For being one of the most eccentric and genuinely odd rappers alive, Young Thug is somehow also one of the most visible. He’s a perpetual source of musical fascination through his always-on social media presence, constantly teasing new music from a seemingly infinite cache of unclassifiable hits. The ever-looming prospect of his debut album Hy!£UN35 (pronounced “hi-tunes”) paired with the ferocious pace of his output otherwise has slowly begun to appear as an exercise in breaking down traditionally held ideas about what constitutes an official release in an age of Spotify and SoundCloud. His ferocious pace makes it easy to forget that his breakout mixtape, Barter 6, dropped in April of 2015, not even a year and a half ago. His latest, No, My Name is Jeffery, released on August 26th after two weeks of delays, is the next station in Thug’s development towards his proper long-play debut. It’s his boldest post-Barter 6 release yet, showing us the clearest picture to-date of what we can expect from Thug once he begins fashioning albums outside of the mixtape mould.
By the time that day comes Young Thug as we know him may be no more. As he announced on Travis Scott’s Beats 1 “.wav” radio show, he has changed his name to “Jeffery”--his name on his birth certificate--originally only for a week. But now it appears the new name might be here for good. “I never had a street mentality,” Thug explains to Scott, “I always had a Michael Jackson mentality.” It’s an unorthodox move this far along into his career, no doubt, but one that seems to capitalize on his larger mainstream ambitions. “Ain’t no Young Thug songs on here,” Thug comments in the same interview. “The whole album is straight crossover.” With Jeffery Thug is coming more into his own, closer to the place he wants to be at by the time HyTunes arrives, and it shows the extent to which Thug’s massive output since Barter 6 has already altered the mainstream landscape, making his pop ambitions as clear as ever.
During the time Jeffery was postponed due to cover art disagreements Thug released his first proper single from the album, Elton. A week later, when the album finally dropped, the track was revealed as the album closer, but now appearing under a different name, Pop Man. It’s undoubtedly the standout track on the tape and, at six minutes long, one of Thug’s longest and most compositionally diverse tracks to date. It’s a Wheezy and Cassius Jay beat - the former responsible for many of Thug’s biggest hits over the past year - and it sounds like a perfect blend of Barter 6’s moody, atmospheric production and Thug’s more recent pop-oriented work. The bass tones are supersized and fluid, progressing with a range reminiscent of Metro Boomin’s most identifiable Future beats; a touch of marimba introduces the song’s basic chord structure, providing a vaguely Caribbean flavour to the track, certain to bring comfort to anyone who has listened to the radio this past summer and witnessed the sudden dancehall phase infecting the charts; Thug intersperses the background with an array of mouth sounds that are instantly recognizable as his own brand of strange; and Jean parries Thug’s excess-to-the-point-of-incomprehence lyrics with a plea to reconsider his lustful desires before dropping his voice down a whole octave to contribute a couple of stylized bars that float around the stripped-down, bass-heavy beat. It all amounts to somewhat of a pop-rap ballad. But, perhaps most interesting of all, a day after he drops the album, Thug changes the name of the track to Kanye West.
Perhaps the two really are synonymous to Thug. Kanye is a Pop Man for a post-pop generation. It’s just now beginning to become clear how much of recent Ye is taking cues from the Young Thug playbook. Ye’s stated his admiration explicitly over Twitter, invited Thug to be in his Yeezy Season 3 fashion show (where he also debuted Slime Season 3 stand out, With Them), christened Thug a modern day Bob Marley, and expressed a desire to release a Ye x Thug collaborative album. It almost feels tongue-in-cheek then when Thug renames the song Kanye West, in part because it’s so reminiscent of Ye’s appropriation of the mixtape model to cast a net over his ever-increasing erratic behaviour in recent months across all mediums, but also because it serves as a reminder that, as far as captivating an audience through volatile behaviour and unpredictability, no one does it better than Young Thug himself.
The lead-up to the release of Jeffery, still technically the latest “commercial mixtape” in Thug’s seemingly endless run of releases before his ever-in-the-works debut album, gave the impression that it would be his biggest release since Barter 6. And all publicity and self-promotion aside, it sounds like Thug’s most major production since Barter 6 broke him onto the scene. Jeffery plays like logical product to come at the end of three Slime Season albums: it’s nine tracks that together display a cohesion and understanding of form that Thug seemed to be working towards throughout the course of the Slime Season tapes.
