The Autobiography of Gucci Mane
Much as I relish a negative book review, negative reviews of memoirs can be cringe-inducing. What should be a critique of a book too often becomes a critique of a life, of choices made or flaws revealed. This kind of criticism confuses me. Should the writer lie about their own lives (more than they, presumably, already do)? Or should only people with spotless records write memoirs?
And why do we read memoirs in the first place? Must there be a life lesson to impart, or a record to set straight, two very common themes in this genre? I recently read The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, and at first glance, his story would seem to fall in the latter theme. He has several records, criminal and otherwise, to clear up. But the book became more than that for me, and made me understand what can make a celebrity memoir more than a PR puff piece.
I had no idea who or what a “Gucci Mane” was before picking up this memoir. If you are also old/uncool: He’s an Atlanta rapper known for facial tattoos, erratic behaviour, stints in jail, and inspiring the “Bitch I might be” meme a few years back (see below for a book blogger friendly version). He had a couple mainstream hits in 2009, but somehow I missed them. He’s also credited with creating (or at least popularizing) “trap music”, a phrase I’d vaguely heard of and associated with stuff like Biggie’s Ten Crack Commandments (nope, way too upbeat.) I had so much to learn.
This book caught my eye when OG hockey blogger Wanye Gretz tweeted about it. (I get excited when non-bookish people talk about books! I think it’s my chance to pull them over to the dark side or something.)
Gucci recounts his childhood in Alabama, moving to Atlanta and getting into the drug trade, gaining money and power in the “trap” and hustling mix tapes on the side, and recording his breakthrough single in rapid succession, because that first musical success is not the end of the story, it’s just the beginning. (Music) deals gone bad lead to years spent in and out of jail, and the pressure leads to addiction – not to the crack he was selling (he paid attention to Crack Commandment #4: never get high on your own supply) but to to codeine-laced cough syrup (“lean”). Through all this, he keeps writing and releasing music – tons of it.
Despite the chaos, the narrative feels tightly controlled. That’s likely thanks to his collaboration with music journalist Neil Martinez-Belkin (read the fascinating story of how their partnership came about; this was not a case of the publisher assigning a ghostwriter!) Gucci’s ability to produce massive amounts of music despite the constant court cases and jail stints and benders is compelling enough, but the book weaves in song lyrics, newspaper clippings, and court transcripts to even greater effect.
Gucci maintains a conversational tone throughout, and doesn’t stop to explain himself. Sometimes I felt like I was reading a Russian novel – there are a lot of names that looked kind of the same (everyone’s “Young” this or “Lil” that) and you’re never sure who will be an important character later on. I listened to a lot of music in between chapters, and Googled some of the more obscure slang. There are plenty of eye-popping details and anecdotes (including an absolute gem about his chance meeting with Marilyn Manson) but there are equally memorable passages about growing up in a chaotic home, selling drugs at a young age, and the prison industrial complex that seems designed to ensure that those convicted keep coming back.
It’s that contrast between a musician with massive bursts of creative energy, and a man at the mercy of addiction and violence, that makes for such a compelling read. Martinez-Belkin says, of visiting Gucci in prison while working on the book:
The part that was surreal for me about that visit was it’s weird to see a person who you know, and the world knows, to be such a powerful person in a powerless position. And honestly that shook me.
I got the sense that Gucci was writing right up to the present day and had to wrap things up quickly. The “happy” ending feels a bit forced; comparing his old videos to his new ones makes it pretty darn clear that he’s healthier now (cue old fans saying they miss the “old Gucci”, or, my favourite YouTube comment, paraphrased: “he was better when he looked like Snorlax“), and his recent marriage is certainly Insta-perfect, but I wonder if the Trap God has put all those demons to rest. I listened to his latest album, Mr. Davis, and it’s good. But some of it is bleak. That’s kind of his thing.
The cynical side of me says that this book, like many celebrity memoirs, is just a piece of personal branding. It’s a way to stay relevant. It doesn’t even matter if people read it, but if they do, they’ll read a carefully crafted story about how he came from nothing, lost almost everything, and gained it back again. But this book got to me. I believe he wrote it because he has to write, and what he wanted to say wouldn’t fit in a few verses. He certainly wasn’t doing it to build sympathy. His two most publicized stints in jail were related to pushing a woman out of a moving vehicle, and murder. And I don’t think he was doing it to build up a tough persona. An account of coming off opiates that rivaled the toilet scene in Trainspotting was pretty vulnerable and humbling.
