The “First Day Out” song — the track a rapper drops immediately after coming home from prison — has become a hip-hop staple. And the songs are often riveting portraits of pent-up energy sponsored by the American carceral state
The rapper, born Jatavia Johnson, was incarcerated for over a year on a 28-month sentence for credit card fraud charges. At the time of her sentencing, the City Girls were red hot off the strength of their appearance on Drake’s Scorpion album. To her partner Yung Miami’s credit, the duo is just as in-demand after her bounty of features over the past year with artists like Cardi B and French Montana. And now that the “Free JT” campaign can be pronounced backward, they can count on a new level of anticipation for their next offerings.
JT’s freestyle has 3 million Youtube views in less than a month, reflecting the eternal efficacy of capitalizing on the “just home from jail” hysteria with a “First Day Out” record. The “First Day Out” song has become such a hip-hop staple that Gucci Mane actually has two of them. On a surface level, the “First Day Out” record can be boiled down to marketing 101. When an artist comes home from jail they garner a groundswell of attention, and taking advantage of the visibility with new music is a no-brainer.
But from a hip-hop head’s perspective, the “First Day Out” record is lightning in a bottle. It’s a voyeuristic glimpse of the kind of energy that (thankfully) very few artists will ever tap into. These just-home streams of consciousness are a ball of resilience, fury, optimism, lament. In some cases, they’re even declarations of revenge. Ideally, there’d be no “First Day Out” records, because no one would be “in” in the first place. But they exist, and they’re often riveting portraits of pent-up energy sponsored by the American carceral state
A day after JT’s record was released, Gucci Mane took to Instagram to share a graphic noting, “no one will ever top Gucci’s ’First Day Out.’”
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Gucci is referencing his 2009 classic that ended up on his Writing On The Wall mixtape. Gucci Mane’s version is regarded as the standard-bearer that all subsequent “First Day Out” tracks reference, but it’s technically not the first “First Day Out” record. That distinction goes to Violent J of the Detroit-based Insane Clown Posse. On October 18th, 1991, Violent J commemorated his first day home from a six-month jail sentence with “First Day Out,” a song that would ultimately end up on ICP’s 1992 Carnival Of Carnage album.
Lyrically, the track is a worthy predecessor to all the versions to come after it, as J reflected that, “with a smart mouth I paid my dues / steel toilets, worn blankets, and rubber shoes.” In typical ICP fashion, Violent gives us the raw narrative of his first day home, rhyming, “I’m smellin’ like shit and my chin is scruffin” while on a blind date, while she “probably took a long, greasy ass, smelly shit” in the restaurant bathroom. The slow-paced track is a time capsule of the early ‘90s, where many artists’ flows still resembled the slow, emphatic, bar-for-bar exploits of a Run-DMC or NWA.
It’s unclear how much of Violent J’s recollection is based on his life and how much is artistic license. (In an interview from 1998, Violent J said that he’s been “in and out of jail a million times.”) The same can be said for the next notable “just home” track: Tupac’s 1994 “Out On Bail” record. Tupac wasn’t a global icon in 1994, he was a talented-yet-troubled rapper-actor who couldn’t seem to stay out of drama. He cultivated such a polarizing public image that VIBE asked “is Tupac crazy or just misunderstood?” on their February 1994 cover. He had been arrested multiple times in the early ‘90s, including for assaulting rapper Chauncey Wynn from the group M.A.D. with a bat and Menace II Society co-director Allen Hughes after a discrepancy. But those charges paled in comparison to his November 1993 charge for first-degree sexual abuse, after he and his crew allegedly sexually assaulted Ayanna Jackson in a New York hotel room.
It’s unclear when exactly “Out On Bail” was recorded. But lines like, “want to label me a criminal and cuff me up / got a pocket full of money so they rough me up” make it conceivable that he crafted the song as a fiery rail against the system after bailing out on the November 1993 sexual abuse charges. There were few instances of songs being recorded and released the same day in the early ‘90’s, which makes the song an era-reflective addition to the canon. The song was set to be the first single from his Thug Life crew’s Thug Life: Volume 1 album, but Interscope Records apparently scrapped the idea because the song was too controversial.
