In the last three years, three albums have been released that I consider to be all time classics that will be listened to for many years to come (by me, anyway).
I’ve written previously about two of them, Deafheaven’s superb “New Bermuda” (2015) and Frank Ocean’s immaculate “Blonde” (2016), but I’ve held off writing about the third because I find it very, very hard to put into words what exactly I find so wonderful about it, and because – if I’m honest – it’ll probably sound really fucking stupid.
Young Thug’s “JEFFERY” (2016) is a really, really weird record. It’s not as self-consciously arty as the other two, lacking either the sturm und drang of New Bermuda, or the icey minimalism as Blonde. Nor is it as overtly worthy. In fact, on the face of it, it’s just a massively dumb Trap record about sex and drugs. It’s a really unpromising base from which to build, and yet…..
Jeffery Lamar Williams, aka Young Thug/Thugger, is a rapper out of Atlanta. He grew up in housing projects and in and out of gangs. The protégé of Gucci Mane, he’s a hyperactive presence, releasing at least two records a year since 2014, including another two in 2017 (the brilliant “Beautiful Thugger Girls” and this week’s “Super Slimey”, the latter in conjunction with Future).
He has an interesting persona, challenging hip hop’s dominant hyper-masculinity by appearing in Calvin Klein adverts discussing the illusion of gender, doing shows wearing women’s clothes, and appearing on the front cover of JEFFERY in a fairly gorgeous Alessandro Trincone ball gown. A friend of mine was fortunate enough to see him live two years ago, and was astounded when he arrived onstage wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mask (which he retained throughout) and what appeared to be the clothes of a small child. In a genre that remains rife with homophobia, he cuts an interesting figure – he’s still covered in tattoos, and the majority of his songs are about straight sex, but he still seems quite happy to transgress gender lines.
There’s probably a separate essay to be written on Young Thug and black masculinity, but I’m not even going to attempt that. Obviously, for Afterword purposes, this is all just window dressing and doesn’t matter an iota if the music’s not good, so let’s talk about that music. And oh boy, there’s plenty going on there.
The first thing you need to understand about this record is that it’s the vocals that make it interesting. Because Young Thug, while he has tremendous flow, doesn’t just rap. He also howls, shrieks, stutters, scats and slurs. He adopts different vocal personas. He twists his voice inside out. The lyrics are frequently all but indecipherable, which can only be a good thing if you ever come to read half of them, but that’s sort of the point. His voice is an instrument that he plays with wild abandon, and which he embeds in the production seamlessly: in fact, several songs are built around samples of his own vocals. At times, it feels like you’ve heard the voices of three or four different people in the space of a couple of verses. Nope – all him, just playing with the timbre and the flow. As Vice magazine’s review memorably put it: “his hoohoos and melismas and blahs and mwas and frogcroaks and put-puts are the message”.
I’m really, really down with the idea of a rapper whose lyrics I can’t make out. Let’s face it, 95% of Hip Hop lyrics are risible nonsense, so at least this way I’m spared most of tthe detail and can instead enjoy what rap is actually good at, which is the sense of aural invention and the joy of a human voice riding perfectly over a beat.
Take the opening 30 seconds of “Guwop”. We start with a weird, crystalline beat that hints at a kind of fractured delicacy, before Thugger just sprays his indecipherable lunacy all over it. I’ll attempt to transcribe without the aid of a lyrics website: “Idunputtwentyupunderthesee, y-dee y-dee, Idunputtwentysideyss, IpulluponyouandIpopatyourkid”. The ramblings of a madman (or perhaps a bricameron). But his vocal has this weird intensity to it – it’s like having a dog attempt to convey critically important information to you solely through its bark. You can’t really understand what on earth he’s going on about, but he certainly seems to mean it, and it fits the music perfectly.
The song is also a perfect example of his lyrical duality, moving in the space of a minute from “I’ll pull up on you and I’ll pop at your kids” (which is not nice) to “I dig everything you’re saying/I dig everything you’re doing too/I dig the way you look at me/You dig the way I look at you” (which is a bit nicer) and then – just as you’ve dropped your guard – back to “that big booty bounce on the dick and it broke” (which is just gross).
