Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
The release of Gucci Mane’s ‘I’m Up’ mixtape last weekend saw the Alabama-born Atlantean icon take a second step in a road to recovery. Coupled with February’s ‘Trap Back’, the mixtape shows the rapper getting over jail sentences and lacklustre records and getting back to his incisive, inventive best.
Atlanta native Gucci came up in the middle part of the 2000s with strong local support and a slew of underground mixtapes and albums. As the head of So Icey Entertainment (soon to be 1017 Brick Squad) he was integral to the raw, rugged trap rap movement that engulfed the region and the scene more broadly. Gucci lacked the pin point aggression of T.I. or the rasp of Young Jeezy and label mate OJ Da Juiceman but his bumbling a found a delirious joy amidst the claustrophobia and celebrated the lifestyle without flinching from its details. Gucci’s content stayed firmly in the confines of the kitchen but his sheer fascination and love for the theme was entrancing.
Gucci Mane’s career is prolific but it has been pocked by legal issues. He was charged but acquitted of a murder charge in 2005 but served a six-month term for aggravated assault in 2006. An under-strength major-label debut only emerged at the end of 2007 and, after yet more mixtapes and unofficial albums, he was arrested for a probation violation in 2008 and sentenced yet again. When his proposed breakthrough album ‘The State Vs Radric Davis’ dropped in 2009, Gucci was in jail determined to make his release in May 2010 a new beginning.
He hit the studio with intent but his re-birth became more notable for increasingly erratic behaviour. Gucci was arrested in 2010 for driving down the wrong side of the road and ordered to a psychiatric facility after his lawyers filed for a mental incompetency plea. He emerged with an ice cream tattooed on his face and was given yet another six-month jail sentence at the end of 2011 for disorderly conduct. There was a definite fear that Gucci’s “idiosyncrasies” over-ran his creative output as he sleepwalked through tracks and features. Gucci’s mushy drawl lacked the vivid narratives and dexterous word-play of the rapper at his best. A low-point was the collaboration album ‘BAYTL’ with the White Girl Mob’s V-Nasty which, despite good production, had none of the cutting and contorted flow that makes Gucci so great.
The nuances of Gucci Mane’s style are often overlooked but his releases this year are full of brilliant, bewildering turns of phrase and pace which his sluggish flow can belie. He winds in the atmospheric depths of ‘Trap Back’ and ‘I’m Up’ and a large share of the credit belongs to a tight suite of producers selected for the projects. Both are dominated by produced young, local quartet of Drumma Boy, Mike Will Made It, Sonny Digital and Zaytoven and the tapes share a distinct 808-driven sound. The trap aesthetic has always abounded in the gothic but is currently delving further in the dark with haunting synths accompanying the raw percussive base. The mood is often introspective and the bottom-heavy Get Lost (a cut by Detroit producer Detail) finds the rapper languishing in a maze of regret and splendour.
The bluster and pomp of the Lex Luger-inspired 2010/2011 explosion has been transplanted by an insidious stalk and the subtle change can be explained as a shift in emphasis from the snare to the bass drum. This retracted boom means Gucci can really step into tracks rather than just get carried along by them. Some of the best moments come when he plays with the sharp retractions to reach fantastic insights like the subterranean detail about being “in a stashhouse with shoes on” on Walking Lick – a track so lucid that Gucci imagines himself as a walking drug deal, a talking embodiment of the product he purports to sell.
Gucci’s oddities have made him a celebrated trap star but he also deserves to be a recognised as a rap star. ‘Trap Back’ and ‘I’m Up’ showcase all of the mad energy that drives the rapper but matches it with worthy beats and a focus that has been, at best, intermittent in recent years. The ability fuse an abundance of content with a sharp attention to form is the key to Gucci Mane’s success and when he gets into the zone and manages it he is nearly untouchable. They may only be mixtapes but Gucci Mane is showing vital signs of a wildly coherent mindset and style that will hopefully continue to flourish.