“Out On Bail” still became mired in controversy. Kanye West is still reviled by some for interrupting Taylor Swift’s 2009 VMA Speech to champion Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” but Tupac inadvertently did similar to A Tribe Called Quest at the 1994 Source Awards. Tribe was accepting an award for Best Hip-Hop Group Of The Year, when Tupac screamed, “throw that shit on. Out on bail!‘ and began performing the record in fiery fashion. Some people believed that Tupac was intentionally interrupting, but Busta Rhymes later clarified that Tupac let him know the incident was a misunderstanding apparently between the soundman and the show’s producer.
Beyond the controversy, the fiery performance exemplifies why it’s one of the most riveting post-jail confessionals ever. Even if Tupac didn’t actually write this song after bailing out in 1993, the performance feels like he did. The moment is an underrated instance of Tupac’s career-long biomythography, as it offers a glimpse into his manic, paranoid mindset after.
Gucci Mane’s “First Day Out,’ which would come 15 years later, was also a peek into the mind of a rap star who just couldn’t get right. Like Tupac, “the old” Gucci Mane couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble. He had caught an aggravated assault charge in 2005 after assaulting a nightclub manager in June of 2004. He had dodged a major bullet when a murder charge (stemming from a shooting involving Jeezy affiliate Pookie Loc) was dropped. But the aggravated assault charge had him on a probation sentence that he repeatedly violated, including in 2008 at a commercial peak of his career.
After a six month stay in county jail on a probation sentence, Gucci hit the studio and freestyled “First Day Out,” a two-and-a-half-minute taste of “that seventh floor Rice Street straight out a cell shit.” Like “Out On Bail,” “First Day Out” was uninterested in self-reflection or atonement:
I’m starting off my day with a blunt of purp
No pancakes just a cup of syrup
Baking soda, pot, and a silver spork
You already know it’s time to go to work
From the first four bars, Gucci had everyone hooked. He recalls in The Autobiography Of Gucci Mane that “when I exited the booth every person in the studio had their eyes on me, looking bewildered. [Zaytoven] had goosebumps. [DJ Holiday] looked like he just watched me walk on water. It was like I’d just spit the hardest shit these people had ever heard in their lives.”
It’s very possible that the song was the hardest shit they had ever heard. “Free Gucci Mane” was such a repeated rallying cry throughout Gucci’s numerous probation violations that the early days of Twitter were rife with jokes about the hyper-relevance of “Free Gucci Mane” shirts. The Atlanta rapper was on his way to being “hip-hop’s next superstar” as XXL noted in 2010, but he just kept violating his probation. A lesser person would have faltered under such repeated self-sabotage, but Gucci came out of jail sounding as locked in as ever on “First Day Out.” That’s why even if it’s not the first “First Day Out” song, it’s unquestionably the standard-bearer.
That distinction was solidified when Chicago rapper Chief Keef recorded a veritable cover of the song to commemorate his release from a 60-day stay in a juvenile detention center after Pitchfork decided that taking an on-probation 17-year-old to a gun range and filming it was a good idea. Chief Keef was unabashed about his love for Gucci Mane, once listing “Gucci Mane’s Whole Catalog” on a a Complex favorite song list. “First Day Out” must be near the top of the list, as most of Keef’s lyrics are a Chicago-flavored twist on Gucci’s original.
Gucci starts off his day “with a blunt of purp,” while Chief shifts to the more general “blunt of herb.” Instead of “I hop up out that van with that duffle bag,” Keef “hopped up out that Rari with that Louis bag.” Interestingly, Gucci’s Mane’s “did you miss me or miss my raps bitch?” is Keef’s “did you miss me, or you ain’t care, bitch?” reflecting his generation’s inundation and desensitization to the prison industrial complex.
