Had To Wear The Dress/Cuz I Had The Stick | Young Thug’s Wyclef Jean, Counter-Hegemony and Camp in Hip-Hop

This essay also appeared in Pomona College’s Disorientation Guide. Special thanks to Professor Benjamin Aspray, Chunghwa Suh, Nikki Dequesada, Schuyler Mitchell and Young Thug.


There is perhaps no figure in contemporary hip-hop culture as iconoclastic and subversive as Jeffery Williams, popularly known as Young Thug. He is one of, if not, the most essential voice in contemporary rap music, specifically in the trap subgenre that has become the most influential offspring of traditional hip-hop in the 21st century, and one of the largest influences on general popular music.

His extreme vocal dynamism, eclectic ear for instrumentation, and unpredictable approach to song structure and melody have made him a pioneer in his field. But what truly makes Thug so singular is his androgynous, nihilistic persona. It is nearly impossible to separate Young Thug as an artist and individual from the performance of Young Thug, because of his dedication to daringness and unbridled commitment to the avant-gardé. No piece of media in Young Thug’s repertoire demonstrates his counter-hegemonic proclivities better than the music video for his 2016 track, Wyclef Jean. Not only is the video itself a postmodernist remaking of the music video as a concept, it is a deliberately crafted satire of the current climate of rap music and culture that Thug strives to challenge through ambivalence.  

The video comes in the context of Thug’s 2016 mixtape Jeffery, a genre bending trap-adjacent project that frequently ventures into camp sensibilities. To understand the motivations behind the video’s design, one must first look at the background of the release, promotion and content of Jeffery. The album artwork depicts Young Thug wearing a floor length couture dress by Alessandro Trincone, a designer for the New York fashion house VFILES. The decision to dress Thug in women’s fashion was a direct response to the rumors and accusations of homosexuality that have plagued Thug for his entire career, because of his less traditionally masculine fashion decisions, such as tight clothing and painted nails, and at times, sexually ambiguous lyrical content. The album was further promoted on the promise that Young Thug was changing his stage name to the sentence: “No, My Name Is Jeffery.” 

Both the planned name change and decision to show Young Thug’s gender performance as androgynous, if not feminine, are strikingly reminiscent of the actions of pop music icon Prince, who famously utilized an ambivalence towards sexuality and gender performance as a massive part of his star image, and changed his stage name several times, integrating these camp sensibilities into his music and songwriting. 

Like Prince, Young Thug knowingly embraces camp to engage in what Antonio Gramsci would describe as hegemonic struggle between the dominant masculine and patriarchal sensibilities of hip-hop culture, by delivering rap music wrapped in an ostensibly anti-hip-hop package. Wyclef Jean is the album’s intro track, and immediately sets the insurgent musical and thematic tones that will follow. Sonically, the song is striking. It has a heavy emphasis on melody, prominently featuring reggae-esque guitar riffs and Thug delivering his raps in a singsong flow, frequently pitch shifting throughout his verses. While the track is clearly rap, both in structure and content, it represents a shifting dichotomy in what is acceptable to be labeled as rap, specifically trap music. 

Stuart Hall would describe Thug’s direction on Jeffrey as a process of incorporation, as he challenges the dominant elements of rap (virility, fiercely performed masculinity). Thug rejects the hegemonic ideology of binary gender performance by incorporating androgyny in  sonic and physical presentation –through musical emphasis on harmony and singing, and physical performance of ostensible femininity. Just as the act of singing is deemed feminine in the context of hip-hop, so too is androgynistic gender performance. He takes this counter-hegemonic style to its extreme in the visual accompaniment for Wyclef Jean.

The subversion of Wyclef Jean and Young Thug as a whole can only be revealed through analysis of the subtext of the culture he operates in. Trap music is historically founded on the harshest, most violent and visceral parts of the intersections of capitalism, racism and patriarchy. Politically, it is a response to the plague of drug epidemics caused by deliberate, racist government policy and subsequent societal reaction. Socially, it is a reflection of the people subjected to the consequences of said politics. 

As much as Tuff Gong-era reggae and dancehall were responses to Jamaican social and political injustice, trap music is a response to American negligence, generational trauma and cyclical suffering. It is the musical legacy of lifetimes of fighting for survival, and in turn, the music reflects that battle-hardened spirit. It is grimy, raw, and hungry, and it idealizes the forces necessary to escape treacherous conditions: violent capitalism and masculinity. Following this process of trap construction, one would imagine that a trap video features most of the historic elements of rap videos: women, money, expensive cars, jewelry, etc. The Wyclef Jean video features all of these elements, but exaggerated to the most ludicrous and comical levels. Most importantly, it does not feature Young Thug’s physical presence. 

