Most artists end up being defined by their limitations. At a certain point, songwriting will be hemmed in by imagination or ability. For rappers, voice often dictates range, and no one has more peculiar ways of using their voice than Atlanta’s Young Thug, whose first 300/Atlantic project, Barter 6, is out today.
Thug uses this multiplicative vocal delivery to his advantage: where another rapper might lapse into repetition, he finds a new way to distress and warp his tone, to burrow resourcefully into rhythmic cracks and crevices. He draws on an expanding set of expressive strategies; he could use any one approach as a crutch, eventually wearing it out, but he hasn’t yet. At this point, Thug still exists in his own world, able to make songs that no one else can make.
Barter 6 is a mixtape (though it’s on sale via iTunes), and it arrives in a different manner than his last two notable full-lengths. First, Thug was forced to change this project’s name at the last moment thanks to a threat of legal action by Lil Wayne, who was not amused when Thug titled it Carter 6, tipping to Wayne’s much-delayed Tha Carter V. More importantly, this project arrives without a buzz-building single. When Black Portland, Thug’s mixtape with Bloody Jay, came out in January 2014, the remarkable “Danny Glover” was already making its rounds on the Internet. Similarly, when Rich Gang: Tha Tour Pt. 1, with Rich Homie Quan and Birdman, arrived last September, the Thug/Quan collaboration “Lifestyle” was well on its way to being a hit.
Barter 6 does not have a comparable entry point. Instead, this album offers cohesion and unity, though maybe at the expense of the exciting, what-will-happen next feel of past mixtapes. Barter 6‘s beats are consistent but less frenetic compared to tracks from past Thug releases — lower variance but also lower mean. (There’s nothing here like “Flava,” a daring piece of Nth-wave G-funk that should have been a hit as big as “Lifestyle.”) Many of the songs involve repeating keyboard riffs, stern and plangent. “With That” verges on operatic, and “Numbers” opens with clear piano, pretty backing vocals, and a crack of thunder, as if it’s a piece of Quiet Storm R&B from 1982.
Thug matches the feel of the instrumentals, singing more than ever before. This should not come as a surprise: “Lifestyle” was close to a ballad. “Givenchy” committed fully to the form, with the rapper moaning about love and confessing “I put my heart inside your pocket.” Barter 6‘s first track and its final three — the opening and closing statements — feature a lot of singing, often augmented with overdubbed backing choruses of his whimpers and wails.
“Amazing” even goes so far as to pull in the artist Jaquees for a strangely conventional R&B lyric, boxing the track into a radio-favored MC-on-verse, singer-on-chorus format. Thug doesn’t mesh with hired hook-men — his odd, squeaking-door of a voice can’t spark with the frictionless style favored by many of today’s crooners. His singing makes the most sense standing alone, and at times, he’s charmingly offbeat — in the manner of his rapping, but with a tender streak — resulting in a warm track like “Numbers.”
Though Barter 6 often explores more muted textures, Thug hasn’t abandoned the invigorating style that initially earned him attention: the middle of the album contains the crunch. “Knocked Off” dusts blobs of bouncy, percussive melody with echo, like you’re hearing Bay Area hip-hop underwater. “Dream” glides forcefully, joyfully reviving an iconic ’90s reference: “I want you to talk to the hand while I talk to bands.”
“Every time I dress myself, it goes mother—-ing viral,” Thug declares in “Halftime,” referring to his penchant for pushing rap’s fashion boundaries. The central riff on the track might have been plucked with the one remaining string on a broken guitar. Thug chimes in with whoops and screeches that suggest the last gasp of an old car’s brakes or a mewling cat — and an artist who knows he hasn’t reached his limits.