If great hip-hop artists produce minor hip-hop artists, as RZA brought us Method Man and Biggie Diddy, Gucci Mane may achieve greatness on October 5th, when Waka Flocka Flame attempts to achieve with _Flockaveli_ what OJ Da Juiceman sort-of eventually bothered to get around to with _Tha Other Side of the Trap._ Of course this metric measures influence, not ingenuity. It’s probably not even worth suggesting great albums in its place: nearly twenty mixtapes in four years, as Sarah has tabulated, rather forcefully suggests a commitment to quantity over quality. (Gucci is often singularly attacked on this score, as if Kanye’s repurposing of _Good-Ass Job_ into a Twitter feed didn’t constitute its own crime. Granted, dropping _Mr. Zone 6, Jewelry Selection, Ferrari Music_ and now _Buy My Album_ in a single summer before a major-label release certainly looks, if not worse, than a little more Web 1.0.) The songs are much the same: “Wasted,” “Lemonade” and maybe now “Haterade” succeed admirably, but they’re hardly the stuff of canon. Even Gucci’s lines are problematic to praise; one can’t like the hundred-and-first “[imported sports car] same color as a [household object]” like one liked the first.
I hesitate thus not just for the sake of an introductory paragraph. Rather, I’d like to identify the absence of a critical metric by which Gucci Mane’s success looks comprehensible as responsible for the critics’ frequent indifference to it. If Gucci is content never to make a consistently great album or song, what’s a critic to do but criticize them? By now the man has followers, not defenders. In what space remains, though, I hope to demonstrate that this very disintegration of the site of critical focus constitutes Gucci Mane’s artistic achievement. As he said on “Georgia’s Most Wanted”—the title track of his latest album _The Appeal: Georgia’s Most Wanted_ that, characteristically enough, appears instead on _Mr. Zone 6_—Gucci Mane is “not an artist, [he’s] an arsonist.” What he’s burned to the ground is rap’s unit of measure. Without great posses, albums, tracks or lines, all that’s left is the syllable—over which Gucci Mane has, in the past year or two, achieved mastery.
Take “Rooftop,” off June’s Mr. Zone 6—a mixtape that might very well be his best album, crafted with the kind of care that, sadly enough, only imprisonment seems to force out of Gucci. The content, like literally every other track he’s ever recorded, pivots between topoi so proximate as to be basically identical: he’s in the studio, the car, the club, the trap; everywhere he’s doing well. There’s no Scarface narrative, no Ghostface free association, no Nicki Minaj impersonation. Instead the first verse is a monorhyme, the only unifying thread a long o: Absolut, booth, roof, too, do, zoo, Peru, “pairu,” “soo-woo,” blue, hues, news, Jew/shoe, sue, goons, new, coupe, soup, suit, Fontainebleau, view, jewels. The second verse is double-time, and about as densely internally rhymed as language can sustain: “Whippin’ this detergent, ridin’ dirty, is you nervous? / Conduct yourself with class, one on me, Tasha don’t disturb me / Indescribable, just like a circus, you’re unreliable / I want the cash, the car, the girls, all the things that I’m entitled to.”
The most likely reply, at this point, would begin by granting Gucci’s deft work while casting doubt on his ultimate ability. However well these rhyme, as lyrics they aren’t (to invoke one of the most coveted and disputed labels in hip-hop) lyrical. It’s easy to rhyme without making sense: check two white teens in a cafeteria freestyle battle, or Lil B’s all-too-convenient insertion of whoever fits into his “hoes on my dick cuz I look like [Proper Name]” schema. Gucci’s assonance is an end in itself, though, and however many hip-hop fans might ultimately recognize this point without taking an interest in it, I would still implore them to see how finely sound, when an end in itself, can be structured.
Second verse first. The internal rhymes abound because of how loose Gucci lets them become (dirty/nervous). However weak they may be individually, as a mass they’re like an uncut block of marble. Listen more closely, however, and you’ll see Gucci’s carefully run a design through them. Hard P/D/Ts fade into the softness of “is you nervous”; the same movement is recapitulated in the next line with a shortened C/D/T cluster, the soft consonants overtaking the center instead of the end of the verse (“yourself with class, one on me, Tasha”) and ending instead of beginning on a string of hard D/B/Ts. The nearly perfect and ornately feminine rhyme of “detergent” and “disturb me” mark out the two lines’ oddly chiasmatic turn from hard consonants through sibilant rests, briefly back to hard consonants, again through sibilant rests, and landing again in hard consonants. (Check your work: that’s P/D/T, R/V/S, C/D/T, S/F/R, D/T/B.) The third line, which means very nearly nothing, works because it’s the first two in miniature. By the fifth line it’s as if Gucci has recognized our fatigue; he slows up his flow and doles out long vowels generously: “my white grand makes them rich white girls back-bend / ass-backwards, like payin’ taxes on the back-end.” And did you notice that line’s hilarious?
The short, slow lines of the first verse are less obviously impressive, however well the monoryme is carried off. Here what’s remarkable—and behind my rather silly conceit that Gucci has not just mastered but destroyed the syllable as a unit of emphasis—is that he manages to use his greatest weakness as a rapper to his advantage. Like 50 Cent, Gucci has a tendency to mumble; unlike 50 Cent, he doesn’t have a wound to excuse him. Instead, the contractions and distortions that debuted in his ad-libs (where “it’s Gucci!” became “scoochie!” and something or other, maybe “scared,” became “skrt!”) are utilized to wind his monorhyme as tightly as possible. The ending of every line is swallowed up by the over-emphasized long o, such that “soup” and “suit” more than rhyme, and Gucci’s lawyer must be both, not either, a Jew and a shoe.
Whether this amounts to proof of Gucci as a great or merely competent rapper remains up to the reader—and perhaps whether he or she gives “Rooftop” another listen. Just as Gucci Mane’s career looks worst when precipitated into albums, his raps read worse than they sound. The flow is best left to flow, its progress witnessed in time on its own terms.