Before this album/mixtape was even released, Young Thug's Barter 6 was already steeped in drama and controversy. As soon as the Atlanta MC announced that the project would seriously be called Carter 6—which he had been mentioning in interviews for more than a year, comments that had largely been taken as a joke—hip-hop heads did a double take. And when Lil Wayne began dissing Thug at shows and appearances, lumping him into Weezy's larger battle against Birdman and Cash Money, shit really hit the fan. The two have traded subliminals and direct shots for days now, ensuring that no matter what it sounded like, Young Thug's new project was the most anticipated tape on the calendar.

That he bowed to a potential lawsuit and renamed the release Barter 6 at the last minute is irrelevant; everyone knows what it really is. And for the first time in his career, Thugger has more legit buzz behind him than his self-professed idol Lil Wayne does for Tunechi's Free Weezy Album (which, coincidentally or not, keeps getting delayed). Before a single person pressed play, the lines were already drawn and the comparisons already apparent: there was a new contender sitting at the right hand of Birdman at Cash Money's lucrative table.

But we're getting sidetracked; a review is about the music, after all, even if the context can feel overwhelming. And from the first drop of ATL producer Wheezy's beat—a subtle, unassuming backdrop—on opener "Constantly Hating," Young Thug's varied and individual flow takes over. He's less wild and slightly more disciplined than he was on the raucous Tha Tour Pt. 1 mixtape with Rich Homie Quan but comes through with quality punchlines and catchy hooks, particularly on "With That," "Knocked Off" with Birdman and the project's first single, "Check." "Amazing" gets a melodic touch from Jacquees while "OD" is the most personal song on display, with Thug sticking up for his homies and shouting out Mike Brown; it might be the closest to a thesis statement he's ever put on wax.

But Young Thug still shines brightest when he has a foil to play off; it's what gives him the freedom to bring the wildness he does when paired alongside Quan on their myriad collection of tracks. Quan's absence is notable—he's wrapped up in the Birdman/Wayne/Thug drama somehow—but the tape's other features represent some of Barter 6's standout moments. "Can't Stop" with T.I. and Boosie Badazz is a major highlight on the project, with both Tip and particularly Boosie coming with formidable verses that flex their diverse flows.

Of course, "Can't Stop" also includes a line on the hook that feels like a direct shot at Lil Wayne: "Pussy boy I leave you dead and call it dead-ication," seemingly a reference to Weezy's long-running Dedication mixtape series with DJ Drama. It's curious in its ambiguity and invites the drama back in when the focus should have been creating a quality body of work. He certainly has done that, but there's still a feeling that if Thug and Wayne weren't so diametrically opposed they could help each other and contribute to the hip-hop landscape collectively rather than force a divide that is disappointing when considering the possibilities.

Regardless, Barter 6 contains all of the elements of the aesthetic that Young Thug has cultivated in the past few years while grinding through his mixtapes. But it's lacking some of that frenetic energy, that feeling of a train careening nearly off the rails and somehow staying on track, that has made Thug one of the most exciting and unpredictable MCs of the last decade. Barter 6 is a worthy addition to Young Thug's growing catalog, but repeated listens make it feel like there's something missing. Luckily, with his debut album Hy!£UN35 now scheduled for the summer, we won't have to wait too long to see what he does next. If nothing else, Young Thug is keeping the rap game on its toes and might just bring out the best in his idol in the process. —Dan Rys