Gucci Mane is one of our era’s greatest artists, but he is also a real person.
Gucci Mane moves rather deliberately for a guy who has nowhere to go. At 6’2” he has the presence of a much taller man, and when he walks it’s with an urgent lurch, fluid and reserved at the same time. Perhaps it’s a manner befitting of someone who has spent the past three years in a federal penitentiary.
“Life in prison was hell,” says the 36-year-old rapper born Radric Davis. He’d been serving time on two counts of firearm possession as a felon. “It was a maximum security prison and it was a lot of violence. People were dying every week. [But] I think it helped me to get to the point I’m at now, to drive me out from the drugs. It gave me time to reflect, it made a lot of relationships that were toxic in my life just fall away.”
For the next three months, Gucci will be on house arrest, holed up in his deceptively cavernous mini-mansion in Marietta, Georgia, about 30 minutes northwest of downtown Atlanta. The place is predictably gorgeous. There are minor shades of Scarface in his winding staircase, and Gucci seems most comfortable when he’s leaning over the balcony, overlooking two-story windows that reveal an ornate pool in the backyard. Downstairs, kettlebell weights and a power tower surround an immaculate white baby grand piano. A brand new white Maybach sits in the garage, as do dozens of empty designer shoe boxes and a slightly worn letterman jacket emblazoned with the logo for his 1017 Brick Squad imprint.
This is the life that more than a decade of producing some of the grimiest trap rap ever committed to tape has earned Gucci Mane. And while he’s trapped in the house for the time being, he’s been making the most of his motionlessness, finalizing plans for Everybody Looking, his fifth major label album and first since 2010’s The Appeal. The industry has changed dramatically in his absence — the mixtape gray market that he built his career on has almost entirely evaporated, with artists now negotiating exclusive streaming rights with major tech firms — but Gucci’s still doing Gucci. Ever the model of efficiency, he says he recorded Everybody Looking in the first six days following his homecoming.
“And on the seventh day I rested,” he says, “like the Lord.”
There are two truths that need to be acknowledged before we go any further, both oft-disputed but mostly by haters and nutjobs and nutjob haters. 1) Gucci Mane is one of the greatest rappers of the 21st century. 2) Gucci Mane is not a human clone who was planted by the United States government.
Gucci is an acquired taste, to be certain. Partially, that’s owing to his choice of subject matter. He’s notoriously single-minded, even by street rap standards. Hundreds of his tracks, across dozens of mixtapes throughout the second half of the ’00s, are centered on uncut, hedonistic street-talking. No passing nods to social consciousness, no cloying end-of-album tracks about how much he loves his mother. Just a perpetual barrage of wordplay about what he has and what he’s sold and what he would do to anyone who tried to separate him from those things.
“Braggadocio,” he explains. “That’s what I like — I’m doper than everybody, I’m fresher than everybody, I’m the illest. That’s really me. I never really made music to make people try to feel sad. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I want them to feel powerful, I want them to feel aggressive, I want them to feel invincible. I want to hear the fuckery. I want to hear the shit that people probably think, ‘This ain’t good to be played around kids.’”
What Gucci’s music lacks in compassion and introspection, he has more than compensated for with sheer style. He was born in Bessemer, Alabama, a small city located just southwest of Birmingham, and still carries an accent. This, multiplied by an Atlanta-learned swagger acquired when his family moved there when he was a kid, has left him with a distinctive and malleable mush-mouthed flow, deceptively simple from a distance but revealing new rhythmic dimensions upon closer inspection. This has proven to be a gift and a curse — it’s likely allowed him to sneak more complicated cadences into tracks with crossover appeal, but has also drawn him the ire of rap fans raised on more conservative, East Coast tongues, who deride him as insufficiently “lyrical.”
