Over the last few weeks, some of the best rap bloggers have been making the case that Atlanta trap rapper Gucci Mane is a brilliant lyricist.
I called bullshit on the whole enterprise. I was put off by Gucci’s frequent emphasis on well-tread topics like jewelry, alcohol, hoes, crack, and cars, by his sometimes sketchy technique around the beat, by his mumble-mouthed delivery, and by his flamboyant, coonish image. I was prejudiced by the fact that he is 30 years old but still dresses and speaks like someone half his age. In short, I allowed my uptight, judgmental respectable negro elitism to get the better of me.
In all honesty, I had only listened about a dozen or so Gucci verses before dismissing him, so I wasn’t even giving him a fair shot. Since then, I have listened to Gucci’s entire catalog, and I’ve determined that the aforementioned bloggers are being too conservative with their praise. Not only is Gucci one of the best rap lyricists right now, he is one of the smartest writers in any genre or medium. He’s obviously a master with words, but what makes him stand out is the way in which he so effortlessly (and perhaps unwittingly) channels the complex theories and approaches of several influential writers while avoiding these writers’ weaknesses.
For instance, Gucci employs Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of mass consumer culture, as well as Ralph Ellison’s playful puns and elevation of African American folk traditions, yet Gucci avoids the reactionary cultural politics and elitism that plague these three men’s works. Gucci’s lyrics also reflect the feminist theories and analytical lenses of Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray, while remaining uncorrupted by their obfuscatory academic writing styles.
A close reading of one exemplary verse, the opening verse from Gucci’s “Booty Shorts,” reveals the intricacy of Gucci’s theoretical tapestry. From a cursory examination of this classic verse, one might conclude that “Booty Shorts” is simply a derivative song objectifying women’s asses; upon closer inspection, however, what emerges is a linguistic and theoretical tour-de-force.
This verse underscores the socially constructed nature of gender, serves up a radical critique of the mindless consumption and dehumanizing sexist exploitation of female bodies that define the ethos of late capitalism, and uses subversive language to (re)claim the female subject position. And the verse does all of these things through the medium of African American folk dialect.
I don't holla at girls, girls holla at me
I don't throw dollars at girls, they throw dollars at me
Gucci wastes no time. He opens by explicitly inverting the traditional gender roles in which men pursue women. In his world, women are aggressive and vocal, while Gucci becomes their object of desire. Furthermore, he reverses the common practice of men objectifying and commodifying female sexuality. Here Gucci acts as the stripper being exploited by women. As will become clear later in the verse, these inversions are, in fact, subversions, as Gucci promblematizes and unsettles traditional relationships of gender, sex, consumption, and capitalist labor.
“Gucci you conceited,” Bitch, I might be
Cause my chain so bright Stevie Wonder might see
When an unnamed woman accuses Gucci of possessing a trait that is typically considered feminine, Gucci entertains the idea. Recall too that Gucci Mane’s moniker, much like Kanye West’s (the Louis Vuitton Don), comes from his penchant for wearing designer labels, thus mocking rap’s hypermasulinity by embracing signifiers of dandy pomp and gay fashion. Moreover, their designer fetish is itself a sarcastic shot at the absurdity of excessive consumerism.
Contemporaries Camron and Charles Hamilton unabashedly wearing pink, and self-identified heterosexual Lil’ Wayne greeting his heterosexual male mentor with passionate kisses are also part of a promising trend of rappers combating the rampant misogyny and homophobia in rap by forging ambiguous queer masculine personae.
The word “Bitch” in these lines is not an expression of misogyny. In using it, Gucci refashions the word as a symbol of feminist agency over language. He challenges the unnamed woman to act like a reconstituted “bitch” who embraces the rhetorical destruction of rigid man/woman binaries.
Yeah, you got a man but ya man ain't me
As the verse progresses, Gucci is becoming more explicit in his subversive critique of gender. In this line, Gucci denaturalizes manhood by noting the distinction between his unique manner of performing masculinity and that of another man.
Add ya whole life savings times three
The mo’ and the dro and the clothes ain't free
So you gotta be a dimepiece to approach me
Not only do these lines reveal that Gucci is great at multiplication, they comprise a sharp parody of mindless capitalist consumption. In them, Gucci lays bare the twisted notion of women’s commodified value in our society—a value based strictly on a crude materialism that reduces women to their bodies and burdens women with unrealistic standards of beauty.
How much 'unh’ can one girl take
How many cakes can one man bake?
In this context, “unh” refers to penis. For Gucci, this rhetorical question is not a macho sexual boast; it is a nod to radical lesbian feminist awakening. Another way of framing the question is, how much rapacious male sexuality must a woman endure before she rebels against hegemonic patriarchy and becomes a fully realized, liberated human being?
An alternate version of the second line has Gucci asking “how much cake [i.e. money] can one man make?” This alternate question’s proximity to the previous one links liberation from patriarchal norms to liberation from the capitalist drive for greed and acquisition. Gucci’s choice to stress a man’s cake baking instead suggests that he preferred to stay with the theme of subversive gender acts, in this case, a man engaging in domestic labor, a realm traditionally associated with (or thrust upon) women.
Playa on the real?, man I don't know
I just love it when they fresh and they ass cheeks show
The first line sees Gucci questioning his own player status in a moment of existential self-consciousness. He expresses doubt about whether he is the player that hetero male culture demands he be. In doing so, Gucci again calls into question the default position that sex and gender are synonymous.
One can easily read the second line as an suggesting attraction to both male and female bodies, further upsetting the heteronormative order. The use of the plural pronoun “they [they’re]” and of “they [their]" here is ambiguous—these gender-neutral terms could refer to women or to leather boys.
Also notable is Gucci’s sex-positive feminist attitudes. Though he is destabilizing hetero patriarchy, he nonetheless appreciates the beauty and sensuality of the human body, male and/or female.
Everybody stare when I walk in the room
Gucci, who has donned a queered male/feminized persona, is now subject to the penetrating male gaze. However, what is normally an oppressive burden becomes an empowering political act in Gucci’s subversive feminist hall of mirrors. Gucci wrests the power from the hetero male gaze, rendering his own body a site of contestation, thus forcing those watching this spectacle to confront the fluidity and performativity of gender.
Smokin on purp got me high like the moon
Chain front big like its New Year's Eve
But my Rollie on fire like the first day of June
These final lines are dense and complex, but they reflect Gucci’s theoretical approach better than any of the verse’s lines. A seemingly pedestrian marijuana reference (“Smokin on purp”) may actually be an ode to purple, a color long associated with androgyny.
Gucci concludes the verse with mentions of two informal holidays. The first is New Years Eve, whose bacchanalian celebrations are defined by lowered inhibitions, i.e. flouting social norms. And “the first day of June” is likely a reference to the anticipation of Juneteenth. The latter holiday’s celebration of the (belated) end of slavery is the perfect metaphor for Gucci’s liberation from oppressive patriarchal gender roles.
Since Gucci probably hasn’t undergone advanced study, it’s amazing and wonderful that he has come to write with such theoretical depth. Gucci’s raw outsider theory is a testament to how resourceful black folks can be. They often possess an authentic innate wisdom that no amount of reading and formal study can provide.
What we have in Gucci Mane is a national treasure, the kind of visceral thinker and writer the world only sees once in a generation. Doubters, I implore you not to repeat my mistake. It is to your own detriment to ignore Gucci’s prodigious talents. Mark my words: this man will be transforming the way we think about language and the intersection of race, class, and gender for years to come.