Young Thug’s Tower of Babel
Okay, rewind it again. Turn the volume up, lean in close to your laptop/cell phone/car stereo, and really pay attention: Is he saying, “I’m a slimy man” or “I’mma slime him, man”? One refers to a gang affiliation (“slime” as an adjective), while one is an oblique reference to slander or possibly murder (“slime” as a verb). Despite the dramatic difference in their usages and meanings, a convincing case could be made for either interpretation, especially considering lyrics websites carry only approximate versions of these bars. Nearly every line bears a question mark indicating that the transcriptionist’s interpretation is, at best, a guess. Playing it back over and over only seems to blur the edges between the lines, making their border liquid. It really could be either. And maybe it’s both. And getting to the point of accepting both as equally valid is the entry point into a murky space where everything is constantly changing shape, where meaning is fluid and words turn into explosions of indecipherable sound. We’ve entered the cacophonous world of Young Thug.When we enter into the world depicted in Young Thug’s music, we are entering a created space.
Young Thug, birth name Jeffrey Williams—aliases including Thug, Thugger, Thugger Thugger, etc.—is a progressive and divisive Atlanta, Georgia, hip-hop star whose burbling, idiosyncratic melodies brought him underground renown before a few hits catapulted him to mainstream success. Despite the rich heritage of the Atlanta sound that informs his music, Thugger arrived on the scene with a unique idea of what rap music could sound like and a vocal approach unlike anything the city had yet seen. His flow may have its stylistic ancestry in Lil Wayne’s hoarse cackle and manic delivery, but Young Thug’s voice is all his own; his first three mixtapes were released in a series titled “I Came From Nothing.” He sings, he mumbles, he burbles, he yelps. He performs his own call and response. He is simultaneously the strophe and the antistrophe, playing every role in every act. His songs would probably bang just as hard on Mars as they do in Atlanta.
But Young Thug seems to have no central message to express, no single narrative that unifies his body of work or even connects one line to another. Words are submerged under vocal tics and production effects, their literal meaning less important than their knotty internal rhyme. He hits on familiar tropes like drugs and fast cars in unfamiliar ways: “L-E-A-N, lean, lean, lean lean lean! / 500 horses inside my machine!” Auto-Tune, the production tool made famous by mid-2000s hook maestro T. Pain, is turned up far beyond pitch correction, occasionally, and intentionally, submerging Thug’s words entirely. His delivery has become its own meme. In this video, New Yorkers are asked to decode bits of Young Thug’s hit “Lifestyle.” They don’t fare too well.
Even professional rap critics struggle to unearth what Thug is saying. A 2013 Pitchfork review of Young Thug’s 1017 Thug mixtape records one line as “Also cold in Siberia,” while FADER’s 2014 feature story on Thugger quotes the same line as “I’m so cold in Siberia.” This snippet reflects back on previous lines detailing Young Thug’s millions, emphasizing how “cold” and “icy” he is now that he has all this wealth. The latter interpretation is a sharp shift in the tone of the verse, abruptly dropping from braggadocio to an image of frigid isolation. Again we’re left with contradictory images: Young Thug staring in the mirror and seeing either a triumphant, iced-out millionaire or a defeated, isolated artist.
This line, like so many of Young Thug’s bars, is mercurial, shifting and morphing as soon as it is touched, refracting into a multitude of lines. What we are forced to conclude, after yet another head-bobbing listen, is that the rapper is saying at least two different things at the exact same time. He winks at us with forked tongue extended. When we enter into the world depicted in Young Thug’s music, we are entering a created space: one man’s vision of a world defined by language that bumps up against itself and reveals its own limitations. Young Thug’s intentionally hazy delivery is designed to force us to question what he’s really saying. In the aforementioned FADER feature, Young Thug exasperatedly declared, “I don’t want to explain [my lyrics]. I hate explaining. But I can definitely show you.” He’s trying to tell us that “What do you really mean?” is the wrong question to begin with. His music is a post-Babel deluge: It forces us to recognize our shared human shortcomings, nowhere more evident than in the messiness of language.
Rap has long been the most postmodern facet of popular culture, embracing the mutability of language. In the late 70s, as the vanguard of Postmodern White Male authors (Updike, Pynchon, Mailer, etc.) began aging, approaching or passing their zenith, hip-hop was already taking their post-Saussurean reflections on the mutability of language and ratcheting it up into pure comedy. From the time of the Sugarhill Gang, rap music, more than any other genre, has viewed language as slippery, porous, and full of inherent contradictions. Take, for example, rap music’s employment of puns and double-meanings. Lupe Fiasco once declared that, despite the endorsement of Jay-Z and his media empire, “I am not the heir / I’m the water, fire, and the earth / That means I’m doing dirt, spitting flames, and quenching thirst.” A simple play on a homophone (heir/air) unlocks the doors to a host of other double meanings.
Rap music is the cleanest line we can draw from Nabokov’s love of layered image and figurative language to contemporary culture. In Lolita, Nabokov’s dreadful yet eloquent narrator demonstrates a fixation with language, taking great pleasure in elaborate wordplay, subtly working the names of other characters into the landscape, finding ways to foreshadow his grim fate with glib puns. If we take everything Humbert says at face value, we miss many layers of meaning that Nabokov has woven together for his readers. He intentionally upends our assumptions about how words should be used, keeping us on our toes and forcing us to process each statement on our own: What is really being said here?
