"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.
Some rappers responded. T.I. tweeted "Only a fool acts reckless for publicity." The only rapper who seemed to really clap back to Gucci's provocations in a hip-hop spirit was Nicki Minaj, and she came out looking like a winner for it. She also leaked a clip of her portion of Madonna's "I Don't Give A...," which sounds like a future-smash. It was especially ether-ous, considering Gucci's own failure to impact the pop charts in recent years.
Of course, on day three, Gucci announced, like a grandiose punchline, that he would be releasing an album, Diary of a Trap God, that night at 10:17 PM on iTunes. (It ultimately came out as a free download in the form of a tweeted Sendspace link the following day.) So was this a meltdown...or was it marketing?
But if it was all marketing, why did Gucci only end up giving the album away for free? Why advertise the record—one packed, hilariously, with features from the artists he had just trashed on Twitter—only to toss it out into the world at no cost?
The noise he made certainly garnered him more attention. The rapper had stirred up some shit with Yo Gotti in the lead-up to Trap House III earlier this year, but it drew a fraction of the eyeballs directed his way this week. It was almost as if he was inspired by Kendrick's "Control" verse, and decided to name more names. Once the album was announced, the likelihood that this was a "meltdown" began to seem more remote. But if it was all marketing, why did Gucci only end up giving the album away for free? Why advertise the record—one packed, hilariously, with features from the artists he had just trashed on Twitter—only to toss it out into the world at no cost?
Considering Gucci's drug history, it's tempting to compare the rapper's Twitter onslaught with Charlie Sheen's rants from early 2011. (It should be acknowledged that Gucci's new tape is more worthwhile than the entirety of Two and a Half Men.) Sheen's drug-enduced truth-to-power rants inspired a similar guilty thrill in listeners, even though Sheen came across as a deluded jerk in need of rehab. But Gucci's tweets were also reminiscient of some similar rants from another artist, one who is currently a bit more revered. After he was freed from prison, Pimp C conducted a series of interviews, with Ozone magazine and with Power 107, in which he fearlessly named names and stirred up shit. They were full of language about homosexuality that wasn't exactly the most politically enlightened. But there was something about those words that felt like rare moments of clarity and honesty in an industry that often feels like it's short on either.
Gucci's three-day Twitter adventure seemed to have been sparked by the allegation (false, he says) that he had paid for the attorney of the murderer of Brick Squad member Slim Dunkin. It evolved into a beef with Brick Squad members, who argued that Gucci had taken the money from Warner for his advance for Brick Squad. Gucci alleged that it was Waka's mother, Debra Antney, who had taken the money. It would be irresponsible to speculate on the situation from the outside. After all, what really happened here is, for our purposes, unknowable.
But one of the primary characteristics of Gucci's music, the part that seems to resonate so well with fans, is that sense that he is a telling the truth, a sole voice of honesty among a rat's nest of people who only look after their own self-interest. It's the core of his project, the essence, and something he addressed on Twitter: he burns these bridges because everyone else has ulterior motives. What makes it possible is that he lives like he has nothing to lose. He's made this sacrifice in order to tap into Truth, which is made possible because he has nothing to protect. It's what keeps the violence in his music from seeming like mere fetishization, what creates sympathy for a person who would otherwise be seen as a victimizer.
So if Gucci's not interested in selling his album, the logic goes, perhaps his Twitter escapades were merely the result of mental illness or drug problems. But If you've made peace with listening to his music, it's a little absurd to suggest that his behavior on Twitter is anything other than consistent with his on-record persona. Perhaps, in 2013, Twitter plays a role that rap music used to play. It's now assumed that social media is more "real" than music.
Remember, this is a guy who, in 2006, rapped: "Beyonce, oh that's your fiance?/Jeezy is the appetizer, you'll be the entree/two glocks shawty, ay let's party/I'm at the 40/40 lookin' for Sean Cart-ayy."
Because Gucci's recording career is full of the kinds of allegations he made on Twitter, and it has been for years. Gucci's songs have always been pretty obviously and evidently misogynist; "I'mma Dog" is one of the rapper's celebrated regional hits (personally I've always found it hard to take; the hook goes, "I'm a treat her like a dog, feed her like a dog/Beat her like a dog, then pass her to my dogs"). For years, he's hinted at his relationships with particular R&B singers in his music with winking name-drops. In the "U Don't Deserve Dat" remix, he rapped about stealing Diamond from Lil Scrappy (who said on Vlad TV that Gucci is bipolar—pathology!). In other words, nothing he said on Twitter really seemed all that out of line with the kinds of wild, unproveable shit he'd tossed out in his music regularly. Remember, this is a guy who, in 2006, rapped: "Beyonce, oh that's your fiance?/Jeezy is the appetizer, you'll be the entree/two glocks shawty, ay let's party/I'm at the 40/40 lookin' for Sean Cart-ayy."
He's also released numerous songs sending shots at Young Jeezy, ever since their beef over "So Icy" turned deadly. And it points to one of the ironies of how Gucci's been pathologized throughout the years. He's called "crazy" and bipolar. Jeezy himself accused him of having a mental disability on his diss song "24 23" ("But between me and you I think the boy slow"). But it's Jeezy who put a price on Gucci's chain back in 2005, one that resulted in an armed attack on Gucci. In a just world, isn't that the definition of not just crazy, but sociopathic behavior—not using extra spaces and periods in your tweets, or getting ice cream tattoos?
This absurdity is part of why, when guys like Gucci or Pimp C call out the hypocrisy of the industry, who start naming names and speaking truth to power, it feels refreshingly honest, and devoid of selfish motivations. Because we know the system is hypocritical, and full of conniving rationalizations of racism and classism and payola, of systemic oppression and dishonesty and treachery. Not that Gucci is some kind of morally righteous warrior, by any means. Rappers aren't role models, and Gucci less so than most. But sometimes it takes a person who's "crazy" to speak with true clarity.
RELATED: Interview: Drumma Boy Talks About Gucci Mane's Twitter Rant, Whether Or Not Gucci Is Bipolar, & How To Deal With A Pissed-Off Gucci
RELATED: The 50 Best Gucci Mane Songs
RELATED: Twitter Reacts to Gucci Mane's Insane Rant