The most alarming trend in the successive is that they exist at all. Several of the “First Day Out” tracks that followed Gucci’s model were recorded by artists in their early 20s, if not teens. Three of the songs were recorded by artists who are currently back in jail: Kodak Black, YNW Melly, and Fat Trel. Kodak released his version in June of 2017 after violating house arrest stemming from a slew of charges, including possession of a firearm by a delinquent, false imprisonment, fleeing or attempting to elude law enforcement, and robbery. Kodak rhymed on the track that, “that was my twelfth time going to jail / that was my second time going to hell and back.” He then proclaimed that “still I prevail,” but that hasn’t been the case for Kodak.
Since 2017, he’s been charged with sexual assault in South Carolina, a house arrest violation stemming from an Instagram Live gaffe, and multiple gun charges, including a May 2019 charge of falsifying a federal gun application. He’s facing ten years on the federal charge and 30 years in the rape case. The chances seem slim that Kodak will be able to experience the redemption that Gucci Mane did.
Just a year earlier, in May 2016, Gucci Mane was released from federal prison on gun charges, and dropped “First Day Out The Feds.” But instead of simply extolling a lifestyle that could likely lead him right back into jail, he got reflective:
It’s a lot of people scared of me and I can’t blame ’em
They call me crazy so much, I think I’m starting to believe ’em
I did some things to some people that was downright evil
Is it karma coming back to me? So much drama
My own mama turned her back on me and that’s my mama
Gucci Mane has since become the poster-boy for rap redemption, even getting his federal parole terminated two years early because of good behavior.
Perhaps Gucci Mane’s introspection set the tone for Tee Grizzley’s “First Day Out,” the most commercially successful entry in the canon. Unlike, Chief Keef, Kodak, or Offset —who recorded a “First Day Out” in 2015 upon release from a seven-month sentence on gun and drug charges — Grizzley wasn’t an in-demand artist with fans eagerly awaiting his release. He was a young kid from Detroit writing rhymes while in jail for two robbery convictions. Luckily for him, he was released from jail in October 2016 after serving roughly three years and released “First Day Out” as his debut single a month later. The song quickly picked up steam, catapulting him as a young artist to watch. He signed to Atlantic Records in 2017, and aside from an August 2018 arrest for missing curfew, he’s stayed out of the clutches of the law.
Grizzley’s “First Day Out” isn’t a defiant, back-to-business track. His heartfelt recollections of how “bein’ broke did somethin’ to my spirit” and worrisome lament that, “I’m on parole in two states, I can’t move wrong / The feds tryin’ to build a case, I can’t move wrong” resonated with fans. He went from being in jail for stealing from Michigan State — and a Kentucky jewelry store — to having LeBron James and Jay-Z shout him out. Hopefully Grizzley’s “First Day Out.”
After Grizzley, there have been several other notable “First Day Out” tracks. DC’s Fat Trel released one following a year-plus stint in jail, though he’s since been incarcerated again. New York rapper Young Lito, formerly of Troy Ave’s BSB Records, used his “First Day Out’ freestyle over a remake of Grizzley’s instrumental to throw shots at Ave in the fallout of the 2017 Irving Plaza shooting in which Ave’s friend Ronald “Banga” McPhatter was killed. Kevin Gates
Florida rapper YNW Melly has released tracks entitled “First Day Out. First Day In” and “Gang (First Day Out),” but neither track actually refers to jail for an extensive amount of time. His fans hope he will eventually drop another one if he’s innocent of the two charges of first-degree murder that he incurred in February. In 2018, Xanman linked with YungManny after a six-month stretch.
And the latest entry in the canon is one of the most resilient, as JT tells Quality Control CEO Pee that “you done turned hoodrats into some superstars, man,” and rhyming, “I can write a book about the rainy days” But for now, better weather is ahead.
Where will the next “First Day Out” record come from? Will it be New York neo-icons Bobby Shmurda or Max B? Will Tekashi 6ix9ine soon be sentenced to time served and thumb his nose at those who are disgusted with his cooperation and overall toxic energy? Perhaps 03 Greedo will be freed on paraole from his gun and drug charges and serve his cult fanbase. Whoever is next, the hope is that the artist takes their freedom as seriously as Gucci Mane has. He set the standard on how to celebrate getting out — and now he’s showing rappers what to do to stay out.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.