Like E-40 or Cam’ron before him, Gucci is a lyricist obsessed with the elasticity of language, constantly finding new ways to say the same things over and over again, hanging on to every sound and synonym with a palpable joy. “I think I was a born poet, honestly,” he says. “My mind just works in a unique way. Always since I was a little kid, I’d see words and make them rhyme.” So much of his appeal depends not on what he’s saying but on the angle at which words fall out of his mouth — his strained emphasis on certain unexpected syllables, his sideways pronunciations. Check the ’08 mixtape classic “Bachelor Pad,” on which he turned standard-issue sex romp boasts into full-on verbal gymnastics: Lil’ mama’s a monster/ Thunder in her pajamas/ My johnson in her tonsils/ Then I shove it in her ster-num.
While Gucci’s hood stardom never translated to the same level of crossover success that contemporaries (and rivals) like T.I. or Young Jeezy did, his modern-day resonance dwarfs theirs. He’s directly mentored two generations of trap rappers: his original Brick Squad affiliates Waka Flocka Flame and OJ da Juiceman, who took over Atlanta rap around 2009, and then Young Thug and Migos, both alumni of around-the-clock, circa-2013 sessions at his Brick Factory studio, and who have redefined the genre again in his absence.
“A lot of artists have a problem with putting other people on, and people don’t embrace them [when they do it] because it ain’t genuine,” Gucci says. “I’m always trying to help people. I wouldn’t give a damn if I get four artists right now and all of them burn me. I’mma get me four more, because I feel like the more people I help, the more good I do. No matter what a person does, helping somebody can never hurt me.”
Far beyond Atlanta, the likes of Chief Keef and Fetty Wap have cited him as their primary inspiration, and more than a few less-interesting rappers have built careers around aping his slack-jawed style and a scant couple of his many flows. “I like that the kids embrace me. I feel proud, I’m flattered,” Gucci says, eschewing any old world biter-shaming and citing his simplicity as the draw. “I think I’m the easiest to imitate. I can’t imitate Eminem. And they can’t imitate Eminem, but they can imitate Gucci. Is Eminem good? Yes. Do I recognize he’s super talented? Hell yeah! But do I want to play that when I jump in my Maybach?”
Despite an enormous creative footprint, his career has been full of ups and downs, often marred by legal troubles. For every major album release it seemed like he had a coinciding criminal incident. He killed a man who broke into his home, an act that was later ruled as self-defense. He allegedly pushed a woman out of a moving car. After a court-appointed stay in a mental facility, he resurfaced with an ice cream cone tattooed on his face. And so on, and such and such.
The last of these ordeals would happen in the fall of 2013, first prefigured by a series of bizarre Twitter rants in which he threw friends and peers like Nicki Minaj and Drake under the bus in the most vulgar terms possible. He apologized shortly thereafter, attributing the outburst to his prescription cough syrup addiction and announcing plans to go to rehab, but he would never make it there. Instead, he was arrested a few days later, after yet more odd behavior prompted a friend to call the police. They found him at an East Atlanta intersection where he began screaming at them. And with a loaded handgun concealed on his person.
“I done had a history of violence, a history of just erratic behavior,” Gucci says now. “I had a history of drug abuse and drug addiction. All of it ties [together]. It’s just a spiral of destructive behavior.”
The 2013 breakdown landed Gucci back in prison, but his visibility only grew while he was away, particularly on social media, where #freegucci hashtags and assorted fan art ruled the digital landscape. This new crossover fame likely had as much to do with his mythology as it did with his music, if not more so. More than two dozen full-length mixtapes cobbled together from the Brick Factory recordings were released while he was in prison, but very little of it seemed to connect much further than his original core audience. Gucci’s reckless persona appears to translate better to the social media sphere than his actual recordings.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I want them to feel powerful, I want them to feel aggressive, I want them to feel invincible.”
So fans were a bit confused when a new Mane came home from prison, physically and mentally. For one, he swapped out his once-signature potbelly for a six-pack, having knocked a good 75 pounds from his frame. The dramatic weight loss caused many of the tattoos that cover most of his body to change shape. Even his iconic ice cream cone began to fade some, rendering it difficult to see in certain lighting. When he jumped back onto social media, his frequent Snapchat and Instagram posts painted him as sober and almost disconcertingly happy, flashing a white and toothy grin while hanging out blissfully with his fiancée, the model Keyshia Ka’oir.
