Gunna is home. After pleading guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy in the YSL RICO investigation; after being held in Fulton County Jail for 217 days; after the massive success of DS4Ever and two Grammy nominations for “Pushing P” with Future and Young Thug, Sergio Giovanni Kitchens has returned, albeit with the black stain of snitch culture weighing his name down.

A Gift & a Curse is Gunna’s first solo release since the final installment in his Drip Season series, and the first since his life got turned upside down. Gunna’s lackadaisical aquatic delivery had once pushed the Atlanta rapper to the perch of stardom. His last album, DS4Ever, was filled to the brim with production from Metro Boomin, Wheezy, Southside and more. Now, those collaborators are gone, as Gunna’s lethargic delivery that had once got him plaques and diamond hits now stings with the recoil of deep-seated pain.

There are no features on a Gift & a Curse. He’s more isolated, tracing his melodies with paranoia and melancholia. Gunna underlines a turn away from himself, a self-imposed need for reinvention. On “back at it,” he’s bitter: “it’s gonna be a whole ‘nother sound,” he says solemnly. Cam Griffin, Omar Grand, and Turbo produce the song, as well as the majority of a Gift & a Curse. It’s a solid list of producers — trusted even. But, there’s a looming emptiness that shrouds the project, seen through the lack of contributions from many of Gunna’s day one collaborators.

Since Drip or Drown in 2017, Gunna hasn’t released a single mixtape or album without the touch of Lil Baby, Wheezy, and Thug. Now they won’t even talk to him. Lil Baby and Wheezy have cut him off after Gunna took a plea deal to reduce his charges, leading to allegations of ratting on the YSL collective who supported his rise. His mentor Young Thug is still behind bars. This isn’t just Gunna’s first album without his closest collaborators, this is his first album he’s made in six years without his best friends. Gunna describes a pain akin to heartbreak, paranoid that blogs and media outlets are going to spin his words and meddle in his affairs.The result is a letter of indignation, indicting both the circuses of the US Judicial System and snitch culture, as well as their respective ill side effects.

Gunna’s sober now. He’s put the cup down (and continues to note that fact almost as a crutch throughout the album). The sluggish raps are still there, but Gunna’s weary and bitter. A tone that was once mellow now has a bite, a bite that cuts deeper than the fangs pictured on the cover of Drip Season 3 (Deluxe).

“back at it” sounds sticky, with the spatter of pointed assonance. Gunna’s flow syncopates over slow electric-guitar chords — a bit more corporate than his typical sound. There’s a sense of technical sloppiness throughout the project. Smoke alarms ring in the background; the imperfections are slight and could have simply been addressed with a fresh set of eyes.

Gunna’s flows still evoke the mesmerizing, trance-like feeling he’s rose to prominence off of, interrupted only by alliteration. For example, on “bread & butter,” Gunna croons: “Goin’ all out when it’s ‘bout that bread and butter, they’ll kill for clout, I put that on my dead brother.” The hymnal rhyme scheme hides Gunna’s own disappointment, regretfully simmering in the recent pivotal moments in his court case: “Lawyers and the DA did some sneaky shit, I fell for it.”

Missteps cost attention. Lines like “Ice, lil’ bird, shittin’ on all you lil’ turds,” on “fukumean,” or, “Spankin’ these n****s that thin in’ we hoes” on “rodeo dr,” stick out like sore thumbs. It’s disappointing that these songs feel cliché because we, as an audience, understand the poignancy in Gunna’s voice. He’s hurt, left without the ones he thought would get him through. “born rich,” though lyrically underdeveloped, has Gunna investing in future children. He’s sullen and emotionally stale. Gunna has nowhere else to look but forward.

Gunna’s return to the mic doesn’t have to be unblemished. There is no standard for catharsis. “idk nomore” spells out the vague yet easily identifiable anxieties. At times, Gunna dictates vindictive statements caused by the prison industrial complex’s effect on his mental health. Elsewhere, he falls into new and old patterns. “turned your back” and “bottom” feel hollow, recycling bars about sobriety and flaunting cash instead of pulling his guard back even further.

Sometimes, the album feels at odds with itself. Gunna’s still making songs that would fit on a Drip Season deluxe, but it’s juxtaposed with pain ballads you’d hear on a Lil Durk album. And though the instrumentals and somber delivery evoke the pain he’s clearly going through, he keeps the audience at a distance, making the album poignant, but also obligatory. This doesn’t sound like the music Gunna wants to make.

He’s caught in a rainstorm of emotions after the social isolation of lock up, losing the friends he had spent months waiting to see after his release, and still having to keep his words vague enough to not damage the ongoing YSL RICO investigation. He can vent, but only so much. He can show bits of himself, but he still has to live alone in the shadows. A rapper trying to hang on to their old image after a seismic event that changes the course of their life is quite compelling, but only if they commit.