Young Thug can't decide if he wants to be a pop star on 'Beautiful Thugger Girls'

Part of the joy of being a Young Thug fan is never having the faintest idea of who he truly is or what artistic direction he's headed in at any given moment. Instead, you simply trust that he knows exactly what he's doing.

From his very beginnings in 2011, the Atlanta-born Jeffery Lamar Williams has stayed one step ahead of his critics, who have spent thousands of words attempting to understand his restless, mercurial, post-verbal space-cadet flow. He's hip-hop's Mary Poppins, a true ATLien, the lone stoner the Mothership left behind to signal when the planet was habitable for the funk once more. Now, with Beautiful Thugger Girls, the 25-year-old has morphed again — but this time, it seems as though Young Thug isn't even entirely sure what he's going for.

The artist introduced the project back in April as his "singing album" to be executive produced by Drake, whom Thug worked with on March's More Life. It braced fans for a significant change, a sign that the rapper would be looking to tunnel deeper into the heart of pop. Spanning 14 tracks, Beautiful Thugger Girls is significantly more polished than anything Young Thug has ever released before, with several songs pandering toward the Billboard charts' obsession with dancehall and R&B-tinged hip-hop. It's not a failure by any stretch of the imagination, but it's equally difficult to tout the mixtape as a clear triumph.

There's been a certain sort of logic to all of Young Thug's shapeshifting. The emcee trained under Atlanta trap godfather Gucci Mane, who saw tremendous potential in Thugger's goofy-but-cruel trap. The savant gradually evolved his early street-level mixtape sound — captured on his I Came from Nothing series and his full-length team-up with rapper Bloody Jay, 2014's Black Portland — into the sparse, experimental coo of 2015's Barter 6, which morphed again into the cartoon cool of 2016's I'm Up. It's felt like he's been reaching for some new musical breakthrough, like a lean-addled Coltrane on his own free-jazz vision quest.

Last year's Jeffery mixtape — a vibrant, high-energy infusion of kaleidoscopic trap — looked like just as good of a next direction for Young Thug as any. It was around this time that he also discussed changing his name to "Jeffery" or "No, My Name is Jeffery," according to 300 Entertainment's Lyor Cohen, because Thugger didn't "want people to be afraid" of his moniker. "I want to be greeted the right way, embraced the right away, because I really got a good heart," he said in a 2016 XXL interview.

Apparently that name change has been left by the wayside, but Thug's crossover hopes still seem to be intact. His new music suggests he's set on earning his bombastic goal of "10 No. 1 singles" in one year, as he declared in a 2016 episode of CNBC's Follow the Leader. But the pop conventions he's now employing work both for and against him.

Thug's vocals, which have always tip-toed the line between rapping and singing, feel oddly predictable on certain tracks. "Do U Love Me" is by far the most on-trend song Young Thug has ever attempted, a perfectly sunny facsimile of the tropical, electronic pop being pushed by producers like Diplo, Skrillex and PartyNextDoor. And the way he flows over it feels wholly generic, like you could give that beat to any other up-and-coming rapper and they would stretch over it just the same.

"She Wanna Party" would fit nicely into an "Intro to Young Thug" curriculum (if there ever is one) as the most basic example of his songwriting idiosyncrasies: his asymmetrical ad-libs, his tendency to twist a line into an indecipherable wail and whimper. But they're presented without any of the surprising flourishes — the sudden, cathartic bursts of rhyme; the absurdist language — that usually give his music life, and it's all paired with one of the most painfully basic hooks he's sung in recent memory.

Thug's collaboration with Future, "Relationship," also reins in his chaotic phrasing, corralling it into a more traditional-trap style. There are times on the track where it's disappointingly difficult to find distinguishing characteristics between the two rappers.

They aren't all misses, though — the added attention he's given to his melodies and lyrics make for some surprisingly resonant and emotive songs. On "You Said," he pleads with his love until his voice nearly cracks, urgently attempting to remind her: "You said you gon' fuck me to death when you see me/ You said that, you said that." It's a vulnerable and somewhat touching line from the rapper who once opened his third Slime Season tape with, "She suck on that dick on the plane/ And I just called her 'airhead.'" The beat glides along with a fingerpicked guitar sample, with a lithe call-and-response between a chorus of Thuggers wrapping it all up.

Elsewhere on the record, Young Thug taps into his somber singer-songwriter side, looking for transcendence in the moody pianos of "Oh Yeah." He samples Bright Eyes' 2005 light acoustic track "First Day of My Life" on "Me or Us," pairing it with softly padding percussion to give the track a slight bounce. Hearing Young Thug offer such stark, searching questions ("Who you loyal to? Me or us?") without his usual yawping or squelching to mask it makes for one of the most disarming tunes he's offered up in the past two years.

These are the tracks where he invests his creative energy, experimenting with some wispy double-time flows on "Me or Us" and stitching an illogical smattering of country and choral styles into the hauntingly catchy "Family Don't Matter." Compared with these, the album's more accessible numbers feel textbook; it's as if he's hoping that by simply repeating the conventions that have granted him some pop success in the past and spitting them over elastic, radio-friendly beats, he'll be ushered into the next level of rap stardom.

It makes for a divided listen, one that feels uncertain and largely hesitant. The devil-may-care Thug that charged through the spastic, unpredictable beats of Jeffery and the latter two Slime Season tapes appears to be hibernating. But that doesn't mean we'll never see him again. Young Thug will continue playing with his flows like Silly Putty until he's found the perfect shape.

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