To state that Gucci Mane is a man of many gifts seems almost beside the point. Over the past 11 years the Atlanta rapper born as Radric Davis has created more than a prodigious body of work. When a recording artist’s discography consists of nine solo studio albums, three albums in collaboration, three extended-plays, a smattering of loose singles, and a mind-stopping 49 mixtapes, it’s safe to say that he’s flowed over the limits of what even a word like prodigious can describe. If diving into other rappers’ catalogues can feel like voyaging into another star system, by now Gucci’s discography seems like a galaxy unto itself. “Legend” only begins to describe what he means to hip-hop culture in the South and beyond: He’s an authentic folk hero, a poet whose experiences encompass those of his people and represent them on a grand scale.
As a rapper, he’s naturally fluent, boundlessly charismatic, and thematically versatile; when it comes to perceiving, seeking out, and nurturing the gifts of other rappers and producers, he’s unparalleled; as far as street credibility goes, he’s untouchable. (To cite just one story: The rapper Freddie Gibbs, on his 2014 album Piñata, describes a scene in Atlanta’s Magic City strip club where Gibbs, then a part of Atlanta rapper and longtime Gucci nemesis Young Jeezy’s entourage of 30, sees Gucci Mane unaccompanied; individually or collectively, none of the 30 dares approach him. The reluctance to engage derives from fear, if not respect — many years ago in 2005 Gucci, unarmed after being ambushed by a squad of Jeezy’s goons, somehow wrestled a gun away and killed one while driving off the rest.) To write about Gucci is to accept the fact that you can’t capture him in full: Pick what frame you will, some part of him — most of him — will exceed it.
So naturally, when Gucci, following two years of incarceration, exceeded (lawfully) the frame of the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute in May, the celebration among rap aficionados was unanimous, and the expectations laid on him were huge: As the panoptic title of his just-released album Everybody Looking indicates, all eyes were on him. Judging by my own initial reactions, the album is marvelous, phenomenal, all the superlatives. Thankfully, I don’t have to elaborate because Craig’s already done it better than I ever could. There’s no need for another review: The question of whether the album is strong has been resolved, and the Trap God hates vain repetitions. I wrote to resolve a different matter, a question more profound and facetious than that of album quality. I was interested in figuring out if it’s possible to prove that Gucci Mane is or is not a clone.
When Gucci Mane was released from prison, it didn’t take long for the attention focused on him to produce the observation that the artist, while in prison, had changed a great deal. He looked, sounded, and behaved differently. Fifty pounds of fat had vanished from his physique: The rounded belly, face, and limbs of the old Gucci had been replaced with lean, firm counterparts. The artist’s online broadcasts revealed that his demeanor had altered: He had cultivated a peculiar, quasi-English accent and comported himself in an eccentric manner. The artist’s famous face tattoo of an ice-cream cone crowned with lightning bolts was no longer as prominent. He dressed in all white and ate kale.
Though the interview with a Gucci associate that first gave rise to the rumors was later proven to be fake, the rumors took hold and spread regardless: Gucci Mane had been replaced by a government clone. To mangle a precept from the Tao Te Ching, the Gucci Mane that could be seen on Snapchat was not the eternal Gucci. The artist acknowledged the rumors; at times he seemed to lend them credence. On the Kanye West single “Champions,” he informed his clones that “Now that Gucci’s home it’s over for you Gucci clones.” He released a statement on Snapchat, purring that he neither denied nor supported the allegations that he was a clone. He then seemed to support the allegations by releasing a music video for his first single out of prison (“First Day Out tha Feds”) where he appears beside himself, as in next to clones of himself. How interesting this is, I thought as I closed and opened tabs. The conspiracy theory seemed reminiscent of something, but I couldn’t remember what. Later, trying to sleep, it struck me that the basic plot of the rumor — federal government replaces man with man who seems like that man but is not, in fact, that man — was the purest distillation of an X-Files episode ever formulated.
