In September 2008, Gucci Mane (or Radric Davis to his mother, or LaFlare to his diehards) was sentenced to one year in prison after a parole violation. A sing-songy rapper who's earned a sizeable following due to his prodigious output of mixtapes and guest rhymes (Mariah Carey's "Obsessed," Big Boi's "Shine Blockas," Lil Wayne's "We Be Steady Mobbin"), Gucci's been considered a formidable contender for superstardom.
But the same folks who hyped him began to wonder if his absence from the mainstream — his inability to promote himself — would affect the performance of his second full-length, The State vs. Radric Davis, which hit outlets just weeks after he entered jail in 2009. Sure enough: Though it got a high-five from critics, the album ended up selling under 400,000 units.
But Gucci is shrewd. Sensing that his cachet was waning, he gave himself his own second chance. While in lock-up, the rapper conducted interviews in which he was earnest, thankful, repentant. He recorded and dropped the BurrrPrint 2HD mixtape (featuring an enviable roll call of guests such as Rick Ross, Ludacris, and Nicki Minaj) from prison. And he lined up key festival dates and surprise performances to coincide with his release from prison in May.
Gucci's freedom was greeted enthusiastically. All this comes in anticipation of The State vs. Radric Davis' follow-up, The Appeal: Georgia's Most Wanted (out Sept. 28), which is shaping up to be the album — led by the anthemic, Schoolly D homage "Gucci Time (ft Swizz Beatz)" — that could finally open him up to, say, teenage boys in Wichita.
The tragedy of the artist-in-jail cycle notwithstanding, musing over a correlation between doing time and hip-hop sales seems a little moot. Slick Rick, Beanie Sigel and Remy Ma (the latter still incarcerated) all lost momentum to varying degrees. Meanwhile, Tupac Shakur, T.I., and Lil Wayne (expected to be sprung in November) emerged unscathed. What's the difference?
It's tempting to attribute success simply to street cred or vaingloriousness — though that may explain the years-long unit-moving mystique of the perennially jailed DMX. Instead, it might be more productive to consider how the latter three, like Gucci Mane, succeeded by treating their plights as business maneuvers. After all, just like pornographers or evangelists, rappers have typically been marketing geniuses.
Tupac defined the "confessional gangsta" genre with 1995's Me Against the World — an intriguingly poignant work that addressed his plight and sorta made you forget he was guilty of sexual battery — recorded mere weeks before going to prison. (It went multiplatinum.)
And after being sentenced for trying to purchase illegal firearms, T.I candidly told MTV of his coming days in prison: "I'll be able to strategize my comeback. It's just months of planning." He wrote his biggest album, 2008's Paper Trail, while on house arrest and shrewdly documented his 1,500 hours of community service on MTV's "T.I.'s Road to Redemption."
Upon T.I.'s release from prison earlier this year, his label started a Twitter account for him; that will come in handy since he just might land back in prison on a parole violation in advance of his seventh full-length, the now-ironically titled King Uncaged.
For a while, rappers have been enriching our lives with mesmerizingly insane tweets (see Kanye West, 50 Cent, M.I.A.). But Lil Wayne has taught us that the surprising intimacy of tweeting and blogging from the pokey might be the most potent strategy yet.
"They can lock me up, but my spirit and my love can never be confined to prison walls," Weezy wrote on his site, just to the left of a countdown clock anticipating his return home (which sits above a link to his sports column, a quick-link to his Facebook page, and a feed of his recent tweets). Then adds tellingly, "It's because of you Rebirth went gold when critics aborted it."