Friday, June 26, 2009

Gucci Mane: Lyrical Genius, Outsider Theorist

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.

“Booty Shorts”

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.


Shabazz said...

Gucci mane a brilliant lyricist....uh, yeah, ok
This guy is a walking minstrel show.
I wonder what white major label he's signed to?

RiPPa said...

Gucci Mane is obviously a brilliant blog writer as well. I loved the way he spoke of himself in a third person-esque sorta way with one.

He killed me when I read this gem in the above post:

"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."

Forget a Klondike bar...

give this man a Grammy.

Just great, your word verification spells G-L-O-C-K-E. Ok, so Gicci may not win any national spelling bees, but you're right, the boy's a genius.

Now ain't that a bitch?

brandon said...

Go fuck yourself on this one, seriously.

jordan s said...

this is a good blog post that directly addresses the points that have been made as to why gucci mane is a great rap lyricist

FreeMan said...

WOW, I don't think that much of Gucci Mane but this might be a debate for another generation. I saw a couple of videos for him but I never have been wowed by what he was saying.

Sach said...

One thing we can all agree on is that pissing off overly sensitive Gucci Mane fans is entertaining as hell.

uhhh said...

not sure why this cutting satire needed 1000+ words

T.A.N. said...

1. Very funny. I agree with "uhhh", might be a bit long/indulgent; but hey, when you're on a roll ... many quotables in here.

2. I say the above from a formalist perspective (which, i guess -- since we're all peacocking our intelligence here -- I should note is thematically related to the whole ongoing "debate" of gucci mane's lyrical prowess), all to say i'm not up on Gucci Mane enough to know whether the satire of his blog-devotees hits as an actual argument. But: good show!

3. I have love for the other side because I'm guessing from the posts linked and comments I'm actually the target audience for the "We Love Gucci Mane, Here's Why" parade: I'm native NYC, grew up and rep all the "east coast lyrical-lyricism"; I flinch at a lot of what "the kids listen to these days"; I am a writer/blogger/occasional-critic, often trying to assimilate hip hop into my work, with more platform than some; I proudly associate myself with 2nd or 3rd wave early adopters, i.e. pfork or SFJ, i.e. i can't capably argue in comment sections about the latest-up-to-the-latest-tweet artist/mixtape/trend; if you intelligently argue for or against something I will [eventually] read and try to process and ballyhoo your efforts if so-deserving (imo, obv); ... so, yeah, all that to say "The machine is working!"- I would not be about-to-dload some gucci mane without this "debate".

4. I'm not persuaded by the Gucci "close-readings". the "performance art" appreciation strikes as impotently redundant (gucci mane = hip hop Marcel Duchamp, repeat); my sense was GG was critiquing the conviction of the praise, not the presence of it. one side is taking a relativist perspective (Gucci uses the word "wonderful" in ways other rappers don't), the other is absolutist (that we have to stoop so low to elevate a hip hop artist, just makes me want to cry more about the whole state of affairs).

Bottom line: Is Gucci Mane a rising contender for Pantheon treatment? (I guess i'm absolutist as well) If no one is actually asserting GM as timeless then you guys probably aren't really "debating" at all.

uhhh said...

um nah heres real talk:

gucci is gangster rap. Some ppl like to pretend gangster shit is 'over' as if the streets are passe. they also like to accuse folks taking street shit seriously of overwriting.

in the initial arguments for gucci's relevance i dont see much hyperbole or whatever. (i dont understand a word of what brandon says, but im not sure hes using 'hyperbole' like is being parodied here per se).

basically here is how i break it down to an extent: gucci is a great rapper. no academia needed to back that up. hes super lyrical & raps about standard gangster rap topics. if u dont get it, u are probably a softbatch blogger who at best is just parodying people for not being very good writers / very good at expressing appreciation. you still dont have interesting opinions of your own & mos def's record isnt better than gucci's just because gucci has a song called 'booty shorts'

B. Ware said...

Absolutely had to be done. Thank you.

MilesEllison said...

This was a lot of satirical artillery for a low value target. Like using "shock and awe" military tactics to hunt deer.

david said...

if this shit wasnt six miles long i would make a parody post about nas 'dr. knockboots'

noz said...

Did somebody just discover "The Pooh Perplex"?

DocZeus said...

I would be a bit more forgiving of the Gucci Mane is a lyrical genius meme if the underlying conceit wasn't so transparent and hypocritical.

The circular logic generally goes like this:

1. If you claim "MC Negro & The Ignorant MC" (Word to Masta Ace) are terrible rappers, they'll claim your being "condescending" which is just a code word for "racist" because you don't understand or acknowledge the inherent brilliance in gangsta rap.

2. But when you point out there is a ton of gangster rap you do like from anybody from Ghostface to some random ass generic New York mixtape rapper featured on Nah Right, they will soon scoff in your face and say that shit is boring and you are nothing but an N.Y. centric elitist.