I watched The X-Files, loyally, from age 11 to age 16: the fundamental premise of the show, it seemed, I now recalled, was that nothing — the state, people, the natural world, facts — was as it seemed. There were powers out there that could literally erase your identity, turn you into someone other than your self. That was the truth. Black fluid could crawl into your eyes and nose and control your actions, or a cancer-eating mutant could duplicate his own body. A guy with a tail could change into husbands and knock up their wives, or the government could replace human soldiers with invulnerable super-soldiers who, aside from a telltale protuberance on the back of the neck, were indistinguishable from their originals. Your younger sister could be abducted from your home only to return, many times, later on, as a series of replicants with alien genetics. Clearly the “Gucci Mane is a clone” scenario was what had been missing from the attempted revival of The X-Files earlier in 2016. It was the show’s real season ten, true to the original spirit of earlier seasons: The janky episodes I had actually watched on Fox were pale imitations. Those episodes had forced me to recall that, somewhere during The X-Files’ middle seasons, the show, aesthetically, had lost its reason to exist: Imprisoned in aging tropes and a protracted mythos, its life unnaturally prolonged by its status as a profitable franchise, it had been replaced by a less interesting replica of the same name, and in the same time slot.
At this point, the plot seems to thicken. It seems as if any complex entity that needs to swap components in and out can be replaced, effectively, by a clone of itself: television shows about altered identity such as The X-Files, but also television shows that are just kind of there like Happy Days, lifeforms, educational institutions, friendships, publications large and small. It is possible, at this point, to become very paranoid about authenticity, not to mention conservative: It may even be possible to run for high office by playing to fears that the real America is being replaced by an inferior, darker, younger, poorer duplicate of itself. Is “being replaced by a clone” anything more than an elaborate euphemism for change? Your friends from school didn’t find jobs or move away — they got replaced by clones. The metaphor has the potential to apply to just about everything that transforms, which is to say everything in the universe. It could mean so much that it ceases to mean anything — words are made to pick things out, after all. (In that case, the metaphor, too, would have effectively been replaced by a less interesting version of itself.)
Perhaps the clearer and more sane way to see things is to ask what can’t be replaced by a clone of itself. There are three things, two of them rather trivial. Logically speaking, “everything” and “nothing” are immune to change, to gain and to loss, inferiority and superiority; they’re absolute categories that can’t be changed without losing their names entirely. This isn’t much relief from paranoia. Quite the contrary: Anyone’s who’s had to deal with paranoiacs, whether bona-fide schizophrenics or simpleminded careerists, soon realizes how powerfully and implacably they’re driven by the terror of totality and the horror of nothingness.
The third thing, thankfully, is better suited to provide relief from fear — it’s music. Whereas everything and nothing are immutable and complete, music is relative and partial: Though nominally a noun, music exists only in a state of change. Precisely because it can’t insist on any fixed or exclusive identity, music can never lose what identity it possesses. No clone-related fuckery can befall music; it eludes all allegations of false change by being nothing more or less than progression itself. Of course it’s possible to view music in concrete terms, to freeze it into a set of nouns — genres and artists and capricious iTunes accounts — and these, indeed, can be badly copied. But no one experiences music itself as a solid object; in its essence it’s nothing more than shifts in tone and feeling.
This is why Gucci Mane can never be replaced by a clone. Unlike, say, Kanye, who orchestrates music, or Drake, who finds a way to present it, Gucci Mane is as fully submerged in music as a human being can be. Other artists have personalities that they express through music, but with Gucci, there’s no sense of ego independent of the song itself: the self doesn’t precede the music, but rather is created by it. It’s no accident that the difficulty in writing about Gucci’s music is very close to the difficulty in writing about music as such. To hang external labels or narratives on an artist for whom flow (as in the Tao Te Ching) is everything, feels pointless — why drop stickers in a river? When interviewed about him, his producers almost always speak of his incomparable capacity to inhabit instrumentals, to breathe them in as regularly as others breathe in air: They treat him as music incarnate, all energy and zero stillness. There’s no way to contain, much less clone, a being like Gucci Mane. Like music itself, he’s a verb masquerading as a noun; he’s never shown the slightest inclination to being treated as an object, and since figuratively or literally, being cloned involves consenting to being treated like an object, there’s no way he could ever be a clone.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t be afraid of replacement at the hands of replicants. The X-Files’ idea that the government can alter your identity without your permission or knowledge remains powerful as ever in an age where smearing the victims of police brutality and drone bombings is standard, and even if you can set the state aside there are still so many ways (mostly social-media-related) to become a voided object, to cease to be yourself while continuing to be recognized as such. We can say with confidence that Gucci’s not a clone, but there are few others of which we could say the same. Is Gucci Mane the only indisputably authentic human on the planet? One hopes not. But he might be.