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Lady Gaga - Joanne art

How Gaga, Young Thug and Mykki embraced the first name

They’ve all released albums titled after first names – Joanne, Jeffery, Mykki – but they each subvert the cliché of being their ‘most personal album ever’

‘My most personal album ever’ may be one of the oldest music industry clichés, but 2016 has marked a new intensity for the form. This is the year we’ve seen inside Beyoncé’s marriage at its lowest point courtesy of her album Lemonade, peeped Kanye and his wife in the buff in the Famous video, and fought with Drake at Cheesecake Factory on Views – given the trend for increasingly personal and confessional albums, you’d be forgiven for eye-rolling your way through the thought of any more carefully-crafted intimacy with your favorite musicians.

Still, over the past few months, we’ve seen three albums arrive that are incredibly personal – and they all share one common trait. While Young Thug, Lady Gaga, and Mykki Blanco’s latest albums are radically different from one another, they’re all titled after single names. Jeffrey is Young Thug’s real first name, Joanne is Stefani Germanotta’s middle name, and Mykki is the first name of Michael David Quattlebaum Jr.’s alter-ego. Obviously this isn’t exactly groundbreaking — in the past, artists from Beyonce to Britney Spears to Enya have used the first name self-titled album to signal they’ll really be opening up to their audience – but this time the artists have anticipated the ‘most personal album ever’ schtick with records that either subvert your expectations or subvert the form itself, trading straightforward reveals about emotions and personal lives for something more postmodern.

Both Mykki Blanco and Young Thug have used their image to play with audience expectations, asking that their audiences work to comprehend them. Mykki Blanco was created by Michael David Quattlebaum Jr. for a 2010 satirical YouTube video inspired by female teen vloggers, and in videos like “Wavvy” (split between Quattlebaum and Blanco), he used the tension between his own identity and his alter ego’s to suggest that identity is a more flexible concept that we’re accustomed to. Similarly, Young Thug’s well-documented affinity for diamond chokers and high-fashion ballgowns shrug at the concept of gender and hint at his passion for occupying grey spaces, not just in fashion, but in music too.

“(Young Thug’s Jeffery reads) less like a glimpse into Jeffery Lamar Williams’ soul and more into his Spotify playlists”

Young Thug was the first to drop his album back in August. While the name Jeffery implied that it’d be a no-holds-barred look at the 25-year-old rapper’s life, the tracklist suggested otherwise: with songs like “RiRi” and “Wyclef Jean”, it read less like a glimpse into Jeffery Lamar Williams’ soul and more into his Spotify playlists. Arguably, this wasn’t Young Thug messing with us so much as hinting at how best to read him. With his borderline nonsensical lyrics, personal style, and deranged musical stylings, Young Thug has always taken pleasure in being as unreadable as possible, and reverting to more conventionally ‘confessional’ music (personal details, unfiltered emotion, etc.) would be unconvincing. His appeal lies in the very fact that he isn’t an everyman and you can’t relate. He’s a superhero from Mars. He’s David Bowie reincarnated. He’s that red-suited man on Twin Peaks telling you that gum you like is going to come back in style.

As such, it was relatively unsurprising to discover that as a listener, you would have to, as he sings on “RiRi”, “do the work, do the work” to “earn” the prize of getting to know him. The album’s beauty lies in the questions it throws up: how is it that even on his convincing Rihanna impression, Young Thug still sounds exactly like Young Thug? Is it that distinctive yodelling, or the way his voice breaks on the high notes? Or is it the fact that the only unchanging aspect of his vocal delivery is constant change, with him shifting flows and notes fluidly? On reflection, it seems obvious that the only way to approach any real knowledge of Atlanta’s slipperiest rapper would be via comparison. It required the listener to think laterally. How does Young Thug’s take on “Work” compare to the original? What extra sprinkle of magic does he bring to the party?

Young Thug and Mykki Blanco are both expanding the definition of what rap can be, but Blanco’s debut album Mykki approaches this in an entirely different way to Jeffrey. As a “HIV-positive drag-rap showgirl”, Blanco is no ordinary performer – but that doesn’t mean he isn’t trying to get his audience to relate. With tracks like “My Nene,” Blanco uses pronouns to signal that that he’s ready to open up his world to all of us. “As a queer artist, sometimes on a certain song I on purpose want to play with universal things,” he told The FADER, “I on purpose want to make sure that I use wording that doesn’t gender what I do so that it can have a universal appeal… For me I’m definitely talking about a guy, that’s my baby, that’s my nene, but through the wording and through not gendering it, also a straight guy or straight woman could listen to that song and completely identify with it.”

