Gucci Mane cuts a mercurial figure in the world of hip-hop and pop culture. An absurdly prolific rapper with 80-something full-length releases including the silly, swaggering 2009 hits "Lemonade" and "Wasted," he’s been a stalwart of Southern hip-hop since the early aughts. He is also a highly influential progenitor of Atlanta trap music—a sound and ethos that has dominated hip-hop charts nationwide in recent years.
Still, Gucci Mane's musical contributions have long been overshadowed by the consequences of his personality and public behavior. Among casual fans and culture vultures, he is probably best known for his prominent face tattoo of an ice-cream cone, which he says was inked on a whim, as well as his goofy, sometimes unhinged behavior on social media, the red carpet, and around Atlanta: While shooting his supporting role in Harmony Korine's 2012 movie Spring Breakers, for instance, he fell asleep during takes, snoring in the middle of the set. His career has been repeatedly derailed by periods of incarceration resulting from numerous alleged legal violations that range from traffic violations to murder charges. His time in and out of lock-ups culminated in a nearly three-year stint in a federal prison for illegal gun possession in 2014.
At the time of his release last year, Gucci emerged from prison looking like a different person: He was slimmer, having traded his cough-syrup gut—for years, he was addicted to prescription cough syrup—for a six-pack. Now off drugs for what he says is the first time since his teenage years, his interviews became cogent, free of the paranoid accusations he was known for. Even his voice sounded different, shed of its signature congested sound and slur. Who was this new Gucci Mane, some wondered? (A conspiracy theory arose around this time, speculating that the man released from prison was not even Gucci Mane.) Some may look to his new memoir, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, released last week, for answers. And yet the volume only touches on that question, instead focusing on the circumstances and events that precipitated and catalyzed his transformation.
Though Gucci Mane's songs detail real events from his life, his book brings a fuller worldview to the rhymed version of the biography he's previously shared. At the very least, it offers fun details from behind his gilded curtain of celebrity. Take the origin story of his paternally pilfered moniker: His father, a self-styled "dresser," as he called himself, was stationed at an army base in Italy, and fell in love with the Gucci brand. When he was an adolescent, Gucci collected cans for change in his neighborhood with the future fellow rap star OJ da Juiceman. Gucci also writes of giving then-unknown members of Migos some of his gold chains to replace their costume jewelry, and laughing when he realized that they had thrown their previously omnipresent fake necklaces in the garbage on their way out of his studio.
In his book, Gucci complains repeatedly of being seen as a caricature throughout his career, by his peers, the public, and the media. This is practically a rapper cliché at this point—but Gucci’s consternation here appears as justified as anyone's. In one scene, he leaves a party at a mansion in disgust after a major producer introduces him as "the guy with the murder charge!"
He writes: "I tell these stories just to show how people were looking at me then. Like a killer. I was having encounters like that all the time."
Based on Gucci Mane's output, it's not hard to see why he was being stereotyped as a zany drug dealer with murderous tendencies. In a diss track directed at Young Jeezy, with whom Gucci Mane had a long-running beef, Gucci raps "Chopper gon hit ya, make ya scream out ya ad libs." But though the line threatens horrible machine-gun violence, the image it conjures is hilariously silly: a cartoon Jeezy riddled with bullets—unhurt, but forced to expel his signature noise: "Ha Haaaa!" (Typical Gucci Mane—as much slapstick as swagger.)
Throughout the book, he rounds out his character, adding an unglamorous side, a boring side, and a more human side to the theatrical braggadocio of his music. This is not to say that Gucci Mane the rapper wears a mask, just that Gucci Mane the writer wants to explain his public face. When Gucci writes of the Jeezy beef in his book, for instance, he tells a tale of mutual misapprehensions, bad decisions, and understandably hurt feelings, absent bravado and farce. The book describes snippets of an alleged attack (Gucci implies it was connected to the Jeezy feud) that led to Gucci's 2005 murder charge, which was later dropped after his legal counsel presented a plausible claim of self-defense. He describes performing in a bulletproof vest, and fearing for his life and property. "If it was open season on my chain, it was open season on me," he writes "There was another bounty on my head."
