizational feat in itself, evidencing the tighter sense of discipline at work here.
At its weaker moments, the songs on Beautiful Thugger Girls threaten to blur into jambalayas of melodic riffs that feel too familiar from his other work. But for an artist who has been as prolific as Thug has in the past three years, such redundancies are only natural–maybe even comforting. The album feels unprecedented within his catalog because it strikes a balance Thug has never quite pulled off on a single project: mixing a unified, album-wide sound with moments of aggressive experimentation and nagging hooks. It suggests that Thug is an artist with a long career still ahead of him, one whose bag of tricks may never run out as long as he continues to maintain his uncompromising identity within his increasingly pop-oriented songforms. Beautiful Thugger Girls suggests that should continue to be no problem.