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Gunna can't flaunt his way out of the YSL trial's shadow

Gunna performs during the event "A Grammy Salute to 50 Years of Hip-Hop" on Nov. 8, 2023, at YouTube Theater in Inglewood, Calif.
Frazer Harrison
Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Gunna performs during the event "A Grammy Salute to 50 Years of Hip-Hop" on Nov. 8, 2023, at YouTube Theater in Inglewood, Calif.

Everything was looking up for the Atlanta rapper Gunna when he released "pushin P," the cult hit from his 2022 album, DS4Ever. His third LP to go No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in as many years seemed to establish him as a budding rap star, and "pushin P" felt like a sort of baton pass, featuring his maverick mentor Young Thug and his autotuned forebear Future. Gunna had already been installed as Thug's heir apparent with a series of drip-themed projects teasing out a soothed style, and here his extravagant music of muted overindulgence was nearing its shining apex. Produced by Wheezy at Art Basel in Miami, the song sounds like trying to ride the Vogue-wrapped, candy-painted hydraulic whips of "Still Tippin' " through a snowstorm of Swarovski crystal. Gunna sets the purchasing power from the jump: "Pointers in the Patek and my piece, I'm pushin' P," he states matter-of-factly, eyeballing the diamonds in a bust-down Swiss timepiece. The phrase, open to interpretation, became its own slang, and Gunna opened his SNL debut performing the song with Future at his side. Listening now, it is one of the last times he really sounded like himself. By October 2022, "pushin P" was platinum, and both Gunna and Thug had been in jail for months. By last November, the song was being discussed in court.

In May 2022, Thug's record label, Young Stoner Life, which puts out Gunna's music, was classified as a gang in a RICO indictment, via the racketeering law created in the 1970s to deal with the mob and, by way of a Georgia act passed in the 1980s, more recently filed against Donald Trump. Thug was arrested as the organization's leader, and 56 counts were brought against the 28 associates charged under the indictment in the state of Georgia by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. The charged included YSL rappers such as Duke and Yak Gotti, as well as characters from an extended entourage accused of murder, attempted murder (among them a 2015 shooting of Lil Wayne's tour bus), armed robbery, drug dealing, carjacking, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, theft and witness intimidation. In casting the label as a "street gang" and Thug as its ringleader, the DA's office created a legal basis for detaining those associated with YSL under the pretense of building a case and preventing witness tampering, exercising one of RICO's more controversial powers. "Prosecutors often use the law to push groups of (often low-income) Black and brown defendants to turn on one another or take plea deals to avoid decades in prison," Jerry Iannelli wrote at The Appeal that month.

As one such defendant caught up by association, Gunna, who was denied release twice as he awaited trial and remained behind bars for seven months, entered an Alford plea — an agreement that allows a defendant to maintain their innocence but accept a sentence — in December 2022, pleading guilty to a racketeering charge. One year of his five-year sentence was commuted to time served, the rest suspended subject to probation conditions, provided he "testify truthfully in any further trial as it may become necessary," and the artist was released. Understanding the PR implications of copping a plea in this context, he tried to get ahead of the gossip in a statement: "While I have agreed to always be truthful, I want to make it perfectly clear that I have NOT made any statements, have NOT been interviewed, have NOT cooperated, have NOT agreed to testify or be a witness for or against any party in the case and have absolutely NO intention of being involved in the trial process in any way," he wrote. A year and a half later he remains a free man, and last month he was cut from the witness list — but the trial is still underway, and he exists in its shadow as long as it is unsettled.

This is the order of silence under which Gunna now operates. His new album, One of Wun (released May 10), wants more than anything to keep quiet and get back to uninterrupted drippin,' but it can't escape the gravitational pull of the label on the packaging. There is a line in its two-part closer, "time reveals, be careful what you wish for," that seems to establish his governing principle in this moment: "I'm tryna get back the way I hustled and felt the thrill / I'm tryna stay rich so I can cover every bill," he raps over woebegone keys and phantom vocal loops. Even considering rap's many tangles with the carceral state, there has never been a situation quite like the YSL RICO case, or the dynamics facing the two rappers at the heart of its ongoing saga. The fallout has reverberated through the Atlanta rap scene, which has yet to truly recover, and turned Thug and Gunna into pillars for more polarized conversations about injustice and betrayal.

Gunna's previous album, 2023's a Gift & a Curse, had no choice but to seriously reckon with the maelstrom swirling around him. In the immediate aftermath of his Alford plea, he was returning into a radioactive discourse: Lil Baby denounced himas a snitch, other rappers including Lil Durk, Freddie Gibbs and Boosie joined the chorus, and those sentiments echoed throughout the rap citizenry. He hasn't worked with Wheezy, his most frequent collaborator, since his release. With the heat of scrutiny bearing down on him, and not so far removed from nearly seeing his own future snatched away, the rapper miraculously produced the best record of his career, a discreet meditation on dependability that pushed back against public perception. Songs like "i was just thinking" and "turned your back" are trenchant in response to criticism, adamant in tone and unmistakable in message; rarely has the rapper sounded so focused or intentional. Fending off accusations in the court of public opinion as you face down the actual judiciary is undoubtedly a difficult, defensive mindset to work under, but in doing so, Gunna's purpose and presence were in near-perfect alignment for the first time. In seeking a return to the before times, One of Wun loses that sense of balance.

