Sometimes I wonder what Young Thug’s career would’ve looked like if he had only admired Birdman from afar, if he had just accepted Future’s generous offer to sign to Freebandz, if Gucci Mane hadn’t sold his contract to Lyor Cohen and 300 Entertainment. Rich Homie Quan and Thug self-release “Lifestyle” and it still goes viral - because, well, just listen to the song. Everyone is salivating for Tha Tour: Pt. 1 and they follow it up with Pt. 2 and 3. There’s an actual tour. Thug and Quan’s kids have playdates 45,000 feet in the air. There’s unfortunately nary a mention of gold toilets and chandeliers - no “RICH GANG” ad libs - and it’s because Thug and his lifelong idol, Lil Wayne, are on tour together, running a very successful “fuck Birdman” campaign. Barter 6 is actually the Like Father Like Son sequel none of us deserve.

Also, 2 Chainz and Thug might not be in a cold war - okay, I’ll stop. If we’re being honest with ourselves, none of us even deserve Thug in his current iteration, let alone the doppleganger from a more ideal part of the multiverse. And, being the enigma that he is, Thug himself has seemingly shrugged off these ostensible hurdles, deaf to any narratives that run tangential to his unfiltered self-expression. His location on twitter dot com reads “Thug’s World” for a reason.

This tunnel vision has been a double edged sword for the Atlantan rapper. He doesn’t necessarily want to go pop, he wants pop to go Thugger—but when it does, when Calvin Harris is tapping him for songs with Pharrell Williams and Ariana Grande, Thug hits the gas and tries to outlap everyone yet again. One could say it’s admirable that he doesn’t chase hits, but he also doesn’t capitalize on the ones that fall into his lap. He initially framed BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS—his first project in 10 months (the longest “break” he’s taken to date)—as his debut, executive produced by Drake, yet it dropped on Apple Music unceremoniously, with no subsequent mention of the Canadian popstar.

As I see it, each era of Thug has its rise, peak, and fall. The “fall” only lasting for as long as he chooses to stand still—which usually isn’t for long. Meaning, just when you think he’s found a comfortable groove, he carves out a new one, finds his footing, and subsequently conquers the sound. There’s a Durty Boyz interview where Thug says he modeled his constant reinvention after Wayne, but just like with anything Young Thug, he seems to take the model to its extreme limit. I Came From Nothing 2 was the peak of his first era; 1017 Thug was a reinvention of sorts, as were Tha Tour and B6 (despite being released less than a year apart). The aforementioned projects were the peaks in their respective eras, with last year’s I’m Up and Slime Season 3, although released at the height of his Kanye West co-sign and post-”Best Friend” notoriety,playing the role of falling action, stylistically speaking. His last release, JEFFERY, was the rising action for an entirely new era, bringing us to what might just be a newfound peak.

At one point during an interview in France (his go-to choice of locale for delivering any worthwhile interviews), Thug alluded to his long-teased debut, Hy!£UN35, having “a dose” of Kendrick Lamar and J Cole. Extrapolating from that quote could lead one to believe that, even if we’ve stopped keeping track, Thug himself seems to make a distinction between a collection of songs—a mixtape—and a project with thorough, fleshed out concepts—The Album. BTG serves as a confident step into album territory, despite being billed as yet another mixtape.  

As a recently re-exiled rap icon once said: “Got the kids and the wife life, but can’t wake up from the nightlife.” BTG is a concept album built on a similar internal struggle, relying heavily on the contrast between his most perverse urges and his current dedication to his fiancee, swimwear designer Jerrika Karlae. A majority of the first half of BTG is Thug stuck in a exuberant dream, finding comfort in a seemingly never-ending party; a farewell tour of disposable side-chicks and dangerous drugs. It’s from the same mind as the drug-addled bachelor who first warbled, "as long as I live, wouldn't want a wife," back on “Halftime.” The first eight songs thrive in this nonchalant, Playboy universe he’s concocted, one where he’s the “Black Christian Grey” with “50 shades of bees," and feels as if he should "enjoy the wealth until its gone."

In a bathtub, with a bottle of bubbly, Thug declares his love for himself and invites every women within an Uber-viable radius to love him as well. He wants to have “more kids than God.” He asks his girl to be ride or die despite having “three bitches on the side.” He teases her with threesomes he’ll prolly participate in with or without her consent. At a glance, his sole intention seems to be to feed his libido, like “family don’t matter.”

That is, until a chance encounter with Snoop Dogg and Lil Durk. An expectedly potent smoke sesh with Uncle Snoop seems to send Thug crawling back into himself, insecure and anxious. It’s that sort of hazy yet vivid panic that most stoners can relate too. It’s as if he hits Cloud Nine, looks down, realizes how one-sided he’s been thus far, and then has to consciously center himself.

