Trap music is, in a lot of ways, about numbness. Much of the time, the rappers from the dominant Atlanta rap strain are talking about their past lives in the trenches and the traumas that they’ve endured and inflicted. There’s a calloused, wizened seen-in-all quality to a lot of this music, good and bad. And a whole lot of the music is about drugs — both selling and consuming — so it’s literally about numbness, about the substances that allow some people to cruise through unendurable days on zonked-out autopilot.
Thanks to its years of commercial hegemony, another kind of numbness has crept into Atlanta trap music: The oppressive eternal recurrence of a genre stuck in a rut. Future and Migos and Gucci Mane have all made incredible music in the not-too-distant past, but thanks to the constant grind of their recording schedules, they’ve mostly lost whatever spark they had. There’s not a whole lot of incentive to keep innovating once you’ve found a comfortable cultural sweet spot. So a lot of this music is ferociously boring.
If you’re not paying enough attention, or listening with open enough ears, then Gunna might seem just as crushingly boring on first glance. Gunna is from Atlanta, 26 years old, all over virtually every big rap album from the past couple of years. He’s part of the 300 Entertainment conglomerate, a company that has not exactly been working overtime to push excellence. His favorite subjects are money and drugs and sex and clothing — a lot of his records have the word Drip in their titles — and he rarely has anything compelling to say about any of them. But Gunna’s music sounds like nothing else. It bends and blurs and wobbles, evoking the dim euphoria of actual drug use rather than the cold grind of selling. At its best, it’s beautiful.
When Gunna first appears in the video for “Skybox,” the first single from his new album Wunna, it isn’t really Gunna. It’s a claymation model of Gunna. This Play-Doh Gunna smokes a gigantic blunt, his silken headscarf blowing in the breeze as his hot-air balloon floats above the clouds. A giant lady belly-dancer Barbie-doll lady flicks Gunna’s balloon into some kind of interdimensional vortex, and when Gunna wakes up, he’s a flesh-and-blood human being laying in a field. Soon enough, he’s strutting through the streets of a Moroccan village, the colors around him so bright and vivid that they look as unreal as the claymation intro. This is a ridiculous set of images, and it’s pretty funny, too. But it’s also a useful way of framing Wunna, an album so bleary and psychedelic that it leaves behind any trace of reality as we know it.
Gunna has been moving towards this sensibility for a while now. On last year’s Drip Or Drown 2, for instance, he rapped over gooey, echo-drenched acoustic guitars and airy synth tones, finding a playfully hazy variant of the Atlanta trap sound that clearly birthed him. But on Wunna, Gunna pushes that sound further than anyone’s pushed it. This time around, Gunna works with a small core of producers — usually Wheezy and Turbo, with other collaborators sometimes along — to find the lightest, wooziest sounds from his past records, pushing them all the way out into the stratosphere. The final product is all misty, dissolving vibe — sunny springtime ambient music of the highest order.
Wunna shares a few melodic ideas with Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake, the last inventive commercial trap record to come down the pike, but the two records operate in different ways. Lil Uzi Vert is a restless mind with a whole lot of ideas about how to present himself to the world. Uzi plays games with language, image, persona. Gunna doesn’t do any of that. He doesn’t have the same kind of ambition. Lyrically, Wunna is mostly generic luxury-rap, though Gunna sometimes finds evocative ways to talk about all of his shit: “Piss in my ring, diamonds canary yellow/ I’m sipping codeine, I’m moving slower than Donatello.” But the lyrics aren’t the point of the thing. Gunna’s ideas are mostly purely musical — thoughts on the different ways that his voice can float.
Gunna’s voice is a thin chirp, and he’s got incredibly rhythmic command over it. As a technical rapper, Gunna is impeccable, capable of darting in and out and around his beats. He seems to find a new melody and a new cadence every few lines. His voice twirls lazily, creating the sort of hypnotic effect where it mostly doesn’t matter what he’s saying. Gunna can find depth in total meaninglessness. He sounds better chanting “surf, surf, surf, waaaaave” than a lot of rappers sound when they’re actually saying things.
On Wunna, Gunna uses that voice for maximum zootedness. He layers it up, slathers it in echo, and transforms it into something closer to whale-song than to classic rap. The music blurs and twinkles and wobbles. It’s full of welcoming bass tones and acoustic-guitar flutters and subtle, murmuring melodies that never quite match Gunna’s own subtle, murmuring melodies. Even on a track with a title like “Rockstar Bikers & Guitars,” the inevitable crunchy guitars are buried under ghostly flutes and underwater synth gasps. As a result, the music has a lot of the reality-bending warmth that I tend to associate more with Boards Of Canada than with any of Gunna’s contemporaries. I close my eyes, and it sweeps me away to a peaceful place within myself.
Gunna doesn’t seem interested in marketing Wunna as smart music. The album opens with Gunna literally rapping about getting his dick sucked until it’s numb, which sounds unpleasant. Also, Gunna was in the news a bunch yesterday for doing a whippit on Instagram Live. Gunna is exalting in his young-rap-star status, not pushing Wunna as some kind of new variation on present-day rap sonics. Why should he do any different? He’s doing fine as is. So I don’t know if people are going to hear Wunna as the strange, dizzy, lovely album that it is. Maybe people will listen and just hear more of the dick-sucked numbness that’s plagued so much big-time rap music in recent years. But when I hear Wunna, I don’t hear that numbness. I hear something alive.
1. Eastside Reup – “My Dawg” (Feat. Sada Baby)
Sada Baby said, “Serve girl, serve boy, I ain’t sexist/ 45 turn his head top to Chex Mix.” Sada Baby is a great American writer.
2. JPEGMAFIA – “Cutie Pie!”
JPEGMAFIA clearly loves being an experimental prankster type, and he’s great at it. But every once in a while, he reminds us that he’s also really good at straight-up rappping and making straight-up rap beats. There’s plenty of weird stuff going on on “Cutie Pie!,” but it’s also, one some level, a classical neck-jerk fast-rap song. I like that.
3. Diablo, Eliozie, & Shakewell – “Killing” (Feat. Terror Reid)
I would very much like to get dangerously impaired and mosh to this song in a dilapidated warehouse at 3AM.
4. Young M.A – “Savage Mode”
Four years ago, Young M.A came out with a huge and unlikely hit that cast a huge shadow over the rest of her career. Maybe that’s why so many of us are only just now noticing that she’s making a place for herself on the list of all-time great rap goons.
5. ALLBLACK – “Never” (Feat. Dizzle)
People in the Bay Area are still making shit that sounds like Licensed To Ill. God bless them.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
keepin my head together pic.twitter.com/FHV02owDRB
— Sharon Stone (@sharonstone) May 24, 2020