***** Ask a music fan what makes a rapper great, and you'll likely get a couple of different responses. Perhaps the most common one will be having good lyricism, and fair enough, many of the best lyrics of the past 30+ years have came from rap music, another answer from some people is flow, which is also pretty important, and related to what I'm gonna argue in this review (there are some folks who put particular virtue on rapping "fast" which makes me think of the guitar heads who think soloing really fast is the most important barometer of musicianship and don't appreciate the value of a guitarist like The Edge, they're dead wrong, trust me). But to me, what gets sorely overlooked and undervalued when discussing the merits of rappers among "serious" music fans is the quality of the rapper's actual voice - not just timbre per se, but what they DO with it, how they stress syllables, change pitches, phrase, emote and so on. I think the reason this gets overlooked is because as rappers are generally not "singing", then they're not using their voice the way a singer does and those qualities don't matter as much, but that's not really as true as that might seem. There's a great interview with Drake's vocal coach Dionne Osborne from 2014 where she explains how coaching Drake's vocals is equally as important for his rapping as his singing: "I try to get rappers to remember, you use the same vocal cords that Usher does... I mean, singing is just exaggerated speech. You're sustaining the tones; you're holding the notes longer. So I tried to get him to do that more with rap, connecting his flow." (I'll link at the bottom if you wanna read)
Now having a unique rapping voice has existed as long as the genre itself has - plenty of great rappers from years before did interesting things with their voice. But in recent years there's become more rappers who seem focused on the qualities found in their own voices. Drake could be considered a good example of course, who's spent the past decade combining his twin vocal talents to ensure every song on the radio sounds like Drake featuring Drake. But a fair amount have come out of the trap-rap movement which sometimes gets billed as "mumble rap". From what I can gather not every usage of the term "mumble rap" is meant to derisive, but it still feels like a big mischaracterisation of the genre as a whole. And sure, there are some dreadfully boring folks on SoundCloud who make anesthetised drones over incredibly flat sounding beats, but at its best - like on Young Thug's 2016 opus "Jeffery" - there's some of the best explorations of the capabilities of the human voice in any music currently being made, yet alone hip-hop music.
Like Drake, Young Thug also sings often, and throughout Jeffery he creates an almost never-ending supply of fantastic hooks containing both stunning melodies and playful, eccentric phrasing. Listen to the way he plays around with the word love in Swizz Beatz (love, luh-luh-luh love) or earn in RiRi (you gotta err-err-err-err-err-err-earrrrn it!) or the wamp-wamps and wet-wets in Kanye West and his backing vocals singing the albums title while thats happening. His melodicism also informs his verses which helps bring out his sense of humour too, such as in Wyclef Jean with lines like She cant hide that motherfucker, even if she divided the motherfucker, man even if she minused the motherfucker, join in get demolished motherfucker (love the way his pitch picks up at the end) and Spent racks on my son and his squad, daddy boy never play with toys, better not play with em BOYS, new AK with em BOYS, new feng shui with the BOYS, drippin all day for the BOYS (why brag about your own success when you can do so about your sons?). Elsewhere, on Harambe he brings out a harsh rasp in his voice unheard of on the other tracks, sounding almost out of breath at points. Distinguishing between where hes singing or rapping feels almost beside the point here, though, due to how thoroughly interwoven they are much of the time (back to Swizz Beatz notice how in verse one where as he jumps to a triplet rhythm, his pitch also gets higher and almost starts to resemble singing before going into a clear melody line, I love the way he says have you ever? in a high spoken voice just after belting have you ever been a shot caller?). And thats not even counting all the little adlibs in the background of these raps done by both Thug and the others featured on here, which provide with little hooks and even texture along the way of the record
The effects of Young Thugs presence as a vocalist result in a fun, surreal atmosphere palpable throughout the record. Of course thats not just the work of Thugs vocals (well get to that later) but it rubs off well on the other featured guests of Jeffery, whether its Wyclef Jean on Kanye West (yes, not on the song actually named after him, just for maximum confusion) going into his lower range, or his duet with Travis Scott Pick Up the Phone or Lil Duke in Webbie my favourite song here sounding almost like a dancehall toaster than a featured rapper (The part where he goes I lost some friends, that was so fucked up and I know that they hate me and Young Thug shouts fuck! Fuck! in the background immediately afterwards always makes me laugh out loud hilarious for almost no reason).
And then theres the production, which is full of colourful and unusual sounds and matches the trippy surrealism of Thugs mic presence perfectly. None of the problems with genericism faced on other trap records apply here, from Wyclef Jeans echoing reggae skank and rich bassline, to say nothing of the gorgeous trickling of synth that appears when each new section arrives, to the warped dub-heavy take on Hotline Bling on Pick up the Phone (and check out the huge synth line that closes the song) the closest you get to a generic trap beat is Harambe and even that uses weirder synth tones than most producers would use. Whats noteworthy to me is when cicada-like hi-hats are used, theyre always done sparingly and in a comfortable part of the mix and actually invoke the feeling of actual cicadas rather than being an endless rattle of 16th notes, and I think that really reflects well on the beats that TM88, Wheezy and Billboard Hitmakers provided here. Some more great production details include the washy echoes in Swizz Beatz, the woozy bass and pretty piano parts of Kanye West and the absolutely wonderful acoustic guitars in Webbie adding such a sun-soaked vibe to an already summer-friendly album. While Im on Webbie Ill remark on how joyous its chorus is (This politician is so fake! Theyre politickin bout their cases! also hilarious) not to mention the tunefulness of the verses where he keeps rolling out other hooks (Ill pop at your mayun-mayun-mayun) his audible scoffing during got foreign car like a white beetle, acting like she like people! and bragging about using 14% of his brain near the end.
Its not a perfect record Floyd Mayweather threatens the albums momentum 2 songs in by not having enough for its too-long 6 minutes, plus it has some unsavoury lines that are harder to mitigate thanks to how clearly audible they are. And Im guessing someone might read a lot of the lyrics here that Ive quoted on this review and think Really? You think that is great music? to which I say: yes this album is not infact particularly deep but as Ive explained in detail above, not only does it have a both a unique sense of humour but also a unique atmosphere of which that humour is a part of, it does infact achieve the right level of goofiness. Young Thug faltered with this a little with Beautiful Thugger Girls which relied almost too much on the lyrical silliness at times and didnt have as substantial counterpart in the music or melody-making. And as a side note, Ill take silly lyrics trying to be fun over silly lyrics trying to be profound any day (unless you can be Kanye and do both simultaneously). On Jeffery Young Thug achieves a surreal, imaginative and comedic musical experience that gives me a similar joy when listening to rock artsists like Talking Heads, Beck or early R.E.M. and thats a damn good thing in my eyes