When he spoke to his followers, gone too was the Alabama drawl that has so long defined his raps, and in its place was an affected tone falling somewhere between the British limo driver from the Grey Poupon commercials and a full-on mechanical man. There is an inherent air of irony to this voice, sounding something like a bratty child doing an over-the-top take on what he imagines a good kid to sound like. This would make sense given the circumstances of Gucci’s life at the moment. Everybody is looking, including, presumably, his PO, so he needs to be on his absolute best behavior. (If you’ve been listening to Gucci for a while you’ll know that the alternate accent isn’t entirely new — he employed a similar voice and persona on the interludes of the 2009 mixtape The Cold War: Great BRRRitain.)
But these changes were enough to get the crackpots cracking. In a usual internet case of reverse Occam’s razor, several people began to speculate that this new Gucci was, in fact, a clone, possibly planted by the CIA for reasons unknown. When Gucci outlined his lunch plans for the day — “Just fruit, veggies and water, very light” — one Facebook user commented, “This nigga on snapchat talking about ‘I want a fruit salad.’ NIGGA The REAL Gucci don’t want no fucking FRUIT SALAD. Bitch he like activists [sic] slushes …” That post has received more than 15,000 shares.
As with everything that happens on the internet, the clone talk is more a running gag than a genuine conspiracy theory, and Gucci rightfully took it in stride when he heard the allegations. On Snapchat he made a formal non-statement in his fully stilted robot voice: “I am hearing that Gucci is a clone… I will neither support nor deny those accusations.” He elaborated later, in a day-to-day conversational tone a lot closer to his old accent, if just a tiny bit sharper: “It’s funny to me. I guess people ain’t used to me being healthy and taking care of myself and being happy, so I can understand why they shocked… I embrace it. A clone is like perfection. If I look like a machine or a robot then I’m doing something well.”
Joke or not, consider this — how tragic is it that so much of the world is, in effect, rooting for the delinquency of a great artist? Why treat healthy living and sobriety as a punchline or even a betrayal? It’s one thing to find pleasure through fuckery in music, it’s another to wish a lifetime of fuckery on an actual human being who is seemingly working his hardest to transcend it.
“What’s the use in having all the money if you gonna die and be unhealthy and be sick or diabetic or fat as hell?” Gucci says. “What you gonna do then? Fallin’ out, having seizures. That ain’t what I need to be, that ain’t the future I want. When I was on drugs so bad, I talked different. When I was smoking weed, a damn near pound of weed every day, I was congested. When I was drinking lean like crazy every day, I was out my mind. I was always sophisticated, but it ain’t even sophisticated now — it’s just a sober, a more conscious Gucci. And people probably ain’t used to it. It took a minute for me to get used to it. But they’re gonna have to get used to it because it’s here to stay.”
Gucci remembers being just 7 or 8 when his brother, six years his senior, introduced him to rap music by way of LL Cool J. When he was in the fourth grade, in 1989, he snuck to the flea market and for $5 bought his own first cassette, 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be, on the strength of its raunchy cover alone.
“These guys [were] talking about head, pussy, cock,” he says. “My mother found the tape and she was like, ‘You bought this?!’ She sat on the porch and played it outside, just to embarrass me,” he continues. “Every time somebody would come to the house [she’d be] like, ‘Oh yeah, you know that’s Radric’s tape right there.’ I wouldn’t even come out the house the whole day because I didn’t want anybody to see me or know that I was listening to stuff like that.”
Later that year his father, from whom Gucci Mane inherited his nickname, moved the family to the Mountain Park Apartments on the east side of Atlanta. Across the street was a split-screen metaphor of Gucci’s life to follow: a record store run by Edward J, a pioneering bass DJ, and, next to it, a car wash that doubled as an open-air drug market.
“My dad was like the breadwinner of the house, but he was just the most street guy I ever met,” he says. “Everything he did, all the money he got, he got it out the street. [In Alabama] I was naive to that, [but] as soon as I got to Georgia I went outside and seen the streets. The streets was always around me [there]. It just changed my whole perspective on life.”
