In the most recent episode of The Joe Budden Podcast, guest co-host Chance the Rapper had this to say about artistic independence:
“The most important thing...is keeping your masters and your publishing. Because those are the type of things - that’s your IP, your intellectual property - that when you die, your kids and your wife will have...it can’t even be appraised. That shit is limitless in terms of money that it can make. Your imagery, all that stuff, gets signed away in 360 deals. And you don’t even know that. You think you’re signing for an album or something - you’re signing away your likeness, you’re signing away your merch opportunities. You’re signing away so many different things.”
Young Thug’s early label issues have been well-documented; after bouncing from Gucci Mane’s 1017 Brick Squad to APG (Artist Publishing Group) before finally ending up at 300 Entertainment, Thug became progressively entangled in a complex web of contractual obligations, obligations that presumably plague his commercial ascension to this day. In the early '10s, Thug was an independent rising star out of Atlanta and after releasing a trilogy of mixtapes - the I Came From Nothing series - local hustler-turned-rapper Peewee Longway introduced him to Gucci Mane, who immediately took to the young artist’s fervent work ethic and idiosyncratic style.
Gucci signed Thug to a production deal with his 1017 Brick Squad label, originally an Asylum Records imprint, and they went on to collaborate on countless records in his private studio, the Brick Factory. Through this production deal, Gucci was supposed to build Thug into a formidable commercial force and leverage that success into a mutually beneficial major label deal. However, when Gucci went to jail in the fall of 2013, just as Thug’s street single "Stoner" and subsequent breakout mixtape 1017 Thug started to gain some real traction, it triggered a series of unfortunate business decisions that still cripple Thug’s growth to this day.
When Gucci got locked up, Thug naively assumed not only that his contract was void, but that a 360 record deal with APG (Artist Publishing Group), an Atlantic Records imprint - for a mere $15,000 advance - was in his best interests. As Chance suggests in the aforementioned quote, a 360 deal implies that the label is owed not only a piece of Thug’s music sales, but a portion of all related income (think: tours, merchandise, endorsements, appearances, etc.).
At this point in his burgeoning career, Thug was woefully blind to the extent of his lopsided deal; since both Gucci and APG had real, verifiable paperwork work with Thug, he was essentially trapped in a strained marriage between two disparate companies. And Gucci, who was supposed to guide Thug through these label pitfalls, having once been marred by his own dealings with Atlantic, was understandably not in the picture. This signing promptly proved to be an ill-fated venture for both parties as APG wasn’t aware of Thug’s existing set up under Gucci, one that had acclimated him to a certain threshold of promotional budget, and Thug wasn’t aware of APG’s tendency to treat their signees as high-risk ventures. The so-called myth of #HiTunes, Young Thug’s incessantly teased and oft-delayed debut studio album, begins with these early label issues.
Thug’s time with APG was a mess, but as Naomi Zeichner aptly concluded in the previously linked Buzzfeed report, the blame doesn’t lie with any single party. As Thug became increasingly aware of his circumstance, he began to act out: He shunned APG’s efforts, started shopping around for new managers, claimed he was signing to Future’s Freebandz label, and eventually sparked his fateful relationship with Birdman, his new manager of sorts. And without ever soothing Thug’s growing concerns, APG wanted to repackage "Stoner", push "Danny Glover" - an accidental leak whose immediate virality threatened to outshine that of "Stoner" - record a video for 1017 Thug standout "2 Cups Stuffed", and set up for #HiTunes. "Stoner" was the only planned initiative to come to fruition; there are stills from an unreleased "2 Cups Stuffed" video shoot, "Danny Glover" never received a timely official release, and #HiTunes never manifested.
Although his Cash Money affiliation was a perfect stylistic fit - one that would quickly prove to be a lightning rod for Thug’s raw talent - this development only served to complicate Thug’s pre-existing business. Where he could have been promoting "Stoner" (which received a late remix from fellow lablemate Wale), and recording and releasing music in order to gain leverage in his 360 with APG, he was instead pouring all his efforts into his Rich Gang affiliation and various other side projects. London on da Track, who had been a close collaborator of Thug’s since 2011, was also being scouted by Birdman, and during this time - between Q4 2013 and Q2 2014 - Thug began fostering relationships with local producers Southside, TM88, Sonny Digital and Metro Boomin.
"Some More" dropped in November 2013. And a few months later, in March, following months of open adulation from Drake, Thug and Metro unleashed "The Blanguage," a hypnotic remix of Nothing Was the Same highlight, "The Language." But just a few weeks later, as Thug’s singular voice was gaining recognition, Brick Squad released Thugga Mane La Flare, a joint album with Gucci that was a mixed bag of songs recorded a year prior and ones stitched together with spare verses following Gucci’s imprisonment. Not only did it not compliment his growth as an artist, it did nothing to support Thug's current commercial momentum.
