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Monday, July 23, 2012

Gucci Mane @ The Riverside Theater

July 20, 2012

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In hindsight, Gucci Mane would have been better off at a smaller venue. In a sign of either the Atlanta rapper's falling star or the many miscalculations of the promoters who booked the show on short notice and did little to advertise it, the entire crowd at Gucci's Friday night performance easily fit in the modest pit of the Riverside Theater, leaving the theater's 2,000-some seats empty. That the whole crowd shared the standing area in front of the stage must have irked the few ticket-holders who paid extra for that privilege under the promoters' overzealous ticket-pricing plan, but if ever there was a concert that didn't need reserved seating, this was it.

It was only a few years ago that the idea that Gucci Mane might fill a venue like the Riverside didn't seem completely laughable. Although legal troubles frequently stalled his career, Gucci emerged late last decade as potentially the greatest grassroots rap success story since Lil Wayne, a bizarre savant whose odd genius was best captured on his many mixtapes. Of course, that genius only arrived in spurts, and it never announced itself. Gucci's best tracks were laced with droll wordplay and gloriously absurd depictions of the rapper's lavish lifestyle—rainbow-colored fleets of cars; mansions stocked with exotic animals; jewelry he can barely lift—but rather than playing up his punch lines, Gucci's marble-mouthed flow hid them, if not garbled them entirely, leaving it up to the listener to pan for whatever gold may or may not be hidden in each verse. It was no wonder, then, that Gucci never became a commercial phenomenon. Radio flirted with his 2009 hit "Wasted," as well as several of his similarly triumphant singles, but ultimately passed him by in favor of prettier rappers with showier, much simpler flows. In the age of hashtag raps, where rappers highlight even their most obvious puns with flashing neon lights, there's no room for an understated eccentric like Gucci.

Friday's performance was a textbook in-and-out rap show. Sparkling in several thick diamond chains and a watch "so stupid icy I can't even tell the time," in the words of one of his songs, Gucci took the bare Riverside stage at 11 p.m. and played a lean 40-minute set with no encore, backed only by a DJ who was less interested in working the crowd than reminding them to hit up the after-party at Club Onyx. Gucci's unhurried rhymes and skewed vocal inflections were never meant to translate well to the stage, and the rapper often seemed to be competing against his own backing vocal tracks. Still, there were several moments throughout the set when the beat dropped out, leaving Gucci alone with his mischievous ramble, and he'd flash a corked smile as he puttered through a particularly sly verse. During those brief glimmers of charisma, it was easy to envision a world where this weird, wonderful and frustrating rapper really could pack a 2,500-capacity theater. That world, sadly, seems more like a far-fetched fantasy with each year.