The rest of the album’s subject matter manages to be specific but relatable to those of us who aren’t – like Blanco – a 14-year-old-teen-girl-vlogger-turned-drag-riot-grrrl, crushing hard on someone when you’re high and losing your emotional hard-on when you’ve removed your ecstasy specs, naked Snapchatting, questioning the need for a heteronormative happily-ever-after but still yearning for monogamy. Perhaps the difference between Young Thug and Blanco’s personal albums is one of motivation. Blanco isn’t just pouring his heart out for the sake of it. Speaking to Dazed recently, he revealed that his “aesthetic language” employed in music videos was his way of trying “to slowly infiltrate the mainstream with radical queer ideas”. But why mainstream the underground? Because, as Quattlebaum said on Instagram, “it is about visibility & letting all the black, brown, fem, gay, trans, genderqueer kids know, if Mykki is doing it YOU can do it.”

If Mykki Blanco is doing it for the kids, Lady Gaga is doing it for… herself? In September we learned that Gaga was dropping an album named partially after herself (Joanne is her middle name, but more significantly it’s also the name of her deceased aunt), and that instead of art or fame it would explore her emotional response to her aunt’s death from lupus and the way this shaped her as a woman. This felt like the one Lady Gaga reinvention nobody had anticipated. From the moment she rocked onto the scene in that meat dress, Gaga has always been an aspiring conceptual artist and as such, the trajectory of her music career has been about pushing her ideas, rather than herself, to centre stage. After years upping the artistic stakes (whether via “adult finger painting” or collaborating with Marina Abramovic), Joanne announced that Gaga was playing the most unexpected card of all.

Joanne’s album’s cover is a simple close-up of Lady Gaga looking stylish but, basically, normal... in the context of Gaga’s own discography, this is the boldest move she could make”

Joanne’s album’s cover is a simple close-up of Lady Gaga looking stylish but, basically, normal. Similarly unusual for Gaga are the album’s themes: unlike her usual work, this album delves into personal experiences. She preempted the record’s confessional tone with her revealing interview with Zane Lowe on Apple Radio, in which she described how “the death of her (aunt)… left a scar and a wound that never healed… it’s all the toughness that happens as a result of the pain that came from losing her that made us all tough and made us all who we are and so she is the woman of my past who is becoming and helping me bring more of my honest woman self into the future.” If this seems intimate and raw, but not necessarily all that radical in comparison to Blanco and Young Thug’s reinvention of the personal album, think again. In the context of Gaga’s own discography, this is the boldest move she could make. She’s built up a fanbase thanks to her commitment to allying pop with a Warholian vision of art, and while confessional albums from the likes of Justin Bieber or Ariana Grande might seem par for the course, nobody has ever demanded a “most personal album ever” from Gaga. That’s not why we’ve been listening. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t applaud her for giving the world what nobody expected.

So why now? In the past year or so, we’ve had Sufjan Stevens’ meditation on his mother’s mental health issues and death (Carrie and Lowell), Earl Sweatshirt waxing lyrical about daily life (I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside), Future’s dark confessions (Dirty Sprite 2), and Father John Misty opening up about marital bliss (I Love You, Honeybear). Arguably these artists are products of two things: the musical culture surrounding them, and the internet. In 1985, Bob Dylan raged at critics reading too much into Blood On The Tracks: “‘You’re a Big Girl Now,’ well, I read that this was supposed to be about my wife. I wish somebody would ask me first before they go ahead and print stuff like that… I don’t write confessional songs.” It’s impossible to conceive of an artist today being so scathing about what’s become such a de facto reading of most albums – perhaps Gaga’s ‘most personal album ever’ wasn’t just the one experiment she hadn’t yet tried, but also simply a product of timing. Meanwhile, Blanco and Young Thug’s spin on the cult of the confessional seem more heavily influenced by the internet: your friend’s online photography portfolio, that girl from the bar’s carefully pithy Twitter account, your mum’s Pinterest page have all made it trickier to deny that identity isn’t innate, but a construct.

As such, in the age of excessive social media use, releasing a straight take on who you are as a person doesn’t reveal who you are as much as it does how you want to be perceived. Blanco and Young Thug’s slyer, more nuanced take on the form feels the perfect antidote to overly-curated Facebook pages. They want you to do the work to get to know them, whether that’s identifying with them or comparing them to get to the heart of what they’re about. So sure, there’s been an awful lot of blood and tears shed by your favourite musicians this year. But don’t give up the faith: if the trinity of albums covered above are anything to go by, things are just beginning to get interesting.