How Young Thug Became The Prototype For The Streaming Era Star

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Just over a year ago, 300 Entertainment’s CEO Lyor Cohen gave the world a brief but fascinating glimpse into the world of artist development at the highest of levels when he was the subject of an episode of CNBC’s Follow The Leader. In one scene, the legendary music executive sat across a table from his most prized pupil and discussed strategy for his career and the direction he should be focused on next and the artist was blunt: “This year I want 10 No. 1 singles.”

Cohen was as polite as could be, first entertaining the exuberance, asking “Ten?” and getting a silent nod in response, then imparting the advice to Young Thug that’d he needed most at that very moment. “Listen to me carefully,” he pleaded with Thug. “You’ve got to make songs. I’m trying to be helpful. I know you can make songs. I know that. I want you to make more of them. You’re always making records and discarding them. I want you to go back and look at them and say ‘Could I make this song better?’

It was a tense exchange, much like the relationship between artist and label has been at times, and Cohen likened Thug’s randomly released, underdeveloped songs as “little orphans” that he leaves in the earth to fend for themselves. The meeting ended in hugs and smiles, and if you look at all of Thug’s output since then, he’s followed Lyor’s advice to a T.

So why, even with the advice of one of the most astute sages in music industry history, is Thug still not a superstar a year and a half later? Well, maybe he is.

As the industry transitions into the streaming era, the barometer for success has changed, and so too has the archetype of a superstar. Platinum is too rare to be a pillar of stardom as sales continue to dwindle, and streaming has become as prevalent as ever, even as labels and artists struggle to find ways to make that a lucrative revenue source. Artists tour seemingly non-stop, as that has become the surest way to make a buck, and labels continue licensing their material to turn profits on their end.

In this climate, Young Thug’s pure sales numbers have plateaued. His last three official releases, 2016’s Slime Season 3 and Jeffery and this year’s Beautiful Thugger Girls sold 38,000, 37,000 and 37,000 albums in their first week of availability, respectively. Those numbers indicate a strong, dedicated core fanbase, but little variance and more importantly no growth, but they don’t exactly tell the whole story.

The promtional cycle for each project was next to nothing. Between all three projects, Thug released exactly one video for a song from the album before the album. Instead he — and surely 300 — chose to release random tracks that had no connection to either album. He does very little media, instead — as revealed in that same meeting with Lyor — choosing to maintain secrecy and the mystique that surrounds him. His albums receive very little to no lead up, and therefore continue to mostly register with just his core fanbase.

But if you scan through 300’s actions and not their words — requests to speak to 300 for this piece went unanswered — it’s clear 300 just doesn’t value Thug’s albums as much as they do his development at the moment. None of his albums were given hard copy releases, instead relegated to strictly streaming services, online sales and for a few projects, special edition vinyl copies. Thug, still almost two months shy of his 26th birthday, is still developing and 300 is fine with sitting back and allowing him to do that on their dime, in their house and under their watchful eye.

And Thug heeded Cohen’s advice. Each of his releases since then has featured more developed records, and a more measured and polished sound. Gone are the spastic, scatterbrained tracks and mixtapes that make up the first half of his catalog, instead replaced with more cohesive but still experimental and concise projects. And the one thing he hasn’t done is chase radio, instead relying on the entire collective of his work to make an impression, rather than shoot for a one-off success with a cheap radio hit. In essence, Thug has become an albums artists, and a rather intriguing one at that.

Thug’s touring schedule has been a success, regularly filling large theaters nationwide, the same venues that Gucci Mane, Schoolboy Q and stars of that ilk fill, despite the gap between Thug and that group in album sales. His merchandise is constantly sold out and his online profile is almost as large as anybody this side of the Drake, Jay Z, Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye tier of untouchables.

The patience that Thug and 300 are practicing could and probably will pay off in the long run. His arc is beginning to look a lot like that of Kevin Gates, who existed mostly to his core fan base for years before striking platinum in 2016 with two major hits in “Really Really” and “2 Phones” as well as with his album Islah. It took years of work honing his craft alongside Atlantic Records — coincidentally 300 is a subsidiary of Atlantic, which also handles its distribution — and cultivating his fanbase by appeasing to them on an intimate level and touring the country and meeting them face-to-face.

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Gates never approached his creative process any different, he just continued making music for those fans, by himself, without big name guests. Eventually, those fans were so numerous they — and by proxy, he — simply could no longer be ignored by radio, the mainstream media and the rest of the music consuming public. Thug sits ready to make that leap, and he may not need a surefire hit, or a big name feature to make that happen. Future’s profile was raised infinitely by his association with Drake, but until “Mask Off” this year, he’d never entered the Billboard Top 40 with a single that didn’t feature Drake, The Weeknd or Rihanna.

Thug has been closely associated with Drake as well, joining him for the European leg of his latest tour, making two appearances on his last album More Life, and depending on who you believe, writing his latest single “Signs.” He has also been spotted in the studio with Rihanna and worked extensively with Kanye West. But musically, Thug may just be looking to do it all by his lonesome, which would make the accomplishment and anointment of superstardom that much sweeter.

For an example of just how the process works Thug need look no further than down the 300 hallways to Migos, a constant collaborator and label-mate. Migos partnered with 300 back in 2014, just like Thug, and through 300’s social media acumen and a data-accessing agreement with Twitter they doubled — and then tripled — their online imprint in months. They waded in that wave for nearly three years before nabbing their first No. 1 hit — get this, a slow burner — in “Bad And Boujee” and turned that into their first No. 1 album a week later. Migos are now superstars, and it’s apparent 300 knows what they’re doing, they just take their time doing it.

The physical copy and the album sales market is nearing extinction, and has long been an archaic way of judging an artist’s prominence within the industry. With as quickly as things are moving, the markers of success aren’t even calcifying before they’re being altered yet again. Thug might not move units quite like some would like to see, but he’s on the path to success. As his brand grows stronger, and his fans grow more dedicated and the relationship with him and his music grows more personal the breakthrough into mainstream stardom is closer than ever.

Eventually, a song will stick and elevate his status, and much like Gates or Migos, Thug likely won’t have to alter himself or his style much to do it. And then, maybe then, he’ll be getting the calls to join the popstars on their big records, without having ever called them to jump on his. And maybe then, he too will be a popstar.

Or maybe he already is.