Up until the summer of 2014, the musical entity known as Rich Gang consisted of a pretty lackluster collaboration album between noted unbelievably-rich-mogul Brian ’Birdman‘ Williams‘s Cash Money Records and noted mad genius Lil Wayne‘s Young Money Records. But when Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan nabbed the title of song-of-the-summer with their unlikely hit’Lifestyle’, Birdman seized the opportunity, rechristening the Thug/Quan/Birdman trio as the new incarnation of Rich Gang. Their first mixtape, The Tour: Part 1 (free download) mixes solo tracks from Thug and Quan with a number of collaborations between the two. Birdman’s contribution is limited to a couple of verses and a few inspirational pep talks to remind you just how rich he is.)
The tape is strong, one of the better mixtapes this year (though it is more properly referred to as a free album, as all the beats are original rather than swiped from other artists). From the opening track ‘Givenchy’, featuring some epic braggadocio from Birdman (“that Rich Gang lifestyle, marble floors, gold terlets (sic) and chandeliers, y’dig?“) and an astounding verse from Young Thug, The Tour demands attention. The beats, produced by up-and-comer London On Da Track and the collaborative Remedy Production Group, are lush and organic, a far cry from the hyper-minimalism that defined Lil Wayne’s 2007-era untouchable streak. At twenty songs and 84 minutes, this is a lengthy release, perhaps best consumed in small chunks.
It might be too soon to call Thug the rap equivalent of David Bowie, but considering his talent, his unashamed genderbending, his proclivity for enraging homophobes and his distinct fashion sense, he might be on his way to such a role. Thug’s unintelligible lyrical delivery is already somewhat of a meme—actress Tracee Ellis Ross’s attempt to decipher Thug’s verse on ‘Lifestyle’ summarizes most people’s reaction—but his vocal antics are a large part of what gives The Tour its staying power. Like his stated hero Lil Wayne, he uses his voice as an instrument, transitioning dizzily from strangled yell to throat-ripping wail to guttural moan, and like onetime-mentor Gucci Mane he understands the power of effective and memorable ad-libs; every yip and brrap and ayyye and WHAT serves as plosive punctuation to his verses. Yet beneath these stylistic trappings, Thugger is a considerably talented lyricist: like many of his YMCMB cohorts, he has a gift for left-field punchlines (“my weed stay loud / you smoking libraries“), surreal analogies (”split that money eight ways like I’m an octopus“), and weirdly sweet raunch (”she call me, let me ride it like Uber / her love probably right by the Buddha”).
Rich Homie Quan is, thanks to Thug’s overwhelming presence, thrust into a second-fiddle role, but his slower, sing-song delivery serves as an effective (and considerably more intelligible) foil to Thug’s wailing. He is at his best on ‘Milk Marie’, a surprisingly moving ode to ride-or-die love. “Girl, I want everything that come with ya / even if you got stretch marks and two children”, he sings over an expansive, ambient Clams-Casino-esque beat, adding “I love you for who you are, I want you for who you are / Baby girl, you a star in my book”. It’s not Sonnet #116, or even Common’s ‘The Light’, but it comes from a genuine and authentic place.
Thug, Quan and Birdman are at their best on ‘Flava’. Over a pounding synth beat from London on da Track, Thugger spits a frenetically weird hook (extract: “where your heart at? / I’ma pour it out like Moet / and she know that she the bomb, ayyyyy”), Birdman makes one of his few appearances and drops, oddly enough, a remarkable verse1, and Quan drops entertaining threats (“her baby daddy wanna fight me? / That pump, man, make him jump, man / you would think his ass was sponsored by Nike”). It’s a perfectly crafted piece of pop music, down to the Good-Vibrations-esque wailing theremin2 in the background.
It’s unclear whether a studio album from Young Thug is on the way—Buzzfeed has an excellent piece on the nightmarish label-related mess that has thus far prevented him from releasing anything but mixtapes and features. Until then, though, releases as strong as The Tour will no doubt cement him, and possibly RHQ, a place in the current stable of reliably successful rappers. Here’s hoping that Thug can do more, that he can drag rap farther away from the homophobia and creative doldrums it so often inhabits.