Gucci Mane's burden 

Black psychosis and other guilty pleasures

SO ICY: In 2009, Gucci Mane’s haircut matched his erratic behavior.

ASYLUM/WARNER BROS.

SO ICY: In 2009, Gucci Mane’s haircut matched his erratic behavior.

I've never been a huge Gucci Mane fan. Even as former music editor for Creative Loafing, my decision to cover him at his height was always motivated by curiosity more than critical imperative. This was the same rapper, after all, who garnered equal amounts of love and ridicule for being hip-hop's boogeyman. The same characteristics he carried as a burden in the real world — street cred, a speech impediment, and a Bama drawl — gave him buoyancy in hip-hop. But when he went on an epic Twitter rant last year, slinging mud on rap peers, journalists, and industry executives alike, it struck me as something more than music business politics.

Whenever a rapper gets carted off to prison it tends to spark talk of the criminal justice system's conspiracy against black men. In the 2010 book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes that the United States incarcerates a larger percentage of black men than South Africa did at apartheid's peak. Much ado has also been made over the nefarious connection between the prison-industrial complex and the hip-hop industry. In a 2013 article titled "Jailhouse Roc: The Facts About Hip Hop and Prison for Profit," underground rapper/writer Homeboy Sandman reports that the largest shareholder in American prison privatization, Vanguard Group Incorporated, also owns significant chunks of the media landscape that markets and promotes mainstream rap.

But all of that seems irrelevant where the man born Radric Davis is concerned. If ever there was a rapper who belonged in the bing, Gucci has seemed dead set on proving he's that guy. Whether or not he's certifiably bipolar, as he denied when Angela Yee of "The Breakfast Club" asked him in a 2012 interview on the New York-based radio morning show, could be anyone's guess. A judge committed him to a mental health treatment facility in 2011 after he declared himself too incompetent to "intelligently participate in [a] probation revocation hearing." But maybe Gucci's type of crazy doesn't require a psychiatric diagnosis. This is a dude, after all, who tattooed an oversized ice cream cone, complete with three scoops and red lightning bolts, on half his face — because, as he put it, he's "the coldest MC in the game." If that ain't a cry for help ...

Instead of pleading insanity, he pleaded guilty last week to federal gun possession charges. As a felon convicted too many times to count, he's now facing what will likely be a 39-month sentence in the federal pen. On top of that, his label, Atlantic Records, confirmed last year that he'd been released from his contract shortly after the same Twitter tirade in which he advised his label's CEO and COO, Craig Kallman and Julie Greenwald, to "suc [his] dick." In an industry where all publicity is considered good publicity, your rap career must really be in the toilet when your moneyed backers view your public downfall as bad business.

Gucci's obvious guilt is a footnote to the larger issue. More than anything, he symbolizes how adept mass media has become at marketing black psychosis in mainstream hip-hop. Suffering has always been a major selling point. But the pathological sideshow has increasingly become the main act for an audience obsessed with dysfunctional stardom. And when the culture in question is dominated by discarded youth, mental health becomes an expendable asset.

There was a time, though, when Gucci Mane seemed like a trap rapper on the rise. I met him while working for a previous publication just as he was gaining his initial buzz in Atlanta. His 2005 calling card, "Icy," featured a sing-songy hook that bubbled over like cheap champagne. The song, which also featured his slightly more established contemporary, Young Jeezy, would spark the beef between them that eventually turned deadly.

At the time, Gucci was signed to local independent label Big Cat Records. Our interview was scheduled to take place at the label's headquarters, where I had to wait a couple of hours before he showed up. Despite his late arrival, he was more than enthusiastic when he came in the door. Cheesing from ear to ear, he laid out his plans for the future: He wanted to write R&B songs. He wanted to start a girl group. He wanted to blow up. As unlikely a specimen as he seemed for stardom, his enthusiasm was contagious enough that I found myself quietly rooting for the underdog. He was the happiest rapper I'd ever met.

Fast-forward seven years and that effervescence had all but faded. Gucci had gone from wide-eyed industry newcomer to dead-eyed accidental killer. Though he was acquitted of murdering the man he shot in self-defense after a surprise attack the press linked back to Jeezy (which Jeezy denies), it would be his first in a string of wild allegations, high-profile run-ins with the law, and revolving-door jail sentences. He punched female rap associate Mac Breezy in the face during a performance. He got arrested and pepper-sprayed for driving on the wrong side of the road. He pushed a woman out of his moving Hummer after she refused to go to his hotel. He hit an unsuspecting autograph-seeker in the head with a champagne bottle. Not necessarily in that order. But the more he acted out of order, the bigger his legend grew.

Gucci was fresh out on bond in January 2012 when I met him for the second time. He was filming a video for another dope-boy-tragic song called "North Pole" to promote the release of his new mixtape. He seemed different, somewhat distant, but focused on the task at hand. Yet he was still approachable when I stepped to him with a tape recorder in my hand. I wanted to ask him if the memory of the life he took made it harder to sleep at night. I didn't dare.

It doesn't matter how many dead bodies you rap about, when you kill a man it must haunt you. And for Gucci, who'd seemed more harmless than heartless just a few years ago, the notoriety that resulted from the incident propelled him into a role even he seemed less sold on. He'd blown up to a degree, but at what cost?

For the last month, Questlove of the Roots and "Tonight Show"-fame has been writing a series for New York magazine's Vulture blog about how hip-hop has failed black America. Upon seeing that subtitle, I shuddered to imagine some woe-is-we diatribe about the wayward state of young black America. As it turns out, much of it deals with the abstract ways in which the culture has sacrificed its cool for capital gain.

In light of Gucci's recent fate, I wonder if there's something more pertinent to ponder: In the 21st century, it seems black psychosis is hot on the auction block. That's not to exempt Gucci or any other rapper from personal responsibility. But in a sense, we're all fundamentally guilty, especially when the business motive to entertain supersedes the willingness to intervene.

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