Just about this time last year, life got very messy for Richard Morales. It all started on a Friday afternoon in April (the 13th, incidentally) when the 33-year-old rapper — better known as Gunplay — walked into his accountant's Miami office, The Tax Place, wearing a black tank top, black jeans, black boots, black sunglasses, and a black beanie over his scraggly dreads. After a brief conversation with his accountant, a man named Turron Woodside, Gunplay whipped a gun out of his back pocket, grabbed Woodside by the throat, and shoved the weapon in his face. The confrontation was over inside of two minutes, with Gunplay stomping out of the room in possession, the Miami Police Department would later allege, of a gold chain and a cell phone belonging to Woodside. He was charged with aggravated assault with a firearm, and armed robbery. "That's 10 years mandatory regardless of priors," Gunplay tells me while ashing a blunt into the cup holder of a derelict transport van parked outside a Tampa, Florida, strip mall. "But with my shit, it was life." For his entire career, Gunplay has been a part of superstar Rick Ross's crew. Early on, that meant Triple C's, a group dismissed as a rap leitmotif older than time: Rapper gets famous, quixotically attempts to shovel fame over to questionably talented friends. Later, that meant Maybach Music Group, a mercenary unit Ross assembled by recruiting already-established MCs with far more name recognition than Gunplay. And at any given time, it has meant understanding Gunplay as a "weed carrier" — the colloquial term for the goons rap stars tend to keep around.1 Which meant no one knew Gunplay could actually rap. Belatedly, gradually, the truth leaked out. For many, the first inkling was Kendrick Lamar's "Cartoon & Cereal," on which Gunplay punched in a throat-scarred confession: "I ain't seen the back of my ahhhhlids / for about the past 72 ouuuwwas."2 Next came MMG's "Power Circle," constructed as a showcase for crew priorities Meek Mill and Wale. Gleefully, Gunplay stole the scene. "I'm at the round table, where ya seat at?" he yelps. "Where ya plate? Where ya lobster? Where ya sea bass?" Then there was "Bible on the Dash" — over the Morris Brothers' elegiac minor key synths, Gunplay gets wistful about the drugs he sold and the lies he's told. And, almost bashfully, he flexes a little hope. "I asked the pastor, 'What's the fastest way to Heaven for a bastard with a tarnished past?'" he rattles off in one mesmerizing string. "'Give me ya honest answer.'" It's his best work to date. In 2009, Def Jam released Triple C's Custom Cars & Cycles. As expected, it was largely ignored. Since then — and, presumably, on purely vestigial grounds — the label has been the de facto home for Gunplay's solo career. But as he's emerged over the last year, Def Jam has taken an interest in him. All of a sudden, Gunplay took on a most unlikely transformation — from weed carrier to vital MC. And as he worked, a question presented itself: Can Richard Morales keep it together long enough to pull this off? After the charges were filed in May, Gunplay went on the run. He shacked up at a property in Atlanta — "my little honeycomb hideout," he calls it — and contemplated his next move. I meet Gunplay3 on a balmy Thursday night in April, outside a Sheraton Suites in Tampa. He's in Jordans and a T-shirt that reads "Turn the Fuck Up," and he's rolling — along with his manager, Kente Getter, and some friends — to the club. Waiting for the cars to come around, he runs to two parked hotel shuttle vans, lifts himself off the ground by balancing in between, and yells, "Y'all drive to the club — I'ma hover over there!" Downtown Tampa seems deserted. On the highway off-ramp, a pair of black men's dress shoes are ominously scattered. But at Club AJA, there's a Miami-style, purple-fluorescence decadence. Upstairs there's dancehall playing as patrons dry-hump. Downstairs is hip-hop and girls in skintight all-black outfits who know every word to every Meek Mill song. The club can't be more than a quarter full. Only the diehards are still here. At 1:30 a.m. Gunplay ascends a platform in front of a Panama-hatted DJ. A phalanx forms, through which girls swarm to snap Instagram photos. One yanks a reluctant friend — "Monica! Monica!" — through three layers of the horde, accidentally bouncing Monica off a little old white woman trying to sell roses. Every 30 seconds a new girl appears, and Gunplay leers devilishly for every snap.4 At last call, the DJ calls out "arrivederci, do svidaniya, sayonara," and the crew files politely through the kitchen.