Gucci also brings to the foreground Atlanta's dispossessed—people he thinks are as habitually misunderstood as him. "Junkie or not, he was a part of the community," he writes, describing a neighborhood handyman who would buy crack from him during his drug-dealing days. He details hard-working parents who needed his drugs to get by—"I'm talking about people with jobs and families, but they still smoked crack." He supplements the community portrait with a history of Atlanta's drug trade, dating back to the city's heyday as a regional railroad hub in the 19th century. When local artists he says he "discovered" jumped ship from his rap label 1017 Bricksquad, Gucci discusses their decisions through a socio-economic lens. "I didn't take it personally. Most of these boys were dead broke when I met them," he writes.
Gucci interrogates his career's relationship to his Atlanta community as well, grappling with how his hardscrabble past helped elevate him as a commercial artist, as well as how that past impeded his life. "I knew when I walked out of DeKalb County [jail] after making bond that my newfound notoriety was going to be bad," he writes about the 2005 murder charge. "Ultimately it was. ... But it wasn't hurting the release of Trap House, which was exceeding all expectations of what an independent album could do."
His experience as a drug-dealer and stick-up kid from "Zone 6," one of Atlanta's roughest neighborhoods, was an essential part of the appeal of his music, he says. "When I think about trap," he writes. "I think about something raw ... music that sounds as grimy as the world it came out of." As if to illustrate his case, Gucci includes a vivid description of a county jail, where "pipes were leaking. Toilets were overflowing. Sinks were clogged. Power outages were commonplace. ... And the smells. As if the food itself wasn't hard enough to put down, those fucking smells made it nearly impossible." Later, he details a grisly incident in which he is jumped by another inmate with a chain. He is bemused and upset when finds himself a few cells down from a serial killer during one of his stints in prison. He describes falling asleep to the sound of shanks being sharpened, praying that they aren't intended for him.
Before his final, apparently transformative prison stint, Gucci details wasting vast amounts of money hanging out, smoking weed, and drinking lean in a $150/hr recording studio; floating unseriously through rehab multiple times, on record-company money. But Gucci argues his mental-health and addiction issues aren't just a tale of money and celebrity excess. He writes of using drugs to quell paranoia, dating back to his livelihood as a drug dealer in East Atlanta. For weeks, in one chapter, he's stuck on house arrest, in the studio where his close friend was killed shortly before. He receives frequent threats on his life—from others in the drug trade when he was young, from dueling rappers, from former neighbors he says envy his success.
"People have called me bipolar or [said] that I suffer from depression, but I always identified most with the symptoms of someone with PTSD. Like a soldier who came home still dealing with the effects of being in a war zone," he writes.
But while he writes with emotional force of the visceral pain and delusions stemming from the trauma that beset him and his neighborhood, Gucci sometimes veers into a conversational tone that has the feel of an off-the-cuff transcript, running through the important plot points of his story without the self-critical reflection that makes a celebrity memoir truly great—such as Elvis Costello's Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. It's clear that he has put a lot of thought into describing his own hardships and their provenance, but fails to thoroughly investigate some of the pricklier parts of his history—most notably involving women.
His prose is peppered with some of the language that has long gotten rap songs criticized for misogyny, and he is extremely dismissive of a woman who filed a battery complaint against him for allegedly throwing her out of his moving car. In the book, Gucci denies this, characterizing her as a gold-digging "bitch." He blazes through a mention of his mother's house almost getting shot up because of his dirty business dealings, and stops at strip clubs throughout the plot to "fuck some hoes."
It's a shame that Gucci Mane is either unable or unwilling to look more closely at these parts of himself, since, in this regard, his story is a familiar—if under-discussed—one. Male pop stars enjoying their power at the expense of women is a song sung again and again; those owning up to their masculine transgressions is a less-heard refrain. Still, his accessible distillation of of poverty, the incarceration cycle, mental illness, and addiction are a useful and important addition to the pop-culture discourse. A fuller picture of this person is an ever-important reminder of our complicity in a society that not only creates the entertaining aspects of Gucci Mane's character, but also the harder-to-swallow parts of his experience.
Gucci writes that he hopes his story isn't "one to be pitied or laughed at, but one to be inspired by." In fact, his story, or at least the one he tells in this book, is a bit of all three.