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Leave it to Thugger to continue to push the boundaries of what we should expect from him. After the success of his debut album So Much Fun, you’d think he’d lean further into the simple trap aesthetics that worked so well there, but instead, he takes a drastic stylistic departure akin to his “country” experiment Beautiful Thugger Girls on his latest album, Punk. However, despite its name, Punk is surprisingly low on power chords and rushed drumming, focusing instead on atmospheric, mellow production that sounds almost folksy.
It’s always been Thug’s way to make a left when everyone else expects him to make a right. Consider the mush-mouthed, yet irresistible chorus from 2014’s “Lifestyle” or the sartorially challenging cover from 2016’s Jeffery — both prime examples of Thug’s tendency to zig instead of zag while still adhering to a core of solid trap-rap fundamentals. Punk finds him again experimenting with sound and style but remaining as true as ever to his core aesthetic. In fact, it’s arguably the truest he’s ever been to himself — or at least, the most honest.
Starting with the very first song on the album, “Die Slow,” Thug is more revelatory here than he’s ever been. Over soft, poetry-house guitar strumming, Thug reveals childhood traumas, a prescient political outlook, and almost militant defiance toward being categorized, demeaned, or held back by societal expectations. Elsewhere on the album, the contrarian production leans tender, like some of the most emotive R&B ballads of the last ten years or so. “Insure My Wrist” is the most romantic ode to jewelry that hip-hop has produced in at least that span, which would be borderline surprising if Young Thug didn’t have a well-established history of being Young Thug.
“Love You More” also surprises, with its Nate Ruess and Jeff Bhasker appearances — but then again, it doesn’t, because Thug once sampled Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” sparking a years-long friendship that led to glowing assessments of Thugger’s talent from the knighted one himself. It’s also a gracious rumination on a relationship mostly bereft of Thugger’s usual cartoonish depictions of sex (although there is one line that reads as more considerate than jokey). Again, eyebrow-raising were it not from the same gentlemen whose catalog of hits includes “Best Friend,” a deceptively encouraging self-love anthem.
That isn’t to say he doesn’t go at least a little hardcore. While “Rich N**** Shit” with Juice WRLD is relatively far from Dead Kennedys — they’re philosophically opposite, on top of the sonic differences — the two rappers go for broke over a thumping, bass-turned-to-eleven beat with some good, old-fashion chest-thumping braggadocio. Meanwhile, the moody “Day Before” brings things full-circle with another confessional, ukulele-strumming introspective jam featuring Mac Miller. The punk promise here comes from the revelation that the song was literally recorded just one day before Mac’s tragic passing.
Thug brings out the best of his other guests on Punk, as well — particularly J. Cole, who stops just shy of a Thug impression on “Stressed,” a rejuvenated ASAP Rocky on “Livin It Up,” and Doja Cat on “Icy Hot.” While the tracklist feels excessive at times, the runtime comes across smooth, even with the bloat. As to why it’s called Punk, I think it boils down to Thug’s very personality. He’s always been anti-establishment, even as he slowly but surely became the establishment.
This album is his way of shaking himself loose from the tendency to stagnate and calcify as complacency sets in. He isn’t completely successful — perhaps a few more sonic cues from the rock world could have woken up some of the sleepier melodic songs — but the record is unapologetic, one-hundred-percent Thug. What’s more punk than being yourself? Maybe it’s just being willing to redefine exactly what that means, even if it’s just a little bit at a time.
Punk is out now via Atlantic Records and YSL. Get it here.
Young Thug is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.