The Autobiography of Gucci Mane

The Autobiography of Gucci Mane
By Gucci Mane with Neil Martinez-Belkin
[Simon & Schuster]

“I spent my winter in jail, so I’m ballin all summer” – Gucci Mane, “Georgia’s Most Wanted”

In the early 1980s, the emergence of hip-hop as a crystallized form dragged popular music, kicking and screaming perhaps, into postmodernity. Rock, R&B, country and pop musics were all essentially folk musics with conventional, cyclic structures (verse/chorus/verse, more or less) played in real time. The cut-and-paste reassemblies of hip-hop beats pushed all that through a poststructuralist wringer that forced reconsiderations of what a “song” was and what it meant to “play” it, even. And that was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Within a decade or so, the hip-hop evolution resounded into the very structure of the music business. By the 1990s, rapper-cum-moguls Jay-Z and Sean “Puffy” Combs (I still have trouble calling him Diddy) modified the performer-to-magnate progression of traditional showbiz hucksters in hip-hop mode. That an artist would first become famous as a performer and then ascend into the business end of “the business” seemed naïf. Jay-Z and Combs were, instead, replacing one hustle with another, more profitable hustle. They readjusted their personas and backstories just a wee bit with a retooled career trajectory of “drug dealer to wheeler-dealer.” Oh yeah, they also both happened to have gone through intermediate periods where they were bigtime rappers, too.

In the score of years since then, hip-hop has become even more about marketing, commerce, product tie-ins and the like. But the genre still surgeth forth from tha streetz – or at least ostensibly so.

No artist better personifies the highly evolved, 2018 variation of the rapper-cum-mogul archetype than Atlanta-based Trap God, Gucci Mane, nee Radric Davis. With over 15 years in tha biz, Gucci has morphed from a drug-dealing street tough, to a gangsta bard testifying “tha life” of dealing and stealing, to a successful rapper with several quasi-hits under his belt and featured in umpteen cameo verses in songs by mainstream hip-hop/dance-pop/EDM artists, then ping-ponging back and forth from the limelight to tha trap house as a fallen-from-grace might’ve been, ad infinitum. And all of the aforementioned, X-treme career vacillations have been punctuated, intermittently, by highly publicized rehab stints and extended visits to the slammer. Pimpin’ ain’t easy.

Surveying the empyrean heights and abysmal lows of Gucci’s storied career begs the question: just what exactly is the retooled trajectory of the rapper-cum-mogul, qua Radric Davis? Well, I guess it’s dealer-to-wheeler-dealer, to jailbird, to rehabilitated, rehabbed and even more successful rapper-cum-mogul. Since his latest (and hopefully final) release from prison in the spring of 2016, Gucci has risen like a phoenix. For starters, Gucci released a hit single (“First Day Out Tha Feds”) on his first day out tha feds, even. (Natch.)

Since then, he’s been virtually unstoppable. He has released three big-selling albums, made several mixtapes, launched a handful of brands, got married (to Keyshia Ka’oir – and on BET, no less) and performed guest spots on just about e’er’body’s singles. And he got ripped. The newly buffed ’n’ toned Gucci is quite the debonair figure.

These days, Gucci has the Midas touch. and that’s quite a story. But what is being marketed as Gucci’s story might be just another unit among Gucci’s ever-extended array of products. But that’s OK. Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.

A blurb on the dust jacket of the newly released The Autobiography of Gucci Mane proclaims that the book “tells his [Gucci Mane’s] extraordinary story in his own words.” But there’s a bit of a sticking point: The words that are purported to be Gucci’s words in the book are actually the words of former XXL editor Neil Martinez-Belkin’s, a ghostwriter. Martinez-Belkin is a capable writer indeed. But Autobiography reads like a hastily produced cash grab produced by a talented hack – which is exactly what it is.

Autobiography is chock full of convenient elisions that are probably smart moves on the part of the author – given the subject’s iffy criminal history. First and foremost, there’s the matter of a 2005 shooting that yielded a murder charge for Gucci. Sure, he was later acquitted. Still, it’s telling that the first person “I” is completely absent from the book’s account of “what really happened” at the shooting. The only explanation comes in an especially brief passage where Gucci’s lawyer recounts the shooting to a Channel 2 Action News reporter. The murder charge was certainly a pivotal point in Gucci Mane’s life, yet it goes curiously unexplained by Gucci himself – or by his ghostwriter or whatever.

Still. There’s a lot to like about the book. For Atlanta residents, it functions as a guided tour of Gucci’s ATL. Hell, several of the places mentioned in the book are more or less familiar haunts for me. I just never knew that the East Atlanta Santa was bringin tha Zone 6 posse to my hood.

So, next time I’m at Atlantic Station, I’ll remember that Gucci once had an apartment there. If I go to Antico Pizza on Hemphill, I’ll remember that it’s a mere stone’s throw to Patchwerk Studios, where Gucci recorded the bulk of his oeuvre. Whenever I drive by that auto body shop on Northside Drive, I’ll remember that Gucci was arrested there. And whenever I drive by 10th Street Tattoos, I’ll remember that’s where Gucci got that famous, triple-scoop ice cream cone tattoo forever etched on his face.

Yeah, I tune in to Streetz 94.5 every now and then. And yeah, I shot some photos at 2 Chainz’s trap house on Howell Mill Rd. And yeah, I really did go to the Birthday Bash Block Party that one time. (And I had a great time, too.) But to say that I know the world of post-millennial Atlanta hip-hop is the overstatement of the year. As such, Autobiography functions as something of an ATL trap music primer. It’s an edifying read that, by its midpoint, becomes a deluge of namedropping of names I’m not exactly always familiar with.

The story is interesting and action-packed, even though limits of credibility are oftentimes stretched thin. Granted, such credibility-stretching is symptomatic of Gucci. What’s missing from the book is Gucci’s cadence. Autobiography reads like the story of Gucci Mane filtered through the perceptions and parlance of a highly educated and quite capable journalist from the East Coast – which is exactly what it is. Sure, it’s fast-paced, entertaining and imminently readable. But Gucci Mane’s patina of Dirty South street crud-as-cred is all but polished away. If Autobiography were a movie, it would be directed by Spielberg, not Scorsese.

In the all-too-occasional best moments of the book, Gucci’s himself seems to bust though the sophistry of Martinez-Belkin’s writing to actually speak for himself. Sure, Gucci is batshit crazy – especially when he’s on tha drank. But he’s also a deft raconteur and a driven self-promoter with a surprising capacities for generosity and humility, even.

The book ends rather abruptly on the eve or Gucci’s release from prison. And in a way, this leaves the reader hanging. (Maybe Gucci’s latest comeback will be grist for a second ghostwritten, cash grab book?) But then again, it’s something of a structural masterstroke. I mean, if the book had continued into resurrection era Gucci, it could have easily fallen into the cloying, sin-and-redemption clichés that bedevil many a music memoir. For once, Gucci avoids the tough guy trap (house).

Of his time in prison, Gucci (or Martinez-Belkin) writes: That ain’t even on some tough-guy shit. Hell, I was scared too. When people talk about prison, you often hear them talk about wolves and sheep. To survive you’ve got to be a wolf. But here it was all wolves. Tough guys were getting killed here every day. You could be Gucci. You could be Al Capone. It didn’t matter because they’d kill your ass all the same.