For as long as Young Thug has been releasing music — and if he’s like most of us, for as long as he’s been alive — the rapper born Jeffery Williams has struggled with identity. But that struggle has come to a head this year when he oddly began placing a ton of emphasis on just that, changing his stage name, donning dresses again, and placing more significance on appearance.
He got a new set of teeth he can’t stop talking about, delayed his mixtape Jeffery to get the artwork just right, and eventually opted to wear a dress that practically broke the internet and forced everybody to have an opinion one way or another. For most of 2016, Jeffery has seemingly been liberating himself from the shackles and expectations that come with a name like Young Thug, and basking in the freedom that comes with being Jeffery.
When he first surfaced online Thug was little more than a Lil Wayne doppelgänger. His voice squealed, his raps fell into a ton of familiar Wayne tropes, and he used the same simile-laden style and even his singing bordered on duplication. He was clearly inspired, but a clone is hardly an identity at all, and slowly but surely Young Thug began to poke through the cracks and create some sort of identity of his own.
The unveiling of Jeffery seems to be the result of that. Gone is the squealing, giving way to a melodic, can’t-help-but-be-catchy style where verses feel like choruses and choruses feel like hypnosis. Some of the most well-respected MC’s have fallen into the Thug trance of melodies, cadences and warbles that make up his soothing style. Like Pusha T, who once told fans during his Reddit AMA Thug was “fresh. dope melodies. dope cadences,” before doubling down a few months later on Twitter.
And Royce Da 5’9, who echoed Push’s sentiments on Twitter, just a few weeks before the release of Jeffery.
As Thug’s style has gradually pulled away from his “roots” as an artist, it may be actually getting closer to his roots as a person. Recently his content has shifted more and more towards the topic of love. It was sprinkled into his older works, but now it’s a constant theme, including outright love ballads. His live show reflects the change as well, as it went from a rambunctious, energy-fest last year, to a calmer, more balanced act including mic stand crooning sessions and a Prince tribute.
He checked off a career milestone last month by gracing the cover of hip-hop mainstay XXL with his friend and mentor Gucci Mane, and this week they released his cover story interview, uniquely enough, in video form. He discussed common topics, how he met Gucci, his fashion choices and even went so far as to call fashion his first love, and rap just an outlet to get into the fashion world. It was all standard affair until Thug began discussing identity, his choice to change his name (back?) to Jeffery, and suddenly the interview became his the most revealing discussion of his career.
What’s clear is Thug’s name change, temporarily or not, wasn’t just some publicity stunt or for surface value only. And there’s some familial significance, too: “I don’t want my kids to grow up and be like ‘My dad’s name is Young Thug,’” he said. “Or ‘I want to be a young thug because my dad’s name is Young Thug.’” But this also something bigger than that for him, it seems like Thug morphing into Jeffery is a coming-out-of-the-shell moment in his life. “I’m just getting mature and I’m getting older. I want to be who I really am.”
Like many in their mid-20s, he seems to be discovering himself, and is enlightened by the process, even if that process isn’t quite finished. “I’m really Jeffrey,” he said, before immediately qualifying that statement to meet rap’s standards. “I’m not no lame or anything, I’m kind of cool. I’m a cool person.” That, in and of itself is problematic; while seeking to truly be himself, he also has to double back to maintain his coolness.
As mental health within the black community becomes a more prominent discussion, Thug becomes an interesting case study. His air of “I don’t give a fuck” is only so strong, because in the end he still seeks to conform to standards he doesn’t seem to actually agree with. The man who wears dresses purely for fashion sense, always doubles back to maintain his masculinity and sexuality. “No I’m not gay, I f*ck bitches on bitches,” he chirped on “Halftime,” seeking to quell the storm of homophobia that seemed to follow him around.
That backlash to his eccentric clothing, a quirk of identity that he says was Jeffery, the real him poking through a hardened exterior, caused Thug to veer left, and admittedly stop being true to himself. “I got out of that element because I kind of sort of started paying attention to what people thought or what people was feeling. So I started doing like, a thuggish style.”
What’s interesting, is that an artist so interview-adverse decided suddenly reveal so much, and maybe this is why he’s been so quiet and reclusive, because he wasn’t ready to admit that he wasn’t truly being himself. “I kind of stepped into a trap mode,” he said. “I started making cool trap music like “Check.” Those songs are cool, (they) made millions of dollars but that’s not me. I’m really like Wyclef. That’s the kinda music, that’s Jeffrey. So I feel like I’ve completed the Thug course, I want to be like Jeffrey. I want people to understand who I really am.”
Now, Thug apparently refuses to work to appease detractors, choosing to simply liberate himself from norms and expectations, and reveal the true him. “It’s not new because I am Jeffrey. I’m just back to myself. I was always myself, I just learned how to transition over to streets and trap and those kind of songs.”
Eventually, Jeffery ended the interview by pleading yet again, to shed the Thug moniker, before noting what he truly seeks to be: Harmless. “People I be around are kind of skeptical, maybe like, scared (because of Thug). I don’t want that feeling. I don’t want nobody to feel like that. That’s the worst way to have a person.” He then invoked the names of two of his idols, two names that didn’t appear on the Jeffery tracklist but clearly have left their mark on the 25-year-old. “I want to be like Michael Jackson. I want to be like Prince. Like, harmless. I want to walk in a room and feel harmless. I want people to feel like ain’t nothing gon’ happen.”
For years, Jeffery has always been the strangest of the strange rappers that currently inhabit the genre. The one that wears women’s clothing, paints his nails, calls his friends “bae” and “lover” and makes music that grows more unique by the song. Now, with his transformation back to Jeffery, he may be the strangest he’s ever been. A harmless rapper who choses to remain true to himself despite trends, societal norms and expectations in a genre that values masculinity and toughness over all? For most that would be a stretch, and probably career suicide, but maybe Young Thug can pull it off. If he can’t, Jeffery certainly can.