As the ’90s progressed, he was drawn to the music of street-minded Memphis rappers like Kingpin Skinny Pimp, Project Pat, and Tommy Wright III, and to the real-life street culture that surrounded him in Atlanta. He did well in school, well enough to earn a scholarship to Georgia Perimeter College, but was busted on a drug charge before classes started. The judge actually deferred Gucci’s 90-day sentence so he could attend for one semester, but he never connected with the college lifestyle and ended up literally flipping his books for brick money.
Even before then, Gucci had begun to think about transitioning toward a legal hustle. “I remember the Hot Boyz album coming out, I remember listening to Birdman and Mannie Fresh, and it inspired me,” he said. “I wanted to be behind the scenes of the music.” Gucci agreed to bankroll the rap aspirations of a neighborhood friend’s younger brother, and this meant buying beats from Zaytoven, a barber/producer who had recently moved to Atlanta from the Bay Area.
“I’m like 19, [and the rapper is] 14. I’m selling weed, selling dope, and the little boy smoke weed,” remembers Gucci. “He came to the studio like three times. He’s trying to write stuff. He’s talking about the trap but he don’t really know what he’s saying. He’s lying. And the numbers ain’t adding right. And I’m telling him, ‘Nah, what you saying… just say this.’ And Zay observing this.”
“On the fifth session, [the kid] didn’t come again,” he continues. “But me and his brother there. So Zay say — I guess cause Zay didn’t want to lose the deposit, and he had been watching me — ‘Why don’t you try it?’ I didn’t try that day, but that kinda put the seed into me.”
After his arrest, and its ensuing 90-day jail stint, Gucci made the decision to focus on rhyming. “I can’t be standing on the corner no more because I had pleaded first offender, so that mean if I don’t get in trouble it’s off my record. I think I had wrote like 14 or 15 raps while I was locked up. When I got out, I recorded all those 15 raps, and that was my first CD.” He pressed up 1,000 copies of Str8 Drop Records Presents Gucci Mane La Flare and sold them for $10 each out of the trap. When the initial run sold out, he took the album to Guyanese bootleggers on the west side of Atlanta and let them handle distribution for him.
The rest of Gucci’s history lives in his discography. He linked with local label Big Cat Records and released his proper debut, Trap House, in 2005. That relationship eventually soured and dissolved into his current, perpetually off-and-on-again situation with Atlantic. But even when he was recording high-profile collaborations with the likes of Mariah Carey and Lil Wayne, he always kept one foot in the independent hustle. And this was where he shined brightest. To truly understand Gucci Mane, one has to indulge his ’06-’09 mixtape hot streak. The 20 or so full-length tapes he released during this period represent one of the most remarkable runs in the history of the genre, matched perhaps only by Wayne’s similar run from a few years prior.
He recorded 2007’s No Pad, No Pencil in just two or three days (depending on who you ask), off the top of his head and with all the beats provided on the spot by a then-unknown 17-year-old producer by the name of Mike Will. He says the 2008 street hit “Photoshoot,” on which he switches flows and rhymes over an off-time reversal of the beat halfway through his third verse, was entirely improvised from top to bottom, hook and all. When asked about the line of thought behind this creative model, Gucci turns into a motivational speaker. “You gotta detach from the outcome,” he says. “You can’t overthink it, whatever it is. You just gotta do it. Put it out there and have faith it gonna be right. Everything you make is good.”
Many rappers flood the mixtape circuit early in their careers as a way to ease into a unified, more professional style. Gucci did it because simply he had too many ideas to ever settle down. At his peak, nearly every song seemed to have its own distinct angle, each of them brimming with flows and concepts. And while he made some creative missteps in the years since — 2010’s The Appeal, for instance, will go down mostly as a botched crossover effort — he thinks his recent life choices are only set to make him sharper. “I used to think that I had to be high to record, but now I know I don’t,” he says. “Being sober I can feel shit. I can feel again now.”
