ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The rapper Gucci Mane has had a rollercoaster of a career. He was born Radric Davis in Alabama and made his name in Atlanta. He became a central figure in Southern rap and a mainstay on commercial radio. In between his commercial successes, he spent time behind bars.
NPR's Frannie Kelley reports Gucci Mane has emerged from his latest incarceration sober, healthy, happy and as productive as ever.
FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: Gucci was released early from a federal penitentiary this May after serving two years on gun charges. He recorded a song the day he got home.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRST DAY OUT THA FEDS")
GUCCI MANE: (Rapping) There's a lot of people scared of me, and I can't blame them. They call me crazy so much I think I'm starting to believe them. I did some things to some people that was downright evil. Is it karma coming back to me - so much drama. My own momma turned her back on me, and that's my momma.
KELLEY: He's explicit about his paranoia and his worries, a departure from what he released before he went in.
GUCCI MANE: Most of my subject matter was all kind of, like, party stuff, jewelry and cars. It was really just, you know, shallow.
KELLEY: But critics and fans admired his creativity within those constraints. This song from 2009 went platinum twice.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEMONADE")
GUCCI MANE: (Rapping) I'm standing in the shade, and I'm selling lemonade - 600 a pint the going rate off in the A. Lemonade diamond bracelet - put it in your face - Lemonhead diamond earrings I wore yesterday. I'm pimping wearing lemon. That's how I'm chilling. I'm smoking grits and selling chickens - corvette painted lemon. It's Gucci.
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: Lemons on the chain with the V-cuts.
KELLEY: Gucci's tone was dry, but his lines were playful. And though the drums were hard, there was always something pretty in the melody. These qualities became central to the work of the musicians he mentored who've taken over the charts in his absence.
GUCCI MANE: Mike Will, Nicki Minaj, Thug, Waka, the Migos, Metro Boomin...
KELLEY: Gucci rattles off those names like it's no big deal, but they represent millions of plays, streams and views, millions of dollars, the soundtrack to millions of lives.
GUCCI MANE: Me personally, I come from very, very humble beginnings - little, small town in Alabama, you know, staying at my granddaddy house. We really didn't have nothing. So for me to be where I'm at now - you know what I'm saying? - a multimillionaire and to help other people be multimillionaires - I'm so proud.
And I feel like I am an example. And I hope my life is a testimony to show people no matter what you go through, how many hurdles are placed in front of you, how many bumps and bruises you get, to pick yourself up and be resilient and keep on trucking.
KELLEY: The biggest hurdle that Gucci had to jump was the emotional fallout of his constant proximity to violence and chaos. Drug addiction has dogged him. He's been convicted of assault charges. He's also been attacked. One incident led to a murder charge that was later ruled self-defense and dropped. In his songs, he would detail what he was seeing, but he wasn't rapping about how he felt.
GUCCI MANE: I was trying to keep it private because I didn't want to scare people away 'cause it was serious. But once I went to prison, then I felt like all this stuff in the past. Now I'm open to talk about it. That's why I wrote a book.
KELLEY: Gucci's memoir will be published by Simon & Schuster next year. This year, he put out 10 projects, including a holiday-themed tape last week. He's clean and sober now, and he's performing again, something he used to dread.
ZAYTOVEN: I was there with him from day one. So I remember when he performed, and he was just slouching and sluggish and didn't really care to perform - to now, he excited. He ready to perform. So...
GUCCI MANE: Yeah.
ZAYTOVEN: You know, I love to see that.
KELLEY: That's producer Zaytoven, Gucci's longtime musical collaborator who had a hand in almost every one of his friend's nearly 100 releases over the past 11 years. He says he never doubted that Gucci would vanquish his demons.
ZAYTOVEN: Being around him, I knew he was going to do whatever it take to make it. So whatever he need to do, wherever he want me to go - if he need to come to my momma house at 5 in the morning after the club, hey, I'm going to open up the door. We've got to record.
KELLEY: Back then, Zay's studio was in his mother's basement, something she wasn't too thrilled about.
ZAYTOVEN: Until "So Icy" got on the radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO ICY")
GUCCI MANE: (Rapping) Gucci Mane, yeah, where your ice at? Where your chain and your rings at? Where your bling at? I'm icy, I'm icy. So icy, so icy.
ZAYTOVEN: And when "So Icy" on the radio, some money came in. They were like, well, y'all don't need no snacks down there, y'all don't need no...
GUCCI MANE: (Laughter).
ZAYTOVEN: Everything changed then.
KELLEY: Everything changed and changed again. And eventually, the duo ended up here at NPR's headquarters with Gucci playing a Tiny Desk concert and Zaytoven backing him up on piano.
GUCCI MANE: (Rapping) Gucci back, Gucci back. Did you miss me or miss my rap? This that new [expletive], that county jail...
KELLEY: This venue might be a little different from what he's used to.
GUCCI MANE: But, you know, this is, like, full circle from where I was at six months ago - 'cause I was in the federal prison system and people would stay tuned to NPR. They'll say, we waiting on this at NPR at 3 o' clock or such and such time. So I know that they're going to hear this.
KELLEY: I asked him what he'd like to say to people listening inside.
GUCCI MANE: I just want to tell everybody, you know, I'm saying who in the federal prison system, who know somebody that's locked up to just keep your head up, and we're praying for you and just keep their head up 'cause that's what I did. Don't never drop your head. Don't never feel like you counted out. I always have faith that something's going to happen good for you, and it going to happen.
KELLEY: The internet has been full of fans saying that if Gucci can overcome, maybe they can, too. For NPR News, I'm Frannie Kelley.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.