Young Thug Is His Own Genre Now
On the old Comedy Central puppets-doing-prank-calls show Crank Yankers, there was once a sketch where Ludacris called Def Jam president Kevin Liles and informed him that he would be changing his name. Henceforth, Ludacris would be referred to as Peanut Head. He was going to make a whole album explaining the name change, and his reasoning, he told Liles, was that the name Ludacris sounded like more of a joke: “Peanut Head, that’s a name you can respect.” Liles response was basically: “Hmm. Yeah. Well.” This was more than a decade ago, and even then, it was pretty much a national collective joke whenever a rapper would change his name. Ol’ Dirty Bastard would tell the world that his new name was Big Baby Jesus, and the rest of us chuckled among ourselves and continued to call him Ol’ Dirty Bastard. His old name was still the one printed on the covers of his albums. Nothing changed.
Something similar happened a few weeks ago, when Young Thug announced that he didn’t want to be called Young Thug anymore. Instead, his new name would be No, My Name Is Jeffery. General consensus was that this was another case of Thug, rap’s reigning trickster prince, doing something weird for the sake of it, dominating conversation by forcing the conservative wings of the rap world into fits of prolonged, annoyed head-scratching. In reality, Thug’s reason for the name change was considerably more poignant. He didn’t want his kids to grow up calling their father “Thug.” I wouldn’t want that either. The name change was bound to fail. “Young Thug” is still the name in the credits of Jeffery, Thug’s astonishing new mixtape, and I will continue to call him Thug throughout this column. But the reasoning behind the attempt was noble, even dignified. It had more going on than most of us are willing to acknowledge.
By now, that’s routine for Thug. He’s been around for a few years now, and our ideas about him have calcified. Depending on where you’re sitting, Thug is a fearless trap-music experimentalist, or a fun and lightweight distraction, or a living avatar for the dumbing-down of hip-hop culture. Once we have our idea of what Thug is, whatever that idea might be, Thug will have to move heaven and earth to convince us to change it. Thug can do almost anything, and all of us will interpret what he does in ways that already reinforce our image of him. Everything surrounding the release of Jeffery makes for a great test case. He appears on the cover in that purple Alessandro Trincone dress, looking like Samurai Warrior Scarlett O’Hara, and Twitter rushed to either shake its head or to Photoshop Thug into old Mortal Kombat screengrabs. He names every one of the songs on the new tape after celebrities, “Harambe” included, and Twitter uses it as a pretext to make Young Thug jokes that are also Harambe jokes. But Thug is out here putting emotional force and consideration into all these decisions. We’re taking them as memes. We should stop doing that.
The image on the cover of Jeffery is certainly surprising, but it’s also beautiful in a real and confrontational way. To me, it looks more like the cover of Björk’s Homogenic than anything else. Thug has already expended much of his cultural capital into moving the chains as far as what’s rap-acceptable and what’s not. Only a few years ago, a rap force as transformative as Lil B felt like he had to add the parenthetical onto the end of this album title I’m Gay (I’m Happy). And at this point, Thug, an A-list rapper, is dressing in drag on a fucking album cover and everyone agrees that he’s fully on-brand when he does it. Rap is a long way from being post-gender, but Thug is doing more than anyone else to push it there.
And with those song titles, Thug isn’t just pulling an attention-grabbing stunt. He’s doing something much more interesting. With each of these songs, “Harambe” included, he’s done what he can to channel the spirits of these different figures — or his interpretations of them, anyway — into his own music. “Wyclef Jean” is ecstatic quasi-reggae. “Floyd Mayweather” is a hard, triumphal declaration of self with guest-verses from some of Thug’s hardest peers. “RiRi” finds Thug howling, “Do the work, baby, do the wooooork” on the hook, begging to surrender sexual control to someone else completely. “Kanye West” started out its life as “Elton” and then became “Pop Man,” and I like to think there’s an elegantly layered joke in Thug’s decision to keep changing the title of a song, even after its release, before eventually settling on “Kanye West.”
And when he names a song “Harambe,” I legitimately don’t think Thug is participating in meme culture. Instead, he’s finding an emotional note, considering the fear and rage that must’ve consumed the doomed gorilla as he was dying, shot for reasons he couldn’t understand. On that song, Thug, whose voice is among rap’s most malleable, debuts another delivery entirely. It’s not a new flow; it’s a new way of pronouncing his words — a deep, strangulated pulpit growl that, when heard from a certain perspective, feels instinctive, animalistic. Thug doesn’t use his song to rap about being shot by zookeepers. His music doesn’t work on that literal level. But I do think that he finds some metaphorical way to commune with the song’s namesake.
