Gunna Pushed Himself to the Top

After a decade making music, the rapper is finally known for his name alone.

Rap’s new rules meet a well-oiled, timeless machine. Photo: BANVOA
Rap’s new rules meet a well-oiled, timeless machine. Photo: BANVOA
Rap’s new rules meet a well-oiled, timeless machine. Photo: BANVOA

A couple of hours before Gunna was due for a show at New York’s Irving Plaza, he and his mentor, Young Thug, were booted from a private jet. The pilot, named Alex, acted like a “racist prick,” according to Thug, insisting the rap stars and their team exit the plane without reason. Stranded in their city, Atlanta, the two took to Instagram Live. Thug turned his phone on Alex, who stood with one hand on his hip, the other resting on the handle of his rolling luggage bag. He stared directly into the camera, performatively unbothered, a meme in the making. “That ain’t P!” Thug declared, a reference to the player-praising lingo that has propelled Gunna’s most ubiquitous new hit. Fans flooded the comments, corroborating Thug’s assessment: This pilot was no player. Within a few hours, “Alex ain’t P” was trending. By the time Gunna hit the stage later that night — they found another jet headed north — the crowd was chanting the phrase.

It was either the most organically grown rap social-media moment of the early New Year or the result of some throwback big music-label machine’s guerrilla marketing. Regardless, less than a week after its release, Gunna’s new album, DRIP SEASON 4EVER, had the internet buzzing about the 28-year-old born Sergio Giavanni Kitchens — or, more accurately, buzzing about his buzz.

Gunna’s popularity was already rising when he released the album’s lead single, “too easy,” with Future this past September, pairing his sweet melodies with producer Wheezy’s love of melding elegant synths with blaring drums. The same week he dropped the song, his most recent project at the time, just six months old, went gold. But “pushin P” has penetrated the virtual vernacular unlike anything Gunna has experienced. The P (represented by the 🅿️ emoji online) dates back to Black American pimp culture. But in Gunna’s sanitized translation for mainstream ears, it simply means embracing a life of luxury or, at the very least, being chill. It took only a couple of weeks for brands like Walmart, Nike, Tidal, and IHOP to abuse it on their socials. The appropriation has been met with resistance from people in the Bay Area and Houston who lay claim to the slang. Gunna has engaged with most of the chatter, regardless of which side it’s coming from. “My 🅿️ ops taught me how to be a 🅿️ LAYA looonggg time ago … Pz are WorldWide,” he wrote, defending his credibility online. He’s already gotten the 🅿️ tattooed.

“It’s not based on accomplishments or followers. It’s how you move the culture. If I say your name, what type of impact does it bring? My name hold weight now.” Photo: BANVOA

Twelve hours after the Irving Plaza show, I meet a sleepless Gunna at an Asian-fusion restaurant named Sei Less. He had after-partied through the night — midnight bowling at Chelsea Piers, followed by an appearance on “The Breakfast Club” at the ass crack of dawn, in which he (poorly) dodged rumors of his relationship with singer and Beyoncé protégée Chlöe Bailey. (“We’re really close friends.”) Thug and Gunna’s associates are all here; blunts are sparked, and the orders begin arriving: chicken satay with peanut sauce (Thug’s skeptical), sweet-and-sour chicken, dumplings, teriyaki chicken, and rock shrimp to start. If one drop of any of it gets on Gunna’s drip for the day — a white Thom Browne sheepskin bomber and a cream-colored knit hood impressively not attached to a sweatshirt — there will probably be an expensive dry-cleaning tab to pay.

Whether it’s through catchphrases, a famous maybe-girlfriend, or the music itself, Gunna is unlocking his next tier of status. DS4EVER edged out the Weeknd’s Dawn FM the week they both debuted — one of the best markers of breakthrough stardom one could ask for in this modern consumption era. “I still don’t care about the numbers,” he tells me. “I just care about doing better than my last album. And that’s what I did. Especially because I really didn’t take no advice. I trusted my mind first. If I didn’t like it, I didn’t do it. It was a point in time when I didn’t have nobody to give me advice, and I still went with my own thoughts, and it worked.”

If Gunna sounds a tad smug, it’s because he has worked tirelessly over the past decade to be judged on his own merits. His first mixtape, Hard Body from 2013, back when he went by Yung Gunna, mirrored the rougher, trunk-rattling local music of the moment. He entered Young Thug’s orbit in 2015, after being introduced at a video shoot by King Troup, an OG from South Atlanta. Their early relationship was casual, but Troup’s death later that year bonded them closer. In 2016, Young Thug reintroduced Gunna to the world as a member of his YSL family (a label and artists’ collective largely influenced by Thug’s musical style), releasing the Drip Season mixtape later that year. The endorsement was double-edged. Some of the early verdict viewed Gunna as a less entertaining version of Thug. The music, though, was nothing like Thug’s sound. It was less delicately vocalized and sparse on melodies, and there were no bars about pushing drugs. But Gunna’s music did become more fluid, and his fashion more polished — lanes cleared under Thug’s tutelage.

Gunna’s drip: In cow pants at Rolling Loud New York 2019 (left); with Megan Thee Stallion at Irving Plaza in 2019. Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images; Johnny Nunez/WireImage (Megan Thee Stallion).
Gunna’s drip: In cow pants at Rolling Loud New York 2019 (left); with Megan Thee Stallion at Irving Plaza in 2019. Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images;... Gunna’s drip: In cow pants at Rolling Loud New York 2019 (left); with Megan Thee Stallion at Irving Plaza in 2019. Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images; Johnny Nunez/WireImage (Megan Thee Stallion).

