"Evil Genius" is one of Gucci Mane's most polished and precise projects to date, but that doesn't play to his strengths.
Here's a stat for you: since 2007, Gucci Mane has never released less than three projects in a calendar year. In fact, he's only released less than five in a year twice (in 2012 and 2017). Beyond the sheer insanity of dropping that much music consistently, bear in mind that Gucci spent almost three cumulative years of the past 11 behind bars, most of that served during a two-year stint between May 2014 and May 2016 (during which time he still put out a whopping 31 projects). Why am I burdening you with all of this information? Because it took Gucci until the 48th week of the year to put out any sort of project in 2018. As a result, Evil Genius arrives with weight that's unprecedented in Gucci's career, perhaps only matched by the anticipation for his first post-prison release in 2016, the aptly-titled Everybody Looking.
It's ridiculous to expect any artist of any medium to be able to continue at the pace that Gucci's given us for the past decade-plus, and if the wait for Evil Genius was simply a result of Wop wanting to chill out and enjoy his newlywed life for a minute, he deserves it. But whatever his reasoning, he has to know the heightened expectations that come with taking far more time than usual to deliver a full-length. Even if Gucci's only been working on Evil Genius for the past month, listeners are going to treat it like the only thing he's ever devoted a full year to making. The album inevitably shoulders that load, whether it's meant to be an ambitious statement of intent or merely a simple reminder that Gucci can make decent trap music in his sleep.
So what are Evil Genius' aspirations? It's clear from the start that Gucci's 13th official album falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, at least in the general terms of a 2018 rap album. There's high production value, nicely A&R'd collaborations, and attention paid to hooks, but no thematic through-line or major stylistic departures. By Gucci's slapdash standards, though, Evil Genius is decidedly on the more ambitious end of his spectrum. A Bruno Mars-assisted radio play like "Wake Up in the Sky" may be par for the course on another artist's album, but for someone who once released three tapes in one day, it's a big deal to be the lead artist on something that well-positioned for crossover appeal. Ornate, lightly avant-garde beats paired with hooks from pop-ready vocalists like Quavo and Lil Skies (on "Lost Y'all Mind" and "Mad Russian," respectively) are by no means rarities for other rappers of Gucci's stature, but when your day-one fans are used to hearing the poorly-mastered vocals of what seems like a dozen DJs yelling all over your classic tapes, you might as well be releasing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Production-wise, I think this sort of polish and attention to detail pans out in Gucci's favor. He's rapped over his fair share of instant-classic instrumentals in his career, but in the past you had to wade through hundreds of trap-by-numbers placeholders to get there. You can't even expect Zaytoven, one of the few producers that Gucci says can keep up with his frantic pace, to be able to churn out 100% interesting beats in a 12-hour session that yields 10 songs. This time, a crack team headlined by Southside and Murda Beatz use the more ominous side of Gucci's legacy as a jumping-off-point for beats that are more ambient and arresting. "Off The Boat" and "Father's Day" both utilize awesome false starts that rope in old-school R&B samples and then drop them out in favor of something more menacing. The synth tones on tracks like "By Myself," "Outta Proportion," "I'm Not Goin," and "Money Callin" are beautifully composed, not terribly out of the ordinary for trap music, but just enough so that the songs sound fresh. Honorable C.N.O.T.E.'s staggering, gothic beat on "Just Like It" is exceptional. "Mad Russian" finds Murda conjuring up some of the same wispy female vocals he used on Migos' excellent "Gang Gang" earlier this year, making a Dido collab album a complete necessity for him going forward.
In this department, Evil Genius far outstrips its easiest comparison in Gucci's discography, last year's guest-heavy Mr. Davis. Gucci's better at playing a villain-gone-straight than a trapper-gone-populist, and aside from the completely out-of-place "Wake Up in the Sky" and listless Quality Control posse cut "Solitaire," Evil Genius doesn't set out to water down his sound at all. What it does do, unfortunately, is FaceTune one of rap's best spontaneous thinkers, giving us carefully-plotted hooks that fall flat and far fewer flashes of freestyled brilliance than we've come to expect from Gucci.
Wop still gets some characteristically memorable bars off, like a slick reference to J. Cole's "Neighbors" on the intro track, a claim that he'd fight Floyd Mayweather for 50 million dollars on "On God," or the line, "You'll get cropped out the picture like Puff did the Kardashians" on "Money Callin." Generally speaking though, something feels off lyrically. There are times when Gucci's onto something, but it's either overwritten or half-baked. His hooks often get grating, stretching on for full paragraphs when a sentence or two (or even just a word or two) would suffice. The effect is somewhat akin to a student trying to fill space on an essay to meet a page count by using long, overly complex words when simple ones would suffice. We know that Gucci's perfectly capable of turning something as simple as the word "Burr" into a hook; hearing him try to lodge the ten-line hook of "Cold Shoulder" into our minds comes off as a needlessly involved fool's errand.
Evil Genius is at its best when its polish and precision are used in service of short, succinct songs. The middle stretch of "On God," "Father's Day," and "Outta Proportion" is the album's finest moment, and none of those songs are over 2.5 minutes long. Perhaps taking cues from the SoundCloud generation's aversion to multiple verses and hooks, Gucci delivers infectious cuts that leave you wanting more, which is saying something for such a workaholic artist. Evil Genius as a whole should have that effect too, considering this year's uncommon Gucci scarcity, but it's too long-winded and pristine to retain much of the spark of Gucci's best material.