Almost 60 years after Lolita’s publication, Young Thug released his mixtape 1017 Thug. On it he declares, “I’m a habitat!” before then deciding that “a hundred racks” is also, somehow, a habitat. He somehow rhymes “handle” with NBA basketball player “Rondo.” He mutters and shrieks in turn, moving into an altered state where it sounds like he’s speaking in his own private language. Searching the lyrics only brings up fragments—see these lines on Genius.com, the normally reliable, meticulously user-transcribed and annotated lyrics database: “Plus (?), she a real (?), she a true brat / She gone (?), she I’m a (?), I mean Thuggie / I might cop (?)” And all of this is contained within a single song. In every verse, Young Thug is proving what Nabokov highlights in his novels—words do not necessarily mean what or how you think they mean.
As Christians, we are people of the Word. John 1:1 tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Here, “the Word” refers to Jesus Christ, the God who was incarnated as a man, and we use “the Word” as a catchall for Scripture, the Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection. However, comparing Jesus to fluid, amorphous words also tells us something about how both language and the Incarnation work. Jesus is both fully God and fully human, a divine entity that incarnated Himself in human flesh, giving body and form to intangible spirit. In the same way, language gives body and form to intangible ideas.
Significantly, God gave us a book from which to learn about Him. We don’t see God, touch Him, or generally hear His voice; we read about Him. Truth about His intangible person is incarnated in language for us to interact with. The Incarnation of Christ parallels this embodiment of realms of existence that are otherwise inaccessible. When the Bible tells us that God created mankind “in His own image,” it is referring in part to our use of language. God chose to use language to relate to mankind and for this reason we use language to relate to one another.
As a people of the Word, we believe language is God-given, a thread that connects us to the Divine. What stock should we put in music that treats language as Play-Doh to be slapped around and thrown against the walls rather than revered and sanctified?
Language, despite its divine origin, is not immutable; it conveys meaning but it does not do so perfectly. Unlike Jesus’s Incarnation, it is an imperfect incarnation. It is both a gift from God that connects us to our Creator and an emblem of our humanity, full of very human cracks and gaps, unintended double-meanings, and opportunities for miscommunication. It is what separates us from the animal kingdom, but also, through its imperfections, separates us from one another.
Young Thug uses language in a way that, through both syntax and delivery, highlights these places where words begin to slide, and then straddles both sides of that line. However, he doesn’t use language carelessly. He finds the spaces between words, making sounds that could easily be one word or another, or both at the same time. He exploits the cracks in language to underscore the silliness of sticking obstinately to a single interpretation. Nothing in life is subject to just a single perspective, so Young Thug treats words magnanimously, embracing all interpretations at once.
We might easily criticize music like Young Thug’s for an apparent void of definite meaning, but the breakdown of language is not the breakdown of meaning. Thugger cheerily reminds us of this in chirps, warbles, and the occasional loud “SHEESH!” The rapper famously does not write lyrics; there are many accounts of producers walking up on Jeffery, hunched over his notebook, only to find him not writing anything, but rather drawing abstract pictures. He sees a melody first, actually sees a melody in odd shapes and squiggles, and then finds words to fit the vision, forcing language to do his bidding rather than the other way around.
It would be a mistake to suggest that incarnated meaning isn’t central to Young Thug’s work. He cares deeply about the words he uses and about all their possibilities. Their fragmented nature reflects not a dearth of meaning, but an abundance. He pulls language apart like an orange, showing us the pieces inside—but not to show how it’s broken. Instead, he does what any good Cubist painter does: He draws figures at obtuse angles, the image shifted and warped according to how he sees the world, showing all perspectives at the same time. The world Young Thug presents is not a precise, encyclopedic encapsulation, but a bright, colorful, messy corner of existence.
We are not known by one another except by how we can communicate, and that process often seems impossible. Which one of us has not felt misunderstood? Who hasn’t experienced being trapped in one’s own thoughts, unable to find the right words to express the emotion? When we listen to Young Thug, we are reassured that the power of language does not lie solely in our ability to fill in the gaps. Even God’s separation of the peoples at Babel was only designed to be temporary—we will someday be reunited, understanding the tongues of all, singing in a single, holy corporate praise. The cracked, incomplete ways we communicate now allow us communion through the inherent messiness, the complications created when language bumps up against itself. Embracing ambiguity is not sacrificing the power of language to bind us together. Something essential about our shared humanity is contained in those cracks.
And once we understand this, Young Thug tells us: “Now you’re talking my language.” Sheesh!
Illustration courtesy of Cameron Morgan. Check out his portfolio at Krop Portfolio.
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This is excellent. Thanks for writing this.
It’s endearing to see this kind of critical engagement with someone like Thug who is occasionally very easily written off as being “dumb rap” by seculars and Christians alike.
As a Christian and someone who thoroughly enjoys his music, thank you for this thoughtful article.
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