Young Thug - Barter 6
The first few seconds of Barter 6 have Young Thug cooly whispering a cursive remark to the beat: “Pull that shit up fool, it’s ours.” It might not come as a surprise, especially since the central drama within mainstream hip-hop often involves the idea of ownership. The drama, as a creative force, seems to be perpetually ahead and behind the curve, as territories are discovered and/or squatted on amidst incessant bickering about cultural agency or material propriety. The point-click-and-access mentality (the male gaze) is regularly materialized into boastful music, a music that proclaims how the world can be owned, bought, and sold, but often one that can’t be held accountable — a world constantly slipping into fantastical, inherited dream-images of royalty, invincibility, or childhood superhero dreams that are being lived by adult men. Although the listener, and perhaps most disastrously the critic, are experiencing this spectacle virtually and problematically, it’s an incredibly real thing for the artist. Despite the multiple, important, and laborious discussions that such an analysis can lead to, and also considering the immense amount of excruciating baggage that comes packaged alongside Barter 6, the only discussion offered here will be an analysis of Young Thug as a voice that helps liquidate the autonomy of rap dynasties into a more total freedom.
Throughout Lil Wayne’s dynastic run, he proclaimed straight up that he “was not a human being.” While the tactic of proclaiming extreme, elevated difference is common — e.g., “I Am A God,” “The Ruler’s Back,” etc. — Lil Wayne proliferated an alien identity that was oddly attractive out of sheer weirdness; his delivery was unrestrained, even borderline grotesque. Obviously, the hyper-masculine discourse of “top-shelf” rap had produced enough of the la familia kingpin archetypes to arrive at a new characterization, a sort of villainous, harlequin-esque wild-style flow that was locked in a perpetual, liquidy upper-register. The voice seemed constantly on the verge of tears. Such a brazen freedom of delivery established a new continuum that found further manifestations in Future and perhaps its most flamboyant form in Young Thug. Whereas Wayne seems constantly bogged down in the struggle with his commitment to historical top-rapper iconography (and the traditional text that comes accompanied with it), Thug clearly could care less. It is this acknowledgement of extreme difference as the weird, as opposed to the classically embellished, that makes Young Thug so compelling; his power is in his ability to subvert the codified lines of coolness in hip-hop into unknown territories, places where only the uninhibited voice can go.
Barter 6 is an obvious, tight application of Thug’s lawless style brought into the space of a linear album, letting his flow drip and collect in horizontal spaces, as opposed to being sharply crafted like in his iconic hits, “Stoner,” “Danny Glover,” and “Lifestyle.” In this sense, the pacing of the record is not dissimilar to Drake’s If You’re Reading This — the instrumentals ride ahead unassumingly, giving a wide lane for Thug to make his impression. As such, the new “retail mixtape” format that has recently become vogue nonchalantly establishes a listenable brand-space for the rapper’s voice to further assert their “product.” Since Thug’s delivery is so paradigmatic, the format works incredibly well; we are “buying into” the experience we have come to expect and want from such a visionary application of the human voice in a hip-hop environment. Regardless of the form, Barter 6 offers a fantastic explication of the capabilities Thug has been honing — the capabilities of liminality. Thug’s voice is foreign, strange, and even entrancing to the primarily hetero-normative discourse of rap through his sheer alterity. Without taking a massive intellectual leap, as Thug’s lyrics often fit the form of the tropic, homophobic/misogynist text of dominant Rap, the text is subtly liquidated through the unorthodoxy of Thug’s delivery and the gender fluidity of his style and persona — as it did slightly with Wayne, not through content, but through the freedom of voice as a means to articulate unknown power. It’s as if the hyper-masculinity of hip-hop, as well as the blandness of it, has been pushed to forge into the weird (at least weird from the dominant perspective) to reach its economic fantasy-catharsis, a situation where every time Thug dresses himself “it goes mutherfucking viral,” but, fantastically enough, he’s wearing a leather skirt.
Thug’s syrupy freedom of expression and bat-shit flexibility, his coo-ing and “skirrrrr-ing,” is at times straight up avant-garde. As crass as it might be to compare Young Thug to Arthur Russell, I’d argue that his unrestrained experimentation with vocal melody is comparable to the savant cellist’s peculiar affect. “Constantly Hating” is a masterpiece. The contrast between a jaunty synth-bounce, auto-filtering, and a distorted kick establish the atmospheric, liminal space that Thug’s delivery itself often embodies. It flirts between being blithely positive and simultaneously fierce, emphasizing his effortless, cascading melodies that descend over the spacious beat. The initial run of the album proper, beginning with “With That,” is Barter 6 at its most basic; it features highly listenable, essentially enjoyable, longer tracks that sit in one place with the help of some static guest features flecked inconspicuously throughout, obviously playing second fiddle to Thug’s world. They function to set up the more experimental and ultimately more satisfying second half beginning with “Dome.” “Halftime” shows the awe emanating from Thug’s flow when it’s controlled; it flutters as a bridge illustrated with vocoder or it locks into rapid, epochal verses that deliver chills.
“Knocked Off” might be the only track that comes close to the head-nodding, radio-bounce of “Lifestyle,” a sound completely satisfying in its simultaneous eccentricity and accessibility. But quickly, the child-choir synths of “Od” or album closer “Just Might Be” add a transcendent drama that helps the whole thing wrap up as an encapsulating final stretch. It’s here that we’re able to visualize Thug as owning the mystical energy that he prophesies, an energy contained by only the best Dancehall MCs as a form of “next level” spirituality. Thug’s level comes across as focused on the new, focused on the music, focused on his voice’s capacity to bend and flex into patterns that rouse a child-like, near-Freudian sexuality, where the ineffable nature of aphasia is pushed as a “style,” or where illegibility ultimately functions as an object of desire. It’s this shift from codification into pursuit that makes Young Thug essential. He demonstrates an energy that’s found in finding an instrumental freedom in music, from Coltrane’s saxophone to Farrah’s paradox. Thug’s code-switching sees this fundamental pursuit as a potential evolution for younger generations as a form of both accepting and rejecting the static, old texts inherited from their role models. After all, it’s well-documented how much Thug has idolized Lil Wayne. That love is undying, but also fluid, because the need to forge ahead, into the future, on to the 6, often means not looking back.