The opener Wyclef Jean begins with guitar chords establishing a slow, steady off-beat rhythm. Perhaps it’s a nod to Kanye’s Bob Marley christening, but it sounds uncomfortably close to a pop-rap instrumental, as if there’s an equal chance of Wiz Khalifa hopping on the beat as there is Thug or any of his abrasive ATL brethren--such as Young Scooter, Yak Gotti, or Duke--that have become familiar features on much of his output. It’s nothing like the London on da Track beats that helped cement Thug’s style on Barter 6. But, yet again, somehow Thug’s idiosyncratic understanding of flow belies the banalities of the beat, injecting it with a pulse of intricately positioned ad-libs and swoons, until the track sounds like nothing else in either established camps; not pop, not rap, nor is quite pop-rap, but rather Thug’s projection of how these genres sound to him.
That seems to be Thug’s M.O. guiding him through his transformation to a bona fide pop star on Jeffery: he builds his way through the pre-established conventions of his idols and their respective genres to imagine them recast in his own mold. Future Swag, for example, is a finely crafted Future tribute song that never makes a single reference to Future himself. Everything about the track projects a Future aura, from the Kill Bill sample that has become a Future-Metro Boomin production staple, to the dark-yet-radiant synth use, to Thug’s syrup-soaked flow. Or there’s the track RiRi, a Rihanna tribute with tangential-at-best lyrical relation to Rihanna that so ingeniously pulls emotional resonance out of a chorus through repetition of the word “work” that it becomes clear that Thug’s pop tributes are not directed at communicating lyrically his indebtedness to his idols, but at transforming each of their sonic templates to show the intensity he has to offer while operating in their register.
“Beyonce got an everywhere swag,” Thug comments in the same Beats 1 interview with Scott. “I got an everywhere swag.” If Thug achieves the sort of universal appeal that his comment suggests, he may be among the most aesthetically polarising rappers to ever do so. Since his I Came From Nothing mixtapes Thug has separated himself apart from the milieu of the Billboard-rap-pack through incoherence, unpredictability, and near unintelligibility--a far cry from the paradigms that a tradition of defiant, forthright, and melodic lyricism in hip-hop has taught us to expect from our rap stars. So, it’s no wonder that Jeffery bolsters its appeal to radio play by featuring some of his most polished and manicured beats to date. Far from the dark atmospherics of Barter 6 and much of his Slime Season work, Jeffery is clean and bright, at times to a fault. It seems almost too appropriate to discover that the production behind nearly half of the tracks on Jeffery goes to relative newcomers “Billboard Hitmakers”. According to their website (one of very few sources of information about them) CEO Big John got his start making music with Akon and Wyclef Jean, and given the appearance of the latter on the mixtape perhaps it’s not entirely surprising to see them show up in the production notes. Outside of RiRi, undoubtedly one of the best on the album, their beats can come across as too clean for their own good, almost anodyne at times, which might just be a product of their stated mission to make hits across all genres, capable of appearing underneath the name of any artist in vogue on the Billboard charts. When asked which artist, dead or alive, he would most like to work with Big John responded, to no surprise, Michael Jackson, the king of pop himself.
In November of 2015, directly in the wake of the first two Slime Season tapes, longtime audio engineer Alex Tumay remarked that the work he’s doing with Thug is aimed at bridging the gap between the Thug of “Danny Glover” and Rich Gang and the Thug of mass appeal, radio hits, and Hy!£UN35. Now, nearing a year to the date, “Jeffery”--the artist formerly known as Young Thug--and Jeffery--his most major release since then--beg the question: if Thug joins the ranks of Drake and Kanye West, if he turns his “orphans”, (the word 300 Entertainment boss Lyor Cohen recently used to decry Thug’s mixtape model approach to releasing music) into chart-topping singles played with the regularity of a Panda, Work or One Dance, would it be all that strange? How much of Young Thug will persist under the guise of Jeffery, when newfound stardom forces him to conform to the restrictions of an industry model?
For that, No, My Name is Jeffery provides only a small glimpse. Hy!£UN35 may arrive like a pop-rap messiah on the Billboard charts when it finally drops, but for now, while Thug continues to further refine his image through the mixtape model, the album remains an idea. So, for the time being, we will have to wait and listen to how effectively Thug can persuade the industry of his pop potential through releasing projects with the spectre of a major label debut looming in the near distance and hope that, when the day finally does arrive, Thug will be too intricately formed for the industry to change him.
Words: Andrew Ward