When Young Thug burst into mainstream consciousness many labeled him a hip-hop purist’s nightmare. His lyrics were garbled, many times they were unintelligible. His impassioned keening, howls and yelps stood in the place of language.They were a feeling; an expression that went beyond the capabilities of speech. It makes sense for a personality who often feels so misunderstood that he intentionally avoids interviews.
A photoshoot. An interview. A popular talent. Multiple third-party connections. We know in advance that something will go wrong. So, when I arrived in Atlanta with our photographer and a stylist, I was laboring under no illusions that Young Thug’s cover shoot would miraculously follow schedule. Nevertheless, there was still a fair bit of wind in our collective sails as we lugged five hockey bags of clothing and two duffels worth of accessories up the manicured lawn to the luxury home where the shoot would take place.
Amina, Thug’s day-to-day manager, had already been in contact to make sure we were adequately prepared for his arrival. Shortly after, Thug’s Atlantic Records publicist arrived, and suddenly it seemed like we might actually glide through the day with Southern charm and grace to spare. After sending an assistant out for a few last minute items requested on Thug’s behalf — multiple bags of candy, eye drops, fluffy slippers, hand towels, several buckets of KFC, and so on — all that was left to do was track down a mobile barber and spend some time pondering the paradoxical figure that is Jeffrey Lamar Williams.
We ended up spending all day on the pondering part, sans the artist. When the noon call time rolled around, Thug was still in the wind. At first his management was quick to assure us things were merely running behind schedule, which, to be honest, is standard. When an hour and then two and then three went by, we started to worry that something was seriously amiss. After a flurry of phone calls riddled with politely suppressed disgruntlement on both ends, we discovered Thug’s location: at home, sleeping. He’d been in an intense studio session with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Birdman until around 9 a.m. that morning. Furthermore, no one had told him he had a photoshoot. When it was all said and done, he’d simply been whisked back to his condo, where he fell into an exhausted slumber that absolutely no one was willing to rouse him from.
As a compromise, we were told there was a possibility he might wake up sometime around 7 p.m., but even that came with a ‘no promises’ disclaimer. Since our location doubled as a private home, we immediately had serious concerns about wearing our welcome thin, as we had only booked the space until early evening. In an effort to get ahead of the situation, we started to explore other options, namely Billboard, a recording studio frequented by Thug. We were assured it was where he spent many evenings, and was also likely the first place he would go when he joined the mortal realm again. The mere possibility he would show up was all we needed to pile into a car and head over. And there, amidst ’80s neon lighting, wall-length posters of famous rappers, and the underlying scent of marijuana and fried food, we met the one person who has no qualms about waking Thug up: His little sister, Dora.
Thug has developed a bit of a hit or miss reputation where interviews are concerned. He’s been known to spurn lengthy discussions with journalists in favor of one word answers, and has been described as somewhere between unnervingly intense and unintentionally combative in the interviews he does do. Earlier in the day, his publicist even warned me that he didn’t like the traditional question and answer format, so I was advised to treat our sit-down like a casual conversation if I wanted him to be responsive. If Thug is considered a difficult interview subject, then Dora would be his opposite. Effervescent, gregarious and disarmingly charming, she has the demeanor and attitude of a PR girl who always gets the client placement. In fact, within 40 minutes of introducing herself, Dora singlehandedly averted impending disaster.
“Thug has a photoshoot? Why didn’t anyone tell me?” she asks, affronted. Sensing the tide changing in our favor, I explain how we came from New York for the shoot and tell her we have racks of clothing and enough food and candy to satisfy a large family on location. Dora immediately springs into action: wielding her cellphone like a weapon, she FaceTimes the necessary parties, arranges a car to take her to her brother’s condo, and assures us she will personally wake him and have him on set within an hour. She makes good, and around 10:45 p.m. a sleep-addled Young Thug finally arrives with his management in tow.
At 6 feet 3 inches tall, with a build like the sharp edge of a jack knife, Thug resists categorization, mostly because he’s a completely new breed of Atlanta oddball. Far removed from the funk-inflected, afrofuturist aesthetic of an OutKast, but still a bit too ostentatious to be one of the city’s lauded trap stars like 2 Chainz or T.I., Thug exists completely in a category of his own making. He’s been known to refer to close friends as “hubby” and often describes the things he likes as “sexy,” regardless of the subject. Even his fashion sense is uncharacteristically flamboyant, especially in comparison to industry peers like Gucci Mane or Travis Scott, whose more traditional brand of hyper-masculinity bleeds equally into their style and music.
