"Mr. Davis" is a step forward for Gucci Mane, but one that's too bogged down by guests to match its potential.
Gucci Mane's sober, more respectable second act has been a hard sell for some of his day one fans, and musically, that's understandable. Much of the unpredictability and kid-in-a-candy-store treatment of the English language has vanished in favor of a more straightforward rapping style. Viewed side-by-side, the Burrprint series and last summer's Everybody Looking look like Jim Carrey's many screwball comedies sitting next to the more dramatic Man on the Moon. Personally, I enjoy both sides of Wop and Carrey's respective repertoires, but those more serious entries aren't without their problems.
In Gucci's case, the biggest issue with the four albums he's released in the past 15 months is that he hasn't entirely found his footing in this next chapter of his rap career. Life-wise, he's doing better than ever— shout out the newlyweds— but as I noted in my review of last December's The Return of East Atlanta Santa, his decision to flex both "the reckless lawlessness of his past and the comfort and fame of his present" hasn't offered a sturdy enough platform upon which to fully evolve his narrative. The uneven Return... was definitely the most blatant example, but it's a persistent issue in Gucci's recent output.
May's DropTopWop didn't remedy that as much as it avoided the issue completely, offering a fun, low-stakes setting for Gucci to flex without giving much thought to artistic progression. Everybody Looking and, to a lesser degree, Woptober led us to believe that Gucci would spend his new act sorting through his past, present, and future on-record, coming to terms with who he was before he got sober and crime-free, while taking stock of his newfound position in life. On Mr. Davis, Gucci finally addresses all of this in a way that's rock-solid and consistent. The only problem is, he does so on the most bloated and overstuffed album he's released since getting out of prison.
The vast majority of the album is told from Wop's perspective right now, mostly steering clear of uncritical retreads about what he used to do (except for "Lil Story," a lame N.W.A. rewrite that stands out like a sore thumb), and veering into decidedly more mature territory. The celebratory tracks are about money and stability; the kiss-off cuts stunt on those who aren't in positions as enviable as his; the sex jams are all dedicated to his wife; the melancholic songs (a rarity on Gucci projects) are about friends who weren't as fortunate as him.
Mr. Davis throws up a wall between Old Gucci Mane (who's "addicted to drankin'") and New Gucci Mane (who's "addicted to Franklins"), and as Wop says on "We Ride," much of it sounds like "the new Gucci talking to the old Gucci." Perhaps because of his recent autobiography, he's more comfortable with sharing unseemly moments from his past ("I act like I forgot but I was once a mental patient"), and no longer seems like he's using his old reputation to justify his continued rap career. Even the album title speaks to his newly refined ways. It's dropped in the outro via the line, "I walk in the bank they say, 'Hey Mr. Davis, how may I assist you?'" He's a new entity, one that's not concerned with being greeted by screaming fans, but instead with comanding respect from financial institutions and having roundtables with Malcolm Gladwell.
This might reek of pompousness were it not coupled with honesty and improved writing, but they're both there. Gucci refers to himself as a "work in progress" and claims to still have problems (though they're now "rich n**** problems"). His rapping is as far from his wacky early style as it's ever been, but he's finally found a new one that fits him: luxury rap that's a hundred times more nimble and thoughtful than most elephantine luxury rap. A particularly fun moment comes on a "Members Only" verse in which he drops four or five highfalutin words you rarely hear in hip hop:
N****s envious they ridiculed and belittled me
I was too generous, now I have no sympathy
I just built a mansion, solid gold on my amenities
Homes he not no street n**** get him out the vicinity
I just bought a Phantom and put wood on the extremities
Man that bitch ain't bad enough get her out this facility
If only the album's immense supporting cast could keep up. None of Wop's previous post-prison albums had more than four vocal guests; Mr. Davis has fourteen. This formula's worked for Gucci in the past— see the uneven-but-endearing, big budget State Vs. Radric Davis or on the flipside, his baptism of Atlanta's rising stars on the back half of Trap House 3— but here, it feels utterly soulless, which is especially painful when you consider his honed-in lyrical focus on the majority of the album.
Gucci's attracted top-tier talent like Kanye, Drake, and Travis Scott on recent projects, but here, the concentration of big names like The Weeknd, Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, and Big Sean feel like a cash-grab. It's not only the frequency with which they all appear, but how impersonal their performances are. Quavo delivers part of the "I Get the Bag" hook with literally the exact same flow he used a few months back on "Slippery," another collaboration with Gucci. "Curve" sounds like a boilerplate XO track that The Weeknd and Nav left on the cutting room floor. Schoolboy Q seems like he's on "Lil Story" solely because it's based around Gucci interpolating a track by another Compton artist. Don't even get me started on Nicki's "Make Love" verse, which in addition to being an out-of-place shot at Remy Ma, is just cringey rapping through and through.
There are bright spots, most notably Slim Jxmmi showing that he's truly the Big Boi to Swae Lee's Andre 3000 on "Stunting Ain't Nuthin'" and Ty Dolla $ign perfectly complementing the luxuriant vibe on"Enormous," but they're few and far between. Especially because Mr. Davis is three songs longer than any of Gucci's other recent projects, and doesn't follow the one-or-two producers-only formula of Everybody Looking and DropTopWop, the neverending features really bog down what could've been Gucci's most topically focused album ever.
Only the second official post-prison album to receive massive support from Atlantic Records (The Return of East Atlanta Santa is curiously listed as an album, though it didn't seem to get much promo or funding), Mr. Davis almost looks like a DJ Khaled-style attempt to cash in on a celebrity's newfound public cachet. It's unfortunate that this happened now, rather than a year ago when New Gucci was still struggling to find his stylistic footing, because this is undoubtedly Gucci's best solo performance in a few years. The beats and rapping are consistently great in a way that eluded him at his overly prolific creative peak. Hopefully, this is the new norm and Wop's next release is a pared-down, personal affair, but if Atlantic was actually stockpiling his best writing for this commercial beast, and he returns to more inconsistent music-making, Mr. Davis will feel like the biggest missed opportunity in his discography.