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As an artist, Young Thug thrives in between spaces. His chic, fresh-off-the-runway looks flirt with androgyny. Entire sequences of his raps unspool as nonsequiturs forcing listeners to extract meaning from bars of source code. Even the assorted ad-libs in his songs maximize the slightest pocket of air, exploding and retracting back through crevices in his unpredictable flows. He is constantly balancing opposing forces: masculine and feminine, light and dark, playful and humorless, pirouetting on a razor’s edge at all times. Modeling alongside Frank Ocean for Calvin Klein in July, he was as plainspoken about fluidity as he’s ever been. “In my world, of course, it don’t matter: You could be a gangster with a dress or you could be a gangster with baggy pants,” he said in his campaign video. “I feel like there’s no such thing as gender.” It’s this freedom, this refusal to define or label himself, and this progressive spirit that makes everything he does so daring and so mystifying. When industry mogul Lyor Cohen argued with Thug about being more accessible to listeners and more purposeful in thought and action on CNBC’s “Follow the Leader,” his response was simple: “I don’t want everybody just to know, like, ‘Oh, we know.’” The remove is everything to him. When he says or does something, he’s usually daring you to figure out why.
Existing on incomprehensible terms has made Thug recherché to the casual rap fan, which is why his debut album turned retail mixtape, Barter 6, remains his greatest pivot of all. It’s cohesive, understated, and about as accessible as Thug gets, an ingenious turn from oddball rap archetype to intuitive master craftsman. Every release after it lives in its shadow: aimless hard drive dumps attempting to combat a massive data breach that leaked hundreds of Thug songs online last May.
In the months since he eulogized his Slime Season trilogy (“All good things must come to an end, this is the birth of something new”), Thug teased snippets of new songs with captions that just read “JEFFERY.” Not long after, Cohen announced an official name change: No, My Name is Jeffery. A trailer for the mixtape found Thug in an interrogation room explaining to cops who he was. He wasn’t a young thug anymore. “I feel like I had a long-term relationship with Young Thug, and I’m kind of picky, so I felt like I didn’t want to be in front of a Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey,” he explained at the Jeffery listening party. “I didn’t want my kids to grow up and call me Thug because in real-life terms Thug is thug.” It’s impossible not to interpret that as some sort of response to the current racial climate, where the word “thug” is used as a racist dog whistle; it’s his most obvious statement in ages. Jeffery is the first Young Thug release that considers identity. But the rapper is rarely ever literal in verse; he always opts to show, not tell.
Though just as carefully sequenced and well-executed, Jeffery isn’t as tranquil, distant, or harmonious as Barter 6, which had cleansing, almost spiritual properties. Young Thug doesn’t often attempt the same thing twice, but this is perhaps his most chameleonic outing to date. The songs here are all named for his “idols”: Kanye West, former Fugee Wyclef Jean, pound-for-pound boxing king Floyd Mayweather, producer Swizz Beatz, Future, Rihanna, Gucci Mane, Webbie (of “Independent” fame), and Harambe. A careless listener might mistake them for actual song subjects. But these are all just misdirections. Outside of revealing small context clues about his origins as a stylist, and sometimes hinting at his mode or setting (like on “Future Swag”), this isn’t actually about any of those people. “Jeffery is all about Jeffery,” he explained at the listening party. “It ain’t even about Young Thug. Ain’t no Young Thug songs on there.” These are Jeffery songs, and from the sound of things, Jeffery’s greatest influence is his fiancé, Jerrika.
The songs on Jeffery are brimming with romantic subtext—Skyping a lover while she’s overseas, doing things together (“bae drink your lean with me, bae fall asleep with me”), and simply being head over heels for her (“she know she got a nigga bad”). In the opening verse of “Guwop,” he digs everything she says, everything she does, and even the way she looks at him. At one point on “Harambe,” he straight up belts out, “I just want to have a baby by you, girl!” The mixtape swoons and swells, heart fluttering, as Thug waxes poetic about his baby. This is the primary thread woven through the tape, which isn’t so much a love story as a sex tape with loving inscriptions.
Romance is at Jeffery’s core, but it’s driven by dynamic vocal performances others wouldn’t dare attempt—the pleading, bloodhound-ish yowl on “RiRi,” the breathless sprinter’s wheeze on “Harambe,” which explodes into a full-bodied Louis Armstrong impression, and the slinky yips on “Swizz Beatz.” The raps are delivered as mutters, shouts, and gasps, and flows are administered decisively and effectively. His wordplay is nimble and sharp, often using clever associations to create vivid imagery (“I picked my diamonds out a honey tree,” on “RiRi”; “I just got a family pack of Jimmy Choos” and “I got six brand new foreigns on my wrist/I got six Forgiatos on my fist,” on “Floyd Mayweather”). He has longstanding working relationships with every guest but one, and that repetition-built muscle memory shows in the results. He effortlessly passes the baton back and forth with Gunna and mentor Gucci Mane on “Floyd Mayweather,” picking up wherever the last trailed off. Duke, a standout guest on the Barter 6 cut “Dome,” smartly follows Thug’s lead on “Webbie.” The sole newcomer, Wyclef Jean, soothingly coos “Jeffery” over Thug’s shoulder on “Kanye West,” and it’s the optimal complement. There isn’t a word or note out of place.
Despite his growing reputation as a flamboyant eccentric who lives outside the boundaries of traditional songcraft making quirky “post-verbal” rap defying convention, Thug understands the modern pop song construction better than anyone: anything and everything can be a hook. Finding hooks keeps the mind stimulated and euphoric, creating something John Seabrook calls the “bliss point” in his book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. What separates Young Thug songs at their peak from other pop confections is how seamlessly the transitions occur, where they materialize, and what he’s using them to do. He doesn’t want to numb the brain; He wants to super-charge its synapses. Changes happen every few bars, they turn sharply, and they make big dramatic gestures. Take “Future Swag,” which uses repetition, rapidly alternating rhythms, and ad-libs to remain constantly mobile, shifting and morphing six times in the first minute. Or “Swizz Beatz,” where he creates his own echo, repeating phrases within verses (“with me, with me”; “‘bout it, ‘bout it”; “turn up for the”) and within the chorus itself (“love”) while creating alternate hooks with melody. Micro-hooks are hidden inside of hooks and it’s all brain candy.
For nearly 42 minutes, Jeffery explores spacing, lines, form, texture, and beauty—all of which are exhibited in the mixtape’s mesmerizing artwork. The Atlanta rapper seemed to breathe life into the ideas first articulated at the Calvin Klein shoot with the cover, posed in a ruffling dress styled by Alessandro Trincone. While some people’s brains shut down at simply the sight of a man in a dress, the cover exhibits some of Thug’s strongest artistic traits: His eye for composition and stylishness, and his knack for testing limits and hurdling norms. Jeffery embodies these attributes in essence and detail. It’s rangy and stunning, an exciting new curve in the fascinating Young Thug arc.Share