Naturally, Gucci has had a studio installed in the house. Its contents are state-of-the-art except, perhaps tellingly, the vocal booth, which is rigged up old-school bedroom style, the mic in the middle of a small, maybe 8’ x 4’ closet with comforters hanging from the wall to soundproof it. A TV stand has been repurposed as a storage space for dozens of neatly folded pieces of yellow legal paper: all the lyrics sheets Gucci wrote during his prison stay.
Though Everybody Looking has been nearly complete for a few weeks now, minus some continued post-production tweaks from Mike Will, Gucci is already headed back into the booth today. He talks abstractly about the “next project” but isn’t clear about what that is or when it will emerge. It seems like he’s just working because work is what he does. When he enters the studio, Sean Paine, his in-house engineer since the Brick Factory days, is already sitting at the console, dressed in all black with a cap pulled low. “You got them beats from Zay?” Gucci asks. “Let’s go through some.” Sean plays an instrumental for a few measures, but Gucci passes. The second one, with a classic, carnival-style Zaytoven bounce, will work.
Gucci grabs a page from his lyric stash with the words “Gangsta Story” scribbled at the top in red pen. He sits down in a desk chair, looks it over as he leans all the way back, and bobs his head to the track. After about one minute he announces, “Alright, c’mon,” to no one in particular, then proceeds into the makeshift booth, closing the door behind him. On mic, he crumples up the sheet for dramatic effect and announces his presence with a Slick Rick Heeere we go, before launching into a cautionary tale that would make The Ruler himself proud.
It’s a rare narrative track from Gucci, reminiscent of “Timothy” from the Great BRRRitain tape but considerably more complicated — full of petty crimes, crumbling reputations, courtroom stabbings, and star-crossed baby mamas. The flow echoes his pitter-patter on 2009’s “Frowney Face” but feels looser in delivery. It only takes Gucci a few takes to get the track down, then he commands “Ad-lib!” into the mic. Sean hits record again and Gucci delivers: “NO NUTS! GO! DAMN! WOOH! BLAOW! SHH! HUH!”
He emerges from the booth a mere 25 minutes after he entered. By now Zaytoven and Mike Will have arrived, Mike in Jordan sweats and a white tee, Zay in a faux-cutoff tee with full sleeves mimicking dragon tattoos and two diamond crosses not unlike the pair Gucci is wearing. “Zay’s beats be like a blank canvas!” says Gucci, visibly psyched to play the finished track to his guys. Mike concurs: “He know your pocket.” Gucci then breaks down the entire narrative — it’s based in truth but the names have been changed — and ends up talking more quickly than he raps. “It’s a horrible story… but it sound good on a Zay beat!” A couple of Frankenstein-ed punch-ins later and the track is done.
“You can’t overthink it, whatever it is. You just gotta do it. Put it out there and have faith it gonna be right. Everything you make is good.”
As if on cue, Mike has already made his way over to the MPC and starts laying down an uptempo, almost Miami bass-inspired drum loop. Very quickly he turns a rudimentary scratch track complex with stuttering hi-hats and a rolling, water droplet bassline. He tags Zay in, who stares intently at the MPC for a minute before hitting the keys and playing around with a melody on top.
While they work, Sean passes Gucci a small pad and Gooch gets to it. Zay asks, “What we namin’ it?” and Gucci responds, “Side Door.” The four of them move briskly and quietly, apart from the thump they’re creating. Any creative conversation is sparse, and purely utilitarian, all one-word commands and sentence fragments. Mostly it seems like they are communicating via mindmeld and shared musical passion. In the few down moments, they crack jokes and make small talk. The night before, the Golden State Warriors had lost the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers, blowing a two game lead. Mike lightweight mocks Steph Curry in the wake of his choke act but Gucci defends him, offering up the Yoda-like koan, “Frustration is basketball.”
