On a cold evening in February, right after Drake performed for a room of celebrities and TV executives at a private Super Bowl party in New York’s Meatpacking District, his DJ played one song to close out the night: “Danny Glover,” by the 22-year-old Atlanta rapper Young Thug. Seated in the VIP section, Paul McCartney and Kim Kardashian’s little sister Kendall Jenner listened as Thug’s voice shifted shapes, darting between quick yelps and warbled singing over drums seemingly set to the time of someone skipping. Earlier in the night, the crowd had sung along as local radio jock Funkmaster Flex spun wedding classics like “I Love Rock and Roll,” but now the room felt momentarily off-balance and charged with attention. “Danny Glover” was a challenging proposition, but not unwelcome. A handful of guys dressed like bankers howled along: “Money stand like 8 feet just like twoooo midgets.”
“Danny Glover” is a strange song that sounds immediately familiar, its melody and Thug’s elastic delivery carrying more meaning than its lyrics. The instinctive response to hearing it is to loosen your limbs and throw them at the air — or at least that’s what Drake and Kanye West did with admiration at different clubs as DJs spread the song in January. Later that month, Nicki Minaj mimicked Thug on her own version of “Danny Glover.” “It was one signature stylist welcoming another to the club,” the New York Times wrote.
By February, Kanye had reportedly summoned Young Thug to California from his home in Atlanta to record. “Danny Glover” could be heard on radio stations nationwide, along with his song “Stoner,” a singsong anthem that also became the unofficial soundtrack of a Vine dance craze.
The people who made videos of themselves dancing to “Stoner” proved what people in Atlanta had known since Thug, who was born Jeffrey Williams, emerged there in 2011 — Thug’s songs were as catchy as they were weird-sounding, and his dare-to-be-different approach made him a lovable people’s champ. But while the grassroots fans Thug had worked to win over — and who thought of Thug as an eccentric, unsigned underdog — had the power to create a conversation around him, they didn’t have the power to get “Stoner” onto radio in New York. Still, someone had added the song to Power 105.1’s regular playlist in mid-January, and Hot 97’s playlist in early February, and it was an industry guessing game to figure out who.
It turned out the answer was a record label whose contract with Thug was a secret. (The secret was not an exceptionally well-kept one — rumors of the deal surfaced online after another rapper from the label’s roster was tacked on to a “Stoner” remix.) But why would a label keep their relationship with a budding star under wraps? And why had no one put an official version of that track up for sale — especially since rap’s power players were clamoring to tie themselves to the buzz of “Danny Glover”?
Because although Young Thug wanted nothing to do with the label, he’d signed a contract with them that he couldn’t get out of. According to multiple sources, he felt ripped off and went rogue, seeking out new advisers, while those at the label that now owned a percentage of his income scratched their heads and waited. In the meantime, the career of one of hip-hop’s most promising rising stars hung in the balance.
Long before Drake was a fan, Gucci Mane, the Atlanta rap icon whose erratic behavior has threatened to overshadow his prolific talent, recognized Young Thug as a peer and potential successor. “I chased the boy down and told him like, you’re one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with,” Gucci said last year, after recruiting Thug to come work at his private studio, the Brick Factory, an “open environment” where a team of producers and rappers worked around the clock. In the summer of 2012, they were two mad geniuses egging each other along. The results of their shared burst of creative productivity can be heard across two early 2013 releases: Gucci Mane’s Trap House III and 1017 Thug, the mixtape that cemented Thug’s reputation in Atlanta and appeared on lots of nationwide best of 2013 lists.
1017 Thug’s title pledged allegiance to Gucci Mane’s label, 1017 Brick Squad, and Thug has remained fiercely loyal to Gucci since that tape’s release. After Gucci Mane underwent a public meltdown last fall, insulting former allies on Twitter and ultimately being sent to jail for violating the terms of his parole, Thug defended him. “If Gucci Mane said fuck you,” he told one reporter, “you need to please know that Young Thug says fuck you too.”
Thug’s allegiance wasn’t in name only — he’d also signed a binding production deal with Gucci Mane and 1017 Brick Squad. This happened around March 2013, said an Atlanta music publicist who has worked with Thug. The exact terms of that contract are unknown, but a current industry-standard contract for a different rap production deal obtained by BuzzFeed outlines an agreement where, for an agreed-upon period, a production company owns the exclusive rights to an artist’s recording masters, videos, artwork, and name. The deal stipulates that the production company will release and promote the artist’s videos, mixtapes, or albums in order to develop their career and eventually a secure a deal with a major record company. Then, the production company would furnish the artists’ exclusive recording services to the major label, for a price, to be negotiated by the company that signed the production deal.