This leads to a purposeful string of songs many Thug fans will instantly categorize as “old” due to the incessant number of previews Thug himself has posted over the years. All three of the following tracks were first teased back in 2015, by a blonde then grey-haired Thugger. (You know, the one with his septum pierced who had a perpetually alien glow about him.) The joint in the middle, “Me or Us,” literally starts with him teasing the song as if he’s only about to play a snippet. Following the escapades of Side A, it’s like he time travels to 2015, back when he first proposed to Rika, and falls in love all over again.

For an artist whose catalogue already contains earnest odes to monogamy like “Worth It” or “Hey, I,” “Feel It” is somehow a staggering new high, an intoxicatingly brazen love song that sees him speaking directly to his significant other. Immediately after, “Me or Us” feels like an hypnotic interlude, a somber Thug working out his wedding vows, wondering if he’s ready to settle down. It sees him roleplaying, questioning his loyalty from not only his own perspective, but from his future wife’s point of view. “I got a show? Fuck my show, you my show,” is the kind of off the cuff romanticism we’ve come to love and expect from his more understated ballads.

This rumination culminates on “Oh Yeah.” A whirlwind of emotions, this track encapsulates the full range of love: from the first time she gave him chill, to their first, purely vindictive fight. An awestruck Thug engages in a cinematic retelling of the turbulent road he’s taken to find his fiancee. He claims to be drunk off her love on the first verse, accuses her of abandoning him in the second, and reconciles with his own shortcomings by the third.

Evocative and honest, these three songs anchor the entire project while effectively clearing way for the one-two punch of “For Y’all” and “Take Care.” The former is Thug at his most defiant and proud, daring anyone to chastise his choices without first walking a mile in his jeans. Although it hides its retrospection under a triumphant flare, “For Y’all” concludes with the album’s most poignant passage:

I did everything for y'all to ball
Tell y'all risked it all to see a smile on y'all
I risked my future goals for all y'all
I risked my life she told me take that condom off and go raw
She perfect in my eyes, she know when I act modest
Girl version of me, she manage work for me
She...she genius, she my idol, believe 

Building on this unwavering declaration of loyalty, the closer, “Take Care,” playfully teases the idea of him finally tying the knot (which, admittedly, he’s been doing since “Knocked Off”). The final line succinctly reiterates the duality of the album's premise: “I know you want a savage to give you a ring right? Take care!”

Since Thug often lusts as deeply as he loves, it sometimes becomes difficult to pin down his intentions. Oftentimes, to Thug, true love seems to be a volatile mix of the two. It's high-stakes, do or die, as bold and erotic as it is unsettling and nerve-wracking. In this sense, the seeds of monogamy and deep, familial bonds that come to fruition in the second half are first planted on tracks such as “She Wanna Party” and “Daddy’s Birthday.” The second verse on the former is a flatout love letter - maybe even apology - to his significant other: “From you, away could never push me, darling” he pens, quite poetically, before promising,  “I want you for real, and if you feel like I wasted your time, I’ll reimburse.” The following track, “Daddy’s Birthday,” sees him at his most vulnerable, admitting: “I’m so busy I feel like I’m in and out of my kids’ lives.” He attempts to justify his often excessive bravado (“you gotta forgive my heart, I don’t meant to stunt like that”), but his realization that, at 25, he’s already the “father of six babies,” helps keep him grounded. BTG is a raw, candid love album as only Young Thug could execute. After all, the same guy who said he wouldn't want a wife on "Halftime," went on to pen, "if you got AIDS I want it, if you got herpes I want it," later the same year. 

Keeping the distinct halves of BTG in mind, it seems as if the album's dichotomy is best exemplified by the song with Future. “Relationship” is the stuff of backstage groupies, ravished hotel rooms and painfully sobering hangovers, with the countless yacht parties eventually causing the elder Atlantan to realize he might be in over his head. Drowning in his deviant ways, Future should be the perfect cautionary tale for Thug, but it’s hard to hear him over the sound of jet skis circling.

As for the rest of the features (excluding any post-release, The Life of Pablo style updates), no one verse sounds out of place. Jacques subtly complements Thug on "For Y'all," and newcomer Millie Go Lightly feels as at home on a Rex Kudo and Charlie Handsome beat as Snoop and Durk feel on Young Chop’s “Get High.”  Kudo, of “White Iverson” fame, actually has his fingerprints all over the project, with Post Malone himself showing up with co-production credits on “Me Or Us.” But that’s not to say that this albumis entirely new terrain for Thugger.

