He doesn’t look the same. That’s the first thing you notice. The second thing you notice is that he looks great. Since coming home from a nearly-three-year prison stay, Gucci Mane looks like he’s been spending all that time at some sort of otherworldly health spa. Back in his 2009 halcyon era, he was never shy about taking his shirt off, and the frequent shirtlessness is one of the things he’s kept. It only underlines that change — that Homer Simpson potbelly replaced with a hard wall of muscles. His hair is grown out, no longer cut into a crazy geometric puzzle. Even the ice cream cone face tattoo has faded a bit, or maybe we’ve just gotten so used to it that we don’t see it anymore. Since Gucci’s return, there’s been a persistent half-joking social-media rumor that he’s not really Gucci, that he’s a Gucci Mane clone. And watching him in every video that’s emerged since his release, you can almost believe it. It’s not just the physical changes. He comes across serene, calm, even easygoing. He beams. This is the same guy who jumped on Twitter a few years ago to call his protege Waka Flocka Flame “disloyal,” offering to sell his contract to the highest bidder. Today, the restlessness and paranoia are gone. Gucci Mane just seems happy. It’s almost uncanny.
A little while after Gucci’s release, his girlfriend Keyshia Ka’oir Snapchatted a few videos of the two of them watching Game Of Thrones. They’re oddly charming — Gucci catching up on a cultural touchstone that he missed while he was away, realizing that he loves it, telling his girl that this motherfucking midget is funny as fuck. But then you remember: Gucci was only away for three years. Game Of Thrones had been on a few seasons before he got locked up. But maybe he never got around to watching it because he was too busy living it. Seven years ago, Gucci was the greatest, most productive, most restless star in rap. He cranked out mixtapes at a furious rate, and you could sit and watch the entire genre scrambling to catch up. His flows and hooks and beautifully silly one-adjective-only song titles (“Gorgeous,” “Awesome,” etc.) were all miles beyond what everyone else was doing. Stray Gucci phrases — “East Atlanta, cocking hammers, bandanas on car antennas / No, we do not talk to strangers / Just cut off these niggas’ fingers” — would bounce around in your head all day. But the flipside was that Gucci came off like a genuine lunatic, one who didn’t know how to cope with his own fame and money and influence. He went to jail constantly, often for violent offenses. He killed a guy, albeit in self-defense. He spent time in psychiatric institutions. To love him was to fear for him.
Drugs had a lot to do with it, of course. On record, Gucci spent years portraying himself as a tireless party-monster. These days, both in music and in interviews like this one with The New York Times, he speaks about himself, in explicit terms, as a retiring addict. He went through withdrawal in prison, and he came out a new man. At the moment, he’s back at home and under house arrest, confined to his Atlanta mansion except for trips out like his triumphant all-star homecoming show. He eats kale, and he smiles a lot. It’s the rare case where prison seemed like a restorative experience, not like another awful trial that breaks people who were already dangerously close to breaking. Gucci hasn’t turned into a beacon of positivity or anything. On Everybody Looking, the new album that he released on Friday, there’s plenty of talk about fucking and killing. There’s an entire (very good) song about how he might talk to you if you’re not rich but how he definitely won’t talk to you unless, at the very least, your friends are rich. But there’s an exultant, beatific vibe to the record. It’s the sound of someone who went through a personal hell and came out the other side grinning.
Everybody Looking isn’t a great album, but it’s a solid one. The deranged creativity of circa-’09s mixtapes like Writing On The Wall The Burrprint (The Movie 3D) is gone. But it was gone for years before he went away for that three-year prison stay. For a long time, Gucci had been cranking out surly, mechanistic mixtapes, only showing flashes of his old greatness. And while Everybody Looking is rusty and rushed, there’s a sense of joy to it that feels new. Gucci recorded Everybody Looking within six days of his release from prison, and it sounds like it. Still, it sounds about as good as a major-label rap album this rushed can possibly sound. Kanye West and Drake make ring-kissing guest appearances, deferring nicely to Gucci’s cult-hero status. Mike Will Made-It and Zaytoven, two of Gucci’s favorite producers, supply most of the tracks, giving Gucci their best dinky, melodic synth-beats. Gucci uses lyrics that he wrote in prison on notebook paper and then mailed to his girlfriend, and it might be his first time ever using written-out lyrics. Sometimes that means we get the paranoid intensity of “First Day Out Tha Feds.” Most of the time, though, he’s understandably loose and celebratory — taking delight, on songs like “All My Children,” in the way his influence has gone supernova while he’s been away.
And honestly, that’s about all we could’ve expected, especially for something recorded in such a dizzy, headlong sprint. Gucci’s flow is a little flatter than it once was, and those singsong hooks don’t stick the way they used to. We don’t have too many relentlessly quotable shards of demented-genius imagery. But we do get that voice, a voice that so many of us have come to love, in full-on bounce mode for 15 songs. I’m thinking of Everyone Looking as a throat-clearing, as the good-enough thing that Gucci put out to sate us before he gets to the real work. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic. Maybe pretty-good rap music is all we’re really going to get from Gucci from here on out. He’s reportedly at work on a collaborative mixtape with Drake, which is fun to think about but which might not be a great look for either guy. But even if Gucci never again returns to his creative prime, the important thing is that he’s found some measure of health and inner peace, two things I never would’ve associated with the words “Gucci Mane.” He’s already made several lifetimes worth of great music. If his priority now is his actual life, who could blame him?
1. Desiigner – “Tiimy Turner”
It started out as the most memorable XXL freestyle in that magazine’s history, a strange and spectral half-chant, all fingersnaps and mystic incantations. Then Mike Dean got ahold of it and turned into blaring, busy neon-goth arena-trap. And sure: The final version is overproduced as hell, and I almost wish the whole song had nothing but fingersnaps underneath it. But it’s still a mysterious dark vision of a song, and Desiigner is now, at the very least, a two-hit wonder. (Also: I guess he got the song title from The Fairly OddParents? You’ll have to ask a millennial about that, since I don’t know/give a fuck.)
2. DJ Khaled – “Holy Key” (Feat. Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, & Betty Wright)
God bless Big Sean for being perfectly willing, years after “Control,” to once again show up on a song with Kendrick Lamar and get absolutely fucking wrecked. Kendrick is a weird fit for the patented Khaled triumphal posse cut, but if he could make that “Bad Blood” remix work, he can make anything work. He makes this work.
3. Lil Bibby – “Jon Snow”
It makes its own kind of sense. With Chief Keef on apparently permanent Californian exile, we needed a new King In The North. Why shouldn’t it be Bibby? (It won’t be Bibby, but I like the idea anyway. Also: good song.)
4. Giggs – “Whippin Excursion”
I have been listening to British rap music for 27 years (shout out to Merlin), and I am still not over the novelty of UK trap music. It’s good, though!
5. Denzel Curry – “Today” (Feat. Boogie & Allan Kingdom)
I like the combination of dazed slow-waft cloud beats and hard, precise rap diction, and I like the idea that kids are actually wilding out to this. Denzel Curry is motivated.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— Timothy McGrath (@timmybicicleta) July 26, 2016