So when Young Thug signed another deal with Atlantic Records imprint Artist Partners Group just weeks after Gucci Mane returned to jail last September, it’s not clear if he knew that by doing so, he was creating an arranged marriage of sorts between them and Gucci Mane. “Gucci was in jail,” the Atlanta publicist said. “I think at that point, [Thug and his team] felt like the Gucci contract was void. Thug is a real street kid — paperwork and legal shit, it don’t register to him like that.”
Emails obtained by BuzzFeed confirm that APG signed Young Thug in the fall of 2013, and worked to promote him. When the deal was made, APG did not know that Thug had signed a deal with Gucci Mane, according to Jordan*, a source who worked with APG on the Young Thug project and was privy to Thug’s contract negotiations and promotional budget. “If APG knew about his deal with Gucci at that point, they might have not even signed him,” Jordan said.
APG has two divisions: Artist Partners Group for recording artists and Artist Publishing Group for producers. Its mission statement is “to further the careers of the next generation of superstar songwriters, producers and musicians.”
“They’re good at getting people early,” one artist manager whose client has a publishing deal with APG told BuzzFeed. “When APG look at someone, they think about breaking somebody into popular culture, not something that’s gonna be the hottest thing on the urban market. That’s the reason APG exists: They’re gonna go find those talents that [parent company] Atlantic Records probably wouldn’t put any money into, cause they’re a higher risk.”
According to Jordan, APG thought of Young Thug as a risky artist, with a vague name that might be hard to sell. But when APG A&R Jeff Vaughn traveled to Atlanta and witnessed how Thug was admired there, Jordan said, he sold Mike Caren — APG’s CEO and the president of Atlantic parent company Warner Music Group’s A&R department — on the idea. “Mike was like, ‘Fuck it, if you can sign him cheap, go for it,’” said Jordan. Multiple sources confirm that Thug signed a “full-blown 360 deal” with APG, meaning that the label negotiated rights not only to income from Thug’s recorded music, but also things like his live performances and merchandise. “Mike Caren is the most honest person I ever met in this industry. But that’s the business model at Atlantic, 360 deals,” said the artist manager with an APG-signed client. This claim isn’t new — back in 2010, Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco criticized Atlantic for pressuring him to revise his existing contract and sign a 360 deal.
Still, even though APG stood to make money from Thug’s music as well as his other ventures, their up-front investment in him was small. Jordan claimed Thug’s entire contract was worth just $30,000, and that he got a $15,000 advance at signing. (Another source confirms the $15,000 advance, and added “I’d be surprised if it was more than $50,000 total.”) Compared to the million-dollar deals buzzing rappers have reportedly signed after recent bidding wars, these numbers are strikingly slight.
Deals like Thug’s — where a label acts like a friend (or in startup terminology, an angel investor), throwing a little money behind videos or online advertising for an artist who’s made some songs on their own, hoping to help them get noticed and make some money back with revenue from tours and merch — are a relatively new phenomenon. Until the early ’00s, labels focused less on promoting existing songs than creating new ones, and tailoring them to mainstream tastes. “You used to get a guy with a decent amount of raw talent, and put him in the studio with as many people as you can until something workable came out that was glossier or more broadly appealing than whatever they started out doing,” New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica said.
But since 2000 or so, major-label rap sales have tanked, and rappers became able to instantly distribute their own music through networks like Myspace and DatPiff. This is the decade where mixtapes — an album-length compilation of new or hit songs, usually hosted by a DJ, and sometimes featuring rappers freestyling over beats taken from songs released by major labels, sometimes sold but often available for free — seriously threatened the popularity of major-label rap releases. By 2007, major labels started cracking down on mixtapes where rappers “borrowed” industry beats without paying for them. Prominent mixtape host DJ Drama was arrested, and artists were pushed to record more original songs for their tapes. As a result, many of the decade’s most memorable releases were artist-driven mixtapes, with no label push behind them — Gucci Mane put out no less than six in 2009. “If major labels were smart or crafty enough to dictate where hip-hop went — especially grassroots, street-oriented hip-hop — it would’ve went somewhere very different. We would not have wound up with Gucci Mane,” New Yorker staff writer Kelefa Sanneh said in 2011.
In post-Gucci Mane 2014, artists compete to be seen as street favorites, making hits on their own terms that spread organically among fans, with the help of tastemaking blogs and sites like Livemixtapes.com. “In the current hip-hop business climate, in order to become an artist that people care about, it’s basically irrelevant if you’re signed to a major label,” Caramanica said. Marcos Rippy, who worked as Young Thug’s manager in 2013, said that for new artists, affiliation with a major label can be regarded as a kind of handicap: “It’s better when things come from an underground point, especially in rap music. It’s better when it comes from the fans than when it comes from the executive level,” he said.
