"In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible." —Roland Barthes, "The World of Wrestling."
Gucci Mane’s antics* on Twitter earlier this week took the internet by surprise. Not only did the online peanut gallery explode over Gucci’s accusations and allegations, but artists like T.I., Tyga, and even Nicki Minaj felt obligated to respond. The reaction on social media ranged from confusion over what the rapper was saying due to his distinct punctuation style, speculation that he was hacked (doubtful), speculation that he would claim he was hacked (prophecy), and concern for his state of mind. His tweets were described as insane. Theories were that it was inspired by a breakup with a woman he'd tweeted about earlier in the month, that it was because he'd been falsely accused of paying for the lawyer of Slim Dunkin's killer, that it was because he'd been dropped from Atlantic Records. He was compared to Amanda Bynes. He was having a “meltdown.” Some publications went so far as to call it a “cry for help.”
At the extreme end of the spectrum, Media Take Out theorized that perhaps Gucci’s tweets were the result of "AIDS-related dementia," and then helpfully quoted from WebMD on the nature of that ailment. This kind of thinking is reminiscient of when Chief Keef was described over and over as being autistic, without any evidence of a diagnosis. Rappers like Gucci (and Keef) are essentially pathologized. (In Gucci's case, this was also done at the legal level, when, in 2011, he pleaded mental incompetence and was admitted temporarily to Anchor Hospital.) This is part of his entire approach as an artist. It's not just literal lyrics about poverty; he aims to represent, to symbolize and embody, an entire class of Americans who are marginalized and pathologized. This is his base.
Meanwhile, mainstream attempts to sympathize with the rapper’s outlandish tweets sometimes came across as little more than fetishization of his eccentricities. Although this FACT magazine editorial mentions his music in passing, it primarily celebrates the “drug-addled lunatic” as a hero for a laundry list of wild stories (facial tattoos, falling asleep during a sex scene on the set of Spring Breakers, etc.). When the music is mentioned, the emphasis is always on how weird it is, as if it were some pure extension of the rapper’s Crazy Persona. Like certain strains of the fandom of artists like R. Kelly and Wesley Willis, there’s an uncomfortable focus on extraneous, extra-musical aspects of his public personality.
It goes without saying that Gucci's a character, and that his, erm, strong personality has played a large part in what makes him both a celebrated and reviled artist. But at the end of the day, this shit is about music, and if the music didn't deliver, then Gucci would be little more than Riff Raff: "ratchet" iconography and social media personality.
Few rappers have had the prolificacy or aesthetic impact of Gucci Mane over the past decade. He’s had one of the longest, most creatively fruitful runs in hip-hop. It’s also one of the most controversial, one of the most troubled, and one of the most misunderstood (Both generally, and in a very literal sense—before Chief Keef, Gucci was the original marble-mouthed rapper).
As an artist, Gucci is wildly experimental. Rappers like Jeezy and Waka Flocka would locate a particular aggressive energy and focus every degree of their talent honing in on that sensation with pure, monomaniacal purpose. Gucci was more creatively restless, his catalog a sprawling, organic mass, each song or verse an expansion of his sound. All the seams were showing. He would rotate through different flows, beats, imagery, concepts. And he could rap: just listen to his final verse on early record "Red Eyes," where his double-time flow undulates with effortless fluency.
The threat of violence balled up just below the surface, like the bulk of an iceberg, enabling his experimentalism, his colorful lyrical imagination, to emerge in the sunlight.
Perhaps it was the aura he cultivated after the infamous self-defense shooting, the story that—for many fans—confirmed his street superhero bona fides. Ironically, it was this horrific experience that seemed to free him from a commitment to the relentless bleakness that characterized early tracks like “Black Tee.” This tragic event became the center of gravity that drew together a bundle of contradictory impulses within his music. The threat of violence balled up just below the surface, like the bulk of an iceberg, enabling his experimentalism, his colorful lyrical imagination, to emerge in the sunlight.
In tension with that dynamic was his potential as a crossover artist. This was when Gucci's music was most interesting: how far into the mainstream could he go, and how subversive would that be? At the end of the day, street bona fides or no, every rapper wants to be on top, like Jay or Wayne or Drake. Every rapper wants that level of crossover success. The rest is marketing, even if it is marketing something "authentic." And it seemed evident that from 2007 through around 2010, Gucci Mane was on the ascent. It culminated in guest spots with Mariah Carey; his go-to producer Zaytoven ended up making songs for Usher. But this commercial promise relied on a finely-tuned balance: the rapper had to keep his street edge and his mainstream appeal in harmony. “Spotlight” leaned too far to appeasing pop fans; songs like "Vette Pass By" were a little too rugged for the charts.
Then there were moments where all of these latent pressures worked together in flawless concert, the stars aligned, and a song that was so impeccably Gucci—weird, sure, but also lyrical, ignorant, “pop,” sui generis, street—was the result. “Lemonade” is probably the best articulation of this, the full realization of what he could be—and the promise of what had yet to come. There was something so urgent and exciting about his seemingly inevitable crossover, and the sense that it was going to happen despite all of the factors that worked against him. He'd survived a BMF hit. He'd overcome hardship. He was someone worth rooting for. He represented a derided, pathologized underclass. He was the underdog, misunderstood by mainstream America. And yet he would succeed on his own terms.
He held it all together for a perilously long time, poised just on the other side of a mainstream breakthrough, before falling into the incarceration trap, mere steps from becoming a true household name. At least, that's the theory; maybe he was too raw, too real, to troubled, to truly ever "make it." For better or worse, Gucci remains a countercultural icon, rather than a crossover rap star. By the time of the ice cream tattoo and the V-Nasty collaborative album, it was evident that Katie Couric interviews were not in Gucci Mane's future. His music since that time has never felt quite as powerfully relevant, although he's managed to bolster his buzz with a good ear for rising stars.
*Has there ever been a more understated way of describing Gucci’s three-day Twitter spectacle than “antics”? In a series of tweets (on Day Three alone) Gucci: 1) Said “Fuck—” followed by a laundry list of rappers with whom he has collaborated extensively (Waka, Gotti, OJ), with whom he has beefed extensively (Jeezy, Tip), and who have seemingly no connection to the rapper (Eminem) 2) Listed (by name) a variety of stars he claims to have fucked, including specific details (names and cost of hotels, collaborators, witnesses) of the alleged interactions 3) Called Jacob York of Big Cat a molester 4) Named a variety of rappers’ girlfriends with whom he allegedly had relations (including, he claimed, Jeezy’s “main thang,” currently) 5) Dissed a variety of industry folks, including his former manager Coach K and former labels Warner and Atlantic (where he specified employees by name) 6) Tried to sell artists he currently has signed for a variety of prices, including Waka 7) Threatened Rocko 8) Clowned Waka for taking only $8,000 per show from Drake…This could actually go on forever, so if you need the salacious details, check our rundown here.