Some artists pay homage to their idols with covers albums, Young Thug does it with No, My Name Is Jeffery, an album that actually features two of the heroes he names, but not on the tracks named after them. The fact that Wyclef Jean and Gucci Mane are both on the album but don’t appear on the tracks “Wyclef Jean” or “Guwop” describes Young Thug’s songwriting style in a nutshell: he’ll name tracks “Picacho” and “Quaterback,” but he sure as hell won’t devote more than one line to either Pokémon or football. 

As such, Jeffery only bears passing resemblance, if any, to its titular characters. Sure, “Wyclef Jean” has a reggae groove and the hook of “RiRi” centers around the title of ANTI‘s biggest single, but if you seriously thought “Swizz Beatz” would mimic a decade-old Ruff Ryders cut, or that the track named after the most famous recently-deceased gorilla in the country would “imagine Harambe’s revenge on the family and zoo keepers responsible for his demise” (some people actually did), you’re listening to the wrong rapper. If you’re in the mood for gimmicks like that, go listen to “Alphabet Aerobics” or the first verse of “This Is Why I’m Hot.” Thug’s “I named the songs after all my idols” statement didn’t entail some crazy, one-genre-per-song experiment, but it led to the Young Thug project that balances eclecticism and focus better than the rest of his catalog.

Consider Jeffery the midpoint between the scattered I’m Up and one-note SS3 projects, but even more advanced. This time, no amount of featured artists manage to upend the album or take the focus off Thug, and no two songs cover the same ground. A core production stable of TM88, Wheezy, Cassius Jay, and Billboard Hitmakers turn in a highly-ornamented, not-too-turnt (save for “Future Swag”) batch of beats that seem to uplift and levitate Thug, who floats higher than ever with his vocal acrobatics. He attempts weirder deliveries than ever here– that Jamaican-sounding backing chant on “Wyclef Jean,” the way he almost yodels “Love, love, love” on “Swizz Beatz,” the voice-cracking on both the falsetto parts of “RiRi” and the throat-shredding screams of “Harambe,” the deep croon that falls somewhere between Trouble and Eddie Vedder on “Webbie”– further proving that he’s the modern rapper who’s least tied to convention. 

Most Thug releases that have arrived in the past year seem to almost demand the picking and choosing of favorite tracks, the constructing of your own playlist. The first two Slime Seasons, in particular, were made up of tracks that wildly varied in mood, style, and age (“Take Kare” was years old, and tracks like “Udiggwhatimsayin” and “Go Crazy” leaked months prior), and those 70+ minute behemoths seemed like the easiest way to purge Thug’s vault in a monthlong burst of 40 tracks. SS3 fared a little better in this regard, packing in just under 30 minutes of music that sounded new and stylistically similar, but it still had that mixtape feel to it– no beats really jumped off the page, and apart from the second half of “Drippin,” Thug wasn’t taking his voice to any exciting new places. In that regard, all of Jeffery feels essential. It’s the first time since last Spring’s Barter 6 that Thug seems to have leveled up or reached a new plane of musicmaking. We’ve been able to witness the progression over the past year of mixtapes, but while those showed glimmers of fresh inspiration alongside safe bets (AKA songs Thug could’ve made at any point in his career), he finally seems to have broken into a more uninhibited zone that bears little resemblance to his past.

Young Thug has always been a work-in-progress rapper who constantly seems to be figuring things out and improving, but for the past year or two, he’s also been one of the best rappers alive. Between 2013’s 1017 Thug and Rich Gang’s 2014 tape Tha Tour Pt. 1, he ascended beyond Lil Wayne worship and into something much more melodic and untethered; between that and Barter 6, he got better at anchoring songs, and at structuring them as actual songs. Jeffery represents the next level-up for him. He’s no longer delivering as many hilariously baffling one-liners (no brack in his brack here), but he’s playing around with song structures, and interacting with instrumentals and guests more (see his winking “Fuck you mean you get it from your mammy, hoe?” exchange with Gunna on “Floyd Mayweather”). Thug’s most brilliant moments before this project all seemed spontaneous, like random bursts of magic in the studio that were either fleshed out into full songs that somehow managed to maintain the momentum, or else fizzled out after one verse and a hook, but Jeffery‘s songs seem more thoughtfully composed and treated with care. Not to get all Lyor Cohen on you, but Thug doesn’t seem to be abandoning any orphans on this album.

I imagine that managing Thug must be like cutting diamonds. He came out raw and uncut, a precious gem whose value didn’t reflect the attributes the public usually looks for– a cookie cutter shape that looks nice on a ring, polished edges, etc. The trick is cutting off as little raw material as you possibly can, while sculpting him into something that looks and feels like your mental picture of a diamond, but is much larger and more organic than the run-of-the-mill rock. As a listener, I’d ideally like to hear Thug in his Oppenheimer Diamond form, a bundled mass of incomprehensibility, stunning one-liners, and enough ideas to churn out 100 songs in a month, but as a consumer, I understand why that doesn’t make sense to a digital listening audience. 300 clearly wants every new Thug release to be essential, even if that means doing away with that unfinished snippet that holds so much promise. After fumbling around for the first year of Thug’s deal, dropping the ball on HiTunes and making us pay for projects that maybe should have been mixtapes, they seem to have arrived at a winning formula on Jeffery. It’s so brilliant and wild that it seems like it was plucked right out of a mine and plopped in our faces, but behind the scenes, there was probably a lot of polishing and trimming going on. Thug’s not the average rapper that you can A&R to death and hope for a few hits, he is a natural wonder of the world that requires preservation. 

All of this talk of evolution and/or perfecting of skills probably doesn’t register if you’ve never liked Young Thug. He’s still rapping about nothing, for all intents and purposes, and squawking like a maniac, after all. But Jeffery‘s bursting with life in a way that few other albums of any genre do, and for most Thug fans, it’s the album we’ve been waiting a year for.