3. But when turn around and point out that you also like artists like the KnuX, Kid Cudi, or "808s & Heartbreak" which is as far as true school hip hop can get, they'll claim that's stuff is all a bunch of faggotty gimmicks and how rappers who wear tight jeans and use "indie rock" and 80s music as a point of reference is ruining real hop. (Which is insane because they just called you out for being elitist, two seconds ago...)

4. But when you point out that point of view is just as "condescending" as your initial claim that "Gangster Rapper X sucks" because it's marginalizing a whole other form of black expression, they'll just go off the deep end and take their ball and go home.

It just reeks of intellectual dishonesty. It just seems as if a few writers looking to establish an agenda and discredit those whose opinion differs against theirs.

Plus the argument shouldn't be Gucci Mane vs. Mos Def. It should be Gucci Mane vs. Scarface. And in that case, Gucci is rather lacking.

gordon gartrelle said...

1.) Of course it's too long. That's the point.

2.) I am actually indifferent to Gucci. I don't have an intense hatred toward him or his music. This isn't abut him.

3.) What is it with you people and Nas/Jay/Mos? By positing any one of these characters as the necessary and only alternatives/impediments to the critical prominence of Wayne/Gucci/etc., you reveal yourselves to be as shallow as the NY centric "haters" you loathe so much. One thing that Gucci and I agree on is that binaries are for the simple minded.

4.) I wasn't joking when I wrote that the Gucci-praising bloggers I linked are among the best rap bloggers, but damn if y'all aren't a sensitive bunch. Catching feelings over this?

Ben Westhoff said...

This is one of the funniest things I have ever read.

docwuss said...

"When I say I like wack rappers, you guys accuse me of liking wack rappers!! whats the deal with that???"

David said...

doczeus is sounding pretty 'sensitive' to me.

in order to feel 'sensitive' about this i think i would have to feel like u were parodying some arguments that actually exist. no one is out there saying this shit about gucci. instead your just writing a bunch of shit for ppl to cosign because they cant express honestly that they're just looking for excuses to not like the next great rapper.

gucci is a great rapper. deal with it.

sjelly said...

This was so good for me that it's bad for me. I'm at once horrified and vastly amused that you can write this kind of pseudo-intellectual crap so very well. I'm torn between wanting to offer praise and longing to slap you.

DocZeus said...

"doczeus is sounding pretty 'sensitive' to me."

I'm sorry didn't you pop shots on your blog at Gordon and proceed to promptly delete your post when you realized you looked childish and foolish? Have the courage to, at least, stand by what you believe in. Grow some balls, son.

And thank you for tacitly proving my point. I thoroughly enjoy being right 100% of the time.

David said...

"I'm sorry didn't you pop shots on your blog at Gordon and proceed to promptly delete your post when you realized you looked childish and foolish? Have the courage to, at least, stand by what you believe in. Grow some balls, son."

i stand by exactly what i believe in which is why i posted this shit here; i just preferred not to give dude the satisfaction & the traffic. Plus I decided recently that I was no longer going to pretend that a niche of cornball disconnected internet fruitflies deserved the level of attention they were getting, & that it was only magnifying their presence as a significant bloc of tastemakers far beyond what they deserved.

Im not even engaging with the rest of the uncomprehending nonsense you spout here.

jordan s said...

"It just seems as if a few writers looking to establish an agenda and discredit those whose opinion differs against theirs. "

i'd rather pull my own teeth out than dissect region hating either way so i'll jump on this. i'm not exactly sure why you think people like david and i, noz or brandon are trying to "establish an agenda" that gucci mane is a great rapper. the benefit is what? page views from people googling "gucci man songs"? there's not an "agenda" to "establish" gucci mane as a good rapper, the music speaks for itself if you feel that way. i think the writing goes much deeper than "establishment."

and as for "discrediting those whose opinion differs" from ours, this particular blog is pretty good and the author seems like a nice enough dude but our writing was directly addressed in an attempt to "discredit" it so i see no reason why this post doesn't deserve the same treatment.

puddy said...

nicely done. this is a great read.

gordon gartrelle said...

I'm not trying to discredit anyone. Noz has some fun with our exchange and it's hilarious; I do the same and you all pitch a bitch fit.

I understand kids being passionate about music, but seriously, lighten the fuck up, fellas.

RiPPa said...

Who knew Gucci Man would draw this type of heat. The boy got skills son, and that's wassup.

I'm still dying laughing at the way some people are taking this as serious as a stop sign.

david said...

eh. its not like there aint shit to clown gucci about. this post is just totally off-point satire. its like telling me im 'sensitive' for not laughing at 'stuff white people like.' i prefer to have a sense of humor abt funny things but thats me

Ben Westhoff said...

Here's what I have to say about this:

gordon gartrelle said...

The notion that I am or aspire to be a rap tastemaker is ridiculous.

