Chartbreaker: How Gunna Went From 'Only Knowing Struggle' to Having Nine Hot 100 Hits

Gunna generally plays it cool, slithering through performances and videos with an icy calm that matches the downbeat, melodic vibe of so much of his music. But in October, onstage at the BET Awards, performing his top 5 hit, “Drip So Hard,” alongside his partner-in-crime, Lil Baby, he let his mask drop for a moment and broke out in a toothy grin. He didn't realize it at the time, but the moment was a real landmark for the young Atlanta rapper.

“When I seen myself on TV, it made me realize, 'You're doing what you really wanted to do,’” he tells Billboard. “’You're living out your dreams.’”

Gunna was born Sergio Kitchens and grew up in College Park, on the southside of Atlanta, where his mom worked in the cafeteria at his elementary school. “I didn't have life that good coming up,” the 25-year old rapper says. “I wasn't born with a lot of money. We weren't dirt poor but we weren't rich. All I knew was struggle. My family taught me about saving and how to stretch to make ends meet.”

Despite growing up in Atlanta, the music he cites as his first love actually came from New Orleans: Lil Wayne, the Hot Boys and Master P's No Limit Records. He was barely a teenager when he first started recording. “When I was 13, I went to the studio with some neighborhood friends. It was a studio in my friend's garage.” The first song he ever wrote was called “Swag So Cool,” but for a long time, he was just another kid with dreams of hip-hop stardom.

An older head in the neighborhood named Keith “King” Troup became a mentor. “He was like my uncle,” says Gunna. “Troup would always try to tell us, 'Get some money. Stay out of trouble.' He always tried to let us know there's more to this. He used to always be with people who were already doing good, like Allen Iverson. When Iverson was playing basketball, he used to come to Old National [Highway] with Troup.”

Christian Cody
Gunna photographed on Nov. 13, 2018 in Atlanta.

In 2015, Troup invited Gunna out to a video shoot for Young Thug's track, “With That,” which was being filmed on Atlanta's south side. “That was my first time meeting Thug,” says Gunna. “We didn't exchange numbers or nothing like that. We were just cool whenever we would see each other.” But when Troup was shot 14 times and killed at a gas station on Old National Highway in late 2015, it changed the relationship between Thug and Gunna. “We went to the funeral together and that brought us closer,” he says.

Thug was key in introducing Gunna to the wider public, showcasing his nimble, yearning flow on Thug's 2016 track “Floyd Mayweather,” and featuring on the three Drip Season mixtapes Gunna has released each of the past three years. “Thug's just a real good dude. He helped me out a lot to perfect my craft.”

Hanging out in the studio with Thug, Gunna met another key collaborator, Lil Baby. Their 2018 joint mixtape Drip Harder has brought comparisons to Rich Gang and Outkast, and has spawned the biggest hits of Gunna's career: “Never Recover,” a moody creeper that features a verse from Drake, reached No. 9 on the rap charts, and the intoxicating “Drip Too Hard,” which hit No. 4 on the Hot 100. “At first, Baby wasn't even a rapper,” says Gunna. “We just started hanging with each other because we had mutual friends.” After Quality Control honchos Coach K and Pee convinced Baby to try his hand at music in 2017, he and Gunna just clicked. “We're kind of the same,” he says. “We're both young, from Atlanta, we like the same things, so when we get in the studio we just feed off each other.”

Gunna doesn’t claim to have invented the word “drip” but beginning with his first full-length mixtape, 2016’s Drip Season, he has clearly made it his brand. “Drip is just another word for swag,” he explains. “Swag was not our word -- my era is drip, that's our swag.” Fashion is an important part of Gunna's creative mojo and he often slips brand names into his lyrics. “It goes together, clothes and music. A lot of artists can really rap but don't have the image. You'll never go without an image. You've got to have an image for the words.”

Gunna has plans to one day design his own fashion line, but for right now, his future is musical. He has a feature on the new Mariah Carey album (“Stay Long Love You”) and his next release, Drip or Drown 2, is already finished. He's been touring with Travis Scott but still recording nearly every day. “I got a studio on the bus,” he says, explaining that he records on off-days or right after shows. But still, he recognizes that being hot at the moment doesn't guarantee a long career. “That comes with staying humble, staying in the studio, making more music and not feeling like I'm done, like I already did it,” he says. “I'm still working.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of Billboard.