At the time of Zeichner’s report, Thug's transfer from APG to 300 Entertainment, then a brand new Atlantic imprint headed by Lyor Cohen, Kevin Liles, and Todd Moscowitz, marketed as a boutique label meant to shirk the bureaucracy of a traditional record company, was only a distant possibility. Cohen, former head of Def Jam and ex-CEO of Warner Music Group, is commonly cited as one of the originators of the 360 deal. His explanation for its resurgence has often centered around the "artist development", and it's sound reasoning; if a label adequately supports an artist’s ventures and the artist provides a sufficient return on investment, both of their stocks grow. But it then stands to reason that if at any point one party outgrows the other - say, if the label has other priorities (such as a Fetty Wap, another one of 300’s early signees), or if Thug’s profile gets too big for that of a fledgling label - the relationship may start to foster some resentment.
In April of 2014, two weeks after Zeichner’s report was published, it was revealed that Thug had officially signed to 300 - a deal that, in his 2017 autobiography, Gucci reveals to have orchestrated from prison, supposedly with Thug’s best interests at heart. Migos and Fetty Wap were also signed to the label in short order. Two months later, on the outskirts of summer 2014, “Lifestyle” arrived, a platinum Rich Gang record that never found a home on an official project. A few days later, still in the first week of June, we received “About the Money”, the lead single for T.I.’s ninth studio album, Paperwork, that went on to go gold. Over the course of the next year, despite being two of 300’s first major signees, Young Thug and Migos seemed to grow disaffected with their new label. The former sought the tutelage of Birdman while the latter, after giving 300 a hit like "Fight Night", seemed to be struggling to monetize street singles such as "Look At My Dab" Concurrently, Fetty Wap began to experience his record-breaking Billboard run.
Earlier this year, during an interview with Complex, Migos and Quality Control Music’s CEOs Kevin "Coach K" Lee and Pierre "Pee" Thomas finally broke down their difficulties in parting with 300 Entertainment. After having originally discovered and supported Migos through a production deal, QC signed their act over to 300 circa May 2014, presumably in the same manner as Gucci & Thug. However, after their debut album essentially flopped, several of their subsequent ventures were allegedly being blocked by the label. According to Offset and Pee, 300 became their main hurdle during the course correction that followed the release of Yung Rich Nation. Only after a costly contract war - one that amounted to over half-million in legal fees and gave 300 the release of Culture, their highly successful sophomore album featuring “Bad and Boujee” - were they able to free themselves from their contract. And only after dissolving the 360 contract were QC & Migos free to sign a far more lucrative distribution deal with Motown Records (through Capitol Music Group, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group).
Admittedly, we don’t know if Thug is waiting to leave 300 before releasing his studio debut. What we do know is that in the two years since 2016’s Jeffery, Thug has rekindled his brotherhood with Future, gone on an overseas tour with Drake and earned the praises of rap’s foremost conventionalist, J. Cole (whom he’s currently touring arenas with), and under the guidance of some of rap’s most successful stars, it seems as if Thug has recalibrated his once erratic approach. On the commercial front, Thug has recently engaged in a series of calculated moves, moves that now seem like an effort to postpone the release of his next full-length project while still bolstering his stock in the industry: His recent contributions to Camila Cabello’s “Havana” and Childish Gambino’s "This Is America" have earned him two #1 records, and over the past twelve months he’s released 3 EPs and 2 collaborative projects. Young Martha EP - a collaborative EP with producer and EDM staple Carnage - was released last September and Super Slimey - a surprise album with Future - arrived the following month in October. And since April, Thug has additionally released the Hear No Evil EP, August’s YSL compilation album Slime Language, and this past month’s On the Rvn EP.
Super Slimey benefited from Future’s starpower and gave Thug his biggest first week sales to date (75,000). Hear No Evil, the first EP of 2018, was a star-studded three track gambit for the charts that found a minor hit in "Anybody (feat. Nicki Minaj)" (which peaked at #89). Slime Language went on to do 41,000 its first week, spawning another minor hit with the Gunna & Lil Baby assisted “Chanel (Go Get It)” (#78). And On the Rvn quickly became the #1 streamed album on iTunes, with its title track, and the collaborations with Jaden Smith and Elton John, all breaking into the top 10 on the Apple Music Charts. In lieu of a solo hit as successful as 2015’s “Best Friend”, and without a single solo project that’s seen a traditional rollout, Thug has still maintained an impressive grip on the industry.
