Is Young Thug messing with us? Hip-hop listeners have been asking since "Stoner," a song he released in 2013 only for it to appear on radio a year later. The very first time I heard that song in public, I was in a car with a woman who couldn't stop laughing. This wasn't because she was delighting in what she heard, but because she figured he had to be joking. His trademark flow and diction have been described as Lil Wayne meets Looney Tunes on acid.
Each song in Young Thug's latest full-length project, Jeffery, pays loose homage to one of his idols. (Notably, a track that was originally titled "Elton John" is now "Kanye West.") The album's emotional centerpiece is the track "Harambe" — as in the silverback gorilla who was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo in May to save a boy who wandered into his enclosure. No one would blame you if you thought Thug was capitalizing off Harambe, the meme, which has turned up in everything from fake funeral service programs to goofy song lyric revisions — absurd parodies of how the internet eulogizes the dead in the social media age. As with Young Thug, trying to assign a motive is pointless.
But unlike some of those dank Photoshop jobs, Young Thug's abstract tribute doesn't read as cynical. "Harambe" grabs you by the throat within its first six seconds. "MAFIAAAAA!" he yells, his voice a nasally combination of Satchmo and Pee-wee Herman. Some peg him as another in-vogue rapper spitting vaguely sing-song verses, though his vocal contortions make him more comparable to mid-career Thom Yorke. Nowhere is this truer than here. "I just wanna have sex / I just wanna have a baby by you, girl," he squeals before the bass drops — more pained sobbing than rapping.
The track's romantic notions recall Young Thug's Slime Season hit "Best Friend" — the closest he's come to a straightforward pop ballad, at least before he interpolated Rihanna's "Work" in Jeffery's "RiRi." "Harambe," though, is his "Love the Way You Lie." Thug's voice grows hoarse by the second verse, when he threatens to gun down a loved one's loved ones. He urges us to think of how a relationship can grow so toxic that you lash out at the very person you adore, to a point where you barely recognize yourself. "Got the devil inside me / God tryna provide me / God tryna decide / Does he want to leave me aside?" Thug asks. He's expressed this sentiment before, though not with such convincing humanity.
In most Young Thug songs, his sheer absurdity hits you first. But lately, it's been his utter sincerity that lingers, until you're rapping along to songs that no one is supposed to be able to decipher. This isn't to say that Thug has lost his sense of humor; the only lyrical connection that "Harambe" makes to its muse is how he describes his behavior as "ape s***." And there is no way he doesn't see how, with his own growing ubiquity (Jeffery debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200) the meme might persist, much to the despair of the Cincinnati Zoo. (Both the zoo and its director deleted their Twitter accounts in the aftermath of the gorilla's killing.) But at least Thug gives us a take from the headlines that isn't a laughing matter.
Jeffery is out now on 300 Entertainment/Atlantic.