Thug is so completely self-assured that he’s become an inadvertent champion of personal authenticity. So much so, he is currently plastered on a giant billboard in New York City’s stylish SoHo neighborhood as part of Calvin Klein’s Fall 2016 global campaign. What’s more, Thug is wearing the hell out of a tunic dress and wide-leg pant combo from the brand’s women’s collection. The advertisement fittingly reads, “I disobey in #mycalvins.”
Despite the fact that his predilection for both men’s and women’s clothing led to much early debate about his sexual orientation, Thug has never faltered or changed. If anything, he became more resolute. And, unsurprisingly, the gossip over his sartorial preferences is something Thug cares very little about. “At the end of the day, I ain’t never gave a fuck about what people thought. I’m a small guy, I’m slim, and men’s clothes always fit me baggy and I never liked baggy clothes, never. I always used to try to get the smallest size in men’s and it still wouldn’t fit, but I could go get a pair of girl’s pants and it would fit how I want it to fit.”
“At the end of the day, I ain’t never gave a fuck about what people thought.”
It’s a simple explanation; it’s also something Thug knows he owes no one. But that’s the real mystery of Young Thug — he is so fiercely guarded by friends, family and his own silence that it’s genuinely difficult to tell what he cares about outside of his immediate circle; to whom he is adamantly loyal. In past interviews, he’s revealed that he has personally made sure each and every one of his 11 siblings had everything they needed, be it a car, clothing or property. He even purchased a palatial home with an elevator for his mother, whom he refers to as “Big Duck.” She suffers from an enlarged heart, and Thug’s purchase was purely to make sure she no longer had to take stairs and risk her health.
Before I’m cleared for the interview, Manny, Thug’s official manager, conducts a test run that involves him pretending to be Thug and me rapidly crossing off the topics I am not to breach: No questions about rap beef, no inquiries about legal matters (this actually hadn’t even occurred to me), and no discussions about politics or social justice issues. “Just don’t ask him about shit he doesn’t care about,” Manny says, accompanying the ominous summation with a flick through his smartphone and a harried expression.
“I always used to try to get the smallest size in men’s and it still wouldn’t fit, but I could go get a pair of girl’s pants and it would fit how I want it to fit.”
While I reevaluate my approach, the number of spectators rises from Thug’s sister, his two managers and his publicist to several others who, on arrival, merely identify themselves as members of his team. A stocky young man with neatly-kept locs seems to occupy the role of social media manager; he snaps iPhone pictures of Thug’s outfit details and jewelry with admirable solemnity. Meanwhile, at Thug’s request, Dora uncorks a small vial of cough syrup and begins to mix the concoction dubbed “dirty Sprite” by fellow Atlanta native, Future. When Thug asks for food, another young woman who previously introduced herself as “Thug’s sister” fixes him a generous plate of KFC chicken and sides.
Through it all, he seems to lean on Dora the most. He looks to her for confirmation that his outfits are well-styled, and in return she fusses over him, pushing an errant dreadlock out of his eye to get the perfect shot or bringing him whatever new accessory he requires. Thug even wears a chain that bears Dora’s name, and another that bears the name of his sister, Dolly; he also featured the two on his single, “Family.” When I ask Dora if they’ve always been so close, she tells me they had bouts during their childhood where they would fight, but what person with siblings hasn’t? Yet, seeing Dora’s quiet protectiveness and then watching Thug return time and time again to an addictive substance mixed by her own hand wordlessly illustrates the complex relationship between love and enablement.
At one point, I even find myself drawn into Thug’s stable of helpers when a particularly tight-fitting Margiela shirt proves to be too much to handle; he has become slightly disoriented after a few deep swigs of spiked Sprite. “Can you please get this off?” he asks, far more soft-spoken than the passionately wailed and yelped ad libs of his music would imply. His stuporous state is accompanied by a slightly dazed expression, and it distantly reminds me of the sleepy-eyed innocence of a drowsy child. Though he easily dwarfs me by six inches or more, he suddenly seems very approachable, and perhaps even a little vulnerable.
Not 30 minutes later, that part of Thug has all but disappeared. His schedule was dramatically set back by his day-long siesta, so I end up interviewing him in a car en route to the studio. Perhaps the prospect of a long night of music has perked him up, because Thug suddenly becomes more animated. He cracks a joke, graciously allows our photographer to take candid photos, and listens intently to my questioning in 10 to 15 second bursts before he’s pulled in more interesting directions, namely answering a FaceTime call from fellow Atlanta native and Duct Tape Entertainment rapper, Trouble.
