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?