Gucci Mane makes a forceful 'Appeal' on his new album
In 2010, three of the top MCs in mainstream rap have had major career turning points thwarted by legal drama. T.I., Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane have dealt with it in very different ways.
After a jail term resulting from 2007 gun charges, T.I. slipped up again last month when he was arrested on drug possession charges, just as his feature film “Takers” was topping the box office. (He will learn Oct. 15 whether his probation will be revoked and whether he has to return to prison.) After releasing the world-beating “Tha Carter III” and his poorly received rock album “Rebirth,” Lil Wayne nursed his active online personality from Rikers Island, where he’s serving a term on other gun-related charges, and released an odd collection of pre-jail tracks, “I Am Not a Human Being.”
Radric Davis, the 30-year-old Atlantan who raps as Gucci Mane, finished a six-month term in May for a parole violation stemming from assault charges. But unlike his peers, after his release, the droll and gruff-voiced rapper promptly cut his most confident and revealing album yet.
Davis’ jail stint forms the psychological backdrop of “The Appeal: Georgia’s Most Wanted,” his third full-length. But instead of a grim narrative of confinement, the subject is instead ground both for triumph and serious self-assessment. On the patio of the W hotel in Hollywood, nursing a glass of his favorite (and recipe-indeterminate) lemonade concoction, Davis admitted that the clink offers plenty of time to reevaluate what matters.
“I changed a lot in there,” Davis said. “I know this is serious now and I have a lot to get off my chest. This record is painful and gothic and epic, but it’s the soundtrack of my past.”
That past in “The Appeal” sounds less like the deliciously rambling stream-of-consciousness Gucci made his reputation with, and more like a vivid dichotomy showcasing prison culture’s severity and the excess of rap stardom. The bleak minimalism of Drumma Boy’s production on “Trap Talk” bolsters an orthodox coke-slinging tale that feels more frantic and gnawing than boastful. Davis admits in it that “Even my dog don’t play with me,” and the chorus chant of “To the judge, I’m always gonna be a thug” on “ODog” is a haunting lament.
Yet a few tracks later, Virginia hitmaking producers the Neptunes helm the sleek, decadent lounge-vibe “Haterate,” and Swizz Beatz’s fizzy sample from Parisian techno savants Justice on “Gucci Time” makes Davis’ daffy promise to “ride in on a zebra” to party seem downright reasonable.
“It’s strange to go from being locked up, to a month later everyone saying, ‘Gucci, let’s party!’,” Davis said. “But I lost so much in there that I came out with a much sharper focus.”
Much of that focus has been directed toward recouping the momentum he lost while “The State vs. Radric Davis” earned traction on rap radio. Loopy singles such as “Lemonade” and scene-stealing verses on songs such as Mario’s “Break Up” made him one of rap's most distinctive mainstream voices -– one championed by unlikely artists. The DJ and beatsmith Diplo curated the mixtape “Free Gucci” featuring producers such as Flying Lotus remixing in tribute, and the ambient-pop indie trio Beach House covered “Lemonade” at Coachella this year.
Davis also has a rising crew of young artists under his 1017 Brick House imprint, including the leonine, gunshot-percussion acolyte Waka Flocka Flame. In mentoring them, Davis realized he had to finally wrap up his feud with onetime collaborator Young Jeezy, and reconcile with a 2005 incident in which police say he and companions shot at a group of intruders in his Decatur, Ga., home; the body of one of the intruders was found at a nearby middle school (murder charges were dismissed due to lack of evidence, and Davis has long claimed the shots were fired in self-defense). “We’re older now, and people look up to us whether we want it or not,” he said. “We’ve got to accept that and do the best thing and push forward.”
For now, his push forward has brought him to one of the year’s defining rap releases, one both orthodox in its hood-documenting skill and ambitious in its open bid for Gucci’s rejuvenated stardom. But in a world where rap record sales have been decimated, the first step toward that is to stay out of trouble.
“(Prison) is a real problem in hip-hop -- it’s a struggle to let that culture go. You can’t let the ideology of the street get you in trouble,” Davis said. “I just wish I didn’t have to go to jail to learn that. But sometimes we have to sacrifice and be responsible.”
-- August Brown
Photo: Swizz Beatz and Gucci Mane perform during the 2010 BET Hip Hop Awards on Oct. 2 in Atlanta. Credit: Taylor Hill/Getty Images.