From Trap to Temperance: The Importance of Gucci Mane’s Sobriety

Hi. My name is Benjamin Lerner and I am an addict in early recovery. This is the second article I have written for Cypher League that I have started with those words, and hopefully the last I will write from the viewpoint of a fresh-off-the-street, reformed opiate addict who is still just barely 2 weeks out of inpatient drug treatment and only a month and a half clean off of all mind altering substances.

I started this article off this way not to use my writing as a platform to brag about my newfound sobriety, because God knows I will only keep what I have with a large dose of humility and self awareness, but only to contextualize my perspective in relation to both drug addiction and hip-hop music. As both an addict and an artist, a journalist and junkie who has been actively involved in the hip-hop community both in active addiction and early recovery, this subject means a lot to me. My only hope is that none will be offended by my choice to not mince words or use tactfully chosen euphemisms while discussing the passionate way I feel about our nation’s current opiate epidemic, the drug glorifying culture of the modern music industry, and what I perceive as the blatantly obvious connection between those two seemingly separate cultural trends.

Let’s start with the most positive and surprising news though:

Gucci Mane is out of jail, and just dropped one of his dopest projects to date, Everybody Looking. He also appears to be healthier and more confident than ever, and is a self-proclaimed addict in recovery with three years of sobriety. To be fair, I suppose one could easily argue based on his past actions that his sobriety and newfound fitness regime is merely the result of his being institutionalized so long, or perhaps nothing more than a gimmick to turn people’s heads and rebrand himself for shock value to sell a few records fresh out of the penitentiary. I, however, am an eternal optimist, and choose not to be so cynical. Something about the increase of confidence in his voice and his on-screen magnetism in the video for “First Day Out Tha Feds” speaks to a sea change in the inner workings of Gucci’s mind that sparked a shift in thinking responsible for this lifestyle change. Critics may roll their eyes and say he needs to stay in his lane for the long term good of his career, but I see his new artistic and lifestyle choices as brave and refreshing.

In the depths of my own opiate addiction, where every next fix to which I manipulated and conned my way was a daily game of Russian roulette, I never thought I’d live to see Gucci Mane free, let alone sober and fit. Indeed, it must be surprising and in many ways jarring for all fans of the Atlanta native’s trap-centric, codeine-coated early sound to see Gucci without his trademark bloated belly poking out from under his chains and double cup overflowing with enough Actavis to medicate every cold and cough in all of Georgia.

Some may even see it as a betrayal to his brand, an ill-advised sharp left turn out of the lane that he rode all the way to multimillion dollar superstardom and Trap God legend status, or, at the very worst, a corny and played out higher-moral-ground attempted sellout and crossover move like Ma$e attempted to make with Welcome Back. I hate to say it, but in any other situation they might be right. Gucci had certainly gone out of his way to establish himself as an arbiter of all aspects of hip-hop hedonism before his lengthy incarceration, using every one of his tracks as a platform to brag about his ever-increasing codeine, marijuana, alcohol, and luxury car habits.

With mixtape series titles such as Trap God, Trap House, and Trap Back, he made no effort to conceal his intentions of glorifying his forays into the drug business, and the Dionysian splendor that came with it as the results of his profits. He set the standards for down South drug rap unapologetically, with bravado and finesse that would rival the most egomaniacal, pompous Roman emperors. The question is, can a former Trap God really preach from a standpoint of newfound temperance and positive life change with any clarity or credibility? Can Trap House Gucci find true artistic redemption in his sober raps? You might call me crazy or overly faithful in the ability of addicts to put their lives back together, but I believe the answer is a resounding yes.

More than that, the rap game—and the world—needs a sober Gucci Mane right now. Having almost become a statistic myself in America’s current opiate epidemic, I can safely say that there is no such thing as moderate opiate use for most people. It might seem harmless when rappers flash bottles of Actavis syrup and piles of name brand Xanax pills in their videos in the same way they flash Louis Vuitton and Gucci accessories, but it creates a culture where people attach the same status and value they attach to the fancy cars and clothes in the videos to the use and possession of those “designer substances.” It’s become so bad that Actavis pharmaceuticals had to completely discontinue production of their Codeine/Promethazine cough syrup, issuing a statement declaring that due to the glorification of their product in association with the rap industry that they could no longer consciously loose such a product on the world when it was in such high illicit demand.

Who can blame Actavis for their decision when you look at the big picture though? As I write this, we are currently in the midst of the largest opiate epidemic we have had in American history, where the majority of heroin addicts begin their addictions with opioid pain medications that they are prescribed legally by doctors, and where there were more overdose deaths than car accident deaths for the first year on record in American history. Due to the fact that this specific epidemic is much more suburban, upper class, and white than the 1970s heroin epidemic, and the much more unfortunate fact that the entire justice system and political system has been historically racist to the core in response to how it deals with national crime trends, opiate addiction is now a special interest concern all of its own, with the surviving relatives of dead addicts from wealthy blue blood families lobbying stronger every day for restructuring of sentencing laws and “Good Samaritan” overdose clauses, which led to the legalization of store bought Narcan, an opiate overdose reversal nasal spray, in states like Ohio.

As a result, the opiate epidemic has gone beyond the underground economy and up into the highest chambers of politics. Obama called the battle against prescription pill and heroin abuse a “bipartisan issue” in his most recent State of the Union, as did Bernie Sanders in his Hillary endorsement speech, and even the rotund and pompous Chris Christie at one of his early presidential campaign speeches in New Jersey. Though politicians can do little to stem the tide of prescriptions for powerful opioid drugs being handed out like raffle tickets to secretly addicted and dependent patients, let alone stem the tide of incredibly potent fentanyl laced heroin surging into the streets more rampantly than ever coast to coast, the openness with which these politicians now speak compassionately instead of hatefully towards opiate addicts speaks to the hopelessness of this crisis of addiction, and the rapid evolution of the ideals of what used to be the most pious and unflinchingly self righteous segments of American culture towards drug addiction.

Indeed, these are scary times. Having just come off of a three year struggle with heroin myself and having lost half a dozen friends to heroin overdoses last year, my knowledge of this epidemic is more than statistical, and my relationship and attitude towards the music that glorifies drugs that get people started down the path to addiction is gritty and visceral. Whenever I used to hear a Future or Wayne song that glorified opiates or benzodiazepines in the depths of my addiction, I would nod my head and smile in the same way a man who drives a Chevy truck and listens to country music would nod and smile when he heard Blake Shelton sing about his Silverado. I was proud to be engaging in the same idiocy and hedonism as the rappers on the radio, and I formed a mental illusion of unity and camaraderie with those artists in my head, proud to be a junkie like them with my designer pills and potions that matched with my designer jeans and shoes they also blatantly advertised in their songs.

Alas, I would like to say that I have given up listening to all drug infused trap music now that I am clean and sober, but I find myself still listening to these tunes and getting entranced in the euphoric recall that comes with the mumbled monotony of a Future verse. Although it makes me angry as hell that people associate the misery and death that opiate and benzodiazepine addiction brings to many people’s lives with the glamorous and sexy lifestyles portrayed in modern trap rap songs, much like when dealing with my wishes for other people’s recovery, I must accept that everyone has their own life journey. Just as I was powerless over my addiction until I accepted complete defeat and worked to try and make a change, I am powerless to help those who refuse to change with their addictions, and artists like Future must find their own truth on their own time. All is not hopeless, however, because although I am not in a position to bring light where there is darkness in the current trap game, perhaps sober Gucci Mane is.

Alex Oka