On a partly cloudy spring morning five years ago, Radric Davis — better known as the rap superstar Gucci Mane — quietly traded in his navy-blue prison jumpsuit for Ralph Lauren sweats and Nike Air Jordan sneakers. He had chosen the outfit himself, and his then-girlfriend, Keyshia Ka’oir, brought it to the federal penitentiary in rural Indiana where he had been serving a three-year sentence for firearms possession.
“I remember that day so well,” says Ka’oir today. She had flown in from Georgia alone, rented a car and drove through winding, tree-lined roads on her way to bring Gucci back home a few months ahead of his original release date. “We didn’t tell anyone — his attorneys, no one.”
If the couple’s efforts to fly under the radar that day were thorough — Ka’oir temporarily changed her signature mohawk hairstyle and the two flew commercial — Gucci’s physical transformation ensured an incognito return. Thanks to his twice-a-day workouts — and the fact that he had kicked an addiction to lean while in prison — the rapper had lost 90 pounds, and washboard abs had replaced the East Atlanta Santa’s once protruding belly. “He was so skinny,” says Ka’oir, “his pants were falling off of him when he came out.”
He had undergone a deep mental transformation, too — the “Lemonade” rapper embodying the idea of turning lemons into just that. While in prison he wrote The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, which was published in 2017, and came up with a five-year plan that would cement his status as one of the music industry’s most prolific rapper-executives from the moment of his release.
“When I went to prison, I knew that I was special. I knew I was unique, and I knew I had something to offer that a lot of people didn’t,” says Gucci today. “When I got out I said, ‘I’m going to show everybody.’”
Nearly five years later to the day, Gucci Mane removes his weighty, glimmering diamond jewelry at the end of his Billboard photo shoot and gingerly places each piece into a brown monogrammed Louis Vuitton bag. Next to him, Todd Moscowitz, his manager, Alamo Records CEO and longtime friend, reminisces about the time Gucci creative-directed 12 different music videos — all from his Marietta, Ga., mansion due to the restrictions of his house arrest — following the rapper’s 2016 release. Gucci flashes his 1,000-watt smile — each of his perfectly aligned bottom teeth embellished with a single diamond gemstone — and recalls the resourceful and necessary feat.
During Gucci’s time behind bars, Moscowitz remembers the two communicating through the prison email server, Corrlinks. “One day I said, ‘Listen. Let’s just do a five-year plan, and we are going to build a great strategy for you to make a lot of money and protect your brand and your legacy.’ He said, ‘That sounds good. One change: How about we do the 10-year plan and make all the money?’ It turned out to be a pretty good plan.”
While in prison, Gucci decided he would publish his book, revamp his label, sell the rights to his autobiography to a major film company, go on tour and take nothing less than $100,000 per show.
Since his release, the man known to fans as Guwop has gone gangster glam. Instead of oversized T-shirts and gold grills, Gucci opts for dapper fashion picks, like Chanel collared zip-ups and coordinated Fendi looks with fashionista wife Ka’oir. And while his nickname once stood for “Get Ur Weight Up Pussy,” it, too, now represents a more refined Mane. “#GUWOP -God Unity Wisdom Opportunity Power,” he tweeted in 2016.
His transformation, dubbed the “Gucci Mane Glow-Up” on social media, was far from superficial. Post-release, the former mixtape god has entered the mainstream, collaborating with artists such as Selena Gomez, Drake and Bruno Mars. He spent six weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 as the featured act on Rae Sremmurd’s 2016 smash “Black Beatles” and was nominated for his first Grammy alongside Lizzo for “Exactly How I Feel.” He has released 14 projects in five years, including his first post-prison album, Everybody Looking, which became his highest-charting, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard 200 — a feat he matched a year later with 2017’s Mr. Davis.
Gucci not only transformed his appearance and musical branding to unrecognizable heights — he simultaneously rebuilt his record label, 1017 Global Records, from the ground up. Since 2005, Gucci has been the steward of his own imprint, which began as La Flare Entertainment, in partnership with Big Cat Records, the label that released his debut album, Trap House, that year.
After a financial falling out with Atlanta-based Big Cat, serving a six-month county jail sentence and subsequently reverting to selling drugs, Gucci dropped the name La Flare and started Street N—a Entertainment — a short-lived rebrand that, after an intervention by Gucci’s mother as well as talent manager Debra Antney, then became So Icy Entertainment.
