Success can be defined in many ways. Bob Dylan once said it's being able to get up in the morning and go to bed at night, and in between do what you want to do. Future and town crier Khaled Khaled characterized it on "Suffering From Success" as when you have too many racks on you, can't sleep at night, and the VIP section is swarming with peasants.
When you're Future, a Dungeon Family alumnus who first coined the phase "started from the bottom," success could be considered merely being booked at Coachella, let alone the main stage at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday night. Coachella signifies crossover like EPMD, Allen Iverson, or a guest appearance on Gilmore Girls.
Success is when you can get 40,000 people to simultaneously chant, "I just fucked your bitch in some Gucci flip-flops." Success is when your 50-minute set scarcely includes half of your greatest hits. Success is when you bring out the Migos for "Bad and Boujee," Ty Dolla $ign for "Blasé," and Drake for "Jumpman," "Gyalchester," and "Fake Love." But last night in a career full of achievement, Future once again re-defined the flex: he brought out a flute player just to play the solo on his latest hit, "Mask Off."
That's unadulterated stunting at its most subtle. Oh sure, the Plutonian brought out the biggest rap group in the world, the most popular chanteuse, and the closest thing this generation has to Nate Dogg. He offered an abridged summary of one of the most brilliant runs in rap history, including dropping two #1 albums on consecutive weeks earlier this year. But he also ushered in what might be the best woodwind solo since Ron Burgundy shattered previous notions of orchestral jazz in 1970s San Diego. There is turning the phrase "stunting on my ex bitch" into one of the biggest hooks of last year, and there is the matter of taking rap to black-lunged frontiers that Jethro Tull never explored.
A year ago, success for Gucci Mane merely meant freedom. Incarcerated for much of his prime, the most influential Atlantan since the original ATLiens most recently finished a two-year bid in Terre Haute for possession of a firearm. The conviction might have rang the death knell on his career, but instead laid the groundwork for a comeback so impressive that I would be remiss not to compare it to the Bible because today is Easter. After all, the trap god helped bring Future, Nicki Minaj, Young Thug, Zaytoven, Waka Flocka, and countless others into the rap orbit. Jesus gave us eternal love and forgiveness but he also gave us the Crusades and extreme Christian Fundamentalism. It's a close call.
Gucci Mane has been an Atlanta legend since the "Icy" beef, and the subsequent dispatching of a would-be assassin. He's been a Southern icon since the period between the Bird Flu and Writing on the Wall mixtapes, a hipster darling since Diplo remixed him, and a basic deity since "Wasted." So it was only right that Coachella stuck him in the Sahara tent, a neon Babylon of bludgeoning bass, epileptic lights, and babbling bros.
This isn't Gucci Mane's creative peak, but it's certainly his moment, a long-delayed coronation. If glo'd up is the operative cliché, Gucci Mane literally looks like he's been celestially gleaming since his release from prison. Maybe it's the pearly veneers. Maybe it's love. Maybe it's the unpredictable vicissitudes of timing that resulted in his first ever #1 for his verse on "Black Beatles."
If Atlanta has dominated rap for the last dozen years, it's emerged as the unrivaled capital of party music. Where trap music was once the province of Gucci Mane, T.I. Jeezy, and a constellation of regional heroes from College Park and East Atlanta, it's become something so internationally popular to render the word almost meaningless. Even as its most original artists have evolved well beyond its confines, trap remains an aesthetic signifier—one for which Gucci Mane unequivocally wrote the Burrprint (sorry had to).
In the ultimate acknowledgement of his success, Gucci's Coachella set functioned like one of those old "This is Your Life" television routines. He brought out the Migos for "Bad and Boujee" (again) and "Slippery." Lil Yachty popped up for "1 Night." With their rendition of "Black Beatles," Rae Sremmurd topped that Paul McCartney performance from a few years ago. It could've used Flocka or OJ Da Juiceman, but that's quibbling. For "O Let's Do It," Gucci brought out Diddy, who defined success better than Webster's with the line, "never home / gotta call me on the yacht."
If the Godfather of Jiggy isn't still on top 20 years later, his appearance still connotes the ultimate burnish of respect. For all the Machine Gun Kelly-caliber decisions that the man has made, there are few things more kinetic than watching him rap "All About the Benjamins" and "Mo Money Mo' Problems." Admittedly, there are better places to watch it then the Sahara Night with its MOAB bass explosions and the kid who I assume had to be named Braden who really took a shining to me sometime around "Lemonade."
Braden was a tapioca-skinned tank-topped bro surrounded by two kids feebly doing trap arms in Texas A&M Gear. He wore tropically colored sunglasses and kept putting his arm around me like a juvenile Frank the Tank and telling his friends "THIS GUY IS THE BEST." DJ Khaled's job remains secure. Braden and his bros worship Gucci Mane even if they don't know all the words or really anything other than the biggest line of every chorus. I never need to hear them shout out "Pussy Print" again.
I suppose these are the perils of success. You acquire an entirely new fan base that bears little similarity to your original core audience. As you may have guessed, Zone 6 wasn't accurately represented in the Coachella hordes. During Future's set, the energy flagged when he played a deep cut like "Stick Talk." When heard at the right volumes, this song should allow you to bench-press forklifts and shoot moving targets with precision from 300 yards away. Instead the masses looked confused, as though he was rapping about new brooms he picked up at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, which would've inevitably been more relatable to most.
But the respective triumphs of Future and Gucci proved something that had been rare in the last decade. They've achieved true crossover appeal without remotely compromising their sounds. If the rise of streaming has taught us anything, it's that rappers suffered the most from the illegal downloading era. Mixtapes might have allowed them to build gigantic fan bases, but they cannibalized sales and commercial impact.
If the previous generation of Atlanta rappers felt the need to make pop compromises to top the charts—say, T.I.'s "Whatever You Like" or that horrible Usher and Gucci song—guys like Migos, Rae Sremmurd, Future, and the resurrected Gucci no longer need to make those concessions.
Coachella was once built on underground cool, but its current importance lies in its ability to gauge mainstream appeal. Even if they come from the blocks where they don't bump Blueprint 3, both Future and Gucci have managed to make music that appeals to both the Bradens and those who came up on Brad Jordan. It took a decade or two, but Atlanta conquered the world. The South still has something to say. Now it has flutes.
All photos by Christina Craig.
Jeff Weiss is conquering Coachella too. Follow him on Twitter.