Gunna Is Best When He Stays in His Lane on 'DS4EVER'
Published Jan 12, 2022Like any emerging rap artist from the South, Gunna's emergence into the hip-hop consciousness in the late 2010s was met with a number of comparisons. For some, he sounded too much like the man who signed him, Young Thug; others had trouble distinguishing him from partner-in-crime Lil Baby when they rapped together. In reality, Gunna never really sounded like either: he's much too relaxed to be confused with the eccentric Thug, and Baby's rugged intensity is more of a contrast to his signature laid-back nature than a similarity. The best parallel to Gunna isn't even one of his contemporaries or a Southern rapper at all; it's Mase. It all checks out: they both emphasize opulence and indulgence in their music, wear equally ridiculous outfits, and worry less about being the hardest or best MC and more about being the flyest one.
If the finely aged, criminally underrated Harlem World epitomized exactly what Mase was about, then 2018's Drip Season 3 did the same for Gunna. Both wielded multiple strong singles ("What You Want," "Lookin at Me" and "Feel So Good" for the former, "Oh Okay" and "Top Off" for the latter) and are shockingly consistent in their message that yes, they are richer than you and yes, your girlfriend knows it. Yet where Mase struggled post-Harlem World, eventually choosing an early retirement in 1999, Gunna's career has grown significantly. His post-DS3 career has only seen him grow in popularity, morphing his signature sound to fit an aquatic theme on 2019's Drip or Drown 2 and a tropical aesthetic on 2020's WUNNA. His music, at its best, is heavily addictive, and resembles the auditory version of a viral "satisfying video" compilation. His ability to find the perfect pocket on production from Wheezy, Taurus or Turbo has become second nature, and his flows are so smooth and carry so much forward momentum that it feels less like rapping and more like watching a perfectly-executed figure skating routine.
DS4EVER, Gunna's latest effort, is a departure from the singular moods of Drip or Drown 2 and WUNNA. Whether for streaming optimization reasons or a desire to mix things up, Gunna experiments more than ever, throwing in a few R&B cuts and some Rod Wave-esque "pain" songs. The experiments are mostly hit-or-miss; where some, like the Keith Sweat-sampling "livin wild" and closer "so far head > empire" succeed at shedding a more personal light into the rapper's life, the R&B collaborations can come off as phoned-in, playlist fodder in order to cover all bases. Considering Gunna already has such a calm, laidback approach to making music, the possibility of inviting singers into his world could have yielded interesting results; instead, he awkwardly fits onto his own tracks, and ends up coming off as a featured artist on his own album.
The varied success of the songs that look to expand Gunna's palette are balanced out with a number of records that call back to the vibe of the previous Drip Season tapes, dominating the record's strong first half and keeping its backside afloat. Whether buttery smooth ("south to west" "flooded") or dark and brooding ("pushin P", "idk that bitch"), they're displays of a master at work, someone who knows exactly the type of emotional reaction he wants to get from his audience and how to reach it.
He's also found organic chemistry with many of the rapping guests on the album, specifically Young Thug, Future and Kodak Black. Unlike the singers on the record, he plays off them perfectly, often going back-and-forth with his guest and elevating them along the way. These are the moments on DS4EVER that remind you why Gunna has become so popular; he's able to lend some of his borderline-unreasonable confidence into his audience and his guests. The high points of DS4EVER provide escapism in its most enjoyable form: it doesn't matter where you are in life; when you hear a song like "poochie gown", with its pummeling Metro Boomin beat and its unrelenting bravado, you're young, rich, and sought-after.
DS4EVER is certainly a good mainstream rap record, and fans of Gunna and the community of high-profile Atlanta artists he's aligned with will find plenty to enjoy across the album's 19 tracks. Still, the question of where he goes from here is left for listeners to wonder. The attempts at diversifying his sound go over decent at best, and while he's mastered his specific lane of luxury rap, the time will come when it either becomes dated or his fanbase simply loses interest. It would be foolish to totally count out someone who was able to forge a distinct sonic identity in what is possibly music's most saturated genre, and it's exciting to see Gunna actively looking for new ways to innovate on his signature sound even if they didn't come out perfect this time around. With the Drip Season era coming to a close with DS4EVER's release, here's to hoping the next chapter of Gunna's career is just as addicting as the first. (YSL/300)