Throughout the last decade, Gucci Mane has been the wild card of Atlanta rap. His flow was a giddy, stream-of-consciousness spill of internal rhymes, sing-song melodies as playful as jump-rope chants and unpredictable imagery ("Gucci Mane crazy I might pull up on a zebra/Land on top a eagle, smokin' a joint of reefer," he rapped on 2010's "Gucci Time"). Rapping in a throaty growl over spacious, synth-heavy beats, he became trap-rap's absurdist Id, influencing Future, Migos and countless others while remaking Southern hip-hop in his own funhouse image.
Everybody Looking, Gucci's ninth album and first after a two-year stay in federal prison, is a compelling left turn, the sound of a veteran innovator reclaiming his territory not with larger-than-life charisma and off-the-wall imagery but fresh intimidation tactics. With just two months of house arrest left for Gucci to serve, Everybody Looking could have been a victory lap. Instead, even the flirtatious "Gucci Please" feels claustrophobic. On past records, his gruff, cloudy voice and off-kilter topics mirrored his wild behavior. Now that voice has a new clarity and force (the result of overcoming a years-long addiction to lean). So, when Kanye West tries impersonating Gucci's congested delivery in "Pussy Print," it sounds like a throwback. Instead of his demented imagery ("Dope fiend Willie used to finger-fuck my rims," he rapped in 2012's "Back in '95"), Gucci himself comes off steely and smug.
That doesn't mean his sense of humor is gone. "I only featured Kanye 'cause we both some fuckin' narcissists," Gucci raps. Elsewhere he boasts, "They know my glocks sing all my hooks and we call it 'pop music.'" Yet, it's hard to miss that the mood is less playful. Back in their circa-2009 mixtape prime, longtime producer Zaytoven used flute sounds and ballpark organ melodies to highlight the fact that Gucci wasn't as self-serious as peers like Young Jeezy and T.I.. Zay's feather-light instrumentation in Everybody Looking faintly recalls their glory days. However, Mike Will Made It's moody Twilight Zone theatrics are the bigger presence here, catching you off guard while making the past aesthetic seem quaintly distant. Nowhere is that more clear than in "1st Day Out Tha Feds," the album's most urgent track, on which Gucci's head seems to swirl as his conscience catches up with him: "They call me crazy so much, I think I'm starting to believe 'em/I did some things to some people that was downright evil."
Gucci's paranoia subsides when another rapper he spawned, Young Thug, bursts in with some Pee Wee Herman-esque crooning on the celebratory "Guwop Home." You can almost see the grin on Gucci's face as he raps about purple pussy hair and a cream Range Rover with an orange interior, like a child drafting his Christmas wish list. Yet, even in this euphoric moment, his voice on the hook is doubled and distorted, as if his new post-prison Dr. Hyde persona is lurking in the shadows. In hip-hop, Gucci became a folk hero because his pop appeal was at odds with his rap sheet. But on Everybody Looking, he suggests something darker: trap-rap's best new supervillain.