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My Chain Heavy

By Colin McGowan | 24 September 2011

When I first began listening to Gucci Mane, I was living in a building with a mild cockroach problem. Living with insects is a minor affliction: a roach skitters across the kitchen floor from under the fridge; you grab a shoe, and smash the pest. It’s an eight second kind of problem—other than a little bug gunk on your loafers, nothing to fret over. But if you’re the nervous type, infestation is kind of a harrowing experience. While living in this dilapidated building, cooking was a nerve-racking activity. I felt an acute rush of dread every time something small moved in my peripheral vision.

Gucci Mane’s discography, were it an architectural structure, would be a mansion made out of cardboard. In this dwelling, the furniture in certain rooms would be composed entirely of roach carcasses. Some rooms would have soft-serve ice cream machines and fountains that dispense Hennessey Black. Others would possess hallucinogenic qualities. Gucci, the idiosyncratic landlord of this shithole/paradise, would sometimes invite you into his opulent living quarters to drink champagne and observe private sex shows. The next day he would threaten you at gunpoint.

Gucci Mane’s mercurial, is my point, and his music is an extension of that bizarre volatility. Wrapping words around it is like trying to describe a party through photographs—the color of a person’s outfit or the size of their smile is sort of irrelevant to what actually happened. Like most great artists, the high points of Gucci’s oeuvre elude description, but not for obvious reasons. One might struggle to find words for, say, the title track of Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain (1971) because of its emotional heft or the contours of William Basinski’s work because it’s amorphous and expands slowly like a soufflé. The components of Gucci Mane’s music are easy to characterize and largely uniform: bargain basement Casio beats and couplets delivered in a slurred flow which occasionally crests, sharp and frothing. He makes masterpieces from popsicle sticks and glue, and it’s at first difficult to discern how his popsicle stick sculptures are much better than anyone else’s, especially when most just see a jumble of splintery wood.

People reject Gucci Mane on totally understandable terms. They see a snarling buffoon, all stupid diamond ornaments and gun talk. His rapping isn’t ostensibly smart; it sometimes sounds like what a computer with hood sensibilities might spit out at random. He rhymes over production that would have sounded dated in 1998. And similar to all mixtape rappers, much of his music is marred by the incessant shouting of gatekeepers like DJ Holiday and DJ Drama, something for which fervent rap fans learn to develop a sort of Stockholm syndrome. The sensation of listening to even an exceptional Gucci Mane track is like swilling spoiled milk that tastes delicious. He is the greatest discography artist in rap if one measures discographies only in vastness, and there is nary a release in that discography with at least a track or two that doesn’t greet one’s eardrum like a paperclip’s point. And that’s before we get to the part where he talks about seducing “your girl” as if he’s snatching the deed to a blowjob machine from your fingers.

In 2009, Gucci Mane released his first commercial record since excavating himself from obscurity: The State vs. Radric Davis. He rarely sounds at home over major label production—the kind with actual instruments or synth patches developed before 1993—but over the piano plinks of The State‘s third single “Lemonade,” Gucci shines as ebulliently as he does on the low-rent trilogy of Cold War mixtapes released earlier that year. One might sort-of remember that Gucci scored a big single in 2005 with “Icy,” on which he sounded like a also-ran from the Cash Money camp. “Lemonade” and previous singles “Wasted” and “Spotlight” (which featured Usher) were bigger; Gucci appeared primed to vault himself into the mainstream.

As is his wont, Gucci Mane elected to fuck all of this up. In November of 2009, he was sentenced to twelve months in jail for violating the terms of the probation under which he had been placed for pleading guilty to assault in 2005. He violated his probation by completing only twenty-five hours of his court-ordered 600 hours of community service. He served only six months of his sentence.

Shortly after exiting prison, he released the “street album” Mr. Zone 6. Were the Gucci Mane canon composed of complete documents rather than tracks cherry-picked from his yawning discography, Mr. Zone 6 would be classified as Major Gucci. It’s a pretty stunning palette of what makes his music compelling. There are sweltering hood anthems like “You Know What It Is” and “Stove Music,” each punctuated by the apoplectic yelps of his friend and foil Waka Flocka Flame. The title track exemplifies Gucci’s knack for crafting songs that swirl and creep like blue smoke in a gray miasma. And at its core pulses “Georgia’s Most Wanted,” over which Gucci delineates his mission statement in an opening couplet: “I spend my winter in the jail, so I’m ballin’ all summer / Bad bitches on my tail hunt me like a bounty hunter.”

In a herculean attempt to follow that statement to the letter, Gucci was arrested in November of 2010 for a slew of traffic violations, including driving on the wrong side of the road without a license. These charges were later dropped, but Gucci still faced a possible revocation of his probation. In late December, his lawyers filed a Special Plea of Mental Incompetency, and the following month, a judge in the Superior Court of Georgia’s Fulton County ordered he be sent to a psychiatric hospital. When Gucci was released from the facility later in the month, he immediately hit up a tattoo shop, and some immensely bemused artist carved a giant, three-scoop ice cream cone into his right cheek.

You might have heard about that ice cream cone tattoo. It was all over the place for a few days, chuckle-fodder for those lazily clicking around the internet during work hours. I guffawed too, but the tat story illuminates how increasingly clownish and ephemerally interesting the ATLien has grown over the past year. Snarky blogs have had fun with the eccentric rapper, but, for those not amused by his idiocy, the remainder of 2011 has been an exercise in perfunctoriness for Gucci: pop up on crew members’ mixtapes and sound like lukewarm milk; drop a mediocre solo tape; shove a woman out of a moving car when she refuses to have sex with you (go to jail for that); release another mixtape that’s only marginally better than the last one; be a worse rapper than Waka Flocka.

