Related: The case of the canceled Gucci Mane concerts (Nov. 19, 2009)
During his latest stint in jail, Radric Davis spent much of his time contemplating how he could change his life. The veteran Atlanta rapper known as Gucci Mane had built a tremendous regional following based on his oft-autobiographical songs about partying, drug trafficking and street conflict. But the same lifestyle he rhymed about had repeatedly landed him behind bars, ironically stifling his hopes for national fame.
"I got a lot of ideas together," he says of the six months he served for violating the terms of his probation, stemming from a 2005 incident in which he beat a promoter with a pool cue. "It was a time for me to refocus. I took it and made the best out of a bad situation." He devoured all of the inspirational material he could get his hands on, he says, from the Bible and rap magazines to a title from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.
"As bad as it may sound, I think going to jail was one of the best things that could have ever happened to him, because he really grew up," says his manager and business partner, Debra Antney. "He had some time to sit back and think."
Upon his mid-March release from the Fulton County Jail, the 29-year-old immediately got to work. Gucci went straight to the studio and began recording songs, determined to take his career to the next level.
His plan was to capitalize on a burst of momentum. While he was gone, his name had suddenly become one of the hottest hip-hop brands going — a phenomenon not unlike one he experienced four years earlier, when he'd found himself in even deeper trouble with the law.
Evidence of his current success could be seen in the lines of frenzied fans stretching for blocks to see his homecoming appearances; in the labels fighting to release his music; in the raucous crowds attending his shows in states beyond the South, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and California; and in the preview of his July XXL magazine cover. "This is a pinnacle point in Gucci's career," says Melvin Breeden, president of Gucci's former label, Big Cat Records. "He's as hot as he ever has been."
Indeed, there are signs that he could finally take his place next to such Atlanta rap immortals as T.I., OutKast, Ludacris, and Gucci's loathed arch-rival, Young Jeezy. Now in the midst of recording his second major-label album with heavyweight contributions from Snoop Dogg, the Game and Juelz Santana, he's making his presence felt nationally like never before.
"He's really getting his industry grind on right now," says Antney. "He's actually hanging out with other industry people. The old Gucci never did that."
Known for his gold grills and awe-inspiring diamond pendants of characters like Bart Simpson and Garfield's nemesis Odie, Davis raps in a Deep South accent over thick, syrupy club beats. "When you hear me, you hear a lot of pain, a lot of hood," he says on his MySpace page's biography, "you hear what's going on in the inner city in Atlanta."
Supporting himself for years as a drug dealer, his long rap sheet includes a murder allegation, an assault charge, and drug and alcohol-related arrests — and his popularity is closely tied to the authenticity of his lyrics. In an era where hip-hop stars like Rick Ross and Akon have been eviscerated for fabricating their backstories, Gucci is clearly the real deal.
Determined to become a superstar, Davis' path to fame seems straight and clear so long as he stays out of trouble. But staying out of trouble is the one thing he's never been able to do.
Davis spent the first years of his life in the small Alabama town of Bessemer, raised by an elementary school teacher mother and a "hustler" stepfather, in Davis' words. Pops was the original Gucci Mane, so-called by people in his neighborhood for his propensity for the finer things in life. (The moniker "Mane" comes from the heavily Southern-accented pronunciation of "man.")
Arriving in East Atlanta at the age of 9, Davis was ridiculed by other students. "I got [picked on] because of how I spoke and my diction, which was different," he says. "I would talk with a country slang because I was from Alabama." Nonetheless he excelled in his classes, not so much because he studied a lot but because of his God-given abilities. "I was always naturally smart," he boasts. "I had a high IQ."
He graduated from high school and won a scholarship to Georgia Perimeter College, where he took classes in computer programming. But he says he was nonetheless forced to sell drugs to make ends meet. "I still had bills. I still had to eat," he says.
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