These days, rappers prove their viability by breaking into public consciousness independently. And Thug did self-start his career — “Stoner” was first released on a free compilation mixtape last September, before APG signed Thug. “An A&R guy is at this point is just checking the internet and being like, ‘Who’s bubbling? How can I get that guy to make money for me?’” Caramanica said. After catching wind of what’s trending online, labels step in to offer the promise of scale. With video budgets and touring support, or by getting acts on Fallon and Letterman, they aspire to turn micro nationwide phenomena into macro ones.
In emails obtained by BuzzFeed that were sent in October and November 2013, Atlantic staffers discussed plans for a January 2014 Young Thug album, to be called #HiTunes. They talked about creating “Grateful Dead-inspired” cover art for “Danny Glover” and “Stoner,” and shooting a video for Thug’s song “2 Cups Stuffed.” According to Jordan, if all had gone according to plan, Thug could have put out up to six releases with APG and Atlantic’s support: two EPs released for sale on iTunes (but marketed, for the sake of approachability and authenticity, as “mixtapes”), followed by four full-length albums.
Based on the success of Thug’s single “Stoner” — as of late March, it had been streamed 11 million times on YouTube and another million times on Spotify, and was in its third week on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts — Jordan said Thug may have been able to renegotiate the terms of his contract, leveraging for more money. (Jordan claimed that another APG rapper, Kevin Gates, did this. Reps for Kevin Gates declined to speak with BuzzFeed for this story, but after a couple of successful iTunes releases, Kevin Gates is now publicly listed on both APG’s and Atlantic’s rosters.)
But #HiTunes was never released. By the end of January, Jordan said, APG had stopped spending money on Young Thug altogether. Rapper Danny Brown asked Thug to open up for him on the U.S. leg of his spring tour, but Jordan says Thug turned down the offer when APG refused to pay for Thug’s tour expenses, because he hadn’t been cooperating with them. Today, while Atlantic continues to promote Young Thug’s single “Stoner” to radio, Thug has ceased all communication with APG. He and the label are “in a stalemate,” Jordan said. Several other sources — the Atlanta publicist, an A&R working for another label, and an Atlantic staffer — corroborated Jordan’s version of events. Thug and the label are now estranged, or in “limbo.”
The easy scapegoat here is APG — the industry guys signing the local scene king for whatever he’d take. But in fact, it seems there’s no one party totally responsible for what’s become of Thug’s deal. “There are things that Young Thug could have done that he didn’t do,” Jordan said. “He wouldn’t take the time to go meet with a lawyer.” (Young Thug did not respond to multiple inquiries, through reps, to comment for this story.)
This type of situation — an artist signing a production deal, then joining up with a major label — is not uncommon, and usually wouldn’t be an issue, if the original deal-holder was able to negotiate the terms of the new deal. But by implying he was a free agent when he signed with APG, Young Thug essentially forced an unintended partnership between APG and Gucci Mane, without either party’s consent. “Gucci Mane was supposed to negotiate what label Thug would have ended up on, but that didn’t happen,” Jordan said.
It didn’t help that Gucci Mane and Atlantic already had a particularly sticky relationship. Gucci Mane was once signed to Atlantic as a solo act, and his boutique imprint 1017 Brick Squad was distributed by Atlantic. But after his September 2013 breakdown, during which he insulted Atlantic on Twitter, Gucci reportedly was dropped from Atlantic. (The relationship of Gucci Mane’s 1017 label to Atlantic is now unclear — one label rep told Billboard that 1017 Brick Squad is still an Atlantic imprint; another reached by BuzzFeed said “1017 is not a part of Atlantic.” It’s possible that 1017 Brick Squad is operated independently but somehow backed by Atlantic’s parent company, Warner Music Group — perhaps via the Warner-owned distribution arm Alternative Distribution Alliance.)
According to Jordan, APG realized that Thug had a pre-existing deal with Gucci Mane around Thanksgiving 2013. “They thought Gucci was crazy and that he didn’t actually have paperwork signed with Thug,” Jordan said. “Then Gucci produced the paperwork.” That’s when Jeff Vaughn, the A&R who brought Thug into APG, called Thug a liar, according to Jordan. (Vaughn declined to speak with BuzzFeed for this story.)
After that incident, APG’s working relationship with Thug unraveled quickly, and Thug’s star rose rapidly. In January, while Kanye was dancing to Thug at clubs, Thug fired his manager, Marcos Rippy, who had brokered the deal with APG. “Other people started getting into Thug’s ear saying they could get him out of the deal,” Jordan said.
In late January, Thug tried to shop for new contracts with a new manager, Akon’s brother Abou “Bu” Thiam, and the senior VP of A&R at Columbia Records, Shawn “Tubby” Holiday — who helped create the summer smash “Blurred Lines” as Robin Thicke’s manager — spent time with Young Thug in the studio. “We were interested,” Holiday said. “I think [Thug is] a good artist for a major label; he knows how to make good melodies and he’s got a song that can work not only in the club but also on radio. But he was already signed.”
