Don't let the cover fool you. Gucci Mane's finally released an album that lives up to his mixtapes.
I understand that the name on the cover is Gucci Mane. So for a moment, I will discuss Gucci Mane. The Return of Mr. Zone 6 is a new Gucci album only in the sense that they chose to call it that, as in all other respects it's more like Flockaveli in the sense it could easily be a mixtape without DJ drops. A street album in hip-hop parlance. Gone are the big name features and random label associations (other than Wale's disappointing and unnecessary appearance on "Pretty Women"), returned to prominence are the Waka Flocka Flame and other Brick Squad features (happy to see OJ and Gucci working together again). Outside a shaky middle portion that focuses on women in ways that could almost be confused for love songs (particularly "Better Baby", during which Gucci takes the rare opportunity to admit weaknesses), Return to Mr. Zone 6 will satisfy fans that have always wondered why they would buy a State vs. Radric Davis or Georgia's Most Wanted when his best stuff was available for free online.
Despite this concession to the fans during his stay in a mental institution, Gucci is not always in top form. He's been exhibiting a more mumbly, aimless flow on recent mixtapes, and when he brings it out here, things always seem to go wrong. Where he goes as technical as he possibly can on lead single "Mouth Full of Golds", stuff like "Brinks" and "Pancakes" make Gucci feel absolutely useless as a rapper. It's at those moments you glance at the cover art, laugh at his ridiculous face tattoo (and the idea that they'd highlight it on the cover art), and remember that Gucci Mane isn't an artist we're supposed to be taking all that seriously anyway.
If you're a fan of Gucci Mane, you should just be happy he's always got enough decent music on deck to hold us over during his repetitive visits to the penitentiary. Nothing about Return of Mr. Zone 6 sounds like Gucci Mane's best effort as a rapper -- in fact, it feels almost entirely to be retreading previous ground -- but only "Pretty Women" and "Brinks" feel like he has nothing invested in them. But in regards to this album, you should be ecstatic that Gucci seems to not only have Drumma Boy on speed dial, but his absolutely undivided attention.
Hip-hop fans hear it all the time: the music was better when each MC had a producer and vice versa. The albums were more focused, and the creative energy more emotionally visceral rather than commercially viable. Which is what makes an album consisting entirely of Drumma Boy and Gucci Mane collaborations (sans the Southside-handled "Shout Out to My Set" and his old friend Zaytoven's "I Don't Love Her" epic) feel like something that needs to be emphasized.
Return of Mr. Zone 6 is Gucci Mane's most focused release with a pricetag by great lengths, thanks to Drumma Boy's extremely confident and awesome guidance. The man's been on a solid two-year run of churning out nothing but ridiculous beats, and Return of Mr. Zone 6 might not feel like a culmination or apex point of that run, but it's certainly going to become a Drumma Boy fan's go-to picks when they just want to make glass rattle. Like a lot of trap producers Drumma's production feels samey on the surface, but there's a reason he's revered within the scene in ways to which only Zaytoven and Lex Luger can compare. His sound is so clean and well-plotted, and the details of his snares (by far the nastiest in the game on some Pete Rock circa-'96 shit) and melodic elements so consistently refreshing that he can easily make an argument for trap production as the go-to style for hip-hop going forward with each beat he puts out.
Thanks to its sonics, Return of Mr. Zone 6 gracefully avoids starting the "Is Gucci Mane falling off?" conversation. It's not hard to notice Waka Flocka Flame, Webbie, and Wooh da Kid easily outshine Gucci on their appearances, just as it's easy to wonder how the second verse of "Better Baby" or any part of his "Brinks" and "Pretty Women" verses made it through the cutting room as flat and lifeless as they are. His attempt at autotune on "My Year" also feels like a guy grasping at straws the way Lil' Wayne was during the Dedication 3 era, largely considered the lowest point of his monster decade creatively.
Thanks to the fantastic production throughout the album and the street-focused subject matter, though, I'm fine with hinting at but delaying that conversation until we get the trainwreck release that seems to be growing more and more inevitable as Gucci's personal sanity slips into question and his former weed carriers become more captivating caricatures of what Gucci Mane brings to the table. But that's really got nothing to do with Return of Mr. Zone 6, which, along with the Mr. Zone 6 mixtape, stands tall as his most listenable front to back effort thanks to the lack of DJ drops and a concise runtime (Under an hour? Egads!). It didn't take long for Brick Squad to announce and release this, so a wariness that it might be rushed and subpar seems fair, but don't let your expectations get the best of you. Return of Mr. Zone 6 is Gucci's best album yet, whether you can still find better verses and hooks on the mixtapes or not.