I have to keep adding “I think” qualifiers to this piece because I’m not really sure what Thug is doing on Jeffery. I don’t think anyone is. Thug doesn’t work in ways that other artists do. More than any previous Thug full-length, Jeffery fits together as a cohesive whole, but the individual pieces don’t necessarily seem like they should fit. There’s some alien, non-euclidian geometry at work here, all these ideas flowing together in ways that the rest of us can’t understand. I don’t know whether Jeffery is Thug’s best mixtape; hierarchical distinctions seem insufficient when you’re talking about this guy’s overarching project. But I can say that it’s his most emotionally rich and resonant work, and that it might be his most playful, too.
For the past few years, Thug has been operating under the general umbrella of Atlanta trap music, working with its stars and producers. He’s been an elusive, consciously ridiculous force within that scene, but he’s been a part of it nonetheless. Jeffery is the moment he leaves it behind and become something else entirely. At any given moment on Jeffery, he is rapping and singing at the same time; as far as he is concerned, there is no longer any meaningful distinction between the two. And this time, he’s found tracks that mimic the textures of his delivery, letting that voice dissolve into gurgling reggae skanks or massed hordes of ethereal IDM synths. Thug’s producers have finally learned how to sound just as dazed as Thug, and the result is something honestly beautiful.
The Thug of Jeffery has also dropped any sense of posturing. Consider the precious minutes he spends singing the word “love” again and again, turning it over and looking at it from every possible angle, like an alien trying to understand human relationships. Or consider the aforementioned “do the work, baby, do the work” bit. In a VFiles interview earlier this week, Thug sat down with his girlfriend Jerrika Karlae and said, point blank, “I don’t care for sex that much,” admitting that his girlfriend essentially had to grab him and throw him into another room “the first time we did grown stuff.” I basically cannot imagine another human being in rap history talking about not caring for sex. What a strange, vulnerable thing to put out there into the world. Thug has obviously had plenty of sex — he has a lot of kids — but he also seems bored by the process. The only comparable thing I can think of is Pistols-era Johnny Rotten calling sex “two minutes and 50 seconds of squelching noises.” But in Rotten’s case, it was a negation, a provocation. With Thug, it just seems like he’s looking for another kind of connection, like he’s not satisfied with what he already has. And somehow, all that comes through in the timbre of his voice.
I’m not done processing Jeffery yet. It’ll take a while. And by the time I’ve figured out what I make of it, Thug will probably already have another mixtape or two out in the world. It’s how he works; flummoxing the world and then moving on before we have time to consider what just happened. Even after he’s been with us for years, Thug still sounds exciting, unstable. He’s always pushing forward, seemingly impervious to creative ruts. Jeffery is another step in a legendary run, and Thug can call himself whatever he wants.
1. Young M.A. – “OOOUUU (Remix)” (Feat. Jadakiss & Uncle Murda)
At some point, I will probably have to devote an entire column to Young M.A., the Brooklyn woman who raps about fucking women and shooting dudes with more weary authority than most male rappers can muster and whose anthemic “OOOUUU” is the greatest export that New York rap has given us this summer. Just about every rapper in the city has jumped on that beat in the past two months, but this remix, with two leathery veteran hardasses, extends its heaviness, though it only really finds liftoff when both guys clear out and let M.A. take her own song over.
2. Young Dolph – “In My System” (Feat. Boosie Badazz)
In a non-Jeffery week, I might’ve devoted more space to Dolph’s harder-than-fuck new Rich Crack Baby mixtape. Its opening track, on which Dolph ponders how hard it is to rise to the top when you’re literally born with cocaine in your system, is sad and inspirational at the same time. And then Boosie, in full-on livewire mode, snatches it and reminds us why he might be the finest bar-for-bar rapper on the planet today.
3. Iamsu! – “Bo$$ Up”
More melodic, elegantly effortless party-rap from an absolute master of the form.
4. clipping. – “Air ‘Em Out”
Nobody ever asked me why I like clipping. better than Death Grips, but I’m going to tell you anyway: clipping. can do dystopian sci-fi fiction over experimental industrial beats, and it still sounds like rap music. I like rap music. That matters to me.
5. Rob $tone – “Chill Bill (Remix)” (feat. D.R.A.M., Denzel Curry, & Cousin Stizz)
A terrible pun and a deeply annoying sample can sometimes still lead to a great song. We should all learn from this.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
After That Direct Deposit Hits At 12 pic.twitter.com/pjQs3muV3g
— Lil Wifi/Glorious (@VanRidd) August 26, 2016