Young Nudy has spent the first part of his career as Atlanta’s favorite cousin.

This is through no fault of his own — it’s just that he happens to be related to one of hip-hop’s most popular artists, 21 Savage. But over the course of eight albums and mixtapes in four years, Nudy has emerged as one of Atlanta’s most swaggering spitters, regardless of who else perches in his family tree.

He’s refined his cocky, slurred flow — with enough menace and growl to send haters cowering, but crafty enough to establish an adoring fan base — and has used the mixtape format to document his improvement, with each release an upgrade in substance and form. Nudy’s ascent has been like the slow clanking climb of a roller coaster gearing up for the first drop. With the release of Sli’merre, his collaboration with producer Pi’erre Bourne, the ride has started, and the rush is exhilarating.

Young Nudy (born Quantavious Tavario Thomas) likes to run with franchises. His first two tapes were called Paradise City and Paradise 2: East Atlanta. After that came Slimeball and Slimeball 2 in 2016 and 2017. It was at this point that Nudy began to emerge as a force, serving as a one-two punch in with his own output and 21 Savage’s stellar Metro Boomin’ collaboration, Savage Mode. Slimeball began to sketch the core appeal of Nudy: there are hood cuts—Nudy in a whining drawl, broken but still pushing — but there’s also a song called “Butt Naked Bitches,” an early collaboration with Pi’erre Bourne. Here, Nudy sounds gleeful, as if all he needed to pitch his voice up in energy was an X-rated celebration of the opposite sex. But still, these Slimeball beats drown. This is broken music by a man who has experienced real trauma in his quarter-century on Earth.

Young Nudy has been through it, and he’s eager to share the lessons he’s learned as often as he is the ones he has not. On 2017’s Nudy Land, his breakthrough project featuring contributions from Offset and Lil Yachty, the stars may attract the casual fan’s attention, but it’s Nudy’s ability to tell stories with clarity and calm that makes the record one of the year’s best. It’s all there on Nudy Land’s first song, “Judge Scott Convicted”: With a deadpan delivery, Nudy unflinchingly tells us everything he’s done that he doesn’t have to do anymore. “Did what I did what I had to n—a / I done robbed a lot of n—as ‘cuz I had to n—a / I ain’t have no food on the table n—a / I ain’t have no motherfucking cable n—a,” he raps, before touching on the jobs his mom couldn’t get, the gun he had to, and the people that never left his side. It’s a life story told in two minutes, the first chapter in a novel that’s beginning to hint at a happy ending.

Last August, Thomas released Slimeball 3, an album that was in turns thrilling and excessive. It’s a summer record, the first time Nudy’s really allowed himself to breathe on tape. He sounds happier: Slimeball 3 features a love jam called “Sherbert” and a remix of “Zone 6” featuring Future and 6LACK, the latter of which was produced by DaBaby’s go-to producer, Jetsonmade. It’s a solid record, a hint at the potential Nudy’s been pushing towards for half a decade. And a few months after its release, that upward trajectory was nearly derailed: Nudy was the other half of 21 Savage’s ICE arrest. On February 3, Nudy was targeted the Georgia Gang Act, and when he was pulled over, 21 happened to be in the car, too, and ICE detained him as a “United Kingdom national” who was “unlawfully in the United States.” Thomas was charged with aggravated assault, while his cousin was whisked away into a maximum security cell.

But with the just-released Sli’merre, Nudy has thankfully moved the conversation away from that harrowing event. He has effectively taken his game to a new level, an Atlanta supporting actor getting his chance to be the star.

Immediately, Nudy sounds like a new rapper. His flows vary from spastically engaged to a lion circling its prey. Sli’merre is versatile, and Pi’erre Bourne is a huge part of that. His simple, melody-driven beats give Nudy enough room to float while coloring the most ambivalent of his flows with enough flavor to work beautifully. Opener “Long Ride” immediately sets a tone of catharsis, with a reflective Nudy pitting tales of trauma and triumph against the subtle melodic hum of Bourne’s beat. Pi’erre has worked extensively with Nudy throughout the rapper’s career, but they’ve discovered something different here. Young Nudy is a changed rapper when he splits the weight of a song with its production — he’s a clever enough lyricist to carry a track on its own, but when he relinquishes some control and lets his producers shine, the results are ecstatic.

“Mister” finds Nudy inviting his cousin to trade verses, but here, he and 21 Savage the two sound like equals instead of master and protege. The beat is all flutes and woozy synths, and a sticky melody from Nudy sets up a Savage verse in which he’s able to move outside of his typical persona and talk shit over the occasional ‘21’ ad-lib. The other guests featured here are equally impressive: rising star Megan Thee Stallion turns in an excellent verse on “Shotta,” DaBaby goes double time on “Dispatch,” and Lil Uzi Vert hops on “Extendo,” a track that finds Nudy harnessing his co-star’s unpredictably energy into a hit.

Nudy uses his projects to forge his sound and style in the moment. He seeks out and settles into pockets as his rhyme schemes unfurl. As such, most of his longer work loses momentum a few times over the course of a record. Sli’merre is his first truly unimpeachable body of work. At 12 songs, it’s slim enough to not lose hold, while still giving enough to exist as a fully digestible album.

Atlanta’s scene has been overflowing for some time, and as such, Nudy spent some time treading water while slowly figuring out his voice. With Nudy Land and the solid effort of Slimeball 3, Thomas became an active participant in one of the country’s most exciting rap scene. No longer a rapper with a more famous cousin, or an emcee metaphorically squatting in houses owned by Young Thug and Future, Young Nudy has fully arrived with Sli’merre — he’s his own entity. Slime season has found its new director, just in time for another Atlanta summer.

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