And if it were simply a matter of satire missing the mark, you all would have registered a "meh" and moved on.

But your frequent angry responses make it seem as though this piece--what you all view (incorrectly) as me denying Gucci's greatness because of a 90s NY bias--is keeping you guys awake at night.

DocZeus said...

"i'm not exactly sure why you think people like david and i, noz or brandon are trying to "establish an agenda""

Perhaps, agenda is the wrong word to use here. It sounds as if I’m making it seem as you guys (Soderberg, Noz, Drake and yourself) conspire to randomly deign Gucci Mane the next hot rapper. (You guys aren’t Pitchfork…yet.) But I do think you guys (and I think Noz is guilty of this more than any other blogger out there.) actively attempt to play tastemaker and promote an aesthetic at the detriment of anything that doesn’t conform exactly to that aesthetic. Which is fine on the surface. We are all bloggers. We all have written about one rapper or enough just a little bit too fawningly in the past. But at least, be fair when you encounter material that doesn’t fit into one specific definition of what hip hop music is supposed to be. (That goes for all bloggers regardless of preference.)

However, I do have a major problem with the way some bloggers interact with those who disagree with them and the condescending attitude they take towards their readership. Writing off people who don’t instantly see Gucci Mane’s “alleged”genius as “cornball disconnected internet fruitflies”(as if being a fan of Gucci Mane makes one remotely connected to the streets and/or cool. It doesn’t. Your still a white kid from the suburbs.) as
disingenuous and an transparent attempt to establish oneself as an “authority" and thus establish the "taste." You write a rap blog, son. You ain’t Fab 5 Freddy.

Anonymous said...

The problem with this piece of satire is that we’ve all read it before. I’ve read versions of this with guy overanalyzing Star Trek, Star Wars, science fiction in general, comic books comic strips, sitcoms, soap operas, rock music, jazz music, pro wrestling, football, boxing, baseball, etc. The point of satire is pop culture is such disposable dross that the idea of subjecting it to so criticism and analysis let alone praise is ridiculous.

Gucci Mane isn’t an outsider artist, he’s a mainstream pop artist working within pretty mainstream pop conventions.

I’d like to think that we’ve gotten past the point where praising a writer who works within the world of genre fiction for being good is considered ridiculous because genre fiction is somehow so contemptuous that it’s beneath analysis.


chaunceydevega said...


I think Gordon would agree with you, thus the point of his piece.

Re the following--Gordon would probably be offended that you would dare suggest he has any interest in Star Wars, Star Trek, or comic books.

On a more serious note, the whole subfield/discipline of Cultural Studies/Popular Culture studies is a wasted enterprise in your opinion? There is no insight to be offered through a critical reading of popular culture as serious texts?

Chauncey DeVega

gordon gartrelle said...


I wrote a thesis on a cartoon TV show.

Thanks for playing.

Anonymous said...

The "best rap bloggers" say "hey this guy on the readio, it's rewarding to actually pay attention and closely listen to him" and they get mocked as guys who are trying to read Habermas and Adorno into "pop detrititus".

Wasn't agreeing with satire. I was saying it was wrong headed. Wrong headed when same satire is used to mock those who find it rewarding to write about detective fiction. Wrongheaded when used to criticize those who write about science fiction, etc. There are lots of emotional rewards from the "low arts". There is plenty of insight to be gained from cultural studies.


ghengis blond said...

doesn't this post sorta take up the banner of the cocaine shrimp in criticizing the tendency of post-backpack bloggers to prioritize subject matter over music? i don't recall their ever having cast gucci as executor of a vast scholarly will.

as far as i remember they just tried to explain why he sounds so cool.

ro said...

gucci is just keeping it real. what the hell is so hard to understand about that? he makes a lot of money rapping so thats why girls like him. thats why he puts 28 inch rims on his cars. and since he's from the ghetto, he feels really proud he came up and now his mom dont have to suffer.

biopy said...

I think he has damn voice instead of his shit song. I like the song 'Bricks"

Boblack said...

I just think Gucci is a hard worker he has an incredible collection of songs that his fans can choose for. As for his lyrics they are incredibly catchy and sometime clever and great for radio play and the general hip hop market. Of course some people don't like his music but to each his own. Gucci mane music is for people who just want music to listen to when they are working at there boring job or going to the club not if you want to be challenged mentally by complex social issues.

AaronM said...

I'm late to the party here, but yeah, this is hilarious.
Stellar work, Gordon.

Anonymous said...

hahahahaha!!!! it took a great mind to come up with this one hahahahahaha!!!!! i think if gucci read this he wuldn kno what half these words ment, thanx for the genous sarcasm, check out reese laureate on!!!! type in reese laureate in the search now thats the next REAL lyricist coming out

Henry said...

You also have to realize that Gucci kind of sold out and he uses his creative genius to create a negative influence especially on the poor and uneducated.