No Reason To Pretend is a bi-weekly column by Stephen Kearse that explores the intersection of hip-hop and pop culture.
It’s hard not to root for Gucci Mane. Over a tumultuous decade, the east Atlanta rapper has gone from a hustler on the periphery of the music industry to a fixture at its center, weathering incarcerations, creative slumps, personal misfortunes, and punishing economic shifts. His new self — drug-free, six-packed, clear-voiced, and brilliantly veneered — is so startlingly far from the pot-bellied, marble-mouthed Gucci of old that he was initially thought to be a clone. His first post-prison release, Everybody Looking, reveled in these differences and their implications for his future, promising a new artistic vision to match Gucci’s dazzling rebirth.
The promise hasn’t been kept. Even if you’re not a student of Gucci’s sprawling discography, you’d be forgiven for not being impressed at his post-prison output. Hooks, flows, and concepts used to come effortlessly for Gucci Mane, even after his peak (2007-2010), but his recent music, spanning two albums, four EPs, and one mixtape, has been a grind. His once liquid flow has become more cumbersome, hitting the downbeat with awkward force and often cramming syllables together into blocky chunks.
Consider the opening line to “Both” from The Return of East Atlanta Santa, for example: “I got so many felonies, I might can’t never go to Canada.” Gucci sprints through “felonies” to make it fit the beat and it completely disrupts the verse’s rubbery bounce. Likewise, his verse on Young Thug’s “Floyd Mayweather” is just as shaky. “The walking lick and my chopper is my walking stick,” he spurts, stumbling over “and.” This bumbling flow debuted on “No Sleep” from Everybody Looking, but there it at least had an air of unbridled directness, the slippages justified by the chorus: “I can’t even sleep, I got so much to say.”
These would be minor problems if Gucci’s songwriting hadn’t also diminished. The occasional awkwardness of Everybody Looking was forgivable in the context of the album’s theme of homecoming. There, even on some of the sloppier tracks (“Waybach,” “Guwop Home”), you could feel how happy Gucci was to be free and to be making music. His songwriting since has lacked that warmth and that backdrop, settling into the tedium of songcrafting as trade rather than passion. “Money Machine” from Woptober and “Threesome” from 1017 Vs The World are some real lows, the choruses simply filling space rather than connecting any ideas, and Gucci’s verses riffing the concepts into exhaustion.
Elsewhere, his once vibrant imagery has given way to flat description. “So many plants in this b*tch it look like I live on a farm,” he raps on “Bales.” “There’s an elephant in the room, guess who’s the motherf*cking elephant?” he asks on “Pussy Print.” It’s hard to believe that this is the same person who once rapped “Always arrogant, rude, same color as a prune / Yellow chain look like the moon and my old school is maroon \ Roooonn hear it ert ert when it skirt / 26s on the skirt in a vert with a bird.” It feels like a cruel joke that those lines appeared on a song titled “Easy.”
Gucci’s feature work has been much more consistent. “Black Beatles,” “We Gon Ride,” “Perfect Pint,” and “Buy Back the Block” have some real flashes of Gucci in his prime, from the imagery, to the rapping, to the energy. I suspect the quality of these verses is due to the stakes of these features, which were probably paid for, but their quality also probably speaks to Gucci’s long-running respect for other artists.
Gucci spent the first arc of his career searching for a way to make that career happen in spite of a guarded, hostile label system and then he spent the second arc of his career clinging to his unlikely gains from behind bars and from behind the scenes as an A&R. Dopeboy confidence and kingmaking ambition juiced him during those periods, but now, with the odds finally in his favor, he seems more interested in posterity, his legacy. And a key part of any legacy is what it means to the people who live through its aftermath: are they crushed by its weight or lifted by its power?
On Everybody Looking Gucci’s long influence took the form of paternal boasts (“All My Children”), but as he’s settled in he’s began to view it differently. On “Hi-Five” he’s an inspiration (“When your rap sheet look like mine no one will hire ya / But when you sign yourself like I did they can’t fire ya). On Rick Ross’s “Buy Back the Block” he’s a living parable (“I’m going live, I’m still alive / God thank you for my punishment, it made me wise”). On “Dirty Lil N***a” he turns his former cellmates into refractions of himself, petitioning the world to give them the same empathy that’s been given to him. “Ya’ll might don’t feel him, but I damn sure feel him, cause I was just in a jail cell f*cked up with him,” he raps cautiously.
I’d caution against expecting Gucci Mane to return to his peak form. As much raw talent as he possessed back then and might still potentially possess, he’s on a different wavelength now and his commitment to himself understandably outweighs the personal sacrifices it took to crank out music in such startling, chimeric bulk. His new music isn’t bad per se, but he seems to still be figuring it out — technically and conceptually — and it can be wearying to listen to, even if you want him to win. Plus, it’s a disservice to his past work to pretend that he’s not rusty. Ultimately, a better use of your time might be to listen to old Gucci. He lacks new Gucci’s outlook, but I guarantee he’s not a clone.