Once merely among the more curious and catchy Thug offshoots, Gunna's style has developed its own exclusive tailoring in recent years, performing a sedated luxury. Plenty of rappers channel splendor, but Gunna also mimes the restfulness and self-possession of wealth as a sort of immunity idol. Just consider the biggest song of his career, the slippery "Drip Too Hard" with his one-time road dog Lil Baby, a declaration of sartorial swank: "TSA harass me, so I took a private plane," Gunna raps in his verse through a whine so disarmed it's as if a masseur is working out his knots through each phrase. "Designer to the ground, I can barely spell the names." Not even the social friction of adjusting to a higher sphere could disrupt his comfort; he prioritized convenience so thoroughly that nothing could bother him.

If your whole public identity and conception of cool is about weaponizing excess as style, how do you return to that mode when the most relevant thing about you exists in opposition to glitz and pageantry — when your main benefactor is still in court as you speak? Gunna's answer has been to pivot slightly, to a comeback narrative: He's still the best dressed at the Met, surrounded by Marilyn Monroe lookalikes, lounging around on yachts headed to Greece in Vetements, but just beneath the surface is a colder reality he is bouncing back from. "I heard the blogs comparing my number, I guess they think it's a contest / Ain't worried 'bout it, got way bigger problems," he raps on One of Wun's "whatsapp (wassam)," the problems in question remaining unspoken. "And yet, I'm building a company," he adds through motor-mouthed flows, "Everyone who fake it, I act like they traded, I swear I don't want no apology." The haters are plentiful in the margins of these songs, but their ire is a bit more acute in context — and the heat of that gaze subtly shifts the Gunna perspective. "They hope I fall off, ain't no way, I might be alright, but it ain't OK," he raps on "on one tonight." He tries to muster venom in "blackjack," but that voice doesn't seem to come naturally, every attempted clapback landing more like an aside. The zeal and poise that possessed a Gift & a Curse are missing, the retorts aimless and straying. It's never long before he's name-dropping Loewe or Balenciaga again, like a politician trying to stick to the talking points when questions of scandal are lingering in the open.

Self-presentation is complicated, even when you aren't navigating a kind of creative probation. And to be fair, there are compelling reasons for Gunna to watch what he says, for his sake and Thug's, since rap lyrics remain a persistent means of self-incrimination. That said, there is an unshakeable weirdness to the image of him returning to his flamboyant song-world, jet-setting in designer, without much explicit consideration for the carnage left behind him, as his label boss fights for his freedom. Gunna doesn't have to keep releasing albums through all this, though it may feel that way; the case has dragged on for two years now, and there is an obvious tension between its protracted sprawl and the sink-or-swim demands of the streaming economy. As the trial has inevitably drifted from the center of hip-hop's attention span to its margins, Gunna has clearly felt a need to keep his music top of mind. But in negotiating this unusual strain between personal, creative and commercial space, he is struggling to merge the artist he has always been with the one he needs to be now.

As a sort of half-measure, vague gestures at his circumstances abound. "I hate the four walls, the cages / They told me dissolve the patience / We livin' through all the changes," he raps on "collage"; "All these tribulations, hope it make a better man," he adds on "life's changing." His reticence is forgivable, the platitudes less so. It doesn't take a legally actionable specificity to say something meaningful about what is, inarguably, a dramatic predicament. He could be challenging himself more, as a writer and a performer. Even the best One of Wun songs — "prada dem" and "today i did good" — are prisoner to his well-worn patterns and sounds, returning many of the beatmakers from a Gift & a Curse to their usual haunts. It would be one thing if his music could dissociate itself from its tensions, or if he elected to try something totally new. But the album is clearly aiming for a familiar frictionless trap, and is lyrically stuck between the reality of the outside noise and the ability to acknowledge it out loud. When Gunna proclaims, "I'm not a rat, still gettin' cheddar," on "prada dem," he is trying to close the distance between those realities, upholding his honor and his self-sufficiency all at once. But it feels even stranger to gloss over these matters than it would to dismiss them entirely.

The most pointed and plainspoken Gunna ever gets on the record is, fittingly, on a song called "conscience." "No, I never flipped, n***** jumped ship just to go and get a check / I've been a tough soul, the whole world weighin' on my neck," he raps before concluding, "I'ma trust the process and I let it all go." Its punch is as much in how he sounds as in what he is willing to divulge, one of the few moments where you can hear everything weighing on him, his voice clipped and exasperated. Tone can speak where words fail. Shouldering that weight must be daunting, a feeling of having to perform under impossible conditions, but the album never really makes you grasp those stressors. Maybe trying to let it all go is the problem. The world of his songs, so thrillingly drawn in the past, is too at odds with the world outside of them.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]