Gunplay's eyes well up with tears. He's playing "Just Won't Do," the second track off his upcoming debut LP, Living Legend, in the dimly lit refuge of DJ Khaled's North Miami recording studio, animating each lyric with his entire body. The Carol City rapper, also known as Don Logan, pauses the track. "You're sitting in a jail cell facing a life sentence, never thinking you're coming home and still having hope," he says, his voice cracking. "I think back when I play this of how far I came and what I overcame. That's enough to make anyone tear up. It was against all odds. It was the grace of God."
Gunplay has done and sold a whole lot of cocaine. He faced a life sentence for holding up his tax accountant at gunpoint in 2012. That same year, he made headlines for clashing with 50 Cent's bodyguards at the BET Hip-Hop Awards. He's finished with that lifestyle now, he says, the one that other rappers can only talk about, and focusing on his work. "It's not just music to me. It's not just something somebody's gonna buy. It's something that's coming from here," explains the Puerto Rican–Jamaican MC, clutching his chest with a heavily tattooed arm.
Living Legend, set to drop July 31st on Def Jam Recordings, has been a long time coming. It showcases his intense but not overly aggressive style, balancing stories of the streets with an emotional exploration of his experiences. Rick Ross called him up one day and told him that with everything he'd been through, he was like a living legend. Gunplay ran with the concept. "If you've been through ups and downs — the downs being where it looks like you have no hope — and you rise up out of the ashes like a phoenix, and you rise up above it, and you can still maintain integrity, that's a living legend," he elaborates.
In the past, rapping has been a strictly DIY enterprise for Gunplay. He directed his own videos, did his own social media, set up his own interviews. But on Living Legend, he was able to narrow his focus to the music itself, collaborating and bouncing ideas off of other creative minds. "I think it helped me get right to the bottom of it, to the nitty gritty," he says. Accordingly, the MC whittled his debut's track listing down from more than 50 songs.
Despite the album's robust roster of featured artists, including Ross himself, YG (who appears on first single, "WuzHaninDoe"), Curren$y and Yo Gotti, Gunplay insists that Living Legend doesn't lean too hard on its guest stars. "I'm real confident in the album. It's not commercially driven — big fancy names and the music still sounds like shit," he says. "I wanted to make a 'me' project, not an 'us' project like everybody be doing. Got a thousand features. If I buy your album, I'm not buying you and 80 motherfuckers that's on that shit. I'll go buy their album if that's the case."
The 11 tracks explore a variety of different textures. "Blood on the Dope" has a narrative reminiscent of Slick Rick's "Children's Story," except from a first-person perspective; "Chain Smoking" is a chill Nineties-sounding song; "Be Like Me" has that classic Maybach Music Group feel and features Ross. "White Bitch," an upcoming single about yayo that starts with the sound of cooking cocaine, will hit the radio as "White Chick." (Somehow Gunplay manages to repurpose the old racist adage, "If ain't white, it ain't right.") An EDM club-ready trap banger, "World Is Mine," didn't make the cut — "It was like sticking a square peg in a round hole," Gunplay says — but will be released as a single and remixed by Afrojack and A-Trak.
Living Legend closes on an emotional note, with "Leave the Game." The phone rings, and we hear Gunplay's mother say, "No matter how many times you go to jail, no matter how many times you try and fail, just do me one favor: never leave the game." The melody is soulful and inspiring and leads into an almost romantic hook. Gunplay gets choked up again as the playback rounds the third verse. "I'm a cancer, I'm emotional," he says comically.
"Nine times out of 10, the person who's listening, they haven't been through what I've been through, so they want to hear my story," he says, reflecting on Living Legend and the life experience it chronicles. "I lay my life on the line, on the record for you. One thing that'll never go out of style is your heart, being true to yourself and saying some real shit."