Gucci Watch: radic Davis emerges as one of rap?s most promising.

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Gucci Mane started the year in prison, and that’s how he will end it. Apart from his stints behind bars, however, 2009 belonged to him. Anticipated newcomers Wale, Asher Roth, and Kid Cudi performed poorly out of the gate, while traditional rap heroes 50 Cent, Eminem, and Jay-Z released albums that bombed, elicited critical yawns, and caused the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones to declare hip-hop’s demise, respectively.

But Gucci excited everybody. Admirers lauded the Atlanta MC’s genuine passion for his craft and his ability to deconstruct complex beats. Even the golden era nostalgics—who find his rhymes garbled and reactionary and see him as the epitome of everything wrong with the slurring, iced-out, Stanky Legg-shaking South—deemed him worthy of dissertation-style discourses. And this was before they even heard his latest major-label studio album, The State vs. Radric Davis, whose title references his government name and his myriad legal problems. So hold onto your hats, haters: Gucci’s big-budget shot at the title is every bit as rewarding, innovative, and delirious as Lil Wayne’s 2008 masterpiece Tha Carter 3—and it might be the finest rap record of the year.

The Wayne comparison is apt, as both MCs are prison-prone, substance-abusing rappers who built their national success slowly, after years of mostly-regional stardom. (They also sound weird: Gucci like his nose is stuffed up; Wayne like an amphibian.) But the battle is more likely to be cast as Gucci and the New South vs. Jay-Z and the Old North, as Gucci invites the comparison in The State’s intro, “Classical.” “I’m from East Atlanta Six/ Where the boys dump bricks/ But we don’t bump The Blueprint 3.”

It’s a startling provocation. For all of the disses Dirty-state MCs have absorbed in the Hip Hop Is Dead era, they haven’t done much to fight back, content to let their success do the talking. But The State, which swims in tinny drums, chirping synths, and kiddie chants, is full of Southern pride and features MCs and producers from Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas almost exclusively. Still, though Gucci has expressed disappointment in being largely shut out of the rap establishment before this year, his lyrics on “Classical” don’t seem born from bitterness. Rather, like most of what he does on the album, it feels like an attempt to wedge himself into the conversation about hip-hop’s top rappers.

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When he’s not referencing Jay-Z, for example, Gucci plops himself down next to Atlanta’s two reigning titans: “Me, Jeezy, and T.I. share one thing in common/All are poets/Role models to young people/Though at times man we still ignore it,” he raps on “Worst Enemy,” which, buoyed by Atlanta producer Drumma Boy’s drooping synth line, is The State’s most introspective track. Actually, it’s pretty much the album’s only introspective track. Though Gucci’s inability to avoid trouble (in 2005 he killed one of Young Jeezy’s affiliates in self-defense), stay out of prison (he’s twice violated his probation stemming from his beating of a promoter with a pool cue), or control his substance abuse (he entered rehab this year for booze and drugs) constitutes his personal storyline, The State is not really about any of those things, despite its title. Instead, through a Clintonian-redirect, Gucci turns the album into a whimsy-filled stuff-strut, attempting to show doubters what he’s capable of, given access to a proper budget and compelling backup players.

And, indeed, they don’t make too many “event” albums with all the fixins like this anymore. Just about every track features an up-and-coming producer at the height of his game (Zaytoven, Drumma Boy, Bangladesh, Fatboi) or A-list veteran (Jazze Pha, Scott Storch, Mannie Fresh, Polow da Don), and nearly every song feels like it could be a hit. Single “Spotlight” features the tandem of Usher and Polow da Don, who, along with Jeezy, hit big with last year’s “Love in This Club”—a tune Gucci recorded but was dropped from, presumably because his star was deemed lower than Jeezy’s. But The State song that most resembles “Love in This Club” is actually “Sex in Crazy Places,” which features a crashing Bobby V chorus and Gucci at his most manic: “Don’t compare me to your ex-man/Baby, he’s a local joker/ I’ll take you to Six Flags/ And drill you on the roller coaster.” (As far as silly sex rhymes go, this is perhaps only topped by “Ass fat as two basketballs/ Gucci finna dunk on her.”)

Many of the other radio-ready tracks have one-word titles repeated over and over in choruses—“Wasted,” “Bingo,” “Heavy”—none of them any less endearing for it.

Though he doesn’t enunciate very well and he’s prone to banal or clichéd lines about his dough (“Early in the morning/Later in the evening/I’m all about that money, man/ Even when I’m sleeping”) Gucci’s skills as a lyricist mostly deserve respect. Having resumed recording immediately upon returning from prison in March and barely let up until he went back in November, his countless hours in the studio have helped him hone his breath-control technique. It is his ability to squeeze certain syllables and let others breathe that separates him from ersatz imitators such as associate OJ da Juiceman. Like Wayne, the way Gucci says things is often more interesting than what he’s saying, and like Jay at his peak, Gucci has also seized onto the rap zeitgeist, which currently exalts rappers mixing a childlike glee with grizzled street rhymes.

No track does this better than “Lemonade.” Featuring a kids’ chorus and a Bangladesh beat that sounds like a high register piano note being plunked over and over, it’s an innocent-sounding, transcendent work that references various yellow-colored hood set pieces—whips, jewels, grits, chicken, kush, dessert. The listener is left thinking that no one besides Gucci could have made a song containing allusions to handgun trafficking, getting high, and romantic disenchantment sound like a nursery rhyme. Many have tried, but no other rapper quite matches Gucci’s reckless bravado and goofy charm. He’s got an uncanny ability to make light of the dazzling, chaotic storm that is his life.