Thug’s reputation for bizarre or inexplicable lyrics isn’t entirely merited. His songs are peppered with autobiographical and personally meaningful ephemera. The most widely quoted line in his recent hit, “Stoner,” for example, is its apparent non sequitur of a refrain, in which he repeats, I feel like Fabo in increasingly desperate cadences. To Thug, who still remembers sneaking into Bankhead’s Club Crucial as a kid to see the iconic Atlanta rapper Fabo with his group D4L, the sentiment is real. It’s about ambition, what it feels like and how confusing it can be. “Damn, I used to want to be like D4L,” he says. “Everybody who rapped, I wanted to be like. Pretty sure I don’t want to be like them now, though.” And then there are songs like “RIP,” from his first tape, a seeming map of his emotional life for the previous 10 years, including references to his brother Bennie, who was shot and killed in front of their home in 2000; his brother Unfunk, currently in prison (Thug pays for his legal fees); and his mom, Big Duck. I lost three people in three years, he raps, but to Big Duck it feels like seconds, later telling her, I love you, I love you, I love you. Thug was one of 11 children growing up, all of whom lived together, so the responsibilities of family are regular sources of motivation and frustration.
The family dynamic, though, has had its rough patches, something that mostly becomes clear when Thug talks about his dad. Making a half-hearted effort to clean Metro’s apartment at one point, Rip points out a picture frame on the counter that still features the generic, stock photo of a smiling white family, and everyone laughs. The frame reminds Thug of a story about his dad, who had a strange sort of rivalry with a country sheriff a few years ago. He says it started because of his mom: “She tried to be slick, but you know a man gonna know,” he says cryptically. “So they ended up getting into it.” Eventually, the grudge spilled out onto the street in a high-speed car chase, ending when his dad’s car “fishtailed and flipped over a bridge.” Several months later, when his dad got out of the hospital, he began staking out the man’s home. “He’d spend the night in the house with him,” Thug says. “For real movie-type shit.” To let him know he’d been there, just to scare him, his dad would flip over all the man’s picture frames in the night.
Nobody exactly laughs when Thug tells this story—they nod and then they move on to something else. If you spend any time at all with Thug, you will recognize this reaction: he is full of stories that have this effect on people.
Thug has kids of his own now, and he understands better than most how closely they’re paying attention, how much he matters. “I don’t want my kids saying, ‘My dad was a gangster, so I need to be a gangster,’” he says. “I would rather mine say, ‘My dad was a stunna, so I need to be a stunna.’” His priorities are different now, and so are the people he looks up to. This is the other thing that “Stoner” is about, he says: a claim to a certain kind of lineage. “Hendrix, Michael, Wayne, Future,” he says. “Those are stoners.” As he talks, it becomes clear that this legacy has very little to do with drugs. “Drugs help me think,” Thug says at one point, “but they aren’t the reason why I think.” It’s about a way of being in the world, seeing things off-kilter. It’s about finding a voice that can accommodate the experiences he’s had, experiences that might be beyond words. Or as he puts it, “I don’t want to explain. I hate explaining. But I can definitely show you.”
Family and regional royalty is paramount to Thug, even if more often than not it means being loyal to flawed men. His other father figures, too, tend to be gamblers, the most prominent of which in recent years has been Gucci Mane, who as we talk is across town in federal court, being charged with two counts of firearm possession by a convicted felon. Thug had local hits before meeting Gucci—he got early attention for “I Got It” with Ca$h Out, “100 Dollar Autograph” with Rich Kidz, and later “Who’s On Top,” which features a verse from Wicced. But it was Gucci’s endorsement that put him over the edge, solidifying his reputation in the city and elsewhere. And though Gucci had recently undergone a kind of nervous breakdown in public, alienating many of the artists he’d worked with and ultimately going back to jail for assault, Thug still stands by him. “If Gucci Mane said fuck you,” he says, “you need to please know that Young Thug says fuck you too.”
Listening to him talk about the men in his life, it’s hard not to worry about Thug, to hope he stays out of trouble. Rip says he tries to keep him busy recording or touring, because when he isn’t making music he can be “a problem.” A few weeks ago, one of Thug’s best friends, DK, a member of the clique he calls Y.S.L. (Young Slime Life), was arrested for armed robbery and aggravated assault. He’d been in the hospital briefly and Thug had a photo taken there of the two of them together. It’s on his Instagram: they’re drinking lean, holding the cups to each other’s lips as they sip.