If 2016 was Gucci Mane’s "comeback" following a three year stint in jail after a period of career freefall and noteworthy substance abuse, 2017 feels like the victory lap. Between show-stealing guest verses for the likes of those he’s influenced (Migos, Young Dolph), a renewed profile as a top-tier talent in the game, and the decision to settle down and get married, it’s clearly a new era for the man previously dubbed “the boogeyman of rap.”

The year has also brought a notable increase in personal productivity on the musical front, resulting in his third project of the year, the magnificently titled El Gato: The Human Glacier. But are we reaching the limits of his talents, or does this album mark another turning point, like when mixtape Gucci become the hyper-productive and lyrical Gucci of the late 00s? El Gato has a certain amount of prestige to it, with Gucci Mane handling all eleven tracks by himself, with no features. Additionally, the production is handled exclusively by Southside of 808 Mafia. This strict approach requires both of these rap veterans to take on a lot of responsibility, and in that limited range, therein lie many of the album’s biggest issues.

Gucci’s dark lyrics and playful violence have often sounded best when juxtaposed against the dreamy, major key melodies from early collaborators such as Drumma Boy and Zaytoven. And while the current trap sound tends to favor a darker vibe, Gucci has never quite sounded right over that particular direction the genre’s taken, despite being one of it’s founding fathers. So while on paper a collaboration with Southside seems like a strong idea, there remain plenty of reasons to be apprehensive. In an effort to meet current trap-music expectations, Gucci ultimately ends up playing against his strengths. 

One of Southside’s greatest strengths is his ability to meld his authority with more eccentric ideas from other producers. This collaborative style has occasionally resulted in some mixed feelings regarding rightful credit, but more often than not reaps great rewards. Gucci is certainly no stranger to working under these conditions; this year’s Metro Boomin-helmed Droptopwop featured many beats co-piloted by various other producers, granting a more diverse palate while operating within a similar mold. On El Gato, Southside has opted against collaboration (save for a few loops credited to Jake One) a surprisingly conservative, and evidently unwise turn, given the project’s focused nature. Throughout El Gato’s eleven tracks, his beats are generally plodding, pensive numbers that ultimately drag Gucci down into low-energy performances that mistake gloom for intimidation. Even the slightest bit of collaborative spirit might have helped provide a stronger selection of tracks.

Despite a clear thematic focus, there’s shockingly little to display regarding effort on the songwriting front. Gucci does very little to diversify his flows, and many of his lyrics lack the vividness that longtime fans might have come to expect. This is the kind of problem that the occasional guest feature might have prevented, and as a result Gucci’s solo mission feels a bit tiresome. Sure, album opener “Rich Ass Junkies” may describe dopesick fiends acting miserable, but this is a man who once relished describing making addicts “finger fuck my rims” to keep his car shining. And on a track like “Strep Throat” he kicks the same flow he’s used on older tracks such as “Brick Fare” but with none of the emotional gravitas. Honestly, Gucci Mane has been rapping about selling drugs for well over a decade, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s become a little bored by the experience. Even deviations such as “TYT” or “Mall” feel by-the-numbers; it’s all a little too effortless for him, leaving us to wonder whether he’s simply lost interest in the classic narratives of old Gucci.

For the record, by no means should one presume that El Gato is an unlistenable project; after all, a veteran like Gucci Mane and a well-respected producer like Southside are not going to turn in anything truly unprofessional. The album is assisted by its brevity, with not a single track ever overstaying its welcome. When you get to the few curve balls that manage to serve as highlights, such as the Zero G hallucinatory bounce on “Sea Sick” and “Southside and Guwop,” with its plaintive yet lyrical synthline, the duo manage to hint at a genuine chemistry. Perhaps if they labored on them a bit more intensely, they might have come out with something really magical instead of - and this is a surprising dismissal - just another Gucci Mane record.

Ultimately, El Gato doesn’t feel as rewarding as most of Gucci’s post-jail material, and I can’t see the majority of long-time or even recent Gucci Mane fan upholding this project as a classic. Conversely, the record doesn’t feel like an ending, and it’s clear that Guwop isn’t ready to leave the game. However, El Gato’s biggest flaw is feeling unfinished, a product underdeveloped or considered by either of its chief authors. Perhaps with 2018 just around the corner, Southside and Gucci will take some time and work together to much more effective heights. For now however, El Gato: The Human Glacier is a bit too icy and adrift for its own good.