US - Music - Travis Scott & Young Thug Perform in New York City Nicky Digital/Corbis

When Young Thug exploded from Atlanta’s rap underground into national consciousness last year, there were lots of things that set him apart. There was his appearance—a 6’3″ dude in a dress is hard to miss. There was his predilection for addressing his male friends as “bae” and “hubby.” But most obvious to listeners was how hard it was to understand what he was saying. Although Young Thug’s woozy, warbling songs certainly convey his feelings, they don’t fit neatly into a rap formula focusing on intricate—or even intelligible—wordplay.

The result is an infectious sound that makes sing-a-longs and description difficult. In The Rap Year Book, published earlier this week, Grantland writer Shea Serrano takes one side of the debate. “Imagine if you took both of your feet and stuck them in a bucket full of warm mud and wiggled your toes around,” he writes, “except that mud isn’t mud, it’s your soul.” Young Thug has his share of detractors, though; as rapper Hopsin says in the intro of a warble-rap parody he released last week, “these fools ain’t spittin’ no type of dope shit… they’re not even saying words anymore.”

But Young Thug’s music doesn’t leave behind rap’s signature self-expression through wordplay. Instead, he’s the latest step in the genre’s linguistic evolution: Young Thug expresses his feelings more purely through sounds. Rather than explain a social commentary through lyrics, he can leave the layers of analysis to his fans on Instagram and Rap Genius, and use his songs to authentically represent a self.

Serrano sees Young Thug—whom he describes in The Rap Year Book as “maybe the first post-text rapper, in that he doesn’t even really need words”—as part of a progression of emotion, feeling-based rap. If Kanye’s “Say You Will” showed us the steps for emotional transparency in rap, and Drake’s confessional style familiarized us with the moves, the vocal instrumentation and emotional onomatopoeia that is Young Thug came in and started doing some avant garde interpretive dance. The Atlanta rapper, along with contemporaries like Future and Rich Homie Quan, can better express himself without the filter of words. To translate a sense of pure feeling, warble rap turns to sheer sound—a form of communication that linguist Darrin Flynn sees as closer to “spontaneous speech” than rhyming, metaphor-laden poetry.

Warble Rap: A Linguist’s Guide

For linguists, rap songs offer a goldmine of vernacular conversation. “Rap is the largest repository ever of natural black English speech,” explains Flynn, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Calgary. “The closer that rappers deliver their lines the way they would actually speak around peers, the more it gives you a window into black English vernacular. As a linguist, I get to hear the cadence of how people in Atlanta actually talk with their peers.”

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And while lyrics databases have been around since the days of Usenet, crowdsourced tools like Rap Genius have been a boon to linguists, offering direct translation of syntax and diction. “It transcribes everything for you, and members of the community offer their translations,” says Flynn. “For any huge-scale study of language, there’s now this database with thousands upon thousands of songs.” Flynn finds many of the usual linguistic points of interest in the raps of Young Thug—encrypted slang, elaborate similes, the particular reductions of a speech dialect, double entendres, cross-referencing—but he also believes that the difficulty of understanding the lyrics offers additional insight into the cadence of how people really speak. “Young Thug mixes together lyrics with a series of syllables that just sound good together, like scat,” says Flynn. “It’s a guide to a natural rhythm of language.”

Serrano also sees the coos and yips of warble rap as expressing a vividness of feeling beyond that of verbal description. “For Young Thug and Fetty Wap and Future and Rich Homie Quan, it’s never about what these guys are saying, it’s about how they’re saying it, what they’re doing with their voices,” says Serrano. “These guys came up with a new way to talk, basically.”

Sounds as self-expression may offer a more participatory role for his audience in the experience of listening. As Flynn sees it, the “deliberate slurring” of Young Thug’s lyrics means his listener has to figure out what he means. “With intentionally misheard lyrics, it’s more up to the listener,” he says. “It’s almost like a Rorschach ink blot test. In a way, what Young Thug originally meant becomes less interesting than your own interaction with and interpretation of his music, which depends entirely on who you are.”

Serrano concedes that listeners may find different emotional meaning in the sounds and lyrics of Young Thug, but he doesn’t see a thorough lyrical investigation as the point. “In a lot of instances,” he says, “Young Thug isn’t making music that you have to unravel in terms of meaning. His whole thing is how do I feel? how am I connected to this verse? He’s just trying to generate this feeling, and the feeling is the meaning. It’s that simple.” That clear rendering of feeling is in Young Thug’s process, too: as producer Dun Deal recently recounted to Pitchfork, the artist has been known to enter the studio not with written lyrics, but with drawn symbols.

To Serrano and Flynn, Young Thug’s sounds skim off the layers of metaphor to distill a feeling. Young Thug doesn’t explain; he expresses. The same goes for the rapper’s stereotype-defying wardrobe choices and terms of endearment: “He’s an irritant against homophobia in hip-hop, but he’s not doing it on purpose,” says Serrano. “He puts his dress on, and it’s just a guy wearing a dress. This is just who this guy is.”

Young Thug’s version of off-the-cuff production lends itself particularly well to the era of social media and the search for instant authenticity. In an August cover story for Dazed, the artist explained that it can take him just 10 minutes to create a perfect song. “For him, it’s not a matter of constructing an elaborate thing,” says Serrano. “He’s doing this naturally, like it’s a by-product of his existence.”

In a time when listeners are constantly trying to represent themselves online, Young Thug’s ability to articulate his authentic feelings through his own personal symbols, rather than the filter of verbal metaphors, is paramount. As Serrano explains, “At Young Thug’s best, it doesn’t feel like he made something for us to listen to—it feels like he took some chords and just plugged them into his chest and this is what came out.” His songs are instantaneous, intimate flashes into what it feels like to be Young Thug, made for a generation of listeners constantly looking for rapid authentic connection.

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Young Thug Isn’t Rapping Gibberish, He’s Evolving Language