Pseudonyms, Alter Egos & SEX: Hip-Hop’s Obsession With Changing Names

What's in a name?
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I. Call Me by My Name

“Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one's nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one's nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one's robes.” —James Baldwin

In the wee hours of February 19, Young Thug announced his desire to be identified by a bizarre new moniker: SEX.

Why the change? An answer has yet to be revealed. Abrupt announcements from the famous rapper shouldn’t be surprising; the Atlanta-born enigma lives in a slimy world of his own conception―a world where he combats the concepts of predictability, logic, and reason.

There’s an enthralling magnetism to Thug's uncanny eccentricity that keeps his name on the tip of hip-hop’s tongue―many blogs have already posted about the name change to SEX and Lil Uzi Vert has already respectfully acknowledged the new moniker

It’s impossible to know if SEX will be as temporary as Diddy becoming Swag, or as permanent as Ron Artest becoming Metta World Peace. This is the magic of Young Thug, his ability to tow the line of creative genius or bored madman without us ever knowing which hat he’s donning.

I’d like to think he’s serious about SEX, but not as a permanent replacement of his stage name. Thug is a versatile rapper; his unorthodox style of rhyme morphs more frequently than Frieza fighting on Planet Namek. There’s also little repetition in his form. Listening to the 24-year-old is like playing UNO against an opponent who is constantly changing the rules but you are too captivated by their wizardry to quit the game. If he’s unable to commit to one artistic approach, why expect him to marry a single name?

It's possible the name change is inspired by new music that doesn't fit the Young Thug identity; instead, the music sounds like SEX. Whatever that may be.

II. DOOMED Men in Masks

“As soon as you label a concept, you change how people perceive it.” —Adam Alter

Jeffery is all about Jeffery. It ain’t even about Young Thug. Ain’t no Young Thug songs on there,” Thug said in a 2016 interview on Beats 1 Radio during the rollout for his Jeffery mixtape. Even though he didn’t commit to the name change promised to former 300 executive Lyor Cohen, the above quote shows a mindset that saw a unique collection of records outside his usual realm of creation. I liken the possible alter ego rational to the many monikers of artists like OG Kool Keith and hip-hop's greatest villain, DOOM.

DOOM only wears one mask, but over the years has adopted many names: MF DOOM, Viktor Vaughn, and King Geedorah; Madvillain when merging with mastermind Madlib, DOOMSTARKS if paired with Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah, and Metal Fingers when behind the boards, to name a few. Stylistically, DOOM’s lyrical approach isn’t wildly transformative, but his every album and collaboration are appropriately labeled. Fans have their preference of which DOOM they favor, but no matter the alter ego, breathing into the mic will be a rather ugly brother with flows that's gorgeous.

Vocal manipulation is a common practice for artists reimagining themselves. Madlib doesn’t physically don a mask when he raps as the colorful Lord Quas, but a unique disguise is created by altering his voice with a prepubescent high pitch. The distinction between Madlib’s God-given voice and Quasimoto's cartoonish tone is the difference between clouds and cement―look no further than “Real Eyes” to hear how wonderfully strange the two harmonically overlap.

Much like DOOM, Madlib has various titles for many collaborators, but his most inventive alter ego is Yesterdays New Quintet―a five-member, genre-blending jazz band. Joe McDuphrey, Malik Flavors, Ahmad Miller, Monk Hughes and Otis Jackson Jr. are all fictional players who exist only in Madlib’s imagination. He was a one-man band able to play all their instruments but still creative enough to give names to each respected role.

Depending on the sound and medium, Mac Miller is a man of many names, as are Toro y Moi, Tyler, The Creator, Flying Lotus, and others. For creatives who seek to explore all spectrums of various sonic and visual mediums, sometimes one identity isn’t enough.

III. A Rapper by Any Other Name…

“You people always hold onto old identities, old faces, and masks, long after they've served their purpose. But you've got to learn to throw things away eventually.” —Neil Gaiman

When Kendrick Lamar wanted listeners to know who he was beyond a dope rapper, he changed his name from K.Dot. The Compton kid was a kid no more; he had developed into a man with a story to tell, a real tale that needed to be told by a real name. 

“I won’t change my name again because now it’s right. It’s perfect, it feels good,” J. Cole said in an early interview from 2011. Becoming a man confident in who he was growing into, Jermaine Cole put away The Therapist, a name given to him as a kid. Growth is necessary before the arrival of maturity.

Donald Glover believes endings are important for progress; they require things to get better. This year, he’s expected to release his final album as Childish Gambino, and then he too will reappear renewed. He's a walking testament that transformation doesn’t happen without change. Stagnancy is the result of mashing “B” when it’s time to evolve.

The artist formerly known as QuESt is releasing the best music of his career since embracing Sylvan LaCue. Anderson .Paak has transcended into a musical world Breezy Lovejoy only dreamed of. The shedding of old skin is apart of the blossoming process.

Unfortunately, in a business where identity can be an attachment of the masses, some alterations are rejected. Mike Bigga couldn’t escape the shadow of Killer Mike. Snoop said call me Lion but the world couldn't let go of Dogg. Shad Moss doesn’t have a Harlem shake impressive enough to peel away from the Lil Bow Wow eclipse. It is worth noting the best JAY-Z album in years didn’t manifest until the hyphen returned―a metaphor for how you can’t run from who you are.

Young Thug’s name becoming SEX could be long-term or short-lived, a change representing evolution or a drug-influenced troll. SEX could easily turn out to be his “I Am A Golden God” moment. Regardless, what is important to remember is the very first gift you receive is your name. It isn’t chosen but bestowed. The original taste of individuality, the beginning of personal identity. Who you become after is in your own hands, and no matter the life you live, tombstones are guaranteed to read two dates and the alias of your choosing.

As the Japanese say: Tigers die and leave their skins; people die and leave their names.

By Yoh, aka QuasiYohto, aka @Yoh31

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