Having access to so much free music that you can't find enough time to listen to even a small fraction of it is the very definition of a first-world problem. On the surface it seems about as serious as "My high-def TV only does 720p," but it's a problem that's actually having a serious impact on music.
Fighting it is already out of the question. Trying to convince someone with a downloading addiction to restrict his consumption for any sort of ideology, no matter how admirable, is usually pointless. (Even if some such ideologies are admirable, like Michaelangelo Matos's Slow Listening movement, which I profiled in my column back in February.) The upsides are very attractive—the ability to check out new music easily and instantly, with no financial risk, no physical product to store or sell back, and no judgmental record-store clerk to get past. But the same factors have also helped demolish listeners' attention spans, made "keeping current" an even more Sisyphean task than it was before, and made the idea of spending enough time with an album to familiarize yourself with its every nook and cranny seem positively quaint.
Many artists, seeing their own releases as a mere raindrop in this musical downpour, would tell you that this is a bad thing. But I suspect Gucci Mane would not.
On October 10 the Atlanta rapper, backed by mix tape producer DJ Drama, dropped The Burrprint: The Movie 3-D—a reference to Jay-Z's recent The Blueprint 3 and his own infatuation with diamonds (diamonds —> ice —> brrr)—a 20-track collection that like most of his work was posted online for free and propagated virally across a cross section of the blogosphere broad enough to encompass hard-core hip-hop heads, pop-music aficionados, and hipster tastemakers.
The nonprofit aspect is nothing new. Hip-hop mix tapes have been around since they actually came out on tapes, and for the most part the artists and DJs making them didn't expect them to make money so much as advertise their legitimate, label-sanctioned releases. Hip-hop lovers of all stripes realized a long time ago that mix tapes allowed for many types of fun—beat-jackings, loopy throwaway experiments, serious shit-talking—that labels tended to frown upon. What's changed in the past few years is that people who don't know the right places on Canal Street in New York or on the south and west sides of Chicago have access to them. The new-and-improved form has proven so popular that artists working in styles far removed from hip-hop have embraced it—Fall Out Boy, for instance—and within hip-hop maintaining a steady stream of mix tapes is expected of any performer still on his game. Where rappers ten years ago tried to emulate Jay-Z's rapper-as-CEO formula, these days they're looking to Lil Wayne, who despite giving away a majority of his music can move multiplatinum numbers of the records he does charge money for.
Gucci Mane—who heads a posse called the 1017 Brick Squad—has a tendency to push envelopes, and the week after The Burrprint came out, he did so in a spectacular way. On October 17 at 10:17 PM, he released three more mix tapes. Collectively entitled "The Cold War," the triptych consists of Guccimerica (with DJ Drama again), Great Brrritain (with DJ Scream), and Brrrussia (with DJ Holiday) and totals 35 tracks, including spoken-word interludes. Take out the skits and Gucci still released 42 songs in seven days.
Gucci's made his name on quantity. He isn't the best rapper alive. He's not bad at all, but his wordplay doesn't inspire the same Jordan-highlights-reel-level combo of awe and disbelief as that of greats like Jay-Z and Lil Wayne. His game is releasing a bewildering amount of pretty-good-to-really-good music, with a few clunkers thrown in, so that the fans he already has are constantly engaging with new material from him, and crossing enough stylistic boundaries—from chilly, minimalist trap rap to a guest spot on a remix of the Black Eyed Peas megasmash "Boom Boom Pow"—to make sure that anyone who's at all curious about hip-hop has probably heard him at some point.
Nothing on The Burrprint or any of the Cold War parts is an outright clunker, and most of it's pretty good. He prefers backing tracks in the current Dirty South style, which means vintage drum-machine sounds in classic trunk-rattling beats with complex programming like 128th-note hi-hats and blindingly fast tom fills; on top of that goes any combination of throwback rave synths, woozy funk organ, and unidentifiable electronic sounds. The backbone of "Break Ya Self," from Brrrussia, is a loop consisting of a couple notes from what sounds like a chopped-up guitar chord, followed by a brief whiney synth note and a weird flickering noise that might be a video-game sound effect. "Boiy," from Guccimerica, features a hyperfast snare fill that sounds freakishly close to the horrible buzzing that certain faulty CD rips produce. And while there are more than a few standout tracks—"Break Ya Self," "N.E.R.D.," "Foreign," "Dope Boys"—a lot of the mix tapes' bright spots come from guest verses—from Bun B, Juvenile, Killer Mike, and Drake, among others—which provide the occasional break from Gucci's sometimes monotonous and always nasally congested flow.
So if Gucci isn't the best rapper around and two hours listening to just him can seem like a slog, why bother with him at all, never mind for the running time of four whole records? Because he's what MTV, when declaring him number six on their "Hottest MCs in the Game" list, calls "a character." Because the cover of The Burrprint shows him shirtless in 3-D glasses, hugging movie snacks to his bare chest, a piece of popcorn wedged in his begrilled snarl. Because his persona vastly overshadows his lack of virtuosity.
There's something appealing in how unself-consciously goofy his lyrics frequently are—like his declaration in "Throw Money" that he and his crew "throw up money like we mad at the ceiling." When his thick southern drawl—which renders foreign as something closer to "farn"—comes up against a tricky vocal pattern, it's far from bad rapping—it's more like verbal slapstick. And he's a genuinely eccentric wordsmith: "It ain't all about your swag," he told MTV after hearing about his list spot. "I got them spices. I'm seasoning it real well for these folk."
And, oh yeah, he releases three albums in one night, which is patently insane. People love an entertaining weirdo. The music-distribution paradigm may be radically shifting, and making a living selling records may seem like an increasingly ridiculous notion. But I think the Gucci Manes of the world will do just fine.