Before last month, Gucci Mane’s voice had never appeared on a song that got higher than #14 on the Billboard charts. And even that #14 felt like a flukey, random occurrence — a stray verse on Mario’s jittery 2009 R&B hit “Break Up,” a rare crossover-ish outgrowth of the year that Gucci absolutely controlled the mixtape underground, cranking out dizzily great trunk-rattling tracks at an unheard-of velocity. That Gucci is gone, and probably would still be gone if Gucci hadn’t spent the better part of the past three years behind bars. But right now, Gucci sits comfortably in the middle of the #1 song in the country, rapping, with bemused joy, about green hair and school clothes and Eurostep and bringing money machines to the club. Gucci isn’t the most memorable thing about “Black Beatles“; along with Swae Lee’s sneaky melodies and Rae Sremmurd’s excitable bars, Gucci is really just a supporting player to his old buddy Mike Will Made-It’s hypnotic slow-rotate beat. But he’s there, and that mere fact is a marvelous and unlikely accident of fate.
Think about it: Gucci Mane — who a few years ago was so gone that he was in and out of psychiatric facilities, allegedly beating up fans who were trying to take pictures with him — had to become the one person out of 100 who gets his life together in prison. He had to reemerge, refreshed and ready to work, into a rap world that, during his time in prison, had remade itself in his image. He had to watch old associates and collaborators and admirers blow up and score huge pop hits, and he had to do that with no bitterness at all, radiating happiness for everyone, everywhere, who was building on his foundation and getting rich doing it. (Gucci, of course, was plenty rich himself, which probably helped.)
Gucci had to record a few hundred songs, his own and others’, during his first few months out of prison. And one of those songs had to catch absolute fire — mostly thanks to a random and beautiful viral phenomenon in which people post videos of themselves freezing in place for extended periods of time. Some unnamed genius had to figure out that the Mannequin Challenge videos looked even trippier with that “Black Beatles” beat playing in the background. Almost every one of those videos, incidentally, fades out before Gucci’s verse comes in. Doesn’t matter. He’s on there.
Last week, Gucci made his own Mannequin Challenge video. Standing at the center of the Philips Arena court, during halftime of a Hawks/Pelicans game, Gucci froze in place, after telling everyone in the arena to do the same. The video itself isn’t great, mostly because you’re not supposed to have multiple cameramen circulating among the immobile bodies; it ruins the effect. But he still made a night of it. That same night, he proposed to his girlfriend Keyshia Ka’oir, the woman who’d been with him during his entire prison stay, pushing an enormous glittering disco ball of a ring onto her finger. And he did it in wondrously tacky fashion, getting down on one knee when he was on the arena’s Kiss Cam and accepting a bouquet of roses from the Hawks’ mascot immediately after she said yes. This was, after all, Gucci Mane Night at the arena. And the mere fact that there could be a Gucci Mane Night is a testament to his immeasurable influence.
On a song like “Black Beatles,” Gucci plays the elder-statesman role, a new thing for him even though it’s entirely earned. In his goony weirdness, his unexpected word choices, his deep playfulness even when he’s talking violent gutter shit, and his boundless prolificacy, Gucci pretty much set the mold for what a young rap star is supposed to do in 2016. Rae Sremmurd putting him on their best song of the year — quite arguably their best song ever — is a bit like the Rolling Stones taking Muddy Waters on tour in 1968. It’s a gesture of respect, a sign that these kids know where their style comes from. And it’s not just Rae Sremmurd. The young internet-rap generation has embraced Gucci, and he has embraced them back, becoming the rare middle-aged rapper (he’s 36) to embrace divisive young stars like Kodak Black, Lil Yachty, and Lil Uzi Vert.
