The Survivor: Gucci Mane @ 40

The Survivor: Gucci Mane @ 40

In hip-hop, time comes for everyone. One day you’re the hottest rapper in your city — the strip club reserves a table for you, the radio keeps your single on repeat, your music spills out of car windows and backyards — the next you’re a memory that gets disrespected by the next generation. Shit, they might even call you washed on Instagram. Nothing is feared in rap like getting older.

Gucci Mane is one of the few who has survived it all. And he’s done it by releasing a handful of the 21st century’s greatest mixtapes, by becoming arguably rap’s most impactful talent scout and by having a larger-than-life personality. He’s Big Guwop, Gucci Mane La Flare, the Trap God; he has a damn ice cream cone tatted on his face.

It’s hard to remember a time before Gucci Mane was Gucci Mane. For all I know, the Big Bang occurred and then there was Gucci rapping about money, cars and jewelry, and the trapping that has helped him acquire the money, cars and jewelry. But that isn’t how it happened. He was born Radric Davis, and the story of his earliest recordings begins like a scene that will one day open an award-winning biopic, at an Atlanta studio in the house of the producer Zaytoven’s parents.

“Icy,” crafted by Zaytoven, was one of Gucci’s breakout singles, and few songs better define 2000s Atlanta. Arriving at a moment when T.I. and Jeezy were taking trap music nationwide, the song established Gucci as ATL’s hometown hero. It’s essentially a perfect song, with an Auto-Tune hook by the Dungeon Family’s Lil’ Will and a Zaytoven beat that sounds like it was made in a church in which all the attendees wear oversized Braves jerseys. But the main attraction is Gucci and his guest and future nemesis, Jeezy, who raps with the griminess that made his major-label debut, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, so special. Gucci, on the other hand, is a street poet whose delivery is clean and patient, even as he sounds like he’s rapping with a mouthful of marbles. “Don’t kiss me, baby; you can kiss my chain,” Gucci says, every one-liner resembling something he would say in casual conversation.

Between 2007 and 2009, Gucci solidified his spot in ATL hip-hop history with a legacy-defining mixtape run. (Future’s 2014-2015 and Lil Wayne’s 2006-2008 are the only contemporary comparisons.) During this time, he released countless free tapes, among them standouts like EA Sportscenter, From Zone 6 to Duval, Mr. Perfect, the Cold War series and the Burrprint: The Movie 3D. Notoriously, Gucci wasn’t known for his variety. These mixtapes were packed with hard-nosed trap songs, all delivered in that same menacing monotone, which could also be funny — sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. “And I know I might be ugly, but my car is good lookin’,” Gucci raps on “On Deck,” a standout off 2008’s From Zone 6 to Duval. The output was overwhelming but consistent, and that was admired, mostly. “Gucci was such a workhorse, he really only let Burrprint live for like two weeks,” DJ Drama told the Fader. “You go and drop this instant classic tape and then two weeks later, here comes three more. That idea was dope, but I wasn’t all the way with it. I was like, ‘My n—a, let’s let it breathe.’”

But Gucci wanted to be more than a cult figure. While in the midst of legal troubles he began to prepare his 2009 album, The State Vs Radric Davis. The album, featuring an iconic cover of Gucci in an orange prison jumpsuit, was another breakout moment. On the strength of singles like the Plies-assisted “Wasted” — a timeless frat-boy anthem — and “Lemonade,” the Bangladesh-produced single remixed by everyone from Big Sean to Odd Future, Gucci emerged a rap star. By the time the 2010s arrived, Diplo’s Mad Decent imprint was printing “Free Gucci” tees.

Gucci’s legacy hasn’t lasted solely because of classic mixtapes; his willingness to use his platform to bolster the next generation has been equally crucial. “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,” Gucci said in a 2016 Fader cover story. “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.”

The artists Gucci has helped to groom form a list of hip-hop royalty. OJ da Juiceman and Waka Flocka Flame were early Bricksquad affiliates. He established phenoms like Migos, Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan. He signed a teenage Lex Luger, and rapped on Mike WiLL Made-It’s beats months after the producer graduated from high school. Notably, he released a collaborative mixtape with Chicago’s Chief Keef, who was inspired by Gucci. Even Atlanta’s thriving ecosystem of videographers, DJs and managers can be credited in part to Guwop — from DJ Holiday screaming on mixtape intros to Coach K, Gucci’s former manager, building the Quality Control empire.

Today, Gucci Mane turns 40, nearly 20 years since he first arrived in Zaytoven’s parents’ basement. I used to think immortality in rap was a myth, but that’s not true. Gucci is immortal, and his legacy is still growing. If you don’t think so, Gucci won’t care; he’ll just drop another mixtape.

Alphonse Pierre is a writer from Staten Island, New York. He has written about hip-hop for various publications, including the Fader, Complex, Vice and more. He’s currently a staff writer at Pitchfork.  

Image: Gucci Mane performs in Quebec City in 2019. Credit: Scott Legato/Getty Images.

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