“‘Street N—a Entertainment’ was too hood — that ain’t gone get me too far,” says Gucci. Upon his release from another six-month jail stint, its name changed again to 1017 Brick Squad Records; following a falling out with Antney, he shortened it to 1017, an homage to his childhood home address. After his latest prison release, Gucci created 1017 Eskimo, in partnership with Alamo Records/Universal, but after a few years, decided to go all in with Atlantic Records. “I’ve been dealing with the staff and execs from Atlantic through my artist deal since ,” says Gucci of his decision to enter the partnership. “We already had a great chemistry.” (When asked for details of the deal, a representative from Atlantic said, “We have a fruitful partnership and look forward to a long future together.”)
Much like Gucci himself, 1017 Global Records — the label’s seventh name switch thus far — has become a newly vigorous force. In line with his previous successes with crossover trap signees like Waka Flocka Flame and OJ Da Juiceman, Gucci’s relaunched label has produced stars like Pooh Shiesty while building a roster of promising up-and-comers: Foogiano, Big Scarr, Enchanting and, most recently, BigWalkDog. Pooh Shiesty has been the new 1017’s biggest streaming success by far: The Memphis rapper’s debut mixtape, Shiesty Season, debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 upon its February release and has earned 533,000 equivalent album units in the U.S. through May 20, according to MRC Data. “Back in Blood,” Pooh Shiesty’s menacing smash featuring Lil Durk, has 349 million on-demand streams to date, and has peaked at No. 13 on the Hot 100 chart.
“What first got me were his lyrics,” says Gucci of the label’s new golden child. “When I started hearing his bars and punchlines I said, ‘This guy is intelligent. He’s really crafty. He might be one of the most talented guys I ever signed.’”
For Gucci, relaunching a label amid a pandemic was an opportunity, not a roadblock. “The pandemic is how I popped off my label,” he says. “While everybody [else] is going to sit on their money, I’m going to come out and sign artists. That was my whole strategy.” A few months before global lockdowns began, Gucci took to Twitter and Instagram, promising $1 million and a deal to the “hardest unsigned artist out right now.”
First to cash in was Greensboro, Ga., native Foogiano, who signed a $2 million deal with Gucci and Atlantic: $1 million for production and another as his advance. Soon after came Shiesty, Enchanting and Big Scarr. “How do you just wake up one day and turn me from being stuck in the hood to an unstoppable millionaire?” says Shiesty. “I wasn’t going to sign to anyone else. I promise I wasn’t.”
Shiesty vividly remembers his first meeting with Gucci Mane at Atlanta’s famed Patchwerk Studios, where Gucci recorded much of his early music. Upon arrival, Gucci admired Shiesty’s “money spread,” the skilled act of fanning out bills across the arms and chest as a signifier of wealth. Shiesty recalls that Gucci asked for spreading tips, pulling out his own neat stacks. “He had fresh new hundreds so thick,” says Shiesty. “I had nothing but raggedy 20s.” The rest was history. “He’s like a big brother,” says the 21-year-old of his label boss. “We get on FaceTime and talk for four or five hours.”
For Gucci, creating genuine bonds like that among the 1017 team is a crucial part of his success — and part of what has distinguished him even among the growing class of rapper CEOs — including Yo Gotti (with CMG), Wiz Khalifa (Taylor Gang) and Young Thug (YSL) — using their experience and ears to discover and invest in their successors. “We’ve been like a family. I want to make my artists a part of everything I do,” says Gucci. “And we’re going to all grow together.”
And despite the halt in touring due to the pandemic, Gucci says that growth is well underway, thanks to streaming gains and a lack of typical business expenses. “We don’t even have a studio. We don’t have these overheads that a lot of labels have,” he says. “We’re not doing things the traditional way to make sure we make profit.” 1017 is still the equivalent of a “niche mom-and-pop” in Gucci’s words. But he hopes that “it’s going to turn into a big Walmart.”
Gucci Mane is not a rapper-turned-executive, but rather, an executive-turned-rapper. Growing up in Atlanta (by way of Bessemer, Ala.), Gucci didn’t aspire to be an artist. He graduated high school with a 3.0 GPA, and as a teenager dreamed of discovering the next Kriss Kross. “I wanted to be a Jermaine Dupri,” he says. “I never got into music thinking, ‘I’m going to be this rapper and just chase this solo career.’ It was like, ‘Let’s all put our heads together to help [each other].’ It takes a village to do anything. You need that community.”