At this juncture, we believe it’s also important to note Thug’s growing influence on the next generation of stars. Around the time Jeffery dropped Thug began his own label, YSL, under 300 Entertainment. And nowadays new disciples of Thug are popping up with increasing frequency. But, as far as we can tell, Young Thug, with all he’s been through and all he’s ostensibly learned, is coaching rising talent to be self-dependent and fiscally aware. Gunna, Lil Baby, Lil Keed, and YNW Melly most recently, might all be co-signed heavily by Thug’s YSL crew, or managed directly by his YSL imprint under 300, yet it appears as though none of them have signed away their rights like Thug once did. (Case in point: Gunna’s breakout mixtape Drip Season 3 is entirely self-released and Lil Baby, managed by QC, has successfully avoided the pitfalls that once stunted the growth of Migos.) By passing down what he’s learned, Thug is quietly becoming a pivotal figure in the behind-the-scenes fight for the rights of independent artists. Perhaps some of his stalled commercial ascension post-Jeffery can be contributed directly to this empire-building mentality that has forced him to divert attention from his solo career.
While we don’t know the current status of Thug’s 360 deal with 300, his recent moves seem to suggest that he’s on good terms with the label. So, that begs the question: When will we finally get #HiTunes - sorry, HY!£UN35? According to the Hypebeast interview prior to Hear No Evil, where he claimed to be “going deaf” for the year in honor of his hearing-impaired brother, Greg (who graced the cover of the EP), Thug does not plan on dropping an album this year. For someone who freely calls his EPs "albums", this is, at the very least, proof that he understands the distinction; as per his declaration, we have yet to receive a solo Young Thug album in 2018. On one hand, it’s hard to blame Thug for being wary of his commercial appeal, especially after the stagnation he’s experienced post-Jeffery (until Super Slimey, his highest first week sales were attributed 2016’s Slime Season 3, the project that preceded Jeffery and one which still sits at the top of his solo releases with a middling 38,000 units first week).
However, now, with Thug taking careful, deliberate measures to rebuild his buzz, it feels as if the next full-length project we receive from Thug may very well be his debut - named #HiTunes, HY!£UN35 or otherwise. There’s a good chance that we’ll have to endure at least a few more minor EPs or collaborative mixtapes first - all in search of that one song that catches the same viral fandom as Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” (maybe it’s “High” with Elton John?) - but it’s becoming clear that Thug is still intent on carving out a moment for his studio debut.
About two weeks ago, just mere days after the successful release of On the Rvn, on Tha Carter V release day of all days, and amidst new developments surrounding the 2015 shooting of Wayne’s tour bus, Thug announced Barter 7, the latest attempt in his career-long crusade to troll Wayne into embracing him. In 2015, after Thug had just had a much-buzzed-about breakout year, Barter 6 was originally marketed as his studio debut. However, after only moving a disappointing 17,000 units its first week, it was swiftly redefined by 300 as a commercial mixtape. Somewhere between "Stoner" and "Check" - the Barter 6 single that was a minor hit in its own right, peaking at #100 on the Billboard Hot 100 - the plot was utterly lost. Despite the monumental success of “Lifestyle” and “About the Money”, the subsequent detours from solo music to promote and release Rich Gang: Tha Tour, pt. 1 with Birdman and Rich Homie Quan, and the obscure, menacing beef with Wayne, all seemed to play a part in diminishing the impact of Thug’s commercial debut.
Since then, Thug’s infatuation with stylistic reinvention and his adherence to forward momentum, in conjunction with his penchant for toying with convention via unpredictable release dates and atypical album rollouts, has continuously served as a roadblock to his commercial appeal. Following Barter 6’s disappointing numbers, 300 has tried countless times to revitalize the public’s interest in Hy!£UN35 ("Paradise," "Pacifier," "Gangster Shit"), but Thug’s pump-fake antics continued to hinder his success: Following Slime Season 3, he teased Hy!£UN35; I Came From Nothing 4; Slime Season 4; a tape with Fetty Wap, ThuggaWapp; the long-awaited collab with Metro Boomin, MetroThuggin, that dates back to “The Blanguage”; and a tape with Migos, MigosThuggin - none of which came to fruition. It was an exhausting cycle and may have been the final nail in the disconnect between his core fans and the mainstream audience he’s yet to fully captivate.
As of now, #HiTunes is still a sphinxlike myth, one that once-hopeful fans have begun to dismiss, but perhaps Barter 7 is the studio debut we've been owed. Barter 6 is Thug’s best album to date and one of the ten best rap albums of the past five years, and it’s quite possible he’s got the sequel in the tuck - he’s rumored to have been working on it since last summer - but dropping it so soon after On the Rvn - and just to fuck with Wayne - seems irresponsible, does it not? Then again, that’s the beauty of Thugger; relentlessly innovative yet easily sidetracked, the myth of #HiTunes isn’t just a narrative concerned with Thug’s creative arc, it’s one that chronicles his often iconoclastic journey through the music industry.