Over the next two years, YSL ushered in a new rap dynasty, joining Gunna and another future Atlanta star, Lil Baby, through a string of collaborative songs and projects. They worked as well as they did — and continue to — because they provided alternative perspectives of young ATLiens rising in the rap ranks: Baby fulfilled the rags-to-riches mythos, in which trappers try to make the transition to clean money, whereas Gunna was more interested in asserting himself as the flyest, most eccentric guy in the room. The two were pushed as an unofficial duo rather than an actual unit, individual agency established. It’s a departure from the Migos method; the Atlanta trio are fully capable rappers on their own but have so far proved incapable of solo stardom because their synergy is always the selling point. Baby and Gunna’s joining was never endgame.

In late 2018, Gunna released his third mixtape, Drip Season 3, with a viral in-studio performance of his single “Top Off” for the Berlin-based music platform Colors. The clip tightly condensed Gunna’s whole appeal: For its three-minute duration, he acts coolly unimpressed, crooning about having immaculate drip while dressed in tapered, paint-splattered jeans and Adidas. “That was a pivotal moment in his career,” recalls Ebonie Ward, Gunna’s manager (and also Future’s), whom he brought on after releasing DS3, adding to the majority of his business team being Black women. “Oftentimes, there’s a one-hit wonder and, once they hit the top, there’s nowhere to go. You have to build talent. The goal isn’t to be Drake in a month.” Outfitted with a clearer structure forward, Gunna flourished. “Prior to that, he was self-sufficient, booking his shows, and trying to keep everything organized. It’s really admirable that he likes to be a part of all of his conversations.”

From there, his marketing leaned more methodically into his styling. Gunna appeared on the cover of his 2019 debut studio album, Drip or Drown 2, iced in diamonds and holding an umbrella underwater. He started to go viral regularly for his fashion choices: pants and matching Air Force 1’s that look like handmade quilts, cow-print bottoms, trench-coat-like ponchos. Since then, he has been an unlimited source of meme material — a popular one has him eyeing Megan Thee Stallion as if he wants to steal her outfit. Some clown him for his “auntie fashion.” The jokes bother him only when they undermine his influence — he’s getting people to play with style maybe more than they’d like to admit. “People been taking notes, and it ain’t going unnoticed,” he says with an assured calm, breaking to munch on the chicken satay. “Time will tell all, but I really don’t care about that shit, bruh. If I inspire, cool. I’m honored by that.” He’s nowhere near as poised when talking about one of his biggest flexes to date: when Rihanna dressed as him for Halloween last year. “Nigga, I was shock as fuck,” he says. “I don’t even know her. I’m still starstruck ’cause I never even met her. Like, damn, that’s P — giving a nigga props.”

The ensemble Rihanna re-created for Halloween. Photo: Gunna/Instagram

By all accounts, Gunna’s breakout should have happened with his 2020 sophomore studio album, WUNNA, which had all the makings of a Big Deal. Its marketing was maximalist — Gunna bathed in excess. Musically, it was his best showing yet and debuted as his first No. 1 album. Gunna had finally arrived, but so did the pandemic. Any celebration for WUNNA was also interrupted by Gunna’s own doing: Two days after the album was released, he appeared on Instagram inhaling nitrous oxide — better known as whippets —before realizing he was livestreaming. He ended the recording, but it had already burned through social media. The two-second mishap became one of the week’s juiciest music-news items. He lost business.

If it feels as if he and his team are now squeezing every last drop of campaign juice out of DS4EVER, they’re accounting for all losses. Pushing 🅿️ all over the internet isn’t Gunna’s only chess move. He’s still teasing something between him and Chlöe. They have a duet on the album that cheekily interpolates Jon B’s “They Don’t Know,” and the music video drops on Valentine’s Day. (“That wouldn’t be very P of her to take my time and waste it,” he also told ‘The Breakfast Club.” “I for sure would keep it P if she moved on, but I wouldn’t like that, no.” Chloë, meanwhile, told fans on Instagram Live, “My love life is music, darling.”) Gunna’s giddiness about her appears sincere, not that it would matter if it weren’t — couples posturing for the paparazzi to push whatever one of them is selling is classic Hollywood. The album’s content is an afterthought for some fans, though there’s plenty to fawn over. On “flooded,” a song produced by Young Twix filled with beautiful guitar loops and bubbly synths, Gunna admits he doesn’t even feel like himself without his favorite jewelry on. “Livin wild” is Gunna in a way we don’t typically get to hear; he spends the entirety of the song soul-baring in a low moan: “I just left the hospital, might need another liver / Kidney failures, I tell you, this shit couldn’t be no realer / My body and drugs too familiar, so it’s hard to clear my system.” “When I recorded that song, I had just got out the hospital after being there for six, seven days,” he mentions. “I had to overcome it. It’s refreshing that I can just put that shit in a song.”

I wonder if, at the rate he’s going, he has finally reached a level of comfort in his career — being seasoned and commercially successful enough to be perceived as a veteran by younger artists in a similar circle. He pushes back: “That’s your opinion. I don’t feel like I’m a rookie, but there’s a lot more I can do, for sure. It’s really just getting started on a bigger superstar platform.” He doesn’t mean Elon Musk–ing himself off Earth. But if part of being No. 1 means being so culturally dominant that the conversation around your music is louder than what’s actually being listened to, that is territory Gunna is comfortable owning: “It’s not based on accomplishments or followers. It’s how you move the culture. If I say your name, what type of impact does it bring? My name hold weight now.”

Want more stories like this one? Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to our coverage. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the February 14, 2022, issue of New York Magazine.

Gunna Pushed Himself to the Top