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Gucci Mane @ The Eagles Ballroom

April 13, 2017

Apr. 14, 2017
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Last time I saw Gucci Mane play a concert in Milwaukee, he was fat. It was the summer of 2013, just a few months before a total meltdown that culminated in felony firearm charges that sent him to federal prison for more than two years (he’d been facing 20), and the Atlanta rapper was towing a massive, seam-busting gut he made no effort to suck in. He seemed so proud of that belly that I’d assumed it was deliberate—a sign, like the bulky diamond chains around his neck, of a man well-fed and a life well-lived.

That may be how he saw it at the time, too, but that’s not how he sees it anymore. The gut, he’s since explained, was a side effect of drug addiction, since calories from the gallons of syrup he downed each week had to go somewhere. “I wanted to lose weight,” he told the New York Times shortly after his prison release, “but if it took for me to stop drinking lean to lose weight, it wasn’t even a choice.” With sobriety came fitness: Over his stay in the Terre Haute penitentiary, Gucci’s magnificent gut gave way to the improbable abs of an action movie star, in one of the most drastic physical transformations in rap history. Comb the internet and you’ll find plenty of fans joking that this Gucci Mane is an imposter replacement for the last one. You’ll also find some who truly believe it.

A far cry from the self-destructive addict of several years ago, the new Gucci Mane exercises daily, eats kale, and now speaks in the sound bites of a motivational speaker. “Anybody can do the stuff Gucci used to do,” he said of his newly disciplined lifestyle to the Times. “Can y’all copy living how I’m living? Can y’all copy getting y’all life together?” And this new Gucci Mane is enjoying a moment. The internet greeted him with a hero’s welcome, and rap stars young and old lined up to work with him. Just months after his release, he had a number one single, thanks to his cameo on Rae Sremmurd’s giddy smash “Black Beatles.” His stature hasn’t been this high since his heyday mixtape run in the late ’00s.

It’s no wonder his show at the Eagles Ballroom Thursday felt like such an event. Some three thousand fans filled the venue, an unexpectedly massive turnout for a cult artist who in the past has played the city for just a couple hundred people. And although his concert was no more or less ceremonious than his past appearances—he’s not much of a performer; he mostly ambles around the stage, rapping over his own vocal tracks with little in the way of crowd work—it was more satisfying for the simple reason that, for the moment at least, Gucci Mane is a star again.

He did the hits—“Wasted,” “Lemonade,” “Making Love to the Money”—but the crowd seemed just as juiced to hear random mixtape tracks, including new material like his comeback track “First Day Out Tha Feds.” This was one of those shows where the audience did most of the work. The average attendee was considerably more amped up than the guy on stage, and many rapped along just as hard.

Late in the show Gucci briefly handed the stage to a special guest: Rico Love, the hit-making Milwaukee producer/singer, who performed his big hit from a few years back, “They Don’t Know.” The crowd should have gone wild: Here was one of the city’s few true hometown heroes, one of the only Milwaukeeans of the last decade with any kind of presence on national radio, doing his biggest hit. Yet they couldn’t have been more indifferent. Greeting him with all the excitement of a commercial break, they stood silent, pulling their cell phones from the air for one of the only times during the hour-long set, and impatiently waited for the headliner to return. The crowd didn’t want Rico Love. They wanted Gucci Mane. Smart money says they’ll grow tired of him again in time—they’ll begin to take him for granted, as they did in those years before his incarceration—but on this night, at least, their love for him was unconditional.

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