Jeffery — the latest not-quite-album, not-quite-mixtape from the artist formerly known as Young Thug — missed the 20-year anniversary of Outkast’s ATLiens by a day. The current best rapper in Atlanta, and probably the universe, had just turned five when André Benjamin and Antwan Patton unleashed their official challenge to the rest of the rap game, the ones who booed when the duo won Best New Rap Group at the ’95 Source Awards. Like a lot of us, I’d had André 3000 on the brain last week thanks to that verse on Frank Ocean’s “Solo (Reprise)” that we all decided was a Drake diss, though it turned out to be two years old. Then Jeffery (who explained at the project’s listening party that he’d moved on from his old moniker because “I don’t want my kids to grow up calling me ‘Thug’”) unveiled the album art. Suspended in nothingness, face hidden but for a few stray dreads beneath a Pygmalian parasol, serving Revolutionary Girl Utena realness in a genderless Alessandro Trincone fabric sculpture. His pose speaks for itself, with the kind of unstudied ease that can feel menacing to those who don’t possess it themselves — the “face me and meet your maker” beckon is implied — but when he reveals his face on the back cover, he is beaming. It is the image of a person who inhabits himself ecstatically.
The next day, Erykah Badu shared the image on Twitter, adding: “Amazing Thugger. Reminds me of a certain ATLien I know.” If you scroll through the replies, you will find dozens of people telling her — André 3000’s lifelong creative soulmate and the mother of his child, among many more significant titles — why she is wrong. Three Stacks would have never worn a dress, they clamored (incorrectly), but besides, OutKast made classics. Young Thug, whom they decline to call Jeffery, doesn’t even rap about anything! Having valiantly defended the dream of ’96 from infidel invaders, the Hip-Hop Defense League returned to arguing about Lil Yachty’s knowledge of the canon.
Before we get carried away: Jeffery does not sound like ATLiens, nor does Jeffery rap like André 3000 or Big Boi. Outkast’s second album was a vengeful mission statement, an airing of grievances to a narrow-minded industry — one last survey of a ravaged Earth before departing to a more beautiful plane of existence. If the 1996 masterpiece turned Atlanta into a paranoid, depressive sci-fi comic, Jeffery’s universe is a superflat manga, dimensionless and casually surreal. ATLiens is a tight, tense coil, quivering on the edge of springing in an unpredictable direction; Jeffery is all momentum, an exhibitionist physics demonstration about action and reaction. “Every time I rhyme for y’all, I’m looking to prove a point,” Big Boi rapped on “Two Dope Boyz.” If Jeffery contains a mission statement, it’s the exact opposite. Or maybe the point is that there isn’t one. Bet you never heard of a player with no game.
But Jeffery, like ATLiens 20 years prior, has that unqualifiable, absolute feeling of arrival — a flag planted firmly in the inhospitable grounds of the mainstream. As of last year’s Barter 6, every Young Thug project has been indecisively presented as a “commercial mixtape,” a hedging of bets by his label, 300, which has given his sizeable recent catalog a strange sense of interchangeability. More than any other rapper currently working, the idea of any definitive ranking of Thug’s oeuvre feels impossible, or, at the very least, beside the point. Half the fun of being a Young Thug fan is how personalized the process of cobbling together a “best of” playlist can feel, waiting for that one song or line or adlib that changes everything. But all the same, it’s lent Thug’s discography a sense of anti-gravity: an endless grab-bag of moods and styles, studded with transient moments of unparalleled brilliance (or what Lyor Cohen referred to as “little orphans,” because nothing’s sadder than a hit song that doesn’t make everyone a shit-ton of money, right?). It’s hard to give an uninitiated listener a single point of entry into what makes Thug so special: Barter 6 highlights his songwriting ability but downplays the surrealism; the Slime Season tapes have the range but not the unified vision; 2013’s 1017 Thug has the hits, but his rapping has gotten far more avant-garde in the years since.
Finally: Jeffery feels like the closest thing to harmony between the fans, the label, and, most of all, the artist who’s at long last ready to make a serious play for mainstream stardom, albeit on his own terms. The new work immediately separates itself from Jeffery’s last year of releases — three volumes of Slime Season, plus I’m Up! — to the point that it feels like the rightful follow-up to Barter 6, a capital-A Album in essence if not in name. But it’s a departure in every other sense: Where Barter 6 was purposefully subtle, Jeffery is irrepressible, bursting with uncannily memorable one-liners and dynamic experiments in flow and cadence over beats that, attached to a more easily marketable rapper, could be obvious radio hits. It’s the album we’ve all been waiting for — the one you can pass to an unfamiliar friend and confidently ask, “Okay, now do you get it?” — and still, we couldn’t have seen it coming.
Because who could’ve predicted that FKA Young Thug’s most convincing bid for superstardom would be an album about establishing the parameters of identity for rap’s biggest enigma via abstract homages to his idols? Who could have conceived of a dewy, sunrise-tinted ballad, backed by Wyclef Jean cooing “Jeffffferrrryyyyy” like Rafiki blessing a newborn Simba, whose name would change from “Elton John” to “Pop Man” to “Kanye West” within the span of 24 hours? Who could have guessed that Thug could warp Rihanna’s “Work” into a genuinely sweet, gently psychedelic sex jam where he hits high notes like a puppy who’s ecstatic you’re home from work (“RiRi”)? After months of passive-aggressive beef, who would have imagined that Thug would make amends with Future, only to respectfully out-Future him on (err) “Future Swag”? Or “Webbie,” which Thug closes by molding himself into his own Big Rube interlude and announcing that he’s made the switch from using the standard 10 percent of human brain function to 14 percent (as one does)? How the fuck is the best song on this album named “Harambe”?! (Oh yeah: Because it trembles with the adrenaline-choked rage of a vengeful gorilla escaped from Hell.)
Listening to “Wyclef Jean” — a dazzlingly pliable reggae ditty, not to be confused with the many-titled song on which Wyclef actually appears — I somehow found myself, through the rabbit-hole transportation system of Jeffery’s delivery, thinking not about Wyclef Jean, but about Dennis Rodman. Specifically, the track reminded me of his first book, the uncompromisingly autobiographical Bad As I Wanna Be. That nearly 20-year-old book tells the stranger-than-fiction story of a forever-outsider who made it in, in all its messy, painful, no-fucks-given glory. But in spite of Rodman’s undaunted candor as he establishes who he is in the face of who the rest of the world wanted him to be, what I most remember about reading it is the text. Rodman switches fonts and letter sizes impulsively throughout; a single page might contain four different font styles, assigned for reasons that only he would be able to explain. It’s a graphic designer’s nightmare, but it works: How could someone so limitless be bound to size-10 Times New Roman — and why would we want him to be? If Big Boi and Andre rapped to prove a point 20 years ago, Jeffery raps to transcend that point entirely, floating facedown in the mainstream.