I’ve been rewatching The Sopranos this year. It’s been a long process – partly because of the density of the average Sopranos episode and partly because of the glut of new content to keep up with that has been released over the past couple of months. Also, I took February off because who wants to spend Black History Month being called an eggplant?
In the meantime, I’ve been following the racketeering case against Young Thug, Gunna, and the rest of Young Stoner Life Records – or the Young Slime Life gang, if you buy the Fulton County District Attorney’s account of events of the past eight years. I watched as Gunna, Unfoonk, and nearly a dozen other members of the group accepted so-called “Alford Pleas,” admitting to lesser charges in exchange for shorter sentences while maintaining their innocence.
Hip-hop fans and artists alike turned on Gunna, declaring him a “rat,” someone who should be excommunicated from the community. His longtime producer Wheezy deemed him persona non grata; Lil Durk assumed he must have given information about the so-called criminal dealings of Young Thug (who most rappers and producers maintain hasn’t done anything illegal, so somebody has to explain to me the logic on that).
This has all both amused and frustrated me – a lot like my Sopranos viewing of late – probably because my recent rewatch has illuminated to me just how ridiculous the show wants us to know its characters really are. The members of the DiMeo crime family are, to put it bluntly, a bunch of petty, ignorant, emotionally-stunted goobers; their entire system of rules and honor codes ultimately amounts to a grown-up version of the He-Man Woman-Haters Club from Our Gang and The Little Rascals.
The gangsters of the show are men with the mindsets of little boys, all trying to prove to each other how “manly” they are, based on a concept of manhood out-of-sync with the world around them. This holds true of most mafia-centric entertainment: The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino, The Gangs Of New York, and yes, the hip-hop whose artists have based their stage personas (or past criminal activities) on these characters and “this thing of ours.”
Which makes it all the more baffling why Gunna is being held to these standards, when all he’s ever really claimed to be is a rapper. Yes, he’s rapped about illicit activities, but it’s been pretty firmly established by now that lyrics in rap should be understood to be exaggerated, fictionalized, or outright made up. No one believes Lupe Fiasco has a mecha in his backyard. Jadakiss’ bathtub most definitely does not lift up, nor do his walls do a 360.
Rappers are often playing roles, but what happens when those roles blur the line between creativity and reality? To take it even further, what happens when they drop the facade entirely and get “real” again? Gunna attempts to answer these questions on his new album, A Gift And A Curse, but honestly, I’m more interested in the response than I am in the music, which is as technically proficient as we’ve come to expect from Gunna – if a bit more earnest, humble, and soul-searching.
While social media was awash in posts claiming that Gunna’s career was over due to his “snitching” – something no one can confirm or do anything other than speculate about until the actual trial starts – most recent projections put the album at just under 100,000 equivalent units. That’s certainly a dip from his past projects, but it’s also far from “imminent retirement” numbers. It undermines the thesis that hip-hop and this mafioso-lite “honor code” are as closely bound as outsiders and parasites like DJ Akademiks seem to think.
And that, ultimately, is a good thing. As much as hip-hop is influenced and impacted by money from crime (after all, it costs a lot to get started in the music business, and there are few other options for many folks from America’s inner cities), it’s also taken lots of inspiration from mobster movies, leading to this impression even among the staunchest rap insiders that “keeping it real” is synonymous with acting like a Tony Soprano or Henry Hill.
But, spoiler alert: We know how their stories turn out. Hill not so coincidentally turns state’s evidence in an effort to save his own life. Tony’s fate is left to the viewer’s imagination, but that smash-cut to black bodes ill for someone whose “honor code” included murdering men he’d known since grade school, employees who he himself characterized as “good earners,” and even his own nephew (who was, admittedly, a f*ck-up of the highest order whose loose-cannon behavior often threatened the family business).
Whether or not you believe YSL was a gang or a label – and it matters, because you can’t really have it both ways in this case – holding someone who the vast majority of us only ever knew as an artist to the outdated, self-destructive rules of a pack of overgrown children is about as dumb as idolizing wiseguys who openly view the Black creators of hip-hop as “ditsoons,” “mulignans,” and “butterheads” in the first place. (Tony fainting at the sight of a box of Uncle Ben rice will never not be funny.)
And as for A Gift And A Curse, my big takeaway was this: Gunna has made some of his best music by stripping away the artifice and the trappings of gang life. That should tell us a lot about the direction hip-hop should be going instead of trying to rehash the same old stories – all of which have tragic endings.
A Gift And A Curse is out now on Young Stoner Life Records/300 Entertainment.
Gunna is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.