“This world has not reformed.” That was Bill Bratton, the commissioner of the New York Police Department, talking about rap music last week. He doesn’t even know how wrong he is. Rap music is reformed as fuck right now. The biggest rap stars in the world right now are downright approachable. There is nobody in the world remotely threatened by Drake, and he doesn’t have any concerns more pressing than whatever his exes might be saying about him lately. J. Cole is a walking after-school special. Kendrick Lamar may be the voice of a nationwide protest movement, but he’s also a humble Christian with sound career plans and absolutely no visible vices. Nicki Minaj can sound absolutely ferocious whenever she wants, but she’s also happy to show up on a cheeseball EDM anthem anytime David Guetta calls. Kanye West may be erratic and impassioned, but he’s also the rapper who made it cool to not be a street dude in the first place. Bratton was speaking in the wake of the big shooting at last week’s T.I. show, and while T.I. may have convictions on his record, he also has a place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Meanwhile, Troy Ave, the rapper actually involved in the shooting, only barely qualifies as a rapper. Genuinely unstable rap personalities are in short supply lately. That’s part of what makes Kevin Gates so exciting. And it’s one reason, among many, to be very, very happy about the return of Gucci Mane, who, as of last week, is free after serving two years in federal prison.
Gucci Mane is a great rapper. He’s one of the five or six most influential rap voices of the past decade — a dense and fluid lyricist who makes everything sound effortless, a sneaky-great hooksmith, an uncannily gifted A&R with a scary ability to spot and develop talent. Many of the most important rappers working right now, people like Future and Young Thug and even Nicki Minaj, are where they are, at least in part, because they started making music with Gucci Mane years ago. He’s prolific enough that he left behind 10 mixtapes’ worth of unreleased material — all of which eventually came out — before going to prison. And he is also not reformed. Before his prison sentence, Gucci couldn’t go a month without getting in some kind of legal trouble, some of it for genuinely despicable stuff. The closest he’s ever come to mainstream approachability was when he played the villain in fucking Spring Breakers. And now that he’s home, he’s not exactly celebrating.
When rappers get out of prison, they often sound lost or diminished once they get back to rapping. They have, after all, been through traumatic experiences, and the transition from one world to another one can’t be easy. This has not, historically, been a problem for Gucci Mane. He’s served a couple of high-profile prison sentences before, and he’s always come back strong. In 2009, on his first day out after one such prison stay, he recorded “First Day Out,” one of his best songs. It was celebratory and defiant and just as gloriously hardheaded as ever: “Gucci back, bitch! Yeah, I’m back, bitch! Did you miss me? Or my raps, bitch?” This time, less than 24 hours after his release, he gave us that song’s sequel, “First Day Out Tha Feds.” This time, he’s not defiant the way he was before. But that doesn’t mean he’s reformed.
The new “First Day Out” is paranoid and pissed-off, and it reminds me, weirdly, of the Geto Boys’ mental-illness anthem “Mind Playing Tricks On Me.” Gucci’s first bar of his first verse since coming home: “I’m hearing shooters load pistols while I’m brushing my teeth / I get so many death threats it’s getting normal to me.” That sets the tone. For the rest of the song, he sees hate and envy and, everywhere, forces conspiring to bring him down. “Wake up and take a piss, I hear them sharpening knives.” “Last night, I had a dream some killers ran in my room.” “I did some things to some people that was downright evil.” “My own mama turned her back on me, and that’s my mama.” There’s no hook, just a Mike Will beat that goes on murmuring for a while after Gucci has run out of things to say. It’s not a welcome-back song. Gucci doesn’t sound very welcome.
It is, however, a fucking fantastic rap song, a display of the twistily worded threats and sneaky emotional bite that Gucci, at his best, has always shown. And after a couple of years of diminishing-returns Gucci music, all those tracks that should’ve stayed on the shelf, it’s striking how fresh and vital he sounds. It’ll be fascinating to see how he fits into this new rap world that he helped create. He came out of prison looking completely different: a hardened musculature where his trademark potbelly once was, a full head of hair that hasn’t been cut into crazy geometric patterns. On Instagram with longtime girlfriend Keyshia Dior, he looks downright rapturous, if slightly shell-shocked. But “First Day Out Tha Feds” is not the sort of song you make when you’re floating on a cloud of happiness. It’s the sort of song you make if you have some scores to settle. I don’t know what those scores might be. But it’s clear, given both the power of that first new Gucci song and the rapturous response at his homecoming, that Gucci has a spot waiting for him in rap’s higher echelons. The people already up there better scoot over and make some room. Rap is a whole lot more exciting with this lunatic back in the mix.
1. Clams Casino – “Witness” (Feat. Lil B)
Lil B is a fascinating figure who frequently makes terrible music, mostly because he has made a personal aesthetic out of halfassing everything. So it’s cool to hear him come up with something potent when he focuses for long enough to write an actual song, one which still has his singular weirdness deeply embedded but which also has, like, a chorus. Great Clams beat and great video, too.
2. Joey Purp – “Kids”
Joey Purp’s iiiDrops is a mixtape well worth hearing, a post-Chance Chicago rap throwdown that’s harder and more businesslike than most of what comes out of that whole after-school freestyle-cipher scene. Of the songs we hadn’t heard before release, my favorite is probably “Kids,” mostly because it’s like someone is using Travis Scott’s whole thing for good instead of evil.
3. Key! – “See No Evil” (Feat. Skepta)
Hey, Skepta can do emotive Atlanta trap, too! Further evidence in the “Skepta is just a great rapper” argument. Also, I like how “Key! & Skepta” sound like things you’d need to find to complete a Legend Of Zelda level.
4. Snootie Wild – “Beetle Juice”
Can Danny Elfman samples become rap’s next big trend? Please?
5. Curren$y – “Leroy”
There are few things we can count on in this world. Curren$y sounding unbearably smooth and unruffled over some sampled horns is one of them.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
"aye y'all heard Gucci out" pic.twitter.com/iEZIoip4x6
— Menace ² $ociety (@kingtrelll) May 26, 2016