What’s in a name? Marcel Proust, in his legendary In Search of Lost Time, wrote “A name: that very often is all that remains or us of a human being, not only when he is dead, but sometimes even in his lifetime.” Commenting on this line in her work Time and Sense, philosopher Julia Kristeva explains, “Sensation and pleasures that stir up the imagination take refuge in the syllables of names.” She further discusses the destruction of the proper name, “deflating it into a common noun”, and how in doing so we experience the full power that that proper name held. In hip-hop, the proper name is often reverse-destructed: artists eschew their birth names in favor of stage names that convey an intended message to their peers and their audience. “This is who I am now,” they say, and we inflate this name with great meaning.
Young Thug, in this sense, has always been quite the interesting case. Stereogum’s Tom Breihan, in writing about Thug’s mixtape 1017 Thug, opened thusly, “Young Thug has probably the most generic rap name imaginable; it’s like a character that Finesse Mitchell would’ve played on a half-assed SNL skit in 2005. When you see a name like that, you imagine you know just about all you need to know about its owner without knowing anything.” As Breihan followed, and as anybody who’s listened to even a morsel of music Young Thug’s put out since his breakthrough year of 2013, that generic moniker has produced some of the strangest and most enthralling music, genre irrelevant, of his time. In the Fregean sense, the sense of “Young Thug” has been virtually the complete opposite of what Breihan’s exposition would suggest: a singular artist whose aesthetic is at one indefinable and all-encompassing, somebody who revels in eccentricity but with an authenticity that means his artistic choices are hard to question. When No, My Name Is JEFFERY’s cover came out and you saw Young Thug wearing that ensemble, were you particularly surprised? When it was announced that Young Thug was changing his stage name to “No, My Name Is Jeffery”, were you particularly surprised? But more importantly: were you even in the slightest put off by these decisions? Or, vaunted listener, did all of this make perfect sense of the sense that we associate with “Young Thug”? I’d like to think it did.
What is immediately evident on JEFFERY even more than his previous mind-bending performances is the vocal polyphony (that is, closer to Bakhtin’s term than to the musical term) that he employs. His contradictory lyrics were explored in the review of Slime Season 3, and though he doesn’t match past levels of speaking past himself, the way in which he says what he says has evolved to a level not yet heard before. There’s a surface-level explanation for this, and it’s one he himself said – that the song titles on this mixtape were named after his “idols”. In this manner, his vocal performance is quite obvious, that he is paying homage to these idols by adopting, to varying degrees, their styles. See the “Work”-esque repetition of “earn” in “RiRi”. See the startlingly accurate post-“Wicked” Future double-time of “Future Swag” throughout. Young Thug is adopting multiple personas – some his own, others he’s stylizing off of. Either way, each listen reveals a new level of commitment to the act, of wondering if he could be saying literal gibberish and it would still be as compelling. The answer is probably yes.
Some similarities are too great to ignore. Reverting back to the discussion of Bakhtin, he used the word “carnival” to describe the polyphonic relationship of multiple voices interacting with one another. And who but Wyclef Jean, maker of acclaimed The Carnival, has a song named after him and features on JEFFERY? There’s layers to this. These layers are what make JEFFERY, like all of Young Thug’s music, such a rich tapestry. A tapestry that has him sounding as locked in as he’s been since the high water mark of Barter 6.
Probably the most in-the-pocket he’s been, nay, any rapper has been, was on 2015’s “Hercules”, when he rapped “I call my migo, migo come and let me juug through the city.” He fit that Metro Boomin beat like the snuggest glove possible, and the slightly stretched out “juug” was beautifully elastic. Though he’s hit high points since, he hadn’t had another moment like that until the first song on JEFFERY, the aforementioned “Wyclef Jean”. Over horns from TM88 and Supah Mario, he brags, “Shop at Saks Fifth, flow on DatPiff / Yeah, I’m that swift.” The way he says it you’d be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t a more perfect grouping of words to fit the occasion. On the song’s bridge he sounds as soulful as he ever has, and the hook has him at his most nasal since 1017 Thug. Though that brag’s flowed the best on the tape, the tape’s best brag belongs to (who else?) Gucci Mane, sneering “You make me mad, I have a threesome with your bitch” on follow-up “Floyd Mayweather”.
The production on JEFFERY is unsurprisingly strong, an aspect that would make song namesakes Swizz Beatz and Kanye West proud. Subtle piano twinkles mix with muted bass and aggressive hi-hats, and though each beat is a part of a greater aesthetic whole, they proudly stand on their own. The work that Thug’s been doing with Wheezy over the past year has been nothing short of great, and his ability to elevate the productions of noted greats like Metro Boomin, London on Da Track, and 808 Mafia recall Pusha T’s brag “The only great I ain’t made better was J Dilla”, only the Atlanta version.
Lyrically, the mixtape doesn’t break any new ground, but everything is so rooted in the cosmic surrealism of his voice that they virtually cease to matter. Sure, he drops the “wet like a(n) x” line that I complained about in the review of Madeintyo’s latest mixtape, but he finds a way to sell it in its performance that makes it excusable. He’s self-aware when that’s been a rarity in his music (“I crack a smile for them folks”), acknowledging that he’s absolutely performing. But it never feels like an act. The authenticity of Young Thug or No, My Name Is Jeffery or just Jeffery is constantly compelling. The “earn”s in “RiRi” are yelped to the point of his voice cracking, showcasing his flaws in singing that he simply couldn’t care less exist.
The latter is yet another example of the many personalities exhibited in Young Thug’s music. No, My Name Is JEFFERY doesn’t contain the quotables of Barter 6 nor the progressive production of his one-off singles with Metro Boomin, but as a collection of songs, it’s his most realized set to date. He plays many roles, but all of them are directly connected to the overarching persona that is Young Thug. That he keeps getting better is just frightening, as he’s had a song that’s suggested a peak every year since 2011. And yet, here we are, continually marking the progress of Young Thug. No, his name is Jeffery.