Rather, BTG builds on the most provocative sounds established by JEFFERY, with fresh in-house talent like “Webbie” producers The Billboard Hitmakers joining forces with executive producers and longtime collaborators London On Da Track and Wheezy. Together, they bring the lush, vibrant sounds of pop-by-way-of-Atlanta to life. Wheezy specifically has been an essential part of Thug’s recent experiments, more so than even London. Dating as far back as B6, he’s been quietly feeding Thug genre-fluid instrumentation. Lest you forget, “Amazing,” which happens to be one of the closest analogues to the more country-tinged beats on here, is entirely his doing. A wonderfully exciting songwriter, Thug’s melodies are often as elusive as they are immediately familiar. He’s never had to fight for attention with the production like this, but fortunately the clash results in some of his most precise rhythms to date, teasing even more untapped potential.

It often feels like Thug packs entire album's worth of nuance into a single track. He twists words to the point where “horny” rhymes with “yawning,” starts grunting mid-verse, and has cheeky ad libs that highlight his sharp, comedic timing. His voice naturally cracks and quivers and sounds like it’s being run through one of those large industrial fans, he hums bedtime lullabies like he just stumbled upon them himself, and his harmonies are delicate and textured. “You Said,” the pristine centerpiece of Side A, is a fiery string of carnal urges, layered with unabashed desire, his passionate vocals tearing through what should be an overwhelming backdrop of fluttering harps. He’s sucking on toes and he’ll “lick on that puss on a pill and make it stand up like some bunny ears,” but what could be crass finds poignancy in just how naked and revealing Thug allows himself to be. From the way he teases his girl in the intro, to the way his own voice trembles when he details running into her in person (“I get excited when I see you, I'd rather freeze up and get shy when I see you”), Thug manages to once again present a full spectrum of emotion in under five minutes.

All that being said, it’s understandable if there’s a feeling of déjà vu, coupled with a sense of fatigue, when approaching this release - despite all the forward momentum he exhibits creatively. Thug’s entire run thus far has felt like a series of cosmic accidents, him playing the role of a mischievous demigod without a single care for his own commercial appeal. And in 2017, where we’re well into the era of hyperbole, there’s rarely any room for a nuanced take regarding Thug’s often-frustrating career trajectory, let alone the music itself. 

He could have been bigger by now, for sure, but does that mean it’s curtains for his future? Of course not. With his well-documented, yet almost unbelievable, work ethic, and propensity to toss out great bodies of work at will, his longevity shouldn’t really be in question. Whether or not he’ll truly break through to the mainstream, however, seems to be contingent on him stumbling upon a real hit (a la last year’s “Bad and Boujee” for Migos) and actually capitalizing on the opportunity. Keep in mind, his last solo hit was “Best Friend,” a few centuries ago by today’s standards. And back then, Barter 6, his first for-sale mixtape, had only moved 16K it’s first week. It made sense, Thug was an unbothered renegade. But now, two years later, BTG is in danger of repeating those same, measly, first week numbers.

Due to how much discussion his antics have garnered over the years, it’s as if many believe Thugger to be bigger than he truly is. Sure, he sells out tours, has a fanbase overseas, and seems to have a reach beyond rap music (from collabing with the likes of Jamie XX and Calvin Harris, to his ventures in the fashion world). But Thug has been gaining momentum for years, so, if anything, it often feels as if his commercial appeal is stagnating, being overshadowed by his less experimental contemporaries. This all feels like deadtime before that One Hit. A hit, followed by a true rollout for his “debut,” could do the trick, but Thug’s going to need to be more hands on with his approach. Let Nadeska and Joe Budden fawn over his talent over on Everyday Struggle, or something. If those pieces fall into place, it could be smooth sailing for Thug (like he got his masters). If not, he’ll continue to connect with his core fanbase while being a rapper’s rapper (and, by now, a singer’s singer). Which, honestly, would be a damn shame.

With each new body of work, Thug presents us with another facet of his artistry and his refusal to stand still should be commended. I invoked Kanye West and Yeezus earlier for a reason: starting this album with a pseudo pop-country hybrid while crooning, “What up, I wanna put my dick inside of your panties,” is, for all intents and purposes, equivalent to Kanye screaming, “how much do I not give a fuck,” over heavy, aggressive synths, is it not? BTG is Thug promising us he’ll never conform, that his artistry will never be easily digestible, even when it feigns to be more accessible. Hopefully, whenever it’s time for Hy!£UN35, Thug isn’t forced to rein it in.

And with that, in honor of Prodigy’s untimely passing, I’ll leave you with this: “This the mixtape, imagine how the album sound.”

Until then, take care.