After two focused albums, Gucci Mane gets back to his old, inconsistent ways on the uneven "Return Of East Atlanta Santa."
Only two months passed between the release of Gucci Mane's second album of 2016, Woptober, and his third, The Return Of East Atlanta Santa. In between, he released EP-length collab tapes with Lil Uzi Vert and Future, respectively, both of which were weaker than the two albums that preceded them. The second installment of Gucci's East Atlanta Santa series ends up being stronger than both 1017 Vs. The World and Free Bricks 2K16, but his least essential solo project since his release from prison in late May. Six months ago, we wondered if GuWop would ever get back to his old ways (musically speaking), and with this album, he proves that he's just as prolific and inconsistent as he was during his heyday.
Wop projects that go beyond just being "solid" and actually demand repeat listens in full have always been a rarity-- 2006's Chicken Talk was the first, 2009's The Burrprint and State Vs. Radric Davis were probably the peak-- and his diametrically opposed first and second 2016 albums both miraculously fit that bill. Everybody Looking succeeds off the strength of prison-penned bars, a Zaytoven/Mike Will partnership, and pure, joyous momentum; Woptober rocks you with a return to ferocity, its icy, unforgiving beats, and Gucci's ability to juggle morality and street codes. They both filled the distinct needs of any artist on the rebound-- the comeback album and the ensuing, grittier offering to day-one fans-- and it's clear that having fulfilled those just about as skillfully as is imaginable for a newly-sober, newly-cuffed trap rapper, Gucci is proceeding to do whatever the fuck he wants. That was always his M.O. as a volatile, freestyling pioneer of the genre, so there's no need to lament a return to... not chaos, but at least unpredictability-- but get ready for Gucci Mane projects to quickly cease being "events" and return to being inevitabilities of varying quality.
The Return Of East Atlanta Santa is by no means a bad Gucci release. We got plenty of those in his absence, haphazardly thrown together with little regard for sequencing or coherence, and even some back in his early years (his first five albums only have about an album or two's worth of quality material between them). What it is, however, is an uneven, non-unified brick of new music with just as many downs as ups. Its guests' contributions are of little worth, its hooks often plod, and Gucci's rapping seems to largely lack the urgency of his other 2016 albums and his career-defining spontaneity.
Gucci's clearly caught between worlds right now, the reckless lawlessness of his past and the comfort and fame of his present, and instead of reckoning with that divide, he's decided to flex both. This isn't necessarily the worst thing in the world when we're talking about one of the most proficient boasters in rap history-- on his last two solo joints, he was able to curate that into a workable narrative with lyrics that bridged the gap like "Wop"'s "I'm a project n*gga with a rich n*gga dick/I got a Hollywood smile, but I'm from Zone 6"-- but TROEAS finds him moving between gun threats and cautiousness without much explanation. "I Can't" is a particular confusing ride in which he goes from saying that he's wary of mentioning homicides in the hook to urging other rappers to "Stay in line 'fore this chopper get you scraped," and this mixed message carries over into every other intimidating track on the album. The other main category of songs on the project is sexual bangers, and other than standouts like "Freaky Gurl," "Sex In Crazy Places," "Dope Love," and "Pussy Print," Gucci's historically had as much success with songs in that vein as any other rapper (which is to say, not much).
Despite a "you call that a verse?" verse, Bryson Tiller of all people has the best showing of TROEAS' three guests, as Drake completely whiffs his "Both" appearance by pretending he's never been crossfaded and using the same minimal flow for his entire verse, and the Travis Scott-featuring "Last Time" was already included on early versions of Woptober and was never that strong to begin with. When freed from the A&Ring that watered down his early commercial releases, Gucci's been one of the best rapping collaborators of all-time, recognizing talent of all ages, and fitting it within his universe, and though these three trendy, blasé artists share Wop's ability to be cold and detached, they currently lack the ability to bring distinct identities to tracks that aren't specifically hand-crafted for them. Gucci's love for the new school is still heartwarming though, and he does score a good little run of name-dropping on "Walk On Water": "Like 21 Savage I slaughtered it/Thirty thousand dollars I ordered it/Like Dae Dae, I spend this shit/Like Lil Uzi Vert, I'm dripping it." (Side note: I think a Dae Dae/Gucci track, if not a full tape, could work very well).
For diehard Wop fans like myself, there's still plenty to love on The Return Of East Atlanta Santa. The intro is downright incredible, possibly a top 50 Gucci song of all-time despite its novelty factor, and it makes the idea of a Zaytoven-helmed Christmas album featuring ATL's best very attractive, even for someone who can't vibe with 99% of holiday tunes. Then there's the baseline for all Gucci projects: a few incredible beats from cutting-edge producers, some dope verses here and there, and of course, the one-liners, my favorite of which is either "All these stones, you would think Wilma and Fred in this bitch" or "Drop me in the jungle where the lions at, I come back with a lion jacket with the matching hat." He does, unforgivably, fumble Bangladesh's first and (probably) last beat of 2016 on "Bales," a weed anthem that makes Wiz Khalifa seem like Nas, but I'll probably still keep it in my iTunes just for the momentousness of the team behind "Lemonade" linking up again.
If this album is a sign that Gucci Mane is returning to his old, prolific-but-inconsistent self, so be it. We'll probably get twice as many projects from him in 2017, and it might take some time to wade through weaker material to find the gems, but if I know GuWop, I know that there will definitely be gems to be had, and if I know his fans, they'll be happy to do all the work necessary to find the 90 minutes-to-2 hours worth of high-quality material that Gucci's managed to put out every year for nearly a decade straight.