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The Midas Touch: Young Thug’s Jeffery

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It’d be an incredible shame if the best cover art of 2016 was wasted on a bad album.

For a blood from Atlanta named Young Thug to dress up in a frilly Japanese (or at least faux-Japanese) dress on the cover of his latest X-rated trap opus is sort of a mind-blowing thing when you really think about it. Luckily, Young Thug’s Jeffery is one of the best projects of this year, hands down. By pulling together 10 of the most pointed, most boundary pushing, and straight up catchiest songs of his career, Thug unequivocally proves himself worthy of being mentioned alongside current hip-hop’s great experimentalists: the likes of Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Danny Brown. Needless to say, that’s good company to be in.

“Fuck it I’m changing it up on em / But my fans, I ain’t changin’ on em” Thug shouts on the fantastic late-album cut, “Harambe.” In typical fashion for the ATL rapper/singer, this line says a lot despite barely making sense. Thugger’s ethos hasn’t changed with Jeffery — he’s still the funny, horny, drug-addled, impulsive embodiment of Freudian id that he’s always been — but now his flamboyant performances and dexterous songwriting have been remastered in vivid HD.

The songs “Floyd Mayweather” and “Guwop” are perfect examples of Thugger supercharging his established style. On some level these tracks are familiar territory for Thug, as they’re both posse cuts anchored by tried and true trap sounds. But even on these, the most seemingly rote songs in Jeffery‘s tracklist, he amps things up considerably. Pay attention to how he leads into and closes out Gucci Mane and Gunna’s guest verses on “Mayweather,” shaping his chameleonic vocals to mimic their flows and cadences to an uncanny degree. Note too how in the pocket he is on “Guwop,” delivering some new melody or vocal affectation each time the song’s slow, spacey (and immensely impressive) instrumental undergoes a subtle change. Kudos are also due to Quavo who delivers a stellar verse here (just another addition to his long streak of killer features), rapping “I be getting money every morning, Tom Joyner / I heard you gettin’ money but you payin them n**** extorting ya / You pay for your fame and fortune.”

Also highlighting Thug’s heightened ambition are the tracks that carry a marked Caribbean influence. Faux-dancehall is the pop style du jour, but Thug ducks the lameness of this trend entirely. “Pick Up The Phone” combines steel drums with synth blasts and 808s to marvelous effect, while “Wyclef Jean,” is almost entirely composed of live instrumentation; the combo of the upbeat-emphasizing guitar swats, some textured hand percussion, and an amazing, serpentine bassline take all but a second to enthrall. And somehow Thug sounds totally in his element, completely melting into the groove as if he’s been making reggae-trap for his whole career. In an incredibly ballsy move, “Wyclef Jean” kicks the album off, and it’s a strong contender for intro of the year.

Part of the song’s success might have to do with the fact that one-third of the Fugees, Wyclef Jean himself, oversaw the last stretch of Jeffery‘s production. Somehow I doubt the track would’ve felt as natural in his absence. And the “number one Haitian” delivers a catchy verse of his own on the album’s final cut, the similarly tropical “Kanye West.” Clocking in at nearly six minutes, I’m almost positive it’s the longest track Thugger’s ever put together, but it uses that running time to its advantage; even though the track adheres to a pretty clear verse-chorus-verse structure, everything is drawn out, meant to be luxuriated in rather than rushed past. The gentle vibraphone, booming bass, and unbelievably layered percussion make luxuriation an easy task. Thug’s performance here is also magnetic. He croons in a falsetto before yelling “Middle finger, stick it up / If you ain’t never gave a fuck!” on the hook, then proceeds to jump right back into his falsetto like someone in the studio hit the “angry nihilist” switch before apologetically dialing things back to the “love song” setting seconds later.

Even given Thugger’s hugely successful experiments, my favorite stretch of the album is the back-to-back pairing of the jaw dropping “Harambe” and “Webbie.” These cuts are simply colossal — arena-trap, if I may. For reasons that will forever remain unknown, “Harambe” is the only song here not named for a famous artist or athlete, but I’ll let the inconsistency slide on account of the track absolutely kicking ass. The sub bass is monstrous, and the ominous keys and synth horns hanging in the background only build up the intensity even further. Thugger, who’s always been great about making songs about nothing sound urgent, goes ballistic, switching subject matter, flows, cadences, and melodies on a dime. He gets inspirational rapping “Step it up and take care of your daughter, n**** / Stack it up and take care of your son n****;” then gets angry, screaming “Goin’ ape shit, goin Godzilla, n****, back up;” then gets horny, singing “I just wanna have sex / I just wanna have a baby by you girl;” then gets uncharacteristically existential, shouting “I got devils inside me / God tryna provide me.” That’s all within the span of about a minute, mind you.

“Webbie” is an equally potent rollercoaster ride thanks to yet another speaker-melting beat, this time driven by syncopated bass and keys that hit like 50-megaton bombs. The highlight here is a stunning contribution from frequent Thug collaborator Duke, whose verse plays out like shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. His feverish, catchy bars seem to cover his entire life’s story: “Momma said ‘you gonna make it, you gotta be patient’ / Came from the hood, trap out the stove at the vacant… / I lost some friends, that was so fucked up, and I know that they hate me / Thugger gave me a chance and I had to take it.” If Young Thug was a bit more popular, this would undoubtedly be a star making turn; regardless, I’m now genuinely excited to see what Duke comes up with in the future.

But that’s not to say the man himself takes a backseat on his own song. Thug’s second verse is particularly interesting, as he breezes through bars about loyalty (or the lack thereof) in an almost conversational tone that — dare I say it — reminds me of Andre 3000, particularly as he cracks about his fiancée “acting like she like people / Knowin’ damn well they don’t give two fucks / If they’re still there, they’ll leave her.”

In my previous Young Thug reviews, I always listed some of the especially ludicrous and funny lines that stuck out to me. Because, if it isn’t clear yet, the man says some insane (and insanely entertaining) shit. With Jeffery, nothing grabbed me the way bars like “I’m a street geek barbarian” (what?) did when I listened to Slime Season 2 last year. I’m simply familiar enough with his music that, at this point, the shock value is mostly gone.

For a lot of artists, the diminishing impact of theatricality can be a death sentence. But while Jeffery still finds Thugger embracing flamboyance, it also proves him capable of writing songs and structuring albums that hit hard even though his non-musical persona now seems pretty normal in this world of Lil Yachtys, Lil Uzi Verts, and Desiigners.