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I eventually moved out of my ratty apartment because the insect community had begun to conspire against me. The roaches informed some bedbugs that I wasn’t nervous or itchy enough, and after three months of waking up with archipelagos of red mounds on my hands and ankles, I decided it was time to dip into my bank account and find a nicer place. Bedbugs are like roaches that live in the underbelly of your heart. Or your futon, which was the only piece of furniture in my postage-stamp studio. They’re just pests, ultimately—a few bug bites never hurt anyone—but their very nature is unsettling. They hide in the dark corners of your possessions. They crawl on you while you sleep. They swell when they’re full of blood. The whole time I was living with them, I felt unclean, like some midnight green mold was growing beneath my skin.

Gucci Mane fandom is like living with bedbugs. Fluorescent bedbugs that form intricate patterns of bites on your forearm, but still: pests. One can never be comfortable; you can’t really scrub the nervous whispers from your medulla. Because his misogyny, his general idiocy, his allegiance to mixtape DJs, his inability to edit, his questionable choice in collaborators: these are all things with which you learn to live. There is no loophole in logic that can marginalize or expunge them. When Gucci releases a mixtape full of verses that reek like week-old Chinese food—as he frequently has over the past twelve months, capping off his run of mediocrity by being subsumed by Waka Flocka on the duo’s Ferrari Boyz—one must digest it and suffer the gastrointestinal consequences. A Gucci fan doesn’t eat their vegetables; they eat the grease-soaked junk no one should. We do this, lamentably, because he lives in the underbelly of our hearts.

Gucci was once less irksome. Funnier, too. For how marble-mouthed and obfuscated by slang his bars are, they possess some sharp moments of humor. “Cowards and Soldiers” is supposed to be about how he murders people, but it begins with the line “My traphouse just like Morehouse: I got niggas all around it,” which is a funny historically black college joke, one around which Gucci crafts an entire verse, turning references to sororities and Spelman College over themselves like an axleless wheel tumbling downhill. And in the second verse he sarcastically characterizes his coke as “whiter than Taylor Swift.” The wheel keeps sputtering along, and he never actually gets around to gun talk.

He can also spend unbroken hours talking about little else than things that are shiny, black, loud, and violent. Or he talks about himself. The main conceit of Gucci Mane’s oeuvre is Gucci Mane, and he is all of those things. We know this because he compulsively sings himself all over chintzy synths and 808 ticks, over volumes and volumes of mixtapes, like a rapidly dying memoirist. Over (literally) days worth of music, Gucci sketches some sort of topographical map of himself, coloring in every dollar bill and drawing cartoonish lightning bolts around his nihilism. The map is, in various spots, terrifying, uninteresting, and gorgeous, but the whole thing is rendered in the hazy filter of his perverse grasp of the English language. Gucci’s music arrives to one’s ears like the bending, shifting light from a celestial body. I’m not sure—even after sifting through dozens of releases—that I know Gucci, but I definitely know things about him. (He’s temperamental, for example.) And I only care to learn about him because he talks about Gucci Mane like no one else can.

Gucci’s greatest asset has always been his absurd, carnivorous relationship with language. His best tracks are like watching an artist paint with the brush clutched between his toes. On OJ Da Juiceman’s “Make the Trap Say Aye,” he unfurls this garbled chain of sound: “I’m twerkin’ birds in so we workin’ / Packin’ a truck stop to train a back in / We big flip jug; we tote it off the forklift / The way my plug kick ya think he had a black belt.” He’s talking about cocaine trafficking, but then Springsteen was just talking about factory workers. Dope boys are hip-hop’s factory workers.

So, Gucci Mane takes genre tropes with which rap fans are comfortable, even bored, and haphazardly reassembles them. He builds familiar structures out of LEGOs, but instead of snapping blocks together, he melts and distorts the blocks and builds a skyscraper out of irregular hexagons. He does this like it’s the most normal thing in the world.

I remember a specific episode of MTV Cribs in which Lil Wayne was showing off a chain that featured a gigantic, iced-out New Orleans Hornets logo. It was a mesmerizingly stupid piece of jewelry. The hip-hop universe is littered with these ugly, luminescent things: Gucci himself has a Bart Simpson chain; Rick Ross frequently wears one modeled after his own face; even a talentless moron like Plies has a diamond-encrusted pendant shaped like a skimask-clad goon. If you have ever attended a rap show, you have also realized these sparkly status symbols are sort of hypnotic. In the correct lighting, one has a small epiphany: the guy on stage is wearing a $300k magnet around his neck, and it is very, very shiny.

Gucci Mane doesn’t just drape these expensive ornaments over his clothes, he embodies them on a metaphysical level. He is the personification of one of hip-hop’s emblems—the Rapper’s Gaudy Chain made skin, ink, muscles, and flow. He is at once disgusting, troublesome, and brilliant. And sometimes just one of those things. One of Gucci’s stickier hooks—from chain anthem “Excuse Me”—is an incantation that begins with facetious apology: “Please pardon me, please pardon me / I’m sorry I’m so sparkly.” It’s chain talk, and, by extension, Gucci talk. The grossest, shiniest talk.