Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Trap Tuesday: The Appeal of Gucci Mane

If someone were to ask me (unlikely) who the most influential black man in America has been in 2009, it would come down to a toss-up between Barack Obama and Gucci Mane. I'm unsure whether this is a testament to Obama's lack of action in some areas, or to the fierce dedication of a newly paroled man out to prove something. And there's no doubt Gucci had something to prove, to himself, and to the world after his last album Back to the Traphouse was a critical and commercial failure. Ever since stepping out of prison in March, he's done nothing but slowly and steadily climb to the top of the rap world. It's been a meteoric rise to the top, faster (especially without a proper release) than anybody I have seen in recent years, and most notably he has done so by eschewing today's popular means of attention-seeking, instead sticking to the basics with a flood of features and mixtapes. It's been interesting to watch his emergence, starting from the streets and the blogs to now being a consistent fixture on hip-hop stations.

Consequently, a lot of people aren't fans. They often say they just don't “get” him, or they understand his popular appeal but don't understand why I, as a discerning rap listener enjoy his music. I didn't initially, but I became a convert after the release of the celebrated Writing on the Wall mixtape in mid-Spring. It was the song “Gorgeous” that specifically caught my attention, and I still believe it to sit among the finest he's released this year. It also became the blueprint for a number of his other noteworthy songs and propelled his notoriety forward. Writing on the wall indeed.

But where did that appeal come from? The same people who claim not to “get” Gucci Mane are the ones who offer up hypotheses: it's the beats, it's the party tunes, it's his charisma, it's some intangible that certain people are born with. Aside from his ear for production and his ability to craft good party tracks, it really isn't any of the above, and those two alone won't get you as far as Gucci has come. I tend to think attributing his success to charisma is one of the least valid arguments. The man has a potbelly, looks kinda dopey, and speaks/raps with a pretty noticeable lisp. These same people immediately discount a lyrical basis for his appeal as if ball-out subject matter and lyrical ability are mutually exclusive. I certainly don't speak for everybody, but to me the appeal is lyrics, as well as presentation and a refreshing sense of humor.

This preconception that one cannot be both lyrical and hedonistic is simply false, with material from the catalogs of Ghostface, MF DOOM, and Biggie providing good examples. Gucci Mane takes the hedonism and abandonment of reality to another level, and people thereby seem to make the assumption that it is not thinking man's music. I disagree. It may not require a significant amount of thought to deconstruct the lyrics, but it clearly took some thought from the man who wrote them. Gucci brings a level of descriptive abstraction to major label rap that I would argue hasn't been seen since Supreme Clientele. A prominent example is from the first verse in “Wonderful:”

Red bezzle on my Jacob lookin' like a sliced tomato
Fuck a hater, I blow acres of Jamaica in Decatur
I'm so extraordinary while my bracelet so canary

Half your budget spent on luggage, spent your mortgage on a portrait
Purple bud look like an orchid, can't afford it? Watch me torch it

If you were to just listen to the hook from that specific song, you might not be so enthralled, but it's hard to deny the cleverness and humor in the above lyrics even though nothing of profound impact is being said. If you're unfamiliar with the song, I'd recommend also listening to it in order to understand how he makes use of his Atlanta accent in the rhyme scheme. “Weird” is another song that came out around the same time and reveals a similar aesthetic. He's just having fun with words:

My car got personality, the grill be smiling honey
My rims are very charming and my leather seats are comfy
Gucci major money, shawty I get crazy cloudy
Have a baby by me probly maybe I’ll buy you an Audi
Maui Wowie, stupid cloudy, loudy got me rowdy rowdy
Chevy Caprice '73 play Master P I'm 'bout it 'bout it

If we're talking charisma as a factor contributing to his appeal, then it is as a result of the personality that shines through via the lyrics rather than a certain intangible personality like what Jay-Z claims to (and off and on does) have. What is also important to notice when listening to the above songs is his flow. Like a lot of rappers, Gucci brags about how different his flow is, but his word placement truly is unique. Even after listening to a song, it's hard to comprehend how he effortlessly crams words into a single bar when reading the lyrics.

Gucci Mane's appeal is multi-faceted, but to deny that lyricism is a part of that appeal is simple-minded. His ability to combine interesting lyrics with a unique flow, an engaging personality, and compelling production has propelled him near to the top of the rap game all in a matter of months. Both the commercial success and the quality of his upcoming album The State Vs. Radric Davis releasing on December 8th, will determine whether or not his impact will be lasting.

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