In just 10 minutes they’ve completed the beat, with Mike’s uptempo drum track blown out by Zay’s meandering, almost New Agey melody. Mike compares it to 2Pac’s “Ambitionz Az a Ridah.” Gucci preemptively declares it a classic, to which Mike half-hesitantly rebukes, “Not much thought put into it.” Gucci isn’t buying this: “That’s the most in-pocket you can get.” He paces around the room a little longer, eyeing his pad, mumbles “OK,” and lumbers back into the booth. At one point Ka’oir comes upstairs and sneaks into the booth. He greets her with a “Hey beautiful” before closing the door behind the two of them. She’ll remain for the duration of his verse, but he immediately gets back to rhyming. As he does, Zay begins disconnecting the MPC and keyboard, transporting them into a second studio across the hall so he can continue making beats. “Gotta keep cooking.”
Gucci makes an on-the-spot decision to freestyle the second verse. When he’s done, he leaves the booth beaming with pride and quoting the bars that he just invented: “Guwop, why you got a fo-fo? You on Billboard/ Desert Eagle on me but I still kick it like a field goal.” They briefly discuss the strategy of splitting between freestyle and written verses. “You laid down the foundation,” says Mike. “That shit a hybrid.” “Your bounce is in the freestyle,” adds Sean as he begins to mix the track down. “The knowledge is in the written.” In about 90 minutes they’ve completed two entire songs. They are good songs, too. Maybe even great ones.
Two days later, the whole crew reconvenes at the house to film a video for “Guwop Home,” a celebratory single from Everybody Looking that features Young Thug on the hook. Making the most out of Gucci’s limited situation, they’ve moved the entire studio poolside. Sean, Zay, and Mike Will are all in attendance, mock manning the boards and frolicking in general. Thug, however, has yet to be accounted for.
Everything moves at a crawl, as video shoots usually do, a dramatic shift from Gucci’s normal pace. A throng of scantily clad women alternate between getting oiled down in the shade and melting in the 90 degree Atlanta heat. In the down time, Zay sits inside at the piano and plays idly, revealing the hidden layers of sophistication in his usual style.
Gucci is characteristically friendly to everyone, greeting the pool cleaner with roughly the same warmth that he offers to famous Canadian rapper Drake, who makes a brief surprise visit to pay his respects to the Trap God and check out some of the new album. They discuss plans for a future collaboration, with Drake joking, “I gotta make some calls and get you into Canada!”
Shortly after Drake leaves, Young Thug shows, only about five hours late. Still, his arrival marks a joyous occasion. It’s the two rappers’ first time seeing each other since Gucci’s come home — Thug recorded his contribution to the song remotely — and their elation fills the air. Gucci stomps over from the opposite side of the pool with a childlike bellow, “My friend is here! I’m so happy now!” They hug, their respective chains clanking. A few minutes later when they reenact their reunion for social media, Gucci adds, “This is a great day!”
Thug, who in the years since Gucci went in has blossomed from a promising cult favorite into one of the most brilliant rap stars breathing, reminisces fondly on the time spent with his mentor in the Brick Factory. “He taught me everything,” Thug says. “Most definitely he taught me don’t never stop. He was rapping every day, all day and all night. He’ll be mad at me if I’d leave the ‘yo [the studio]. He’d be like, ‘Man, you dead broke and you goddamn running around and I’m up a whole lot of millions and I’m working every day. How the hell that look?’” Gucci chimes in, cheesing: “I’d tell Thug all the time, ‘Where you goin?! You see me in here every day, why you goin’ so soon?’”
And Thug is unfazed by the many changes in his old friend: “I don’t give a fuck. He could be seven hundred pounds, he could be two pounds. Either way it go, he’s still Guwop,” he says. “I’m wit it. He gonna be fat, I’m gonna get fat too, fuck it. He gonna be skinny, I’m gonna be skinny.”
They chop it up for a few minutes more, both of them still wearing ear-to-ear grins as Gucci gives Thug a quick tour of his new digs. Then they get down to business with the video shoot. There’s nowhere to go and work to be done.
Read interviews about Gucci’s new album with producers Mike WiLL Made-It and Zaytoven.
Look behind the scenes at Gucci’s house with photographer Gunner Stahl.
For some historical perspective, read The FADER’s exhaustive oral history of Gucci Mane’s career so far.