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Young Thug: “Contagious”

With the arrival of a heralded new album, Punk, and a recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, Young Thug’s influential and innovative presence as part of Atlanta’s hip-hop scene continues to build, even though he has already been going strong for a decade now. The 30-year-old Jeffery Lamar Williams grew up as the second youngest of 11 children in Sylvan Hills in the Jonesboro South housing projects. As a nod to the challenging hand he was first dealt in life, Young Thug’s first three mixtapes were titled I Came From Nothing 1, 2 and 3. (It should be noted that Atlanta’s Zone 3 is also where Atlanta rap royalty Waka Flocka Flame, 2 Chainz and Ludacris all hail from.)

While more upbeat tunes like “Bubbly” will probably get the most airtime from this effort, “Contagious” is a subdued, gentler track that rapidly moves from vulnerability to resignation. (Plus, with a title like that, how could it not be a sly nod to where we find ourselves in 2021?)

Over his career, Young Thug has collaborated with an impressive list of VIPs in the industry, like Future and Kid Cudi. He masterfully sampled Sir Elton John’s “Rocket Man” for the 2018 track “High,” striking up a friendship with the British pop legend — one that sustains to this day, as John in a recent interview described being “blown away” by the rapper’s emcee skills. Some of the featured performers on this album include A$AP Rocky, Drake and a final performance by the late Mac Miller, recorded days before Miller died in 2018 at age 26 from an accidental drug overdose.

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Sarah Rae: “Poison Ivy”

From the DC Comics supervillain (or superhero, depending on which iteration you’re watching) to the golden oldie by The Coasters, the gods of inspiration have long been consumed by this diabolical and ubiquitous three-leaf plant that in turn inspires . . . well, lots of itching.

So it is that this melodic meditation on the highs and lows of romantic love steps into an illustrious metaphorical tradition. As performed by Sarah Rae Trammell, known by her chanteuse moniker Sarah Rae, the song with its muffled tones at times seems to represent the narrator getting lost in the lush musical overgrowth.

Earlier this year, she signed with Bentley Records and released her first EP album, Brand New Eyes. This tune premiered initially in June but many months later rolled out with this compelling visual accompaniment conceived by local Atlanta animator P.W. Shelton. Trammell has been singing and playing piano since the age of 8, earned an associate degree from Kennesaw State University in history, literature, and musical science and theory, and then embarked upon a career as a beauty specialist (she owns Tea Time Beauty Salon).

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The Brains: “Don’t Give Yourself Away”

Tom Gray: “Money Changes Everything”

On October 16, the world lost Atlanta music legend Tom Gray, who died at 70 after a long battle with cancer. He was a performer whose soulful, versatile voice could invoke Bryan Ferry from Roxy Music or, when called upon, Iggy Pop for an earthy cover of “Nightclubbing.” Gray left his indelible stamp on the Atlanta music scene through stints at the helm of influential early ‘80s new wave band The Brains. Later, he was a guiding force and toured internationally with the swampy, award-winning blues band Delta Moon. We have two videos for our Vintage Track of the Week in honor of Gray.

Originally from the Washington, D.C. area, Gray moved to Atlanta as a teen and then linked up with guitarist Rick Price while they were college students at Georgia State University. Rounding out their group were bassist Bryan Smithwick and drummer Charles Wolff.

Melodically, The Brains’ “Don’t Give Yourself Away” sometimes careens into surprising territory — with certain chords and snippets stirring up memories of other works like Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” During his time with The Brains, Gray penned his best-known song, “Money Changes Everything,” which became a monster hit for Cyndi Lauper in 1983. This solo version by Gray is from a 2020 performance at Smith’s Olde Bar.

Poignantly, in one of Gray’s final blog posts on his website, dated October 9, he described the process of being awake late at night and beginning to feel the inklings of a new piece of songwriting emerge: “I imagine a groove and the lyrics come. I don’t worry at first about them being any good, but they often ring true. The songs come to life and flit around the room. It’s my job then to catch them.” We’re lucky he managed to catch so many.

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