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Gunna's poised songs of rehabilitation

Gunna's pensive mode lacks the drama of the score-settling that characterizes conflict in rap, but the constraints of his freedom make him a nimbler performer and songwriter.
Paras Griffin/Getty Images
Gunna's pensive mode lacks the drama of the score-settling that characterizes conflict in rap, but the constraints of his freedom make him a nimbler performer and songwriter.

After beginning 2022 with a No. 1 album and a string of hits, the tranquil Atlanta rapper Gunna was ensnared in a sweeping RICO indictment that alleged his record label, Young Stoner Life Records, was a street gang. The stunning document controversially cited rap lyrics, music videos and social media posts as evidence of a criminal conspiracy, and led to the arrest and jailing of the rising star, his mentor Young Thug and dozens of other YSL artists and affiliates. Gunna maintained his innocence, but at hearings prosecutors painted him as a key figure in the alleged enterprise, which led to him being denied bond multiple times despite having some of the indictment's lightest charges. After seven months behind bars, he agreed to a plea bargain that allowed him to leave jail and avoid a trial, but his early freedom quickly became a badge of dishonor.

Before prosecutors turned his lyrics into material evidence, his songs were known for their breezy aloofness. In one of his defining performances to that point, on Metro Boomin's 2018 hit "Space Cadet," Gunna celebrated his ascent. A self-described alien in a Vlone jean jacket and Philipp Plein pants, he declared the stratosphere his new home, basking in a life of pleasure and leisure that only gobs of money can provide. His languorous rapping floated over Metro's breezy drums and twinkly synths like a hot-air balloon, unrushed and buoyant. Verticality represented comfort and distinction, the pillars of Gunna's chill, stylish trap. Though he is in constant pursuit of rare objects and experiences, he refuses to ever be caught sweating.

That equilibrium breaks on his defiant third album, a Gift & a Curse. Gunna frequently uses spatial metaphors here, but he now speaks from a position of exile rather than ease. Cautious dispatches about loyalty and survival outnumber odes to designer digs and luxury living, a shift manifest in Gunna's weighty lyrics and delivery. His most personable and purposeful album, the record interrogates the values of the justice system, rap media and the court of public opinion with artful clarity. Like an astronaut gazing at Earth from space, Gunna sees the world and his place in it anew.

The bargain Gunna took is known as an Alford plea. It allows a defendant to agree to charges while maintaining their innocence. The option typically grants reduced punishment and accelerated release from jail, while also preventing a trial, which comes with the risk of a maximum sentence. Such compromises are a common feature of the U.S. court system, which is stacked in favor of prosecutors. But talking heads treated leaked footage of Gunna accepting the terms of his bargain — a procedural formality — as evidence that he had sold out his label and Young Thug. Within days of his release, he was labeled a snitch by media figures and other artists and he became the subject of mocking memes and rampant gossip among listeners. In the span of a year, he went from hitmaker to supposed crime boss to cause célèbre to pariah.

a Gift & a Curse leans into this upheaval. Though Gunna retains his signature poise, he's less blasé. Throughout the album, his flows hurtle as much as they glide, underscoring Gunna's indignation. Opener "back at it" sets the tone with assertive bars that streak across a bed of plaintive piano and shrill electric guitar melodies like a comet. "Ain't tryna sleep in no damn bunk / I'm 'posed to be here making anthems," he declares. That insurgent tone carries into "back on the moon," where he further embraces his status as an outcast. "Gotta watch for the law, so I really can't talk to you n****s, but f*** it / I'm a real boss and I gotta be cautious 'cause n****s don't keep it a hunna," he raps in a nimble double-time, responding en masse to his detractors.

Such charged but indirect lines dot the solitary album, which has no features, a first for Gunna's catalog. He's typically been a team player, regularly rapping alongside YSL buddies, his accomplice Lil Baby or other rappers, and gleefully shouting out his favorite colleagues on songs like "Never Recover" and "All The Money." Excommunicated by old partners and barred from speaking with his labelmates by the terms of his bargain, in isolation he becomes more self-reliant and swaggering, asserting his autonomy. "I made a few mistakes, but I'm still a star," he raps on "paybach." "Got a crew but I been all alone," he says elsewhere, the line a status update and a revelation.

Despite these weary epiphanies, he's more appreciative than embittered. Alongside his laments, he continues to flex ("rodeo dr," "p angels") and affirms the connections that his situation has made him cherish, explicitly mentioning Thug and the late Lil Keed. This pensive mode lacks the drama of the score-settling that characterizes conflict in rap, but the constraints of Gunna's freedom make him a nimbler performer and songwriter. Single "bread & butter" is the closest the album gets to a salvo, the verses peppered with responses to specific antagonists yet still anonymous enough to evade any federal eavesdropper. But Gunna sounds assured and intentional even when he's not countering misinformation. On "bottom" he shares that he was so poor growing up he couldn't afford to discard bread crusts, a level of detail previously afforded only to his clothes.

The beats feel more affecting too, despite being muted compared to Gunna's typical fare. Gunna usually leans toward mellow but radiant production that imbues his sleepy vocals with color and energy. Here, there's less contrast and vigor, a change attributable to the absence of longtime collaborator Wheezy, whose dreamy and spectral beats have shaped Gunna's sound. But these more meditative and hushed arrangements suit Gunna's cautiousness. His subliminal disses and mentions of abandonment wrest anxiety and anguish from the looped vocals, plaintive keys and minimal drum programming that fill the album. It feels like he's both roaming and exorcizing his memory palace.

"i was just thinking," a highlight, offers the richest account of Gunna's new state of mind. Rapping over rumbling bass kicks and a doleful acoustic guitar melody, he wonders whether his accusers would so casually shun him if they had ever experienced the hell of solitary confinement. One thing he doesn't wonder about, though, is his reputation as an artist. "N****s think I'm indicted, don't know that I'm immortal," he says, matter-of-factly. There are many candidates for the gift and curse suggested in the album title: freedom, relationships, fame, wealth. But the top contender is rap. In reckoning with his situation, Gunna emerges with his best and most self-possessed music, finding his voice amid the cacophony of gossip. Even a crisis can create a miracle.

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Stephen Kearse