Ever since 2Pac scored his first number one album, 1995’s Me Against The World, while in prison, a narrative has persisted in hip-hop that jail is a great career move, that the monetary gains from the resulting publicity and outlaw glamor outweigh the inconvenience of temporary imprisonment. It’s hard to believe that anyone who’s spent time behind bars feels that way, of course, or that they would trade a few months or years of freedom to get their feature price up.
Still, scarcity has an inevitable impact on market value. And just as the tragic mass incarceration of black men in America has steadily risen in recent decades, there are a lot more rap stars in and out of jail than there were back when Slick Rick’s career was stalled by a trip to Rikers. So hip-hop fans have become cynically accustomed to the ritual of stars serving brief sentences and then returning in a blitz of new music, in no case more so than that of Atlanta trap star Gucci Mane.
On Friday, 57 days after he came home from United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, Gucci Mane released a new album. The title, Everybody Looking, is a winking acknowledgment that this is his most high profile release in years simply by virtue of his recent absence, and it brings to mind 2Pac’s post-prison blockbuster All Eyez On Me. Gucci even seems to be following the same schedule he was on in 2009, when he released one of his most celebrated mixtapes, Writing On The Wall, 58 days after getting out of Fulton County Jail.
Despite the feeling of déjà vu conjured by a triumphant Gucci Mane once again returning to the rap scene, something feels different in 2016. Still on house arrest for the time being, Gucci’s public appearances have largely been limited to Snapchat dispatches from his mansion and music videos, where the rapper looks healthier and slimmer than ever before, growing out his hair and beard. He repeatedly refers to himself as a “recovering drug addict” on Everybody Looking, which finds him three years sober and settled down with longtime girlfriend Keyshia Ka’oir. After over a decade of him seeming to teeter on the brink of a tragic downfall, this is the first time that the public sentiment about Gucci Mane is that he may finally be out of the woods, ready to enjoy a drama-free life.
For someone who’s given as much to hip-hop as Gucci Mane—songs that ring out in clubs year after year, literally dozens of mixtapes, the mentorship of several beloved Atlanta rappers who have made his influence felt even during his physical absence—just seeing Guwop sober and happy and free is enough. If Everybody Looking doesn’t live up the wait and all the attention, it’s OK. He’s already made a lot of music, some of it great and most of it at least good, and his legacy is secure. But it’s exciting to see the guy get another shot at something resembling serious stardom, after a decade of not quite ascending to the kind of mainstream profile that his contemporaries and rivals T.I. and Young Jeezy reached.
The last time Gucci Mane release that arrived with considerable promotional weight behind it, treated as more than a mixtape or a sparsely promoted “street album,” was 2010’s The Appeal: Georgia’s Most Wanted. His profile was at its peak then, but tracks by Rodney Jerkins, Pharrell Williams, and Swizz Beatz stuck out like a sore thumb, and there was a sense that someone with a signature sound was trying to fit in and be someone he wasn’t. Everybody Looking, despite a couple of superstar cameos, does not suffer from that problem.
Still of Gucci's "Guwop Home" video
Everybody Looking starts strong, with one of the best opening moments of any rap record in recent memory. After a 20-second fanfare featuring ominous synths, ad libs, and producer drops for two of his favorite beatmakers, Zaytoven and Mike WiLL Made-It, Gucci opens with the couplet “I can’t even sleep, I got so much to say / fuck the feds, fuck the police, fuck the DEA.” He may be more at peace with his personal demons, but Gucci Mane is still funny and defiant.
Of course, Gucci Mane was never a 2Pac-style rebel poet. He’s beloved for playful bangers like “Photoshoot” and the giddy, word drunk masterpiece “Lemonade,” often picking beats that are sunnier and bouncier than those of his ATL trap music contemporaries. But pathos and introspection have crept into his music from time to time to great effect. And the last time he made headlines was for a 2013 Twitter tirade in which he put many of his contemporaries on blast.
Gucci Mane’s dark sense of humor about his sordid life provides the best moments on Everybody Looking, like “Robbed,” with its refrain, “I reminisce about the day I got robbed / I ain’t ashamed to say I got robbed / It’s a beautiful day, someone gon’ get robbed.” “Pop Music” is paranoid and embattled, imagining the whole hip-hop industry aligned against him, but it’s also the closest thing to a classic buoyant Gucci Mane anthem. “All My Children” is a mostly fond but perhaps passive aggressively condescending tribute to all of the stars that he mentored and influenced. Only one of them, Young Thug, shows up on the album highlight “Guwop Home.” It feels like the mark of a new, more mature Gucci—Thug is, after all, currently on tour with Gucci’s old enemy Jeezy.
The two biggest names on the guest list offer a contrast in Gucci Mane’s complex relationship with rap’s mainstream elite. Drake, who was fresh off of So Far Gone buzz when he made a couple of awkward appearances on the 2009 mixtape The Cold War: Guccimerica, reteams with Gucci for “Back On Road,” oddly offering up a hook in the roadman slang he’s so fond of lately. It’s not great, but it’s not bad either. And it’s probably the album’s best chance of a hit, even if it would be depressing for Gucci Mane to become yet another rapper who only gets on the radio when Drake throws them a bone.
The album’s other superstar guest, Kanye West, has less of a history with Gucci. In fact, it was once almost conspicuous that Gucci Mane was the biggest contemporary Southern rapper who never showed up in West’s army of collaborators. When Gucci was at his peak in 2009, West was executive producing Jay Z’s The Blueprint 3, which Gucci dismissed on the song “Classical” and parodied with the mixtape The Burrprint: The Movie 3D. When Guwop came home in 2016, though, West finally deigned to take an interest in Gucci, grabbing an entertaining guest spot for the otherwise dreary G.O.O.D. Music posse cut “Champions.” None of this has suggested that Kanye West has any particular understanding of Gucci Mane’s sound or appeal, and it was too easy to imagine a bombastic West-produced track landing with a thud in the middle of Everybody Looking. Instead, West offers a refreshingly low key verse on the Mike WiLL-produced “Pussy Print,” while Gucci adds the hilarious aside, “I only featured Kanye ‘cause we both some fuckin’ narcissists.”
Everybody Looking is not a masterpiece, but for someone like Gucci Mane, whose unbelievably productive recording habits helped set the precedent for today’s prolific mixtape rappers, making one perfect opus is not really the point. There’ll be more, within months, if not weeks. And for an album recorded in six days after more than two years away from the studio, it’s pretty damn good. But in a career that has had some dramatic ups and downs, I’m rooting hardest for him to avoid another fall even as he seems poised to reach new heights.
Al Shipley is a writer based in Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.