Gucci has always been an uncommonly generous collaborator, and it’s hard to even consider how many rap careers he’s helped launch — Future, Young Thug, Waka Flocka Flame, Nicki Minaj, and every A-list producer in Atlanta merely being the tip of the iceberg. Even Young Jeezy, Gucci’s enemy-for-life, didn’t really find a national audience until he laid down his fight-starting guest verse on Gucci’s “Icy” way back in 2005. And since coming home from prison, that side of Gucci has only grown. Consider 1017 Vs. The World, Gucci’s new collaborative mixtape with the ridiculously popular young Philly rapper Lil Uzi Vert. I haven’t really written about Uzi, mostly because I don’t get him — and, as someone roughly Gucci Mane’s age, I feel like I’m not supposed to get him. He’s an energetic presence and a technically strong rapper, but he traffics entirely in cliche and raps in a whiny, nasal pitch that just puts me off. But Gucci gets him, and on the mixtape, he meets him halfway. They make a good complement to one another, with Gucci playing the wizened elder, letting Uzi’s energy bring him up. It’s by no means a hall-of-fame set of songs from Gucci, and nobody really needs to hear him talking about needing a blonde ho because he just came back from Milan, ho. But even on low-stakes tracks like these, he can still bring the restless cleverness: “Scarf’s fur so I can’t pose for PETA / Pockets looking like an encyclopedia / Baseball money like Derek Jeter / Standing in her face while a homegirl eat her.”
Gucci is better on his other new EP-length collaborative mixtape, the Future team-up Free Bricks 2 (Zone 6 Edition). On that tape, Future, who has sounded distant and unmotivated lately, finds himself rapping in the presence of one of his mentors and ups his urgency accordingly. And for a few stretches, Gucci sounds like his 2009 self again, playing around with word sounds with a dizzy sort of inventiveness: “Gucci Mane LaFlare, and to dis me is risky / Future pouring lean like it’s motherfucking whiskey / I’m the type of rich they know I’m strapped but don’t frisk me / It’s 2016, I’m on my 16th Bentley / When I get a chance to vote, I’m voting Monica Lewinsky / Cuz I’ma paint her face like Leonardo Da Vinci.” I love the story: Gucci and Future getting away from their entourages, spending a night holed up in a studio together, cranking out six songs in short order. In the morning, Gucci is so excited that, rather than waiting on refining the tracks or coming up with more, he just immediately releases all of them, without even telling Future about it beforehand. That sort of approach, of course, means Gucci is going to come out with plenty of filler. His quality control is out the window, and his hit-to-miss ratio is way down. But he’s excited to be making music — and that music, more often than not, is still pretty good.
By the time the year ends, Gucci will have released three full studio albums, as well as those collaborative mixtapes and lots of of guest-verses and stray tracks. He’s not making classics these days, and nobody’s expecting him to make classics. But if you put out that much music, you’re going to strike gold eventually, as Gucci did on “Black Beatles.” And even if nothing like that ever happens again, Gucci is in an amazing place. The entire rap world is rooting for him and delighting in seeing him succeed. Within rap, he’s the feelgood story of the year. And if he makes another 10 albums next year — a distinct possibility — they will all be worth hearing.
1. Boosie Badazz – “I Know” (Feat. Mitch)
In a column about Gucci Mane, it wouldn’t do to forget about the other inveterate Southern rap knucklehead cult hero who’s having an incredible and productive year, especially in a week when he just released another new album. And good lord, listen to how hard he’s rapping here.
2. YG – “I Know” (Feat. Mitch)
After the triumphant year he just had, YG didn’t have to come out with something like the new Red Friday EP, but I’m glad he did. Still, the EP’s best moment doesn’t belong to YG; it belongs to the unknown-to-me Mitch, whose singsong delivery is as nasty as it is effortless.
3. Freeway & Gunna – “So Cold”
State Property veteran Young Chris, no longer young, is now calling himself Gunna. That’s fine. If he keeps rapping with this sort of resonant, elegant emotional intensity, he can call himself whatever he wants. One of my favorite random rap rumors is that when Jay-Z slowed his style and got personal on The Blueprint, he did it by biting Chris. And now that Jay’s no longer making music like that, I’m glad Chris is still here, still doing it.
4. Young L – “Baller Blockin'”
Lil B was not the most creative member of the Pack. When that Berkeley group was still together, it was Young L’s simple, mesmeric production that gave them their edge. And listening to this beat, you could convince me that Lil B is still not the most creative member of the Pack.
5. Wiley – “U Were Always, Pt. 2″ (Feat. Skepta & Belly)
Melodic, emotive grime is the most underrated grime. But how in the hell are there multiple rappers named Belly? Can Tanya Donelly eat?
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Everyone: I need a remix that'll completely ruin a social gathering
Me: Say no more pic.twitter.com/H4M7ne2lV7
— james nielssen (@cool_as_heck) November 25, 2016