On the Rvn
Young Thug was released on bond last week for about eight felony drug charges, so this week he dropped On The Rvn, a six-song mixtape that shows flashes of peak Thugger, but doesn’t transcend “pretty good.” At his best, Young Thug can be one of the best rappers in the world, shifting from solid bars to unusual croons, creating an inimitable sound. (His vocal style has even caught the attention of the linguistic community.) But he hasn’t really parlayed his skills into big mainstream success; for example, his stellar album Beautiful Thugger Girls released last year sold 37,000 units in the first week, compared to, say, 2 Chainz who released his album on the same day and did 106,000 in sales. And 2 Chainz isn’t even nearly the biggest rapper in the world.
This reality creates a sort of mid-life crisis for Young Thug right now. He’s 27, so he’s too old to be an up-and-comer with potential, and he’s probably never going to do better than he’s doing on the charts—which is a source of frustration to him. In a video from a couple years ago, he can be seen telling a label exec that he wants ten number one singles, and the label exec gets a little heated, telling Young Thug that he’s going to have to do the promotional work and actually finish songs if he wants that. And a lot of his projects do have an unfinished quality, sometimes in a negative way.
But Thugger should just keep being himself (especially with possible prison time looming); there’s no reason to start clout-chasing now. He should just settle into the space he’s been occupying wherein he pushes the boundaries of what is considered mainstream hip hop. His best song on this mixtape is “High,” which samples Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (who flew to Atlanta to meet him and encourage his vocal development and then let them use this sample). It’s a great example of what Young Thug can be at his best: rapping, singing, and warbling over an unusual production to create a sound you won’t hear anywhere else.
Bhad Bhabie aka Danielle Bregoli aka the artist formerly known as the Cash Me Outside Girl dropped her debut album this week, 15. I don’t really know how to talk about Bregoli. Do I call her a Kidz Bop Iggy Azalea? Do I say that her album is a bland casserole of every popular trend in rap music bolstered by Good Beats and sprinkled with enough features from Names You Recognize to give it enough credibility to lure even the most skeptical listeners? It’s hard to talk about Bhabie because 1. She is a 15-year-old white girl who very recently only existed as a meme and 2. She is so very easy to hate on (so much so that much of her coverage has been very tactful, and the sympathetic Bregoli profile has become somewhat of a genre).
It turns out that the album is fine. So fine, in fact, that it’s boring. Pitchfork gave it a 5.5/10 which is about right. But isn’t “boring” the worst possible insult for a rap album from a 15-year-old former meme? Having a rap career was far from a given for Bregoli. That’s not the nature of Memedom: you’re supposed to have your 15 minutes and fade into the ether. But, she has a very good squad around her who has used her image to transform her into an actual rapper. And she’s doing the work. Nobody is under the illusion that she is writing her own raps or doing anything other than reading her lines into a microphone, but she is actually is a technically fine rapper. As long as she continues to have a team around her that will do everything in their power (and deep pockets) to ensure she is successful, she’ll be fine. And there are glimpses of some possible progression: on the last track, “Bhad Bhabie Story (Outro),” she raps some personal bars that sound authentic and like they’re actually coming from her rather than a production team.
Overall, good for her, right? That’s all you can say. She’s making a living for herself without doing anything woefully offensive in the process. Who knows, she might actually make some good music one day—she’s only 15. I’m hopeful.
Fatimah Warner, better known as Noname, has been a respected part of the Chicago rap community since she was doing spoken word poetry in the early twenty-tens. And she can rap. Her most mainstream recognition probably came from Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap, and then on the standout “Finish Line/Drown” from his project, Coloring Book. But since then, she has released Telefone—her debut mixtape—and now she returns with Room 25, a wonderfully dense, personal and political album wherein she really comes into her own as an artist.
Phoelix, the main producer, creates a production style that Doreen St. Felix in The New Yorker aptly called, “docile loops of R&B and blues adjacent composition”. Over these beats, she confidently raps about everything from the current administration (“Maybe I’m an insomniac, bad sleep triggered by bad government”) to death (“I know everybody goes someday/I know my body’s fragile, know it’s made from clay”) with intricate, allusive bars characteristic of somebody who came up as a poet. And she slyly subverts many rap conventions, such as calling out her haters: on the opening track she says, “Y’all still really thought a bitch couldn’t rap, huh?” Only it’s not angry as a claim like this tends to be; it’s said in a tone like finally you’re taking me seriously, what took you so long? Then on the track “Don’t Forget About Me,” she raps about her legacy. But she doesn’t want to be remembered by everyone—she’s worried about her mom, grandma, and dad forgetting about her. Her concerns are close to her heart.
Overall, the whole album paints the picture of a complete, real person at the peak of her craft, trying to figure out her way through a harsh world and finding joy in the process.
What Do These Mixtapes Have to Do with Each Other?
What do all these projects have to do with each other? Well, they were released in about the same time frame, and they exemplify three important lanes of contemporary hip hop.
Young Thug is stuck in a nebulous zone a step below the Drakes and Kanyes of the world, trying to create some value for himself that will never translate to Billboard topping success. The drive to experiment artistically and succeed commercially are both tugging at him, and he has to figure out what kind of artist he is going to be moving forward.
Noname is an independent artist, she belabors this point in her album; she self-funded, using what she made from her last tour. She is shirking universal success to do what she wants to do with her music, making a living for herself, and finding an audience to whom her music really resonates. And it’s working out for her, and allowing her to keep creating the music she wants to create, unencumbered by what Anyone Else wants.
Bhad Bharbie is Soundcloud rap adjacent. The laudable aspects of Soundcloud rap are its DIY essence, and though that obviously does not apply to Bhad Bhabie, she still shares a lot of the qualities that emerge from this movement: clout concerns over music concerns, a desire to to top the charts at all costs (with often very boring music), and a blithe attitude to political concerns, especially within her own art form where she seems totally unselfaware of her privilege as a white girl working within a traditionally black art form without having to be legitimized by any of the gatekeepers that used to be necessary for a white person to have a rap career.
But it’s not to say any of these lanes are better than the others. It’s just a look at them. Good music can come out of anywhere, anytime.