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Young Thug Isn’t As Weird As You Think He Is

The spirit of James Brown lives on in ‘No, My Name Is Jeffery’

300 Entertainment
300 Entertainment

There’s a new Young Thug song called “Harambe”; of course there is. A nominal ode to the Cincinnati Zoo’s recently martyred gorilla, “Harambe” is Track 7 on the Atlanta rapper’s latest mixtape, No, My Name Is Jeffery. “Harambe” withstanding, Jeffery is a project in which every track has an eponymous inspiration — Thugger has also named a song after Wyclef Jean; eight tracks after it, Wyclef joins him on a great song, “Pop Man,” that was originally named “Elton John” (and then, just as briefly, “John”) when it was released a couple of weeks ago as the lead single. As of now, the song is titled “Kanye West” in the iTunes Music Store. As always, Young Thug sows confusion.

He is a delightful and virtuous troll. And yet, it is tempting to overstate just how “weird” Young Thug is. The most popular subject of analysis and overwrought concern is Young Thug’s sexuality, which is rendered ambiguous by certain lyrics and lingo — “dicks” meaning guns, for instance — and his personal style, which is typically flamboyant and occasionally spectacularly feminine. The album cover of Jeffery features Young Thug posing alone in a periwinkle dress plucked from the “gender-free, sculptural fashion” of the Italian designer Alessandro Trincone. (I’ve seen people compare Thug’s look to everyone from Anthy Himemiya from Revolutionary Girl Utena to Miss Celie from Spielberg’s film adaptation of The Color Purple.)

300 Entertainment
300 Entertainment

Since about 2012, the popular obsession with Young Thug’s clothes has obscured the fact that, truly, the rapper’s strangest appendage is his music itself. It sounds like trap — it’s marketed as such — but it’s also distinguished by a certain lyrical mode that only Young Thug could write, and by vocal deployments that only a rapper of his particular talent would even think to record and release. Once frequently compared to Lil Wayne, his formal predecessor and “idol,” Young Thug outgrew such direct comparisons circa the April 2015 release of Barter 6, the mixtape on which Thugger’s persona settled into focus on the strength of countless surreal turns of phrase, an offhand obsession with animals, and intricate trolling in regard to his formative influences and his sexuality.

Barter 6 was a dark and introverted mixtape. Jeffrey is brighter, bouncier, and more sociable. It bolsters Young Thug’s reputation for uniquely successful experimentation at the intersection of trap and pop; “Wyclef Jean,” “Pop Man,” and the Travis Scott collaboration “Pick Up the Phone” are standouts in this regard. Even Young Thug’s biggest pop gestures of the past couple years have come in odd forms: a pan-African dance banger with Jamie xx and Popcaan (“I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”); cracked-out mall-rock vibes (“Pacifier”); and dreamy, high-fantasy trap (“Lifestyle”) with Rich Gang. Young Thug is nothing if not adventurous.

No idea is totally original, however. I hear the song “Harambe” and think immediately of the late James Brown, who, effectively, invented rapping as a narrative form, as much as DJ Kool Herc flipped that form into its own, distinct musical genre. James Brown wailed. Jeffery Williams wails. James Brown would grunt, yelp, and cough whole melodies into microphones. On “Harambe,” Jeffery shouts and curls his otherwise nasally voice into a crazed rumble, beating back at the 808 pulses. Here he sounds like a cross between James Brown and Fat Albert: “Catch ’em down bad! Beat ’em with a bat! Hashtag that!” Spit with utmost propulsion, Young Thug’s language here is actually pretty straightforward for a rapper whose detractors frequently dismiss his lyrical style as murky gibberish. And yet, on “Harambe,” his delivery is fun, scrappy, and ridiculous in a way that’s effectively consistent with original hip-hop; and, more broadly, with rock and funk as practiced by the godfather of soul. In vocal performance and in personal fashion, all rappers are, at most, three degrees removed from James Brown. On “Harambe,” Young Thug simply collapses this distance to a single degree.

Initially, there has been much online talk about the timely and ridiculous notion of “Harambe,” the song, as well as the photo of Young Thug rocking that dress on the cover of Jeffery. What strikes me instead is the human beauty that the photographer Garfield Larmond has captured on the back-cover photo: same dress, same Thugger, but shot from a low angle that reveals him peeking up from under his cocktail parasol hat. Young Thug flashes those pearly whites, his cheeks rise, and the resemblance between Jeffrey and James is uncanny.