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Young Thug is the closest music style icon we have to Bowie

Flamboyant, eccentric and fearless – the Atlanta rapper’s latest album cover is proof that his fashion sense is not only rebellious but agenda-setting

For musicians, it’s not enough to have a sound – you need a look. Like Taylor Swift, whose high-waisted skirts and matching crop tops are an inoffensive uniform primed for the palate of Middle America, or Justin Bieber, dressed in ripped jeans, faux vintage metal tees and tartan shirts which attempt to portray the same good-boy-bad-boy recklessness as his lyrics. When it comes to rap and hip-hop, the fashion tropes surrounding male performers are well-known: Balmain jeans, hefty jewellery, sneakers and streetwear. And then there’s Young Thug.

Last night, the Atlanta rapper dropped his latest EP, No, My Name is Jeffery. On the cover, he’s pictured in a floor-length blue ruffled dress, layered over a white shirt and complete with a hat that resembles a parasol. The Fader report that Thug first saw the outfit by emerging Italian designer Alessandro Trincone while judging the entrants for the upcoming VFiles fashion show – VFiles then flew the look out to Atlanta for the shoot. Appropriately, the collection was about breaking down ideas of male and female, introducing a new meaning for masculinity. “I think in his cover image that he exactly (captured) the point, my point,” said Trincone over email. “Everyone can wear whatever they want to. Everyone can be themselves. Ignoring what people are saying and thinking.”

Safe to say, Jeffery is not your typical hip-hop album cover – compare it to other rap releases of the year which feature artists on sleeves: there’s French Montana loaded with gold chains with a similarly blinged out monkey on his shoulder, DJ Khaled sat on a throne with a lion, or Kevin Gates, topless and tattooed, and holding his fingers to his head like a gun. Thug’s release has more in common with David Bowie’s famous 1971 cover for The Man Who Sold The World, where he lounges in a chinoiserie silk dress on a chaise longue.

Where Bowie flirted with the lines and rules of gender at a time dominated by the crotch hugging masculinity of rock, Thug’s wardrobe is defined by the same fearlessness, albeit in a context of a different masculinity, one that’s stereotyped by hoodies and chains. “On any given day, he could be wearing leopard-print dresses, pleather baby tees, miniskirts, circular Elton John sunglasses or draped, unconventional tunics,” wrote Patrik Sandberg in our cover story on the rapper, back for the Autumn 2015 issue. “His personal style comes across one part rock star, two parts Cockette, with hints of hip-hop mallrat and Venice Beach stoner dude rolled into one ceaselessly entertaining package.” In the accompanying shoot by Harley Weir and styled by Robbie Spencer, Thugger sported a Molly Goddard tutu, floral Gucci lace, and a leopard Ed Marler silk robe.

When he appeared in Calvin Klein’s AW16 campaign this year, the slogans accompanying his images were similarly rebellious. Where others flaunted, dreamed, lusted, “I disobey”, and “I am not what you think I am” were the words which accompanied two of his images. In a brilliant juxtaposition, he was pictured in both a womenswear look consisting of long pinstriped dress over trousers, topped off with a large necklace, and a men’s suit. “You could be a gangster with a dress, you could be a gangster with baggy pants,” he said in a promotional video. “I feel like there’s no such thing as gender.” It’s not that that’s a powerful comment from an artist working in a genre often decried (unfairly, more than others) as homophobic and sexist, but a powerful comment coming from a musician on a major stage, full stop.

Like Bowie, Thug’s flamboyant eccentricity isn’t tied to sexuality – the rapper is straight, and has several children. Instead, his chameleon-like style is about fearless self-expression, and he looks as natural in a velvet Puma tracksuit as a floor length gown. Of course, dressing the way he does doesn’t come without his detractors – “These days y’all niggas got Young Thug / Y’all favorite rappers wear skirts / My favorite rappers used to put motherfuckers in a hearse” rapped The Game last year. “Gayyyyy asssss fucking fuuuuuuuuuuccckkkkkk !!!!!!”, “#fagboys”, “What a faggot....and his music is Madd trash…” are a sample of the comments on his Instagram. Like when Kanye was laid out for daring to wear a Givenchy kilt, there are risks associated with transgressing the expectations demanded from your gender, race, and occupation. Young Thug does not dress how society says we think men should, how black men should, or how rappers should – and not everyone is going to agree with that.

Since the cover reveal, #WhenRappersLookedLikeRappers has been trending on Twitter – but instead of shaming Thugger’s dress sense, it’s been hijacked by those who are in support of the musician. Where Bowie subverted the idea of the white male rockstar, pushing that image into places it hadn’t been before, Thug is doing the same for rap – he's expanding our expectations of what a rapper can be and how they should look. Frank Ocean becoming one of the only “out” queer artists currently working in the genre illustrates that the world of hip-hop has a way to go when it comes to gender and sexuality – Thug may not be gay, but with every skirt he puts on, he breaks down ideas of rap machismo a little bit more, proves that there is space for both skirts and streetwear in the genre. It’s both brave and brilliant.