“Sorry,” he tells me, sounding genuinely apologetic. Trouble, who Thug refers to as his brother, has spotted the flash of a camera and soon has questions about the random white dude snapping pictures in Thug’s backseat. “They doing an interview on me,” Thug says, before officially making introductions: “this is Trouble, he’s on a song with me.” Trouble is standing in a studio booth holding an AK-47, and Thug bursts into a fit of delighted laughter when he sees it. Frankly, eavesdropping on the two is much better than any conversation I could ever have with Thug, simply because he is in his element. He’s chatting with a genuine friend and not some interviewer who may or may not have nice things to say about him after the fact.
“That nigga crazy,” he says with an almost paternal sense of pride when Trouble finally hangs up. Fresh off of such a relaxed conversation, it seems like the right moment to ask him about his aversion to interviews.
“I’m a quiet person and my main thing is that I want to be private,” he responds after a slight pause. “Plus, a lot of interviewers just take a piece of what you say and then turn it around on you.” He tells me about a particular radio experience that ended with a single comment being mashed up with a Lil Wayne interview from 15 years earlier, just to make it appear that the two were fighting. Considering he’s had his fair share of media-fueled drama with Wayne, whom he often refers to as one of his influences, it’s not hard to see why a misquote of that magnitude would leave him with a once bitten, twice shy mentality toward journalists.
“Me and my mom was talking last night in the car,” Thug continues. “I was telling her I’m misunderstood to the point I don’t like to talk no more. I know the type of person I am and God knows the type of person I am, so I don’t got to do an interview to explain myself to nobody.”
The studio, however, is one place Thug seems to feel very comfortable talking. We trail him in, hoping to catch another glimpse of what he’s like in the company of friends and family. I’m also curious to see his notoriously chaotic creative process in real time. He had already told me he never writes down song lyrics, but rather occasionally draws pictures that somehow turn into songs. The process sounds almost like the equivalent of a picture-rhythm synesthesia.
“I might draw a head with, like, Goku hair, and then I might start with the left side of his ear and go to the right side of his ear and the way I do his hair, those are my rhythms,” he explains. “So, if I draw his hair and it’s like porcupines going all up and down then when I started rapping I’m going to rap with that melody. That’s only sometimes though, not the majority of the time. Mostly I just hear a good beat and it turns me on and I’m just like, ‘Fuck, let’s go.’”
“Fuck, let’s go.”
Thug’s “fuck, let’s go” moments are so prolific that he often has to relearn the lyrics to songs he’s recorded years and months in advance before releasing them to the public. On this evening, he is joined by several Atlanta-based producers, Quavo of Migos and numerous other local rappers. Thug, with a pistol slipped neatly between his waistband and boxers, is perfecting a liltingly melodic track that is a catchy ode to the wonders of a well-lubricated vagina. His signature ad libs are front and center; this time it’s a mellifluous “whoa whoa.” After the track plays a few times, there is some debate about whether the ad libs should be expanded past the hook into the entirety of the song. “My girl told me that was the best part,” Thug says, referring to his fiance Jerrika Karlae. “But we can’t have it everywhere; it’s too much.”
Ultimately it’s the arrival of Birdman, who is accompanied by his older brother, Slim — the less-seen co- founder of Cash Money Records — that shifts the raucous tone of the evening. While Birdman disappears into a back room, Slim makes his way into Thug’s session. As he enters, the room falls into such a hush that even the persistent haze of smoke clouds seems suspended in stillness. Thug solemnly pulls out a chair and seats Slim with all the reverence due to any respected elder. They shake hands in a ceremonial manner and then, with a rapt audience around him, Thug plays his new music. Slim says little in front of the crowd, but when he departs Thug seems satisfied by his reaction. Around 2:30 a.m., we finally head outside to find Thug and his sister chatting in the parking lot. Consummate night owls, it seems they will continue the session well into daylight. Now fully awake and reigning as king of the castle, Thug bids us a goodnight and tells us to get home safe before meandering back towards the studio.
I wonder what Slim will tell him about the new songs when they finally have a moment of privacy, but I also have a feeling that even if it’s decided they’re not quite perfect yet, Thug will easily figure it out. He said it himself: “I think God gave me the gift of having the courage to just do me.” So far, it’s been working in his favor.
- Words:Stephanie Smith-Strickland
- Photography:Thomas Welch
- Styling:Jenny Haapala
- Grooming:Jeffrey Clarke @ Clarke Shave Company
- Photography Assistant:Sterling Pickett
- Styling Assistants:Alaina Watts & Rae Lesperance
- Special Thanks:Nátia