Favorite Tracks: “Stupid/Asking,” “Recognize Real,” “Scoliosis,” “Love You More,” “Day Before”
Guessing what Young Thug will do next has always been a challenge. He’s existed in the rap landscape as a star around which other artists orbit, while never quite finding his way to the center of the galaxy. He’s too outlandish for true stardom unless paired with the more straightforward presence of contemporaries like Drake and Future. From the minimalist troll job-turned-cult classic BARTER 6, to the raucous highs and stunning blue dress on JEFFREY, to the acoustic pivot BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS, there’s little to do six years into a fascinating career but accept whatever comes next will be surprising and a bit confusing. Any further attempt at forecasting is waylaid by the mercurial tendencies of the man who once said his debut album would be called Hy!£UN35 and changed his stage name to SEX for a few weeks. The question is whether the output is compelling, a standard Thug’s mainline albums have consistently upheld, none more so than his last, 2019’s trap masterpiece SO MUCH FUN. His latest album, PUNK, arrived with little fanfare, and little evidence for its name; the content is certainly not punk, rather a pop-leaning amalgam of previous Young Thug projects. Each preceding Thug album is remarkably distinct, but while PUNK opens with a similarly strong mission statement, it quickly loses cohesion and results in one of his less engaging works.
That sonic mission statement is a strikingly somber and delicate one. The opener “Die Slow” is an odd but impactful spoken word rumination on personal struggle and familial trauma, reaching back to the tender guitars and drumless production of BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS to scaffold his frank admissions. Of course, the classic abrupt, inexplicable bars from Thug appear as well; the first rapped line here is “Always knew I wasn’t gon’ be gay,” delivered immediately after a sobering anecdote about his mother suffering a stroke. It’s so absurd, and the lyrics move to the next idea so rapidly that there’s hardly a moment to unpack what was said, which is generally the preferable approach to Young Thug lyrics. Pick through the tangle of yelps, threats, and designer brands and you’ll find nuggets of insight and fleeting flashes of emotion, but dwelling on any for longer than Thug himself is to miss the forest for the trees. It’s hard to call “Die Slow” an outright success, but it certainly upholds the risk-taking, irrepressible nature of his work.
“Stupid/Asking” is an early highlight, verging on singer/songwriter territory as Thug inhabits the perspective of a woman admonishing him for sleeping around in the first leg of the track. His creaky, lilting singing voice fits the soft guitar chords perfectly, striking the ideal balance between heartfelt (“I don’t want to see another mother cry”) and irreverent (“Hey lil mama Kawasaki, let’s ride”). He flips perspectives and brings the drums back on the latter half, which still sounds nice, but lessens the impact of the first half slightly by demonstrating very little growth from the lessons he’s ostensibly learning from the woman in the first half. The contrast between rap’s widespread misogyny and tender missives to mothers and daughters is commonplace, but it’s still a disappointment to see a humanizing moment undercut.
“Recognize Real” enlists Gunna for the first of three features, and each builds an argument that a straight up R&B duet album between the two should happen. Gunna’s silky smooth voice is a perfect contrast to Thug’s more animated rasp, and both are beginning to sound more at home over woozy guitars than trap bangers. It’s a shame they don’t have more to say, and later “Love You More” gets dangerously close to being cloying, but these are all beautiful sounding tracks.
Unfortunately, the cohesion falls apart around track five, returning to more generic territory that fails to commit to either the tender direction of the preceding cuts or the harder stuff that would’ve slotted nicely onto SO MUCH FUN. “Rich N**** Shit,” “Bubbly,” and “Scoliosis” go sort of hard, but fail to push the envelope, and feature merely adequate Juice WRLD, Drake, Travis Scott and Lil Double O contributions. The nadir comes with an empty calories radio play. They’re assisted by Post Malone and ASAP Rocky shuffling their way aimlessly through a generic “phone lights up” track for drunk revelers on “Livin It Up.” “Icy Hot” is similarly unlistenable, but at least deserves some credit for effort, drenched in vocal processing and queen-of-the-moment Doja Cat doing a solid job meeting Thug’s energy level. The rest of the album runs together; blips of interest break the relative monotony, but nothing really manages to stand out until the brief, wistful closer with the late Mac Miller.
It would be too harsh to call PUNK a bad album; Young Thug’s natural charisma and willingness to experiment won’t allow a true flop. But compared to the madcap JEFFREY, the confident sonic redirection of BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS, or the immaculate trap stylings of SO MUCH FUN, PUNK feels overly long, and too unfocused to slot amongst his best work.