The music video is an exercise in reflection. Young Thug met with the video’s production team to explain his concept. Both parties agreed on the vision and prepared to shoot. However, when the day of the shoot came, Young Thug never showed up. The money had been spent and the set pieces were in place, but the star was nowhere to be seen. He was nine hours late and upon arrival, refused to exit his car. Instead of scrapping the video, the production team cut together a reel documenting the non-video that ensued, which Thug’s label, YSL Records and 300 Entertainment released with their approval. In using this as official promotional material, Young Thug held a mirror up to the facade of rap and delivered a camp recreation of all of rap’s norms by utilizing postmodern deconstructionist techniques, revealing the silliness of it all. 

If I may editorialize for a moment, it’s very dope. 

The dominant tone of the Wyclef Jean video is satire. It breaks the fourth wall throughout, directly through text screens providing context and explaining decisions, and technically by visually depicting editing decisions and behind-the-scenes action. This deconstruction of the video effectively reveals the grotesqueness of popular hip-hop aesthetics. The women are satirically depicted as props, participating in farcical sexual activities and violence only for the fourth wall to be broken and reveal that the weapons they wield are wiffle bats, and that their appearances are heavily edited to further the veneer of lurid sexuality. Thug is absolutely operating within the confines of acceptable misogyny in hip-hop. But he exaggerates female sexuality and removes the fourth wall to turn the male gaze back on itself and counter-hegemonically exploit misogyny as a tool for its own parody, echoing the stylistic, directorial and mise-en-scene decision making of exploitation cinema. Young Thug utilizes the formal and aesthetic tropes of rap cinema to create an alternate vision of women in the context of rap videos. As Laura Mulvey, lauded second wave feminist theorist and film critic, posits, alternative cinema appropriates the qualities of mainstream cinema to be formally and politically radical, but it is not immune from the moralistic, hegemonic problems of the mainstream, asserting that “this is not to reject the latter moralistically, but to highlight the ways in which its formal preoccupations reflect the psychical obsessions of the society which produced it.” Young Thug calls the women bitches because that’s what he’s done his whole life. He chooses to artistically express how he became this way, and his resistance to perpetuating the cycle that birthed him. 

Throughout the video, voiceover of Thug’s concepting conversations with the producers are interjected with absurd scenes of video production, indicating the outlandishness of Thug’s vision, creating a grotesque reimagination of the rap video of itself, akin to how Wyclef Jean and the totality of Jeffery is an extreme reimagining of trap music. 

Thug’s voiceover throughout demonstrates a desire to construct a video that employs all of rap’s most basic tropes. He intentionally directs the women and himself to be placed in children’s toy versions of luxury cars (kiddy cars) to comment on the outlandish decadence and performativity of women and objects as status symbols. Thug’s absence and the subversion of partrio-capitalist banality criticizes  reverence of luxury; in social, political and capital forms. His refusal to be physically present in a video ostensibly for and about him and instead have his music and an abstraction of himself be the only representations of Young Thug throughout shows ambivalence towards the hegemonic ideology of the genre he inhabits. He is making trap music and a trap music video, but he is not present. 

It is not worth his time. 

For Young Thug, both rap and himself have outgrown the cliches that have hallmarked the genre, or at least outgrown the simple presentation of those tropes. 

Antonio Gramsci warns against the power of mass media and cultural objects as weapons of the powerful and the dominant as a means to perpetuate the status quo. While Young Thug is certainly operating within this status quo, he is dismantling it through exaggeration and an unconfined spirit. Thug’s artistic and gender expression –from the Motown vocal ranges to the dress on the very cover of Jeffery, to the music video about nothing– incorporate the tools of hegemonic popular media and their semiotic meaning to turn the gaze back at it. In her seminal essay on the topic, Susan Sontag posits that the hallmark of camp is extravagance, and the whole point of it is to dethrone the serious and the powerful. 

Sontag famously wrote, “the hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” By that definition, how could Young Thug be more camp, be more counter-hegemonic, than by strutting down the mainstreet of rap, clad in his Alessandro Trincone dress, just to tell us how silly we are for staring?

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