Show & Prove
Words: Christina Lee
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

Gunna pulls apart the three stacked diamond rings on his finger, the better to see their gold bands glimmer inside this dimly lit studio at Future’s new studio recording compound in Atlanta on an oppressively sunny day.

“I’ve been doing rose and white,” says the 25-year-old rapper of his jewelry. He gestures toward his Cuban link chokers in the same color scheme. Today, his Dolce & Gabbana high-water chinos frame his Gucci socks and Christian Dior dad trainers. Seven years ago, he showed that same attention to detail, as his personal style and adolescent drip (True Religion jeans, Gucci shoes) helped him land “Best Dressed” honors in high school.

Now that he’s the most prominent of Young Thug’s YSL-affiliated protégés, Gunna, born Sergio Kitchens, wonders whether his actions should speak louder than his clothing. He doesn’t think he can get away with only posting outfit-of-the-day shots on Instagram; Instagram Live must be in his near future. He’s even muted in conversation, with a talking voice that’s about one-third of the way between total silence and normal dialogue. It’s all reflective of a laid-back nature that leaks onto wax.

“If I call you playing my music, you’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s Gunna,’” he says. “Even on a song you ain’t heard, you’re gonna know my voice for singing. But if I call you on the phone—‘What’s up? Are we still doing the interview today?’— you’re not gonna know who this is.”

Make no mistake: That is still progress, considering where Gunna was a decade ago. Growing up in College Park, Ga., he first learned the value of hard work from watching his mother, a school cafeteria manager at College Park Elementary, while he was a student there. The youngest of five brothers, Gunna began making music at age 15, pulling from artists like Hot Boys, Boosie BadAzz and Drake to shape his own sound. He recorded his first song with a friend named Bobby—even that early music revealed a young artist with designer-brand taste. (“Swag so cool, I’m super clean, I like my Cartier lens,” Gunna says, citing a lyric from that song.) He knew instantly that he wanted to pursue rapping as a career.

In 2013, Gunna dropped his first project, Hard Body, which presented him as exactly that: an eager rookie with a tough exterior. Two years later, the aspiring young rhyme slinger met Young Thug on the set of the “With That” video through Keith Troupe (of Thug’s song “King Troupe”), an uncle-like community figure who looked after them both. Troupe’s death that same year drew the two artists closer, leading to Gunna’s first major feature appearance on Thug’s 2016 track, “Floyd Mayweather,” alongside Gucci Mane and Travis Scott. “Sometimes when you get in this game, you think that you’re going to take off if you do a song with someone big,” he says. “But that’s not the truth. Everything with you got to be good—the visual, the push, the production.”

Gunna wouldn’t see his first check from streaming royalties until 2017’s Drip Season 2, which makes sense. Marquee features from Offset, Playboi Carti and, of course, Thug would compel anyone to press play. But compared to his guests’ pop art approach to hip-hop, what stands out most in Gunna’s post-“Floyd” releases is his preternatural calm, a take on trap even more impressionistic than Thug’s Barter 6. Troupe taught Gunna not to overstate himself. “Don’t go back and forth with nobody,” the rapper remembers him advising. “Don’t argue. We ain’t doing that. What you going back and forth with somebody over anything for?” Meanwhile, the Atlanta hip-hop scene rewards such stylistic individuality above all else, as Gunna demonstrated again on last November’s Drip or Drown and Drip Season 3, his true breakout project, this past February.

“When you think of all these other guys—Lil Wayne, Future, Drake, anybody that is actually putting a stamp on anything—they all came in with their own flow,” says Turbo, one of Gunna’s go-to producers, responsible for anthems like the Lil Baby-guested “Sold Out Dates.” “They all came out with their own sound. That’s why [Gunna] is easy to work with. He don’t sound like nobody.” Gunna, who will open for Travis Scott on the fall and winter Astroworld tour, says that he’s laid down 50 guest verses this year. That may or may not include the forthcoming collaborative tape, Drip Harder, with long-time pal Lil Baby—he won’t say. Either way, Gunna learned from Young Thug’s example that he’d best capitalize off this newfound attention. “He just let you know that it ain’t never enough,” says Gunna, who landed four features on YSL’s Slime Language compilation project in August. “You gotta keep going. He go to the studio every day—every day. Even on show days, he in the studio. Even on tour, he’s in the studio. I don’t think nobody got more songs than him.”

Gunna isn’t solely interested in keeping up with his competition. The other day he and his friends remembered this old lyric of his, from before people bothered to transcribe them online, where he boasted of wearing four rings like the Audi logo. Today, he sports rings on six fingers, as he fans out a wad of new Benjamins (and a scant Andrew Jackson) for a photographer’s snapping camera. This image brings to mind multiple lyrics of his, including a couplet from 2017’s “Invest,” where he raps, “I’m the one that’s gon’ protect my flesh/These hundreds help young Gunna worry less.”

“You say so many things in the song that you don’t remember everything until you play it back,” Gunna says. He reflects on the new house that he purchased for his mother. “We just speaking stuff into existence, on God.”

CAMERON KIRKLAND

Check out more from XXL’s Fall 2018 issue including Meek Mill's letter to his younger self and more.

See Photos of Meek Mill for XXL Magazine's Fall 2018 Cover Story