What an unbelievable transformation Gucci Mane has undergone. The Atlanta trap star’s career should have torpedoed countless times by now. With the 2005 murder charge (he claimed self-defence; the charge was dropped on insufficient evidence). With the ice cream face tattoo he had inked shortly after release from a psychiatric hospital, which reduced him to a social media punch-line that in retrospect wasn’t particularly charitable or funny. Or perhaps with the three-year prison sentence on a federal firearms charge, following a string of convictions for aggravated battery and assault. Since his release in 2016, though, Gucci, has remade himself, remodelled himself as a shimmering A-list rap superstar – Instagram- and chart-ready. It’s a makeover so dramatic that fans have jokingly claimed he must be a clone.
The changes have been cosmetic (he shed five-and-half stone and the face tattoo is now faded, a symbol of his former self) and emotional, his marriage to beauty entrepreneur Keysha Ka’oir having helped stabilised him – he told the YouTube channel Durrty Daily: “That’s my best friend, that’s my girl. I love her to death. She’s been more real to me than anybody in my entire life.” If you don’t already, follow Keyshia on Instagram (@keyshiakaoir) immediately; the snaps of the couple together are the definition of wholesome.
This new peacefulness has seen Gucci drop five records since release from jail. He was always prolific, throwing out mixtapes even in the midst of various prison stints, seeming oblivious to the difference between a mixape and major label album – 2010’s ‘Buy My Album’ was a cheerily misguided attempt to plug the-then forthcoming Atlantic Records project ‘The Appeal: Georgia’s Most Wanted’. But in those days Gucci in the grip of drug addiction, hooked on lean, the cough-syrup-and-codeine concoction that, prior to the prison sentence, led him to tweet: “I’ve been drinking lean for 10plus years & I must admit it has destroyed me”.
There is a new clarity to ‘Evil Genius’. The album consists of 18 tracks, yet never feels bloated or gamed towards streaming numbers, thanks to the tautness of its rhymes and precise, minimalist production. “If I got 16 to 17 punches,” he recently told GQ, “I want those punches to count.” Gucci pretty much invented the icy Atlanta trap sound – rumbling bass kicks and brittle, snapping snare drums – that has infiltrated everything from mainstream pop to UK rap, which in recent years has interpolated the style to brooding grime rhythms – but here there’s a certain warmth from the guy who made his name with 2005’s ‘Icy’.
‘Wake Up In The Sky’, which features Bruno Mars and Kodak Black (whose track ‘No Flocking’ Gucci worked out to in prison), shimmers with a lush R&B hook that sees Mars implores us to “watch me fly”. Black sing-speaks: “I finally got my wings / It make me wanna sing”. It’s a transcendental track, offered such resonance in the context of Gucci’s transformation. This is the most commercial Gucci’s ever sounded, but could anyone deny him his euphoria?
Yet he also admits his weaknesses, at feeling frustrated that he hasn’t always received his due, rapping on ‘Father’s Day’: “I fathered the style, gave you all the wave / But I didn’t get nothin’ for Father’s Day”. On ‘I’m Not Going’, he boasts that he’s “gettin’ too rich to fly commercial flights”, though acknowledges that “They wanna lock me up like Suge Knight”, his jail time – and determination not to return to that place – always on his mind. You can imagine Gucci glancing out of the plane window to see his former self perched on the wing, ready to tempt him back.
‘Lost Ya’ll Mind’, an album highlight that features Migos’ Offset, opens with a fluid, warped synth line, before Gucci shakes his head at his old behaviour: “2012, did more drugs than I sold”. The record’s most arresting lyric appears on opening track ‘Off The Boat’, as he imagines someone asking Keyshia, “Gucci Mane’s a murderer, you sure you wanna marry him?” Elsewhere on that same track, he points out his altruism, perhaps because no-one else will do it for him: “I donate to charity / I’m a good Samaritan”.
At the same time, though, Gucci can’t help but glamorise his previous life, using ‘Off The Boat’ to co-sign famous drug kingpins (“I think I’m Pablo on the low / But free El Chapo – he the goat”). This lends the track an uneasy tension that laces ‘Evil Genius’. Migos’ Quavo appears on ‘Bipolar’, a reference to the condition that Gucci was diagnosed with in 2011. Here he reclaims the disorder: “’He must be bipolar ’cause he can’t stay in his lane’ / I’m talking to my shrink, and I’m draped in a mink”. This is not a simple redemption story; it’s an admission that the old Gucci and the new Gucci live alongside each other, the former informing the latter.
Much has been made of the idea that Gucci’s revolving door to prison has previously prevented him from becoming a Jay-Z or a Kanye West. Despite this new album’s nods to the zeitgeist, such as a feature from Lil Pump (on bassy closing track ‘Get Back’), there may be too much ice water under the bridge for him to go full mogul. Gucci Mane is outlier figure, almost a folk hero, rather than a force than can be diluted for mainstream consumption.
Despite this essential truth, he’s become a living meme, a celebrity who goes viral after posing a selfie in Reykjavik with the iconic line: “This ain’t no pool! Your boy Guwop in a lagoon!” He’s not Lil Wayne, a representative of noughties hip-hop who belongs to a different time – but he probably won’t be sitting down opposite David Letterman for a career retrospective, either. Gucci’s version of movie stardom is appearing in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers; he’s designed to be a cult figure. ‘Evil Genius’ is a perfect distillation of his talent, and we’re unlikely to see him outdo it, but it also underlines his unique position as bonafide star and rap outsider. This may be the biggest he’s ever allowed to get.