No matter why he wrote it, it hit the right spots for me as a memoir reader: an authentic voice, revealing a place and time and context beyond the author’s own life, written in a way that takes a few risks and strays from the safe PR formula.
If you’re still not intrigued, try watching his very first music video, for So Icy (which, as you’ll learn, directly lead to that pesky murder charge) and one of his very latest, for Members Only, a song I find totally mesmerizing. Same guy, twelve years and worlds apart. Don’t you want to know how he got from point A to point B?
Yay! Welcome back 🙂 (It feels good to be the person on the other end of this conversation for once, haha)
It’s so rare for you to post a straight up book review. I’m wondering why that is. Do you not like writing them? Do you think they’re useless? Do they just get less views? Just curious. I know you’ve been less than a fan of straight reviews for a while, but it’s funny because you’re great at them.
Regardless, I loved it. It’s so weird that you read this book, but that’s what makes it fun.
What else are you reading these days?
Thank you! As for why I stopped writing book reviews: I often find them boring. Both my own, and other people’s. Unless I have a unique angle for a review (as I think I did here – reading a celebrity memoir about a celebrity I’ve never heard of) I don’t bother. Or, if I don’t have some earth shattering take on the book, but wasn’t to review it anyway, I end up taking it super seriously, you know, reading the book more than once, pulling quotes, reading other reviews, sometimes as far as interviewing the author and trying to place the review somewhere other than my blog. Which is all a ton of work. And…… few people read or comment. I might also be bitter because I never received payment for the whopping two paid reviews I did in 2017.
Basically paralysed by a sense of my own insignificance?
This one I did “for fun” and wrote in a day. Didn’t agonize. Also, it started as three mini – reviews, but I soon realized this is the only book I wanted to talk about!
The issues freelancers have with receiving payments (not even on time, I’m talking AT ALL) is astounding. Publications you wouldn’t even expect, too. It’s too bad.
But as for reviews, I hear ya. I try not to straight up review books anymore. I typically like to isolate a specific moment in the book and talk mostly about that, and then kind of slide the review stuff in. It’s working for me at the moment, I think.
And I’ve come to terms with being insignificant LOL.
(I’m reading The Odyssey, which I guess is a reread but the first time was 22 years ago. I’m finishing up another memoir on audio, Marcus Samuelsson’s. And slogging through A Brief History of Seven Killings, seriously considering DNF after 400+ pages!!)
I have heard such varied things about Seven Killings. It’s sitting on my shelf, and I’m a bit nervous to give it a go.
wow this a super random book to have read, but I love it. And my god, that author photo! I think it’s important we always strive to read outside our comfort zone because it forces us to look at lives that aren’t normally depicted in the literary books we typically pick up (like…iced out rappers for instance!). I’d never heard of him either, so I must be old and uncool too. Mind you, I always knew that.
Funny thing is, he is the same age as me. So, older than you. So I guess we’re more “uncool” than “old”.
I feel like I’m both uncool and old, always have been. Like, I can’t wait to live in an old folks home and just be left alone and have all my meals made for me…and that’s just one example!
“(I get excited when non-bookish people talk about books! I think it’s my chance to pull them over to the dark side or something.)”
Hah! Did you tweet him your review of this book or is your Big Plan to tweet him your *next* review. When exactly do you drop the lure?
Oh I just slid right into his DMs… but we ended up talking about rap, mostly… oh well… 🙂
I agree with Rick – you’re reviews are always great!
I so rarely read celebrity memoirs that I can’t even remember the last one I read. I would be more likely to read one like this, actually. One about someone totally different from myself. Famous or not.
He’s not *totally* different from me. We were born in the same year, and both did well through school without trying too hard… 🙂
Ok, totally is not the right word. 🙂
Btw, I had a dream that I went to visit you, and we took your boys to a playground. Then, on the way to the airport we stopped at a farmer’s market and bought jewelry. 🙂