Image by Alex Cook
Though he sits behind bars, Gucci Mane is all around us. He is the most influential underground rapper of the past decade, if not the most influential rapper point blank. Intentional or incidental, Gucci Mane's virtual exclusion from last year's VH1 documentary on Atlanta hip-hop is telling. That such a major actor was relegated to a footnote suggests his place in history remains contested. More damning—at least to the overlords who write popular music's most prominent stories—was his inability to sustain crossover success in the vein of Lil Wayne, Jay Z, or Drake, proof-positive of his marginal status. In the 1990s, platinum album sales empowered gangster rap both within and outside the mainstream. But by the late 2000s, just as internet piracy was reaching its peak, the very real enthusiasm for Gucci's work was much more ephemeral to measure—and easier to deny.
Not that history's ever a settled question, but Gucci's position feels especially precarious. Of course, there are concrete reasons his music is so divisive. His catalog contains its fair share of misogyny. It also carries all the di rigeur trappings—cliches, to some, formal characteristics, to others—of pulp street rap, a genre often documented more by enthusiasts than historians (if academics deign to investigate the form, it's seldom as a space for discrete art objects, tending more towards pathologizing of artists and fans—hip-hop as a source or consequence of cultural disfunction). At the same time, the case for his art can be just as uncritical: Celebrated as a wacky, colorful character, or as a one-d