Photo: Prince Williams / Getty Images
  /  10.05.2018

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

It all makes sense now. Part of Young Thug’s unique rollout for his compilation album Slime Language included sending vicious serpents to some of rap media’s biggest offices. These green snakes were harmless enough and added a cool extra element to an otherwise straightforward release. Today, Gunna and Lil Baby released their long-awaited joint project Drip Harder with a bust of what looks like Eros on the front. On top of Eros’ forehead appears a serpent in a greyscale scheme; just off of its scales is a gigantic splash of green. Look at it long enough, and the lightbulb will turn on in your head. Gunna and Lil Baby are often seen as a collective depiction of Young Thug together, so while Thug is a green snake, together the two of them create a green snake—a subtle way to acknowledge the unspoken connections between three of rap’s most popular contemporary figures. But acknowledging Thug as a progenitor brings in expectations that the two new-age artists may not be ready for. Just what comes with being considered one of Thug’s children?

I’m convinced that the hype machine surrounding Young Thug is a giant social media experiment in the vein of Timmy Thicc; it’s just been going on for much longer. Thug came to prominence in his 2011 mixtape series I Came From Nothing and attracted the attention of Gucci Mane. By 2014, his two singles “Stoner” and “Danny Glover” catapulted him into mainstream’s spotlight thanks to a grating delivery that was beyond initial comprehension and a general sense of weirdness that belied his contemporaries. He gained a fervid fanbase of hipster-like rap connoisseurs who saw Thugger as the anti to everything the rap game glamourized. He spit true gibberish like a faerie on opioids before mumble rap even existed. He dipped into the women’s section of high fashion and had the audacity to rock bedazzled sandals while rapping about dropping spent shell casings.

Since his mainstream introduction, Thugger’s always held the prestige of an industry stalwart, even if his music and actions haven’t quite backed it up. Barter 6 was his “Fuck You” to Lil Wayne, his obvious inspiration-turned-enemy, and featured a similar focus on chaos as an artistic pillar. His songs felt pieced together by toddlers and held in place by dental floss. Styles and structures were all over the place, but it came out better than many expected. It was a high point, but middling, less exciting works followed. Slime Season was an uneven compilation of what felt like throwaways. The second installment came a few weeks later similarly unfinished. He was throwing bologna slices at the wall to create a masterpiece; it just wasn’t finished yet. Through mixtape in, mixtape out, he slowly pieced together a fully functional understanding of what made him tick. Certain styles and tics, inflections and verbiage (or lack of) comprise the confusing entity we now know as Thugger. With four years of seniority under his belt, these styles became his. There were bound to be others following behind him that would take notice of his constant, never-wavering stock, and seek to refine his rough edges.

Two of those progenies are Gunna and Lil Baby. The first is perhaps one of the most polished new-age rappers you’ll hear under the age of thirty. He speaks in rhythm and only uses Auto-Tune as an added accessory instead of a crux. He calls his style “hood melody.” There’s something inherently sexual about his silky-smooth flow that runs like the river sounds on a sleeping app; similar to a realistic river, yet too perfect and symmetrical to ever be confused for a real river’s frequent sputters and abrupt movements. Gunna met Thug through a mutual friend in 2015, with the Atlanta stalwart becoming his mentor and a central figure to his life ever since. You can hear some of Thug inside of his rhymes when he slips into or out of a beat almost accidentally, or when he approaches dangerous production with the tenacity of serenading a woman perched upon a window sill. These stylistic similarities and proximity to his primogenitor have made him one of the first of Atlanta’s new cast of rappers to be called one of Young Thug’s children.

Lil Baby gave in to Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “Pee Thomas,” co-founders of Quality Control Records and Solid Foundation Management, when they told him that he should be a rapper after coming home from a two-year jail stint. He was cool with them and their label’s artists; often gambling with the rappers who came in to record at studios. Young Thug was one of these artists, but Lil Baby already knew him from high school. Gunna would be around due to his affiliation with Thugger; the union of Lil Baby and Gunna was bound to happen. After becoming friends, Gunna taught Lil Baby how to rap. With time, Lil Baby has cultivated a decidedly different style of rap than his friend. Baby’s rap is lightyears different from Gunna’s sensual deadpan; Baby’s treacly harmonies skirt around the pain that oozes like a leaking muffler from Gunna’s lines.

The triumvirate of Young Thug, Gunna, and Lil Baby is so closely interwoven that it’s nearly impossible to talk about one without mentioning the others. Their personal relationships have bled over to their musical stylings, so, when there are two artists that are not only affiliated with you, but also mentored by you, they’re bound to pick up on what makes you tick. Imagine finding a perfect fighter with Dragon Ball Z‘s Potara earrings attached and you then pull them apart and find the two guys that perfectly comprise what the first guy is made up of.

Both Gunna and Lil Baby are at the same place in their careers: the entryway to a culture that is on the cusp of becoming obsessed with their every move. Brief flashes of brilliance on Gunna’s Drip Season 3 and Lil Baby’s Harder Than Ever have shown the unique creative flourishes they have independent of each other, also while showing respect to what they’ve learned from Thug. Now that Drip Harder is here, a new phase of the game comes. This one goes through Thug and there’s no way around it.

Drip Harder is the collaboration project to end all collaborations. It’s stuffed with the kind of camaraderie that draws out the waterworks from your tear ducts. There are 13 tracks of successful trust falls, with both Gunna and Lil Baby’s vocal arms connecting in an unceasing sign of agreement at every turn. It’s also plagued by the same monstrous curiosity and push for obscurity that Thugger’s projects get. Over the years, fans have become cognizant of all of Thug’s idiosyncrasies. Now, Thug’s expected to innovate whenever he touches the microphone and gets lambasted when he chooses not to. One of Slime Season 3’s main criticisms was that, due to a career of cultivating a genre-bending aesthetic, Thug wasn’t supposed to stop. He should keep going. Drip Harder comes from two artists who’ve learned from Thug’s final form, absorbing his techniques as well as the unconsicous responsibility to use those for the greater good. Instead, they choose to create a powerful, sonically sound, bass-laden project of car stereo music.

Ordinarily, there’s nothing wrong with that. Gunna’s vocals are as silky and cunning as ever; Baby’s sweet enough to warrant a fluoride treatment from a dentist. But when they’ve picked up their bells and whistles from one of rap’s supposed biggest innovators, there’s a certain level of responsibility that comes with accepting those gifts. Uncle Ben told Peter Parker best, right before he was killed and the events were set in motion for Parker to become Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.” The burden they bear is a heavy one.

In truth, damn near any artist isn’t ready for that level of spectacle. Look at Future for instance, seven years Thugger’s senior, who often gets pulverized by rap fans for lacking the ability to showcase true growth—stylistically or thematically. Thug sees the bar and raises it, meaning that those behind him are expected to do the same. When you have two artists that utilize his gifts and, when put together, create a near spitting image of the artistry that’s made him one of rap’s most popular figures, the expectations that exist upon him are then transferred to his successors. Thug’s On the Rvn throws things left field with a feature from Elton John that shakes things up considerably. The biggest shake-up on Drip Too Hard is a feature from Young Thug who takes over “My Jeans” and sounds nearly indistinguishable from his Auto-Tune-assisted cronies. For them to succeed and avoid falling to the wayside of their forbearer who’s still determined to show out, they must be better than great. They have to be perfect and batshit crazy.

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