[caption id="attachment_26216" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Gucci Mane attends a Knicks vs. Hawks game, Atlanta, Georgia, March 2011. Photo: Moses Robinson/WireImage"][/caption]
If there's any case to be made against the myth that jail time only bolsters a rap career, it's probably Gucci Mane. After nearly a decade of toiling in the Atlanta underground, his 2009 LP The State Vs. Radric Davis was set to be Gucci's break out project. Prior to its release Gucci had the type of feverish, mixtape-driven buzz that had previously predicted mainstream takeovers from 50 Cent and Lil Wayne. And he had the catalog -- full of boisterous drug narratives and absurdist wordplay -- to back it up. But Radric floundered at market, in part because a parole violation put Gucci in prison for the album's promo run. He remained optimistic, or at least publicly so. In an interview from prison Gucci told the New York Times "When I get out, I want to not only pick up where I left off, but improve. I’m trying my best to be a star.”
"Gucci is trying to improve again. The improvement itself can come later."
Looking at Gucci's career today, it'd be hard to say he achieved either of those goals. While his profile has risen some in the years since The State Vs. Radric, that's had less to do with his music than his seemingly endless string of bizarre and tabloid-ready personal decisions. He threw a woman from a moving car, he got a gigantic tattoo of an ice cream cone on his face, he released a full-length collaboration with an amateurish white rapper who had previously been best known for saying the n-word on Youtube. Further prison sentences followed, as did a court-ordered stint in a psychiatric facility. His music naturally reflected this turmoil. Gucci didn't fall off exactly, he still produced some great music in this time, but his defeat was palpable. Circumstance had stripped much of the elastic energy from his early style. Entire verses sounded like extended sighs as he coasted on the ferocity of his beats. He was a passenger on his own tapes, and a grumpy one at that.
His latest offering Trap Back isn't quite the return to form that its title suggests, but it might be the first step in that direction. It feels like the work of an artist who realizes that the spark has dimmed and is conscientiously trying to re-light it, to varying degrees of success. (In that sense it reminds me a little of Jay-Z's Watch the Throne performance, except stakes are higher because Gucci's audience is obviously much smaller and considerably less willing to blindly buy his albums on the strength of his rep alone.) So there are brief flashes of the twisted writer's creativity that fueled his prime -- he compares rival labels to crumbling sandcastles and brags of having enough drugs to fill a Smart Car -- as well as a greater attention to style than he's shown in some time. When he wants to be, Gucci's a master of the affected lazy flow (think EPMD with two decades of rap styles grafted on top) and one of his best tricks involves winding these blunt cadences tightly for several bars and then snapping them abruptly, switching gears into a more aggressive double-time. He's doing a lot of that here. And once again sounds like a rapper who actually enjoys rapping.
And when he doesn't, there's always the production to fall back on. Perhaps crucially, Trap Back boasts one of the more consistent displays of production Gucci has had in sometime. Everything is thunderous: Frequent Waka Flocka collaborator Southside delivers his usual thump and synth menace while Mike Will (Meek Mill & Rick Ross's "Tupac Back") turns the Tetris theme into a Pimp C-style Country Rap Tune on "Get It Back." Similarly, Gooch is able to lean on pretty inspired guest turns from spiritual progenitors Future and 2 Chainz, who outweirds him with the brilliantly bizarre line, "Shawty got them crab legs / I got that Old Bay on me."
In the grand scheme of Gucci's discography Trap Back probably won't land much higher than the best of his recent entries (like the curiously overlooked The Return Of Mr. Zone 6), but it's invaluable as an apparent display of self-awareness. Gucci is trying to improve again. The improvement itself can come later. The first step in overcoming the all too common plight of diminishing rap returns is admitting you have a problem. The second is staying out of jail.
Download Trap Back at Datpiff.com.