Is Young Thug a Cubist?
“Young Thug as Paintings” is a thing. Art Basel Miami Beach featured an exhibit starring Young Thug, conceived by photography student Hajar Benjida. The exhibit consists of photos of Young Thug that are reminiscent of classical paintings, such as The Birth of Venus and Girl with a Pearl Earring. Young Thug’s presence at Art Basel should not surprise anyone familiar with his work and persona. His unpredictability and commitment to original ideas triggers comparisons to another iconoclast: Pablo Picasso.
The name Pablo Picasso brings to mind many things: his blue period, his sexual appetite, his rivalry with Matisse. But Picasso is foremost remembered as a founder of Cubism. Cubism is better seen than described-- Picasso’s famous painting Guernica is a prime example of the Cubist movement. In Picasso’s Cubist period work, there is a flatness and geometrical focus that speaks to an abstention from realism. Cubism is sprung from Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which asserts we cannot trust our senses to provide an accurate portrayal of reality and that the universe is richer than our perceptions of it. Cubism is a response to Einstein, insofar as it prioritizes a personal rendering of an unknowable reality. Since there is no absolute frame of observation for the universe, the individual may become unglued from the illusion of an objective reality. In such a liberated state, the only perspective that matters is one’s own, and the truthful rendering of such perspective is paramount.
Cubism is highly stylized without being trite and innovative to the point of alienating-- sound familiar?
Like Picasso, Young Thug’s work perplexed before it was praised. It confounded before it was heralded as groundbreaking. Young Thug has been accused of lyrical incoherence and non-sequiturs, but such critics miss the point entirely. Coherence is not the objective.
In Thug’s music, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is an emphasis on form and structure over everything else, which is what allows a song like “Digits” to say little that is lyrically original, but a great deal that is musically original. The articulation and precision of vocals is superseded by a deliberate choice to obfuscate the traditional elements of a song in favor of presenting a unique vision. You can recognize the sound of words strung together, but you may fail to make out individual words and phrases. The sounds become more important than the meaning of the words in the listening experience.
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Texture is extremely important to both artists. Picasso was known to add sand to his paintings to prevent uniform texture and evoke complexity. A look at Young Thug’s Youtube page will reveal a similar desire to vary texture. There is a sign language video (paying tribute to his deaf brother) for “Anybody” that translates the song into ASL. Translating conventional speech and music into ASL is daunting to begin with. To translate the vocal acrobatics Young Thug trades in is almost impossible. That being said, the ASL video provides an interesting textural layer wherein the lyrics’ meaning comes to the foreground, even though Thug’s lyrical content is rarely front and center. For an artist who strategically mumble-slurs syllables and words to make them less recognizable, translation into ASL immediately transforms the focus of the music.
While both artists’ works are untethered from reality, there is a semblance of the recognizable art form. In Picasso’s Girl with a Mandolin, you can translate shapes into a human figure. It requires the same liberal translation to understand Young Thug’s vocals. His voice is not always used to communicate thoughts. The sounds he makes contribute something that instruments and lyrical content alone would not accomplish-- such as the intro to “Audemar” (Skrrt-Skrrt-Skrrt-Skrrt, Skrrt-Skrrt-Skrrt-Skrrt).
Picasso’s Cubist paintings are not supposed to evoke reality, but rather illuminate a truth that goes beyond simple replication of life. They are heavily geometric based and the artist’s affinity for drawing is showcased rather than played down. This choice to lean into a simulacrum of reality parallels the use of autotune in Young Thug’s music. Autotune can be polarizing, but Young Thug’s usage should not fall victim to the traditional stigma. Autotune is not used to fix or gloss over imperfect vocals, but instead as an instrument unto itself. It warps the vocals in a deliberate way just as Picasso warped his depiction of the world to demonstrate his understanding of reality. Autotune allows artists to create sounds that their natural voices cannot produce. To defame autotune would imply that the painter must not paint things that their eyes cannot see.
These two artists’ works are not designed to be accessible, digestible or familiar. Their success is derived from their subversion of expectations and exploding of mores. Both Picasso and Young Thug operate under an extreme self-expression that is ultimately self-validating. Art can only evolve with a healthy disregard for convention.
If you enjoyed this piece, you may also enjoy a previous feature that likens Playboi Carti and mumble rap to the Impressionist movement.