On other occasions, you can pick out a little more of what he’s on about (it’s usually filthy), but he simply refuses to deliver a line straight. Take the chorus of “RiRi”: “If you want it to gotta earn it/You gotta earn earn earn earn earn earn it”. He delivers this line as a kind of insane seal bark, a demented and perverted Otis Redding for the 21st century. At virtually all times, there’s something interesting going on with that voice, as it jumps, jives and writhes its way through the song.
For all that Hip Hop constantly innovates with the beats and production, I actually think it’s a surprisingly conservative genre when it comes to the actual lyrics and vocal styles. Rappers largely sound the same, and operate within a relatively narrow set of vocal tramlines. There are exceptions, of course, and Thugger is clearly tapping into that great lineage: ODB, Lil Wayne – rappers who always felt slightly off the hinge. But he takes it on to that next level, because he legit does not care whether he lands the line, he just cares about how it sounds. The voice is an instrument, the medium is the message.
So, why is JEFFERY his best record? Well, because it’s concise (ten tracks – no skits, no filler, which isn’t something you can always say of his releases), it’s experimental but accessible, the beats are fantastic and it’s full of (sporadically discernible) memorable lines and moments.
Each song is named after one of Young Thug’s heroes (including, brilliantly, Harambe – the gorilla killed at Cincinnati Zoo earlier in the year of release), each track has its own vibe, but they fit together as a whole. That classic Trap sound is prevalent throughout, but augmented by differing sonic themes, from the steel drums and “Brrrrrs” of “Pick Up The Phone” to the urgent bleepings of “Future Swag” and on to the low skank of “Wylcef Jean”, You can listen to the songs a hundred times, and still pick out a load of new stuff, whether it’s a weird noise in the background, a strange vocal tic or even just someone saying something wildly out of place in the off-beats. It’s an incredibly dense record that keeps on giving.
The best song on the album is “Kanye West”. It’s a sort of demented futuristic barber shop record about female ejaculation and groupie love. In the opening 30 seconds you have a veritable carnival of voices: a spoken word introduction from Wyclef Jean, Young Thug’s crooned “swear to god I ain’t lying”, what sounds like a distorted sample of a child’s voice saying something along the lines of “cowboy cash”, a sample of a voice so deep I can’t actually make out any of what they’re saying, and then Thugger comes back in with a desperate, imploring and almost totally impenetrable piece of singing over a tinkling piano. And that’s just the intro.
The whole song is built around voices: the alternating “womp womp/wet wet”, with a very soft murmur of “Jeffery” behind it, together with a third vocal line that I can’t even transcribe. He’s built the fundamentals of the tune before the beat even comes in. When the lead vocal drops it’s almost impossible to discern much of what he’s saying, but what’s there sounds completely filthy, and he’s sort of half singing/half rapping. At about 3 minutes in, there’s what I assume is a guest vocal from a rapper whose flow is so slow and voice so deep that he’s virtually submerged in the bass. It lasts about 5 seconds. Then, at 3’10, we get these weird wobbly “Oooos” that sound like something from a doo wop record.
I think it’s an extraordinary tune – I have no idea how he even began to go about writing something that’s so simple, but so busy. The whole thing fits together perfectly, like it was always meant to be, and the main vocal is fantastic, full of texture and depth. It’s a shame that he seems to be singing about such wanton nonsense, but at least you can’t make most of it out.
Young Thug doesn’t sound like anyone else on this record. Nobody is so wild, so unpredictable, so full of ideas and vibrancy. In the same way that Frank Ocean has taken R&B/Soul and dragged it kicking and screaming into the 21st century, JEFFERY attempts to do the same with Hip Hop. Thugger doesn’t have Ocean’s focus or meticulousness, and he’s fighting against far stronger stylistic currents, but I have to salute the effort all the same. In many years of listening to rap music, I’ve often wondered what the genre would be like if people felt were more open to questioning what this stuff COULD sound like, if pushed to its outer limits. JEFFREY gives some hint of what those outlands might look like.
I know that this massively, massively isn’t the sort of music people on this blog generally tend to listen to. I know most of you would hate it, even if you did, not least because you probably need some sort of background in the genre to understand what’s so different about the way this guy sounds. Nonetheless, I would still recommend that everyone gives this album at least a cursory spin, because there’s a hell of a lot in there, and if you listen carefully you might – just might – hear something that grabs you.