The best part of Kanye’s Madison Square Garden album premiere and fashion show last month happened at the very end, after Ye had run out of music and the models were starting to fidget. And then, out of nowhere: “Hold up, Thug wants to play a song.” The song was “With Them,” the lead track from Young Thug’s latest offering, Slime Season 3, with a rubbery Mike WiLL Made-It beat that bounced wildly through the arena. Everyone lost their shit, though it was impossible to pick up much of anything over the bass. It kind of sounded like a radio hit – something Thug’s label, fans, and presumably everyone but Thug himself have been chasing for a year, mostly in vain, the sleeper success of “Best Friend” aside. But the song itself was secondary in the moment. The strangest rapper alive had just casually hijacked Kanye’s aux-cord party, and that was enough.
"With Them" is a fun song, but I'm not sure it's the hit that 300 Entertainment head Lyor Cohen and friends so desperately crave from Thug now that Slime Season 3 is finally out. “Finally” is relative in Thug’s world, of course – this is his fifth release in a year, and the third in his occasionally transcendent, mostly formless Slime Season mixtape series. This one’s for sale, though. It’s not hard to imagine 300 growing weary of following the unpredictable, unmarketable whims of its marquee rapper. At SXSW earlier this month, Cohen sent a bizarre Snapchat announcement: “Today in Austin we’re gonna bury Slime Season 3.” That evening, a fake funeral procession, covered in Thug and 300 logos, marched down 6th Street. The message seemed clear: The label is moving on from this era of Thug, where great songs slip through its fingers and fade back into his daunting catalogue. In other words, it's going to make his first “official” album, Hy!£UN35, happen, dammit. The only one left to convince is Thug, who’s busy tweeting “Dad” at Kanye like an obsessive Twitter egg and hanging out with Elton John.
While Slime Season 3 is the slightest in the mixtape trilogy in both length and quality, it’s closest in concept to the series’s original plan of exclusively featuring beats from London on da Track, whose contributions have historically led to some of Thug’s catchiest moments. The “Lifestyle” producer handles half of the eight tracks here, including “Digits,” whose Tao Te Thug hook is a highlight: “Why not risk life when it’s gonna keep going? / When you die somebody else is born / But at least we got to say / We ran up them digits, we ran up some money.” But there’s not much here that feels like a significant step forward, production or delivery-wise – save the absolutely bananas “Drippin',” midway through which Thug pauses to announce “You don’t know a ting about me, OK?” in exaggerated patois, then launches into one of his most dynamic verses of 2016, picking up speed, starting to scream. It’s rap, but it’s jazz, too: Thug isn't “post-language,” he just plays his voice like a saxophone. His approach is more free jazz than freestyle: improvisation for the sake of launching away from convention, more about harmonic progression and overall arc than outright lyrical cleverness or stamina. After that peak, the tape is fine. It’s about as good as anything else he’s put out since Barter 6, which is to say it's a bunch of no-big-deal tunes from a rapper known for redefining the very form.
But none of this matters, really — the quest for a radio hit as sticky as “Stoner” or “Lifestyle”; the idea of full-length cohesion as intrinsically valuable; the impulse to rank and dissect a nonlinear, haphazard collection of songs, where aimless mindspray and straight-up genius sit next to each other. As though the highest aim of rap’s most consistent innovator should be to make catchy Billboard hits and craft capital-A Albums that get blurbs on year-end lists. No one else is rapping like Thug is rapping right now, even with the stakes so low one has to be careful not to trip on ‘em. “I just do this shit when I get bored,” he claims too believably on “Digits”; later, on tape closer “Problem,” he shouts: “Yeah I feel like Marilyn Manson, and I want a fucking Grammy!” Those thoughts don’t seem incompatible in this phase of Thug’s career. If the past 12 months of releases is what happens when he’s just killing time, why shouldn’t he have a Grammy?