Gucci has been creating connections in the Atlanta rap scene since his teenage years. Just after graduating high school, he helped bring producer Zaytoven, then a virtual unknown making beats in his mother’s basement, to prominence; he did it again with Mike WiLL Made-It, who got his start and his signature producer tag from Gucci. He mentored Metro Boomin; made a mixtape with Future, four years prior to What a Time To Be Alive with Drake; and signed both Migos and Young Thug in 2012, making collaborative mixtapes with each before their respective big breaks. Gucci recalls connecting a young, wide-eyed Nicki Minaj with DJ Holiday and the Trapaholics, who hosted her groundbreaking mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty. Gucci even hopped on the tape — which was recently rereleased on streaming services and scored a top 10 Billboard 200 debut — taking the lead on “Slumber Party.”
“He has great ears,” says Atlantic Records executive vp Juliette Jones, who has worked with Gucci since his 2016 prison release. “He really understands culturally what is working and what people are listening to and consuming.”
As Gucci refined his A&R skills, he also gained prominence as a rapper, landing a deal with Warner Music Group in 2009. As an ascendant Atlanta star himself, Gucci spent most of his early career releasing six to 10 raw, eclectic mixtapes a year (which has added up to a whopping 74 tapes to date). Long before the more-is-more streaming ecosystem developed, the release strategy grew his fan base exponentially — and was soon adopted by many up-and-coming trap artists.
Fifteen years after Gucci’s arrival as a forefather of trap, his influence still permeates hip-hop culture. “I don’t think he has gotten all of his flowers for how influential he is to urban music, and culture as a whole,” says Amina Diop, senior vp at Republic Records who manages Gucci. Since his rebrand, Gucci has traded in defeated mugshots for high-fashion campaigns — he was the face of Gucci’s 2020 Cruise collection, solidifying his relationship with the luxury fashion house he was named after. “People began saying, ‘I’m Guwop down,’ because they have on a Gucci outfit,” says Diop. “They weren’t even using the word ‘Gucci’ as it pertains to fashion — they were using his name.”
Gucci has yet to receive traditional accolades, like a Grammy Award, and he is not a Grammy voter. While he says he doesn’t care much about receiving a gold-plated gramophone for himself, he does hope for signee Pooh Shiesty to win a few. “At this age and this stage in my career,” he says, “I get more pleasure out of seeing my artists kill the charts than me.”
On the dimly lit lower level of a Manhattan bar following his Billboard photo shoot, Gucci says he has made peace with the lack of official industry acknowledgment. But as he reflects on the laundry list of artists and producers whose careers he has effectively A&R’d, it’s hard not to notice the residual hurt in his eyes. “Is the true story of what really happened with all these artists and how I helped them going to come to light?” he asks pensively. “There are some interesting stories, and it was so long ago that they get lost. Nobody ever really told the true story. [Artists] want to tell you what made them look good… I don’t get the credit.”
While his Grammy shelf may be wanting, Gucci’s legacy is firmly established — that much was clear last November, when his Verzuz showdown with former archnemesis Jeezy broke the record for the platform’s most-viewed battle ever. The feuding rappers’ episode (their first time sharing the stage after a nearly two-decade-long beef) attracted over 9 million viewers — a ratings figure that rivals the Grammys telecast itself.
The rappers spent the night fluctuating from ice cold glances to firing shots — squabbling, lobbing disses, keeping fans on the edge of their seats in hope and fear that tensions would boil over. Jeezy appeared measured, calling for unity and speaking on generational wealth and ownership, while Gucci was ever the entertainer, hurling disses and insulting Jeezy’s outfit. “My outfit cost 10 bands — look at my opponent, man,” said Gucci, pointing to Jeezy. “I don’t have no $10,000 outfit,” responded Jeezy, “but I own half of Atlanta.”
In the night’s most jaw-dropping moment, Gucci boasted about killing Jeezy’s friend, Pookie Loc, during a 2005 attack on Gucci at the apartment of a friend. Gucci, who believes Jeezy orchestrated the attack, later turned himself in for the killing, claiming self-defense. The charges were soon dropped due to insufficient evidence.
After his impassioned performance of “Truth,” the infamous Jeezy diss track about the attack, Gucci wasn’t done. “Put that n—a ass in the dirt,” he said, causing audibly mixed reactions from those present.
While Gucci may have used the Verzuz to swing the hatchet rather than bury it, the pair took the high road in the end, performing their early smash “So Icy” together. “I appreciate you for throwing out the olive branch,” said Gucci. “It’s all love.”
