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Gucci Mane and the Art of the Post-prison Rap Career

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Gucci Mane’s sixth album, The State vs. Radric Davis, was released in 2009. Last month, it went gold. (Under the RIAA’s new, convoluted metrics of certification, “gold” means the album has now exceeded 500,000 sales and streams—seven years after its release.) This late commercial milestone for Gucci is likely due to an overall spike in listenership on May 26, when Gucci Mane finished a 32-month prison term at the United States Penitentiary, Terre Haute, in Indiana. Upon his return home to Atlanta, Gucci quickly reunited with his favored producer, Zaytoven, and made a point of dropping three potential hits immediately: “First Day Out Tha Feds” with the producer Mike Will Made-It, “Champions (Round & Round)” with Kanye West and friends, and “Back On Road,” which guest rapper Drake premiered on his popular Apple Music programming block, OVO Sound Radio.

Homecomings don’t always go so smoothly. Boosie Badazz (formerly known as Lil Boosie), having pled guilty to drug charges in 2011, did a nearly five-year bid at Louisiana State Penitentiary. While there, he wrote 1,018 songs, an autobiographical screenplay, and a book. Since his release in March 2014, Boosie has released nine projects — three mixtapes, five solo albums, plus a duets album with the incarcerated C-Murder — that include some of the best and most impassioned rapping that Boosie has ever recorded. And yet measurable interest in Boosie’s new music is at an all-time low; the music video for Young Thug’s song “F Cancer,” a tribute to Boosie, who was recently diagnosed with kidney cancer, has accumulated triple the YouTube views of his older friend Boosie’s own song about his disease. While Young Thug’s peak popularity helps explain the gap, the disinterest is still striking — considering that Boosie was, during his incarceration, the subject of great conversational interest among primordial Rap Twitter in the form of the famous and once-inextinguishable hashtag #FreeBoosie.

Incarceration takes a toll on the incarcerated, and entertainers are hardly immune from its effects. There’s a history of certain exceptions to the post-prison slump; 2Pac recorded his biggest album, All Eyez On Me, immediately following a prison stint in 1995. In 2010, Lil Wayne spent eight months at Rikers Island on a gun charge; when he got out, his buzz was intact, he was still a first-class rapper, and Tha Carter III cast a long commercial shadow. But his labelmates Drake and Nicki Minaj would prove instrumental to Wayne’s chart success in 2010 and beyond. To this day, in fact, Drake and Nicki keep Weezy buzzing (even if it’s only by appearing in his videos and doling out guest verses), even as both rappers outsell their erstwhile benefactor.

Now Gucci’s on Apple Music, home to superstars and exclusive releases. It helps to have friends and admirers in high places. Remy Ma, a member of Terror Squad, is proof: She served six years at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility starting in May 2008. But the stars didn’t quite (re-)align for Remy until this week: the Bronx rapper opened for Beyoncé at both Formation stadium tour dates at Citi Field in New York, and performed “All the Way Up,” a celebration of hoarded wealth and irreversible dominance, with Fat Joe on the main stage at Summer Jam.

Gucci Mane had a different, more self-centered infrastructure functioning in his absence. While he was gone, his label 1017 Records flooded the market with Gucci during the rapper’s incarceration: 19 albums, 12 mixtapes, and a compilation tape (as best we can tell). The label’s also released guest verses since the rapper’s arrest and detention at DeKalb County Jail in September 2013. That output, unwieldy as it was, amplified Gucci Mane’s voice beyond literal, physical repression. We lived with his hologram.

In commercial terms, a crucial distinction between Gucci and Boosie is that contemporary hip-hop is now saturated with the former rapper’s influence and governed largely by Gucci Mane’s first-order descendants, including Future, Young Thug, and Chief Keef. Which isn’t to suggest that Boosie’s influence is nil, as you’ll hear it clearly in the music of Meek Mill and Kevin Gates. But Gucci’s music is a keystone of contemporary hip-hop, much as Rakim’s music is a keystone of an older style that spans from Public Enemy to T.I. It’s this breadth of apparent influence and goodwill that emboldens Gucci, on “Champions,” to proclaim, “It’s over for you Gucci clones!”

Now, the question is whether Gucci Mane is as indispensable as he is irreplaceable. The cosmic irony of Gucci’s boast on “Champions” is that he’s accompanied on that song by Desiigner, a clone of Gucci by way of Future; and Travis Scott, a clone of too many rappers to count. But where fans invoked Boosie’s name in vain, it does at least seem that Gucci’s peers, including Kanye — who’d never released a song with Gucci Mane until last week — are rallying to rehabilitate hip-hop’s godfather of the trap. For now, his hologram is retired.