From Slick Rick and 2Pac to Shyne and Bobby Shmurda, prison time impacts musical careers, mostly for the worst. Young Stoner Life (YSL) top dog Young Thug has been incarcerated for more than a year on charges of conspiracy to violate the RICO Act. Yet, in spite of that tragedy and turmoil, he’s here to set the record straight with his first album since 2021’s Punk, assisted by executive producer Metro Boomin and a supporting cast of his A-list rap peers.
Business Is Business kicks off with the melodramatic mafioso opener “Parade on Cleveland,” featuring longtime collaborator Drake and titled and after Thugga’s neighborhood stomping grounds in Atlanta. After Drake opens with a scene-stealing melodic verse, Thug arrives in dramatic fashion via a recorded call from prison. Many listeners have been expecting this album to address Thug’s stance on Gunna — the Scottie Pippen to his Michael Jordan — who accepted a plea deal in the YSL case and was released from prison. Gunna just dropped his own new album, A Gift and a Curse. Thug does not disappoint: When the instigating Drizzy asks Thug how he’s doing, he answers, “Just pushin’ more Peter, more sweeter, more completer than any Peter pusher around,” which seems to be a nefariously subtle play on Gunna’s 2022 banger “Pushin’ P.” The audio of the phone call was obviously edited, so we don’t know the context for the quote. His verse on the track over Metro Boomin’s slow brooding production, while lyrically decent, feels lifeless; that might be an honest reflection of his situation right now, but it falls flat compared to past album intros from Thug like “Die Slow” from Punk and “Just How It Is” on 2019’s So Much Fun.
The title Business Is Business feels appropriate. Thug’s performance is just that. Strictly business. Eerily, the album’s hodge-podge quality has the feel of a posthumous LP made by someone who is still alive. The boundary-pushing, dress-rocking, unpredictable superstar we’ve watched evolve over the years feels significantly diminished here. Whatever the spark the music has is largely carried by his guests. Songs like “Money on the Dresser” and “Hoodie,” while catchy, feel uninspired due to their lackluster, materialistic lyrics. Business Is Business is strikingly inconsistent. Thug’s overall performance on the 21 Savage-assisted “Want Me Dead” and “Abracadabra” bring to mind top-shelf moments of the past, while his verse on “Cars Bring Me Out” has no standout bars, even if his impeccable tag-team chemistry with Future remains in tact.
The other artists here bring a sense of fervor that many of them also contributed to the album’s rollout. Drake in particular is in his all-star form, perfectly shifting between rapping and harmonizing on “Oh U Went” as he delivers bars like, “Six God, he a visionary/I’m the definition like the dictionary/Baby, turn around, forget the missionary/If they pull up on me with some bad intentions/You gon’ read about it in obituary.” And the unified force of Thug, YSL rapper Yak Gotti, Travis Scott, and 21 Savage on the Wheezy Outta Here-produced “Wit the Racks” is one of the most exhilarating moments on the album. Each of them overdelivers atop grandiose horns and drums, especially Travis and 21 Savage, who link up for a brutalizing verse: “Switch on a Glock, strike a pose/I’m a cameraman, it’s shutterin’/Nosy niggas, we buttonin’/Bend it over, let me see somethin’/Young FL Studio from the back, I’m tryna beat somethin’,” Savage raps.
Such moments excepted, the content of Business Is Business feels bland, especially for an expectations-thwarting artist like Thug, who seems to be playing to the combative nature of online rap stans rather than taking the opportunity to offer any thoughts on his perilous situation or the state of the American criminal-justice system and its seemingly intentional moves against rap artists. He does try to offer some insight into his emotions and thoughts over Nate Ruess’ sentimental hook on the closer, “Global Access,” as he sings, “They will try and lock you up/Drag your name down through the mud/Afraid of all that you’ll become/’Cause that’s life here in America/So they will try and keep your mouth shut/Take your words and twist them up/Afraid that you will change the world/It’s just life here in America.” Moments like that are few and feel tacked on.
Most rap albums recorded by artists in jail feel inherently constricted compared to post-prison releases like Gunna’s a Gift and a Curse. For a previously thrilling artist like Thug, the results are uniquely bleak. Taken together, Gunna and Thug’s projects, arriving just days apart, do work together to underscore the ruinous impact of the YSL Records case. The fire that made even pro forma YSL releases like the Slime Language 2 compilation minor hip-hop masterpieces has dimmed. But that doesn’t mean it’s extinguished. Young Thugs fans are ready for him to get back at it, under the right circumstances, even if things might not ever be the same again.