The concept of a debut album has become increasingly muddled in contemporary hip-hop. Take Chance the Rapper, for example. Chance had released two major full-length works, earned a number one single as a featured artist, appeared in commercials for Kit Kat and Doritos and become an important, even unifying, figure in American music before he released what was technically his studio debut (this year’s The Big Day).
Young Thug’s career has followed a similar trajectory, but in more extreme form. He’s been steadily dropping mixtapes, many of them critically acclaimed, since 2011. He’s had four platinum singles as a lead artist, and, like Chance, had a guest spot on a chart-topping single. He’s also become one of hip-hop’s biggest fashion icons and appeared in campaigns for Adidas and Calvin Klein. But only now is he dropping his debut solo studio album, So Much Fun.
The LP doesn’t constitute some great leap forward in Thugger’s art. It isn’t what Reasonable Doubt was for Jay-Z, what The College Dropout was for Kanye or what Thank Me Later was for Drake. Then again, it’s really not supposed to signify an ambitious masterwork or exist in the same kind of grand hip-hop symbolic zone that Jay, Kanye and Drake all pushed towards from the very beginning of their careers. Instead, So Much Fun represents what we might expect a self-titled album to represent: a distillation of Young Thug’s artistry up to this point in time.
And the best way to describe Young Thug’s creative presence is, it turns out, so much fun. A major component of this merriment is his Gumby-like malleability. As others have noted before, we can take great pleasure in Thugger’s vocal acrobatics. He raps, he sings, he speaks, he channels Tom Waits. (For the latter, check out his verse on “Cartier Gucci Scarf.”) He can squeeze a colony of words into a tiny bit of space (it takes about three seconds for him to rap, “Ridin’ Kawasaki, and I could cop you a new ‘rari/ Let you ride it, know your route and you’re bad bad bad”) or expand one word to take up a whole ward (refer to how he stretches out “bed” on “Circle of Bosses”). He’s also still the king of ad-libs, as the expressionist chorus on “Surf” and the list of his buddies on “Lil Baby” demonstrate. Even the contents of songs can shift. We witness this in the late addition of a Machine Gun Kelly verse to “Ecstasy” and the last-minute expansion of the aforementioned buddy list, both of which occurred after the LP’s initial release.
Another piece of the overall levity comes from the biohazard-level viscous beats provided by a coterie of reliable producers. There’s not an instrumental on any of the 19 songs here that seems sleepy. Instead, each one is wide awake in slimy, synth-y textures and bloody with analog shrapnel of pianos (“Just How It Is,” “Bad Bad Bad,” “Jumped Out the Window”), guitars (“Circle of Bosses,” “Boy Back”), organs (“Ecstasy”) and bells (“Cartier Gucci Scarf”). There’s even just enough birdsong, on “What’s the Move,” to make Messiaen proud! But the clear winner in the battle of talented producers is Pi’erre Bourne, who put together the instrumentals for four different tracks, including standouts “Surf” and “I’m Scared.” The former sounds like Pokémon on Ice, the latter like a Luther Vandross horror movie. Honorable mention goes out to Dj Durel’s beat for “I Bought Her,” which includes some inspired 8-bit passages to temper its Risky Business mood lighting.
But the most pleasurable part of So Much Fun is Young Thug’s general bizarreness. Don’t be surprised if, 100 years from now, we find out this music contained secret communiqués with far-off alien species. Some truly strange lines on the album discuss kidnapping kangaroos and taking Amoxicillin for recreational purposes, burning the ham while smoking dope, keeping grenades in the ceilings of his cars, paying hit men with noodles, making a woman nut in her pants (like in a movie, apparently) and having sex with grannies. These lines highlight Thugger’s position as a freewheeling surrealist that continues the Weird Atlanta tradition of artists like André 3000, Janelle Monáe and Cee Lo Green.
One problem, however, is that most of Young Thug’s peers who drop verses on So Much Fun can’t keep up with his outer-space consciousness. Lil Uzi Vert, Quavo, Lil Baby and definitely Machine Gun Kelly all struggle to stay in stride, and half of the verses by Gunna and Lil Duke don’t work either. But it’s even more of a pleasant surprise when a guest ends up going blow for blow, like Juice WRLD on “Mannequin Challenge” (“I got the tool, no Handy Manny”) or 21 Savage on “I’m Scared” (“Book me for a show, I put a Glock on my rider”).
So Much Fun proves to be an album completely unconcerned with its own legacy. Well, maybe not completely: the fact that J. Cole executive produced the whole damn thing seems to indicate that someone thought a co-sign from a so-called serious rapper could prove significant. In an age that relentlessly critiques the idea of genius and seeks to reduce its carbon footprint, it makes sense that Young Thug would release a LEED certified album (sustainable cover art included). “I slept in the woods with the guys,” he raps, insouciantly. And when it was time to get up, they made sure the fire was safely contained within their own verses.