Jeffrey Lamar Williams, better known by his stage moniker, Young Thug, is one of the most influential and prevalent hip-hop artists of the 2010s. Alongside modern trap legends like Gucci Mane and Future, he’s helped pioneer a new era in rap of which his hometown Atlanta is still the face of today.

In May 2022, Thugger was arrested for conspiracy to violate the state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Accused of running a criminal gang called YSL (Young Slime Life), which doubles as his label YSL (Young Stoner Life), the trial began late last year. 

YSL is a label imprint under Warner Music, founded by Young Thug in the early 2010s and officially launched as a label in 2016. The label has become well-known in recent years, setting trends with their slang, having hit songs as a label like ‘Ski’, and multiple signees having great success as solo artists including Gunna and Lil Keed.

You’re probably familiar with Young Thug for year-defining singles like ‘Memo’ or ‘Lifestyle’, or perhaps the extensive list of collaborations with artists such as Drake, Kanye West, J Cole, Camila Cabello, and even Elton John. Over the last decade-and-a-half, Thugger has established himself as one of the most influential figures in rap music.

His run began with a series of mixtapes that caught the attention of Atlanta trap founding father Gucci Mane who signed him to his 1017 Brick Squad Records label in 2013. Soon after, he would strike a publishing deal with Birdman and Cash Money, despite rumors of signing to Future’s label, Freebandz. Around the same time he dropped his early hit ‘Stoner’, and the Young Thug we’ve become fondly accustomed to was officially born.

‘Stoner’ was one of the major pin-drops on his journey to legendary rap career in which (so far), Thug’s released quintessential tapes like Barter 6, the Slime Season series, JEFFERY, and his long-awaited debut album So Much Fun. Each are all extremely influential in terms of style, pioneering the current trap sound and style of making music, which was highly criticised at the time. 

Barter 6 released the same year as Travis Scott’s Rodeo, both lauded as two of the best trap albums of all time. Slime Season 3 features some of his biggest hits like “Check” and “Memo”, while JEFFERY opened an entirely different lens into Young Thugs mind as he posed for the cover donning a purple dress, later revealing that he was hiding an AK-47 underneath (this dress is now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston). 

While Thug was far from ‘unknown’ at the time, his influence was yet to be recognized, nor were his importance, cultural relevance, and standing within hip-hop power dynamics. After 2016, things changed. That year, he featured on Ye’s TLOP, and after the famous sold out Madison Square Garden listening event that Thug modelled in—with Ye even stopping the event to preview the intro to Thugger’s Slime Season 3—momentum picked up.

2017 saw him feature on two tracks from Drake’s More Life, and earn a number one alongside Camila Cabello for ‘Havana’ (now one of the biggest streaming songs ever), while the following year release his debut album, So Much Fun, and earn his first Grammy win for his contributions to Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’.

Aside from the actual music, the culture that exists within hip-hop is as much competitive as it is braggadocios. Since its birth, hip-hop has maintained this element of competition which has led to famous feuds such as Tupac and Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas, Gucci Mane and Jeezy, or more recently, Drake and Ye. While these are extreme examples, bravado plays a lead role in the Thugger show on almost every song, even if it isn’t directed at anybody in particular. 

It would be a hard case for anyone to argue against Thugger’s place both inside and outside the music industry. But in 2024, it’s time for a new conversation surrounding him: If Young Thug is proven guilty of the charges he’s facing, does that make him the hardest rapper of all time?

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that these charges are very much real, and very much sensitive, affecting real people and communities. The matters are still unresolved—making Thug yet to be proven innocent or guilty. 

He’s not the first rapper we’ve seen charged with a RICO—but for someone of Thug’s status and legacy, the outcome of this trial has a huge fallback on the hip-hop community. So, how do these RICO charges impact Thug in terms of his standing within the hip-hop ecosystem? Would Young Thug being found guilty make him the hardest rapper ever?

With all the negative chatter surrounding Thugger over the last decade surrounding his sexuality, musical style, fashion, and music beefs—it’s time for a new Young Thug conversation to begin. Authenticity has always been something that isn’t taken lightly in hip-hop—and people who are caught rapping being inauthentic, or contradict the topics of in music often see their careers take a quick nosedive (see 6IX9INE).

While other rappers may exaggerate, have “half-truths”, or recycle the same repetitive content that gets passed around the community, Thug completely undersold his actual position in Atlanta, his actual stature in the music industry and his depth as an artist, too.

Notably (and controversially), prosecutors are using various Young Thug lyrics against him in court as evidence—a motion which artists like JAY-Z and petitions like Protect Black Art have been trying to intervene with but yet to be successful. The prosecutors are trying to incriminate Young Thug to crimes committed by YSL members, with the main objective being to pin Thugger as the orchestrator (whether he actually committed the crimes himself or not is irrelevant in a RICO).

Think about how many times you’ve heard people making fun of Young Thug: whether it be for how he sounded earlier in his career, the bold, witty, and often outlandish lyrics or perhaps his fashion choices or in general—he was doing all that as an artist while allegedly running a crime syndicate—the story is undeniably hard-hitting. 

“I never killed anybody, but I got somethin’ to do with that body. I got the streets on my back, carry it like I’m movin’ a body. I told them to shoot a hundred rounds, like he tryna movie the body” is the hook for his 2018 song ‘Anybody’ featuring Nicki Minaj—and is just one example of some of the lyrics they’re using against him in court.

On the intro to his 2018 debut album So Much Fun, he addresses the dress worn on JEFFERY: “Had to wear the dress, cos I had a stick”. On ‘Can’t Tell’ from Barter 6, he says “I’ll leave you dead and call it dead-ication”, and on fan favourite ‘Halftime’, Thugger exclaims “Every time I dress myself, it go motherf***ing viral” — just a few examples of the witty genius that is Young Thug, but also the element of real-life that sits behind the lyrics.

Now that the trial is ongoing, it adds a completely new element to the already humorous and entertaining shock-value behind his lyrics—while also making the style he fathered more special. Throughout the past decade, Thug has given us classic mixtapes and countless memorable moments that not only define a generation, but cement him as one of the most influential musicians ever.

Taking into account his influence, legendary mixtape run, while understanding that everything he talked about in his music was, allegedly, a lot realer than we thought, Young Thug may be the hardest rapper to have ever graced the genre.

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