Album Review: Young Thug—“Barter 6″

By Stuart Oakes

It’s Sunday night and I’m sitting in front of my computer with a browser page open to HipHopDX’s Barter 6 review (HipHopDX being a well recognized hip-hop music criticism site – over a million Facebook “likes” – and Barter 6 being Atlanta rapper Young Thug’s latest mixtape, which was released last Thursday). I am looking at the ratings part of the review, which has some pretty interesting numbers. First comes HipHopDX’s album rating, 4 out of 5, followed by the average reader’s rating, 2.05 out of 5. Quite a gap. The breakdown of the latter rating provides an even starker contrast: of the reader votes, 1 out of 5 is the most popular rating, but nearly a fifth of the voters – gave the tape a perfect five stars.

young-thug-barter-6[1]

Album art for Barter 6

Although these numbers are little more than a sample, it is pretty illustrative of the reaction to, and backlash against, one of the most polarizing musicians working today. Like Don Cherry or Miley Cyrus, it seems that people either adore Thug (i.e. critics) or vehemently despise him (i.e. large, vocal swathes of online hip-hop fans) and, so far, no amount of impassioned, pro-Thug think pieces or fervent, venomous, anti-Thug RapGenius forum posts have managed to swing a majority either way. For what it is worth, Barter 6 is not going to change any of that despite being his most high profile release to date; the Atlanta star’s newest mixtape is 52 minutes of Thug being Thug, and how you feel about that will depend greatly on your tolerance and/or appreciation for starry-eyed, strip-club trap drenched in whatever alien-Lil Wayne-Future sound it is that the man born Jeffrey Williams produces.

Why the hate? It’s a question Thug himself poses repeatedly over the course of the mixtape – most explicitly during the refrain of Birdman-featuring “Constantly Hating”, which goes, “But really what is it to do/when the whole world constantly hatin’ on you” – and, unfortunately, the answer seems to depend a whole lot on taste. Musically, there are a couple accusations flying around; namely that Thug is incoherent, a weak lyricist, self- indulgent and popular only because his beats are catchy (a number of people cannot stand his voice, but that one is at pretty understandable; it either grows on you or it doesn’t). The problem lies in that, when seen from a more traditional, “classic rap” perspective, some of those accusations bear some weight: Thug is no Mick Jenkins or Aesop Rock, his pronunciation is sloppy at best, and his producers – guys like London on da Track and Metro Boomin – certainly deserve quite a bit of credit for his success. In response, fans argue that it is not what Thug says but how he says it (for my money, he is an underrated lyricist and far from incomprehensible), and that the rapper’s ability to break down, distort and re-energize gangsta rap tropes, and language itself, is actually one of his strengths. If that sounds like malarkey, fair enough.

All of which brings us to the mixtape at hand, Barter 6, easily Thug’s most coherent and unified release yet, and one that makes a pretty convincing argument that Thug would be waving to his doubters in the rear-view mirror if spaceships came equipped with one. Produced almost entirely by the aforementioned London on da Track and Atlanta producer Wheezy 5th, TB6 extends a consistent mood over the course of an hour while simultaneously proving that Thug can both avoid self-indulgence and actually put together an album that works as an album. Much like Drake’s February release If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, The Barter 6 lacks an obvious single or buzzing hit; instead, the beats are low-key and minimalist, leaving much of the attention (melodic and otherwise) focused squarely on Thug. In turn, he aces it, having developed his ability for knowing when a yelp, groan or a drawn-out syllable will subvert our expectations and energize a familiar line. Restraint may not be a word that comes up often when discussing Thug but here he is careful not to overdo things, a decision which allows him to deploy his vocal tricks exactingly and to great effect. It also allows us to follow his twisting train of thought more so than was previously possible which, while not especially notable, does undercut the impression that Thug cannot write and allows for my personal favourite moment on the tape: a beautiful pause on penultimate track “Numbers” during which the beat drops out and Thug, leaning in so he can deliver some intimate revelation, mutters, “Thugger Thugger hungry”.

Moreover, the mixtape works because of the chemistry between rapper and producer. “With That” and “Can’t Tell” (featuring solid guest verses from T.I. and Boosie Badazz) are both late-night bangers produced by London, as is “Check”, which features Thug’s catchiest melody. “Numbers” (London) and “Just Might Be” (Wheezy) lay out slightly nostalgic trap beats over which Thug can get (or at least sound) thoughtful. The tape’s mid-section is great, building from “Dream” to “Dome” (both Wheezy) and then peaking with “Halftime” (produced by Kip Hilson). Although things are not perfect – “Amazing” is pretty boring – it is the most consistent Thug has been yet, and that bodes very well for someone trying to prove they belong on the national stage.

So where does TB6 stand against the hate? It proves Thug is not just a one-trick pony, depending on catchy production to leave a mark. It also makes a case that he has a bright future ahead of him; things can, have and will continue to improve with each new release, especially since he has shown that he is capable of combining his chaotic style with the lucidity necessary for an album. Thug is still figuring things out, especially on how to act as a controversial public figure – one who has said some problematic things, but also faces a lot of conservative backlash – but he seems to have the confidence to stand his ground. As he jeers on “Numbers”, “My clothes make em’ sick? They can vomit.” (Atlantic)

Listen: “Check”

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