[7 February 2008]
In 2006, Virginia Beach’s the Clipse released Hell Hath No Fury, arguably the most critically acclaimed rap album since Jay-Z’s 2001 masterwork The Blueprint. The subject matter was, (in)famously, the buying, selling, cooking, and spoils of crack-cocaine. It wasn’t close to the first album to touch on the subject—nor, to these ears, is it close to the best. Like it or not, though, it will go down somewhere in history as the culmination of a time in rap where a wide audience (yours included)—pop and indie fans included—fell for MCs who trapped first and rapped second.
It feels weird eulogizing “trap-hop” (or “crack-rap” or whatever you want to call it) only a year or so after its supposed Mona Lisa, but it makes sense. Trends in music tend to die pretty quickly (just ask the Rapture), but the recession of trap-hop from music’s consciousness has coincided with the fall of some its most vivid faces. Dipset—the crew who, led by Cam’ron and Juelz Santana, set the whole heads-hating-hipsters movement in motion—have apparently broken up. T.I. released the wildly inconsistent T.I. vs. T.I.P. last year and now sits confined to his house after getting pinched by the Feds this past October. The second major label album by Young Jeezy, probably the most love/hate of the lot, moved units, but got the dreaded three-star treatment critically. Jay-Z received opened arms from critics this past year while rapping about Blue Magic, but the album ultimately sold as much as its predecessor, the post-retirement stink-bomb Kingdom Come (and, let’s face it, Jay is never going anywhere). The lone bright spot belongs to veterans UGK, whose lauded seventh album landed at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 this past August (but even their future is in jeopardy after the recent loss of member Pimp C).
So I guess we can chalk it up partly to apathy that Gucci Mane’s excellent new album Back to the Traphouse (there’s that word again) has gone unnoticed by both critics and buyers. The other reason, of course, would be that he’s Gucci Mane, a relatively unknown Atlanta native who had a hit single, the Jeezy-assisted “So Icy”, two summers ago. It’s a shame though, because Back to the Traphouse stacks up nicely against some of the better works of those aforementioned artists.
That’s not to say that it’s as good as Clipse’s Lord Willin’ or Tip’s King or Jeezy’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, but that’s because it takes a different aim. If Clipse are the lyricists, T.I. the pop star, and Jeezy the ad-libber, then Gucci falls somewhere in the middle of the three. He’s a punchline rapper with an okay success rate, but he’s got an unmistakable presence on the mic, one of the best flows in rap and, most importantly, an innate sense for crafting great hooks, an asset that veers Back to the Traphouse into pop territory more often than you’d expect.
Also in his corner is an enviable collection of beats that recall Polow Da Don’s acclaimed work on Rich Boy’s self-titled debut in terms of subtle innovation and resistance to boilerplate. The stuttering reggae of “Bird Flu” slowly reveals itself as the album’s centerpiece by slowly incorporating kung-fu grunts and sinewy synth lines into the base chopped guitar loop, not unlike the gradual inflections on Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s”. The album’s production also recalls Polow Da Don in its knack for mixing both pop and hardcore elements, as evidenced by the crunk chant/sticky two-fingered synth loop juxtaposition on the gleaming “I Know Why” or by the G-Unit-ready piano refrain working against the corrosive synths on “15 Minutes Past the Diamond”.
And none of this is to sell Gucci short, though, because he’s ultimately the reason why I keep on returning to Back to the Traphouse. Not unlike Jeezy, Gucci succeeds as an MC because his infectious personality and contagious energy more than make up for his lyrical deficiencies. He opens nearly every track with a whining “Yeeeeaaaah”, and eagerly rides along as his songs bounce around. Clipse and Lil Wayne claim they stay in rap for the easy money. Gucci, thankfully, sounds really happy to be here. And though he isn’t a great lyricist, he’s a superb technical rapper, and he expertly weaves his stuffy-nose flow in and out of these beats.
Gucci has succeeded here, triumphantly (he beat a murder charge in 2005), and best of all, he sounds like it. Back to the Traphouse is a genuinely fun album, something that’s sadly becoming a scarcity in rap these days, especially amongst his trapper/rapper line-blurring peers. Does Gucci skirt the moral issues? Maybe. But when the choruses hit, you’ll forget that it might matter.