For Thug to get out of the APG deal, according to Jordan, APG would have to willingly terminate the contract, or Thug would have to fulfill the obligations of the contract — to record and release music. Even so, Thug continued to speak as if he was clear to get out of the APG deal and move elsewhere. During a radio interview with Atlanta’s DJ Drama in January, Thug said he had signed with rapper Future’s Freebandz label, an imprint of the major label Epic, which is owned by Sony.
After just a couple of weeks, Young Thug and Bu parted ways. According to multiple sources, Birdman — the Cash Money Records mogul best known for guiding the careers of Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, and Drake — came on as Young Thug’s manager in February.
Birdman’s crew YMCMB is “the best imaginable fit for [Thug],” former manager Rippy told BuzzFeed. “He’s been dreaming of working with those guys his whole life.” When asked about his label allegiances these days, Thug trumpets this new affiliation. “Rich Gang to the death,” he said in a March interview with The Fader, referring to the name of Birdman’s management company. (A rep for Birdman said he was unavailable to comment for this story.)
It’s uncertain what Thug, with the backing of his idols, will do now. Thug’s friends have been releasing new Thug songs online, apparently against the will of APG. “They want him to stop putting out music, because they want the focus of Young Thug to be on ‘Stoner,’” Jordan said. “But Young Thug’s gonna do what Young Thug’s gonna do.”
All of this uncertainty has become a part of Thug’s appeal. “Isn’t his charm, at least for now, his being fundamentally unwrangleable?” critic Caramanica asked. “You don’t wanna create some romantic idea of a guy who’s an outlaw from the system, but I like the fact that he seems to be operating a bit in the void right now.”
Jordan hypothesized that Atlantic, perhaps now feeling that Thug is a smaller “risk” than it once thought, may try to shift Thug from APG to 300, the new label from veteran executives Lyor Cohen, Todd Moscowitz, and Kevin Liles, which will be distributed by Atlantic. Backed with funding from Google and working with data from Twitter to sniff out trends early, 300 aims to help self-sufficient artists reach new heights, while working with fewer people and less bureaucracy than a traditional record company.
According to Jordan, it may be possible for 300 to sign Young Thug because 300 is in the Atlantic system, and has more sway over Atlantic chairs Craig Kallman and Julie Greenwald than APG CEO Mike Caren. “[Lyor] could go in there and be like, ‘I’ll do the deal with 300, I’ll keep Mike involved and I’ll give Thug and additional advance to keep him happy,’” Jordan said. If Thug does sign a deal with 300, it seems that Gucci Mane will remain involved in some capacity too. “He’ll continue to get money from it and he’ll earn some money up front,” Jordan said. (Through a PR rep, 300 declined to speak with BuzzFeed.)
In the meantime, a Gucci Mane and Young Thug joint album will be released on April 1. (The songs on it were recorded in the summer 2013, before Gucci Mane went to jail, according to the Atlanta publicist.) Another producer, Metro Boomin, will independently release an album of songs he recorded with Thug, under the moniker Metro Thuggin, this spring. Young Thug and Atlanta rapper Rich Homie Quan — who also has a complicated label situation — have plans to release a joint project too, tentatively titled Rich Homie Thug, though they appear uncertain about when they’ll be able to put it out, or whether or not they’ll be able to charge for it: “Coming out, a Rich tape, ain’t gonna tell y’all when. It might be an EP; might not even give y’all no more free music,” Quan said in a March video interview. Standing at his side, Thug looked off in the distance and tossed his head to the side, thinking. “Fans first,” he added wistfully.
The biggest takeaway from the Thug mess is that the music industry is hungry for capital-A artists, who’ve independently proven themselves to be creative, polarizing, or generally attention-grabbing enough to cut through the clutter around them and engage their niche of the market. “You want somebody who has potential, the talent, and is a star. There are just certain things you can’t teach,” said Columbia executive Holiday. “What you’re finding now is that not everyone has the man power to do artist development. So some labels look for stuff that already has a buzz or already has a following.” And now, social media data has made it easier than ever for labels to identify artists like Thug, whose influence can be measured in his ability to inspire listeners to make Vine videos, or win Instagram likes for how well he wears a dress.
But for his fans, Young Thug is now a star in waiting, a corkscrewing voice with a deep inner well of resonant ideas. Fans know how he sounds, but they’re waiting to see how his brand might look on a large scale. For now, though, the dream of his emergence from label limbo, his sonic promise matched to a big-budget live show with outrageous costuming, feels distant, and hard to touch.
“I don’t think anyone wants to make a song and not know its fate or not know who owns it,” said critic Andrew Nosnitsky, who runs two popular rap blogs. “I don’t think anyone benefits from these messes — not the artist, not fans, not the label, not anybody. It’s sad, because there are a lot of people that would be psyched to hear that Young Thug signed a deal.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity.