The following story is part of a collaboration between Billboard and Rémy Martin that aims to spotlight Atlanta’s rising R&B and Hip-Hop stars. For more, you can check out our new Atlanta Emerging R&B/Hip-hop Artist chart.
Throughout its reign as a hub for hip-hop and R&B, Atlanta-based entrepreneurs and superstar artists have launched a number of labels and imprints to showcase the city’s budding talent. LaFace, Disturbing Tha Peace and Grand Hustle Records are just a few early examples of this, producing consistent hits from the southern city in the 90s and early 2000s. Today, Gucci Mane’s 1017 Records, Generation Now (Jack Harlow) and Think It’s A Game Records (YFN Lucci) are signing local artists or moving outside talent to the city to connect them with an array of prominent producers.
Still, even with the growing number of labels that consider the “Peach State” home, Young Thug’s YSL Records seems most poised to give Atlanta’s other leading labels LVRN and Quality Control consistent chart competition. Young Thug’s status as a hip-hop luminary, of course, plays a large part in this.
The Atlanta native was originally signed to 1017 Records, working closely with mentor (and fellow artist turned label boss) Gucci Mane, before breaking out locally and eventually, on the national scene with hits like his bass-heavy single “Danny Glover” in the early 2010s. Many articles were subsequently written about the new rapper’s garbled delivery in his early days, but critics and peers alike have mostly agreed that Thugga is, without a doubt, one of the most influential products of the Soundcloud rap era. In 2020 alone, the prolific rapper racked up 14 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 despite not releasing a solo project that year. And, this doesn’t count his No. 1 hits from previous years, including Camila Cabello’s “Havana” and Travis Scott’s “Franchise.”
Thug hasn’t been satisfied with his own success, of course, and he’s methodically cultivated a roster of artists who are poised to be influential in their own right. In 2016, the then-25-year-old launched YSL Records and has subsequently signed a number of artists, many of whom are his siblings or close friends including Gunna, Lil Duke, Lil Keed and Yak Gotti. YSL’s in-house producers Turbo and Weezy are the architects of many of the woozy trap instrumentals over which the artists create.
Outside of Young Thug, Gunna has certainly enjoyed the most mainstream success of the YSL signees, including the chart-topping 2020 album Wunna and standout collaborations with artists like Travis Scott and his Drip Harder collaborator, Lil Baby. Describing his rap style in 2019, GQ said Gunna’s “cadence dips up and down in hiccuping little waves that recall healthy heart readings on an electrocardiography machine. If Future’s voice is a bass line, if Young Thug brings bursts of brass, Gunna’s mumbles can feel percussive; it’s as if he’s adding a hypnotic beat over a song’s actual beat.”
Fellow YSL rapper Lil Keed has yet to achieve the same amount of crossover success, but it’s only a matter of time before fans outside of the city catch on and dub him as Atlanta’s next breakout star. Both Lil Keed and his brother Lil Gotit (who is YSL affiliated but not signed to the label) are clearly influenced by Young Thug and the Cleveland Avenue neighborhood in southeast Atlanta from which all three of the rappers derived. They both credit the loss of fellow friend and rapper Rudy with making them take their love of music more seriously. Since doing so, the brothers haven’t looked back, recording together regularly for collaborative efforts like their early record “Trap Bunkin,” or their hypnotic 2019 single, the aptly titled “Brotherly Love.”
To date, Keed has released two ambitious projects that have blended his hyperlocal trap tales with all-star assists from Ty Dolla $ign, Lil Uzi Vert, 42 Dugg, Quavo and more. “HBS” — a standout from his critically-acclaimed debut Long Live Mexico — features a repetitive hook and finds Keed employing a high-pitched drawl towards the end of every bar for added dramatic effect. His 2020 follow up, the expansive Trapped on Cleveland 3, features Keed and his brother in their element as they trade bars about unfaithful lovers, untrustworthy peers and Lenox Mall shopping sprees.
Never content, Young Thug is constantly adding new artists to the label’s flourishing roster. You may have only been introduced to Yak Gotti following his collaboration with fellow YSL artists Young Thug and Gunna on “Take it to Trial,” but the track served as proof that the recent signee could hold his own amongst the label’s brightest stars. After being released from prison following a four-year stint and signing to the label in 2020, Yak Gotti wasted no time releasing the project Gotti Outta Here. On the gritty debut there are no attempts at crossover appeal, just a hungry rapper who is eager to finally tell his story. “Used to trap in the trap, now I trap on lyrics,” he rhymes on the Lil Duke-assisted “Lemonade.”
As 2021 gets into full swing, Gotti and the rest of his label mates are poised to continue their hot streak with the release of a few long-awaited projects. Thug is expected to return with the highly-anticipated follow up to So Much Fun this year and rumors have started to percolate again around a group effort with Gunna, Future and Lil Baby. Before all that comes to pass, YSL die-hard’s will be treated to Slime Language 2, the label’s latest compilation that will no doubt introduce lesser-known members of the imprint to new fans.