“Looking back at it, it was tense but it was real,” Gucci says now. “It was a good step forward. For us to do that and for nothing bad to happen, that was great.” In the end, the “So Icy” performance became an historic hip-hop moment and an opportunity for both to receive their flowers.
“If you wait on [the world] to give some credit, either they’re going to do it when you’re dead or when somebody has fallen off and they’re not relevant anymore,” says Gucci. “They never give it to the person when they’re still in the moment.”
Sitting in the Florida mansion she shares with her husband, Keyshia Ka’oir giggles. She is recalling how, for weeks after he first left prison, Gucci would gently wake her at 4 a.m. to whip him up a pre-sunrise breakfast. “I’m like, ‘Listen here, you’re on your jail schedule. People don’t wake up at four o’clock in the real world,’” she says with a laugh. Gucci still starts his day at 4 a.m. — but instead of waking Ka’oir for a carb-free meal, he heads to the gym for the first of two daily workouts. “I feel like I get a lot more accomplished if I wake up before everybody,” he says.
Ka’oir and Gucci met on the set of his music video for 2010’s “911 Emergency,” after the rapper insisted the Jamaican-born entrepreneur and model should appear as his love interest. After some convincing, she agreed, and at the shoot, she was taken aback by the man she met. “He was super well-spoken, he was loving, he was well-mannered,” she recalls. “He held my hand, he opened the car door. And I was like, ‘This is different,’ especially for a gangster like him.” As Gucci tells it in his autobiography, his behavior even surprised him. “The whole situation was out of character for me,” he writes. “I knew she was special.”
The relationship rapidly blossomed, but Gucci’s mental and physical well-being had long been deteriorating. As chronicled in his book, the rapper had a not-so-graceful tumble from his throne in the early 2010s: There were multiple jail stints and criminal charges, ranging from minor traffic violations to battery, aggravated assault and possession of weapons, plus a court-mandated stay at a psychiatric hospital. He had become embroiled in heated lawsuits involving formerly trusted friends and partners and was dropped from Atlantic. In a now-infamous 2013 Twitter tirade, he targeted Nicki Minaj, Drake, Jeezy and Yo Gotti, among many others. Meanwhile, his addiction to lean worsened, which both Ka’oir and Gucci say led to many of his falling-outs. By the time he went to prison on the firearms conviction, “he was all over the place,” says Ka’oir. “It wasn’t a surprise for any of us. He was terrible at times.”
When she met Gucci, Ka’oir had already begun building an empire of her own as the founder of Ka’oir Cosmetics, and says she made her first million by 26. She certainly didn’t need Gucci — so why stick by the self-described “paranoid mess” through his three-year prison sentence? “I honestly loved him, and realized that he needed love,” says Ka’oir. “He didn’t grow up with love. I felt like he was broken and just needed someone to show him affection, for him to have a purpose. And I wanted to be his purpose.”
Each day of his sentence, Ka’oir spoke to Gucci multiple times. She sent him organic groceries on Christmas and Thanksgiving, scheduled her workouts and meals to coincide with his and constantly reassured him that it was only a matter of time before they’d be together again. “I remember telling him over the phone, ‘Just allow me to love you and come home to me,’” she says. “And those were the words and the conversations and the emails that got him out safe.”
While the pair now lead a loving relationship, their early days were a different story. In his book, Gucci admits to mistreating Ka’oir, screaming at her over the phone after two weeks in an isolation cell, and berating her on social media. “I was in such a bad place when I went to prison, and I just give her all the credit,” he says. “She definitely is a blessing and I’m grateful for her. I don’t take her for granted.”
Upon his release from prison, Gucci was required to attend court-mandated therapy. He was open to the idea, in part out of curiosity as to whether the rumors circulating about his mental health had any merit. “Everybody used to say that I was bipolar; I wanted to know if it’s true or not,” he says. In the end, “[the therapist] told me I was fine,” says Gucci, and “[she] suggested I don’t come anymore.” Still, he says the experience was positive and sought out a therapist of his own, whom he now periodically talks to on FaceTime.
“There’s a stigma that we have to get past, especially in the Black community,” he says. “Everybody needs to take care of their mental health and shouldn’t be ashamed if they’re going through something and reach out to a professional.”
In October 2017, Gucci and Ka’oir tied the knot in a $2 million wedding televised on BET (it drew over a million viewers), and last year they welcomed their newborn son, Ice Davis, two days before Christmas. “For maybe the first four weeks, [Gucci] put him to sleep every night on his chest by himself,” says Ka’oir. “He’s a great dad.”
