HomeWorld NewsGunna Makes Triumphant Return to Stage, Reaffirms Support for Young Thug at ‘The Gift’ Concert – Billboard
Gunna Makes Triumphant Return to Stage, Reaffirms Support for Young Thug at ‘The Gift’ Concert – Billboard
September 11, 2023
Amy E. Price/GI for SXSW
In many ways, the most recent years of Gunna’s career have cast the rap superstar in a number of different narratives — some of them false and some of them true. To some, Gunna is a hero — a true star who was able to launch a formidable comeback album amid his precarious new social standing. To others, he is a villain, the new mascot for snitching. On Saturday night (Sep. 9), during his first headlining performance in two years, Gunna obliterated each and every one of those narratives while simultaneously crafting and cementing his story on his own terms.
Treating Brooklyn, New York’s Barclays Center to a special show titled The Gift, a nod to the first part of the name of his A Gift & A Curse album — which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 in July — Gunna electrified the arena with an impressively staged, discography-spanning show.
Gunna teamed with PLUS1 and the nonprofit organization Goodr for The Gift. Every $1 from every ticket sold went towards The Goodr Foundation, which, according to its website, “strives to end world hunger by cultivating countless resources.”
A Gift & A Curse served as Gunna’s official follow-up to last year’s Billboard 200 No. 1 album DS4Ever. That record, which spawned memorable hits such as “Pushin P” (with Future and Young Thug) and “P Power” (with Drake), became Gunna’s second consecutive No. 1 album. Primed to become one of the defining hip-hop album eras of 2022, the DS4Ever promotional campaign was cut short in May 2022 when Gunna (alongside Young Thug and 28 other YSL associates) was charged in a 56-count RICO indictment and subsequently turned himself in. After pleading guilty to a single racketeering conspiracy charge last December and receiving a four-year suspended sentence, Gunna was released from jail.
Drawing on imagery informed by Ancient Greece and the Old Testament alike, Gunna tore through a towering set that reminded the arena of his consistent ear for pristine beats, his enviable roster of hits, and his unwavering allegiance to Young Thug and YSL.
To begin his set — which was preceded by brief opening sets from “In The Party” rapper Flo Milli and a remarkably uncharismatic YouTuber-turned-rapper named DDG — Gunna emerged from behind a life-size marble bust of himself toppled onto its side. Donning a gray tank and crystal-studded shorts, Gunna’s entrance was a take on the “phoenix rising from the ashes” trope that only he could deliver. For his first major performance in two years, Gunna arrived completely aware of the gravity of the moment. A video interlude that played before he took the stage traced the imagery of his album covers, eventually landing on the bust that characterized the DS4Ever artwork — his final album before he went to jail.
With his victorious stance atop the toppled bust, Gunna embraced the blows to his name and reputation and funneled them into a winning display of his live performance capabilities and the quality of A Gift & A Curse. Nonetheless, he smartly balanced all of this by choosing “Back At It,” A Gift & A Curse’s breezy no-frills opener, as the first song of his setlist. The packed arena erupted into an avalanche of cheers as the song set the tone for a night anchored by a crisp live band and a determined entertainer who tore through his discography without a backing track.
The first half of The Gift featured a slew of hit singles as well as fan favorites. As Gunna maneuvered around the elaborate set — which also included a life-size marble snake and several large crystalline structures — Gunna delivered renditions of a number of DS4Ever songs, a reminder that although the show was thematically centered around his most recent album, the concert also served as the first live performance of several DS4Ever tracks. With the help of a fantastic drummer and guitarist, Gunna’s performances of “South to West” and “Too Easy” rocked Barclays. For “Poochie Gown,” a gaggle of statuesque women struck poses in flowy gowns as Gunna rapped his way through the track; the staging nodded to the song itself while also casting the women in Muse-adjacent roles in Gunna’s Ancient Greece-inspired production.
Gunna’s first moment of onstage banter came in his introduction of “P Power,” his hit Drake collaboration from DS4Ever. He flirted with the ladies in the crowd before launching into a lively rendition of the X-rated track. In terms of crowd engagement, classic Gunna reigned supreme; the lyrics of “Drip or Drown” and “Pedestrian” ricocheted across the arena with notable intensity. The best part of the first half of the show — besides the incredibly dope skull-adorned microphone stand — was when Gunna recreated his viral A Colors Show performance of “Top Off,” complete with a hanging mic.
To introduce the second half of the show, yet another video interlude played on the massive screens behind Gunna and his band. This time, documentary-style footage provided the first real glimpses into Gunna’s psyche regarding the aftermath of the YSL RICO indictment, his stint in jail, and the thorny intricacies of his post-release life. “I don’t think we talk,” a voice advises Gunna over the phone, “We put out the music.” The interlude also included snippets of what appeared to be conversations between Gunna and his mother — tender moments in which she encourages him to keep pushing despite the difficulties he’s facing. The montage showcased a clearly despondent Gunna packing bowls of weed, ruminating on the way his world unraveled, and figuring out how to pick up the pieces and rise from the rubble.
From there, the second half of The Gift launched into the stronger and more memorable A Gift & A Curse tracks, as well as his borderline bulletproof litany of collaborations with Young Thug and Lil Baby. Album standouts “Back to the Moon” and “Bread & Butter” sounded even more lush and layered in their live arrangements; both songs cut much deeper with the added emotional context of the preceding interlude. Gunna performed the beginning of the latter half of his set on an elevated platform adorned with a combination of floral greenery and skulls à la the Gift & A Curse album cover — a move that highlighted the thematic throughline of the show’s art direction. For this part of his set, Gunna opted for an outfit change: gray-black jeans paired with a black top that recalled the obsidian wings of fallen angels. Before launching into a medley of Young Thug collaborations, Gunna flashed a “Free Jeffrey” graphic across the screens, and performances of “Hot,” “Ski” (Gunna actually performed Thugger’s verse on this track), “Oh Okay,” Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hit “Pushin P” (No. 7), and an exclamation of “Free Slime!” soon followed.
The final act of The Gift featured the two biggest hits from Gunna’s last record. “Fukumean,” which became the highest-charting solo song of Gunna’s career on the Hot 100 (No. 4), roared through the arena, cementing its status as not only one of the most beloved anthems of the year but also an immediate staple in Gunna’s live shows. “Rodeo Dr,” which recently got a cheeky, cinematic music video, elicited even stronger crowd reactions. Shirtless and charged with a new level of urgency and adrenaline, Gunna’s grit and gratitude illuminated Barclays on Saturday night. “I love the f— out of y’all, I swear to God,” he said. “This s— is crazy.”
And crazy it was. For an artist who saw pop culture at its most fickle while at the height of his career, Gunna’s awe was far from contrived. If anything, it was a genuine reclamation of his narrative. By drawing on various pieces of religious imagery, Gunna was able to reassert his own humanity. As triumphant as his return was, he made the admirable decision to not gloss over the hurt, pain, and depression of the past year — and that emotional depth helped add smart pockets of nuance to an already well-staged and well-produced performance. A true gift indeed.