Gucci Mane isn’t a consistently great rapper anymore. It’s OK. It happens. It happens to a lot of once-dominant rappers once their unreal creative peaks come to an end. Lil Wayne isn’t a consistently great rapper anymore, either. Neither is Jay Z or Nas or Bun B or Ghostface Killah or T.I. or Cam’ron or 8 Ball or Trick Daddy. There are rappers who can hit middle age without fading much — Pusha T, Killer Mike, E-40, Scarface — but they’re exceptions. Judging by Gucci’s new album Droptopwop, Gucci is not an exception. And that’s OK.
It’s OK, in part, because Gucci is healthy now. He’s trim and happy and about to be married. He’s not working through the drug-fog that characterized his peak years, and whatever demons and substances fueled his crazy ’08-’09 run are apparently completely out of his system. That’s good. If you watched him during that period, if you were a fan, then it’s frankly amazing to see him doing so well. It’s also amazing that he’s been able to leave prison, after a years-long sentence, and pick up more or less where he left off. He’s back to recording at a frantic clip, and he’s close enough to his peak form that it’s not embarrassing. He’s experiencing commercial success that evaded him back when he was an underground hero, and the goofy mushmouthed bounce of his flow has enough good associations that it creates a nice little dopamine surge all on its own. There are moments on Droptopwop where he approaches his old form, knocking word-sounds around like a cat with a marble: “A conniver, a miser, a plug despiser / A financial advisor, I make you wiser / I do stunts like MacGyver for my survival / If you a rival, I trick you, watch your tag and title.” But it’s not the same. And that’s fine. It’s fine, in part, because Gucci Mane isn’t even the star of Gucci Mane’s new album.
Gucci recorded the entire album with one producer, and that producer is Metro Boomin, who is currently on a rap producer’s version of Gucci’s ’09 run. Metro Boomin is busy, and a new track with his name on it seems to come out every day. And all of those tracks are worth hearing. Droptopwop is a short album, only 10 songs in 37 minutes. Metro and Gucci recorded the entire album together in two days, which is how Gucci likes to do things. In a Beats 1 interview, Gucci said, “The only reason we didn’t do more songs is because Metro fell asleep.” It’s tempting to wonder if Gucci could get himself off rap autopilot if he’d spend a little more time on his music, but that’s not the way he works, and it’s probably not the way he’ll ever work. What’s amazing, to me, is that Metro can keep up with that pace and that he can keep pushing his sound forward while he’s doing it.
Metro Boomin is 23 years old, which is almost disgusting to write, and he’s been an in-demand producer for about four and a half of those years. For most of that time, he’s been a sharp, inventive, exciting trap producer, one whose basic style fit fairly neatly into the absurdly busy Atlanta trap universe. His beats were strong enough to raise him to the top of that heap, but he was still a technician working within a system. There were signs that he could become something more, like the hazy synthetic psychedelia of Metro Thuggin’s “The Blanguage” or the clanking rupture of Future’s “I Serve The Base.” But it’s really in the past year that Metro Boomin has taken off skyward.
The turning point, I think, was Savage Mode, the collaborative EP that Metro and 21 Savage released last year. Working with a rapper as dark and flat and undemonstrative as Savage, Metro changed his whole style, going for an ominous quasi-ambient throb. There are beats on Savage Mode, like the one for “Ocean Drive,” that could pass for latter-day Boards Of Canada. That was a boutique project, one dialed into a very specific aesthetic. But that aesthetic has leaked out into a lot of the other things that Metro has been doing lately, especially the hits. It’s there in Migos’ “Bad And Boujee,” with its eerie, gothic minor-key piano melodies and its restrained, spacey drum programming. It’s there in the woozy, trapped-in-honey synth-cathedral beat for Post Malone’s “Congratulations.” And it’s especially there in the evocative slow-dissolve flute loop on Future’s “Mask Off,” a track that’s equally reminiscent of Roc Marciano and of the pan-flute instrumental from the first Kill Bill soundtrack.
Metro doesn’t have a sole production credit on any of those tracks — each of them carries the names of two or three producers — but if you listen to them all together, a pattern starts to emerge. Metro still makes bangers, but those bangers are on some slow, heavy, trip-inside-the-mind shit. He’s forging a whole new aesthetic, one built around seismic bass-tones and shimmering clouds of ghostly melody. Metro beats aren’t trying to grab your attention anymore. They’re trying to sweep you away. And that’s true of every single beat on Droptopwop, an album worth hearing for Metro’s musical magic tricks more than for latter-day autopilot Gucci.
Other than the rare moments where Gucci catches fire, the highlights of Droptopwop belong to other people. On “Met Gala,” Offset jumps in with a ridiculously showy head-twisting calisthenic version of his own triplet flow. And on “Both Eyes Closed,” we get a quick jolt of 2 Chainz at his most absurdly charismatic. Still, those aren’t the best moments on Droptopwop. The best moments on Droptopwop are the parts where nobody raps. They’re the ends of the songs, when the last chorus is over and the song just gets a few seconds to ride out, where the piano-chords ring and sustain, working their magic without interruption. Metro Boomin is way too rich and way too much of a human hit-factory to pull a Clams Casino and release a full instrumental album. The move wouldn’t make financial or cultural sense. Still, I wish he would. It’s a funny thing: One of the most original, vivid, important voices in rap right now belongs to a guy who doesn’t rap, whose voice never appears on records. It belongs to a guy who speaks entirely through his music. And right now, he’s saying a whole lot.
1. Bump J – “Good 2 Be Home”
Bump J was once one of the great Chicago rap hopes, a hard and precise and specific rapper with impeccable street connections and the ability to weave elaborate stories that felt very true-to-life. Then he went to prison for seven years after being convicted for bank robbery. He’s out now, and the first song he’s released since getting home finds him getting emotive and intense about his new lease on life, riding a Cardo beat that sounds like nothing that existed when he went to prison.
2. Conway – “Priest”
The best song from Conway’s new Reject On Steroids mixtape is also the weirdest one, the one where he talks his grizzled shit over a barely-there beat with a whole lot of reverbed-out guitar and basically no drums at all.
3. Gunplay – “Patience”
It’s one thing to say that a rapper’s flow punches you in the face. It’s another to be able to damn near taste the blood in your mouth. Gunplay is a blood-in-your-mouth guy. He’s a rare breed.
4. Billy Woods – “Wonderful” (Feat. Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman)
Aesop Rock has been around for about 20 years now, but I can’t remember a time when I’d see his name on a song and know I’d have fun listening to it. But today, we are in Aesop’s joyous era, and that’s a beautiful thing. In Woods and Sandman and producer Blockhead, he’s among likeminded friends here.
5. Swet Shop Boys – “Zombie”
Heems and Riz Ahmed’s outtakes slap harder than your single. Sorry.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
This sounds like a bar from a Lyricist Lounge song pic.twitter.com/NO5RBQpvVy
— Playboy Corgi (@steadybloggin) May 26, 2017