Gucci also has a 14-year-old son, who he only became aware of when the child was 10 months old and finally met when he was 1. “Me and the mother were kind of like strangers,” he says. As a result, Gucci felt like a first-time father with Ice. “I never knew how much attention you got to pay to a baby,” he says. “It’s not easy. It’s a great thing and I love it, but it’s definitely challenging to be a parent.”
Much as his own father inspired him, Gucci hopes to build something for Ice. His new album, Ice Daddy, set for release on Father’s Day, pays homage to his infant son and to his father, who was nicknamed Slim Daddy. In addition to gracing the cover of the album, Ice is listed as an executive producer. “I always want my music to talk about what was going on in my life,” says Gucci. “And the most important thing in my life now is my son.”
Fatherhood has caused him to reflect on his own parents’ struggles a bit differently. “Having a baby definitely made me less critical of my parents,” he says. “Now I see that we’re all humans and do the best we can.” According to 1017 artist Enchanting, Gucci is an especially protective father. “His kids are in quarantine, which he does not play games with,” she says, adding with a laugh, “Nobody sees those kids unless you get a corona[virus] test or a damn vaccine.”
As Gucci’s mother-of-all face tattoos — the infamous ice cream cone on his right cheek — has slowly faded away, so too has his trapper lifestyle. Gone are his weekly strip club outings; family nights have replaced evenings of throwing $50,000 in cash in the air. And, “He doesn’t travel with a gun anymore,” says Ka’oir. “When we first met, the gun was on his lap at all times. Now, he’s definitely a businessman.”
Like Gucci’s own come-up, the rise of 1017 hasn’t been entirely smooth. In March, Foogiano was arrested after he violated probation by melting off his court-ordered ankle monitor; he’s now set to serve a five-year prison sentence. “Foogiano getting arrested and locked up, that put a damper on everybody’s spirit,” says Gucci. From the tone of his voice, his sympathy is clear. “He’s going through the same things that I went through,” he says. “It has been tough seeing him go through that, especially with him having a little boy. Me and him had a son right around the same time. He’s in good spirits, but it’s still unfair to him, and we’re going to try and appeal it.” While Foogiano is in prison, 1017 will still roll out his music and visuals.
When it comes to the decision-making of his signees, Gucci says he uses his own life as a testimony. “I definitely don’t want to come off as a hypocrite,” he says. “I always tell them I want them to have a long-lasting career, and I show them what it takes to get there.” His own arrests, addictions and damaged relationships came at a high cost: He parted ways with signings like Migos and Young Thug, whose careers he could not oversee from behind bars. Each arrest or personal setback often disempowered Gucci in his quest for both peace and profit. For his protégés, he’s determined to get it right. “With my artists, it’s different,” he says. “I do want to be their role model.”
As live events slowly return, Gucci himself still plans to tour but has significantly slowed his musical output, opting to drop compilations and mixtapes dedicated to each of his signees instead of a slew of solo projects. Strategizing with Atlantic on rollouts and plans for his artists is what most excites him now. “Seeing them succeed, that’s what makes me feel more accomplished,” he says, his voice swelling with glee. “It’s something that I’ve always loved to do, but now I’m actually getting paid from it.”
His immobilizing years in prison may be over, but Gucci moves just as thoughtfully as he did on his first day out. His colleagues and loved ones say he’s beyond punctual, often showing up to events, calls and photo shoots early (he arrived at his Billboard shoot 45 minutes beforehand), and spends his spare time outside of work with his son and wife. He is calmer and more trusting, free of the grip his vices once held.
“With me doing drugs and the toll it took on my life, I look at the Pimp Cs, DMXs, Black Robs, Princes and I decide what I want my legacy to look like,” he says. In 2018, Gucci sold the rights to his autobiography to Paramount Pictures, which he says will release a biopic in the near future. In the meantime, he and Ka’oir have plans for growth of a different kind. “I think Ice needs somebody to play with,” he says, hinting at perhaps having another baby or two.
As Gucci shares vivid reflections on the “three most challenging roles” in his life — father, husband and music executive, in that order — he looks self-assured and collected, a far cry from the broken man who entered a federal correctional institution eight years ago. “I’m definitely still a work in progress,” he admits in his Alabama drawl. “I’m not perfect. I’m still evolving.
“I got another opportunity to do it again,” he continues. “This time, I’m not going to prison. I’m here to experience it from the beginning to the end.”