Historically, Verzuz has been the stage for the mainstream heavy hitters, artists who have excelled commercially for decades: Brandy vs. Monica, Teddy Riley vs. Babyface, Patti LaBelle vs. Gladys Knight. Because of that, audiences have almost exclusively chosen the “victors” based on their commercial success. By that measure, Jeezy earned an easy win in Thursday’s clash with his fellow trap deity, Gucci Mane. But Gucci, an artist who has spent his career doing everything but play by the rules, took the only approach that made sense for him, breaking from the series’s convention by playing to the grit that his fans love and reminding his opponent that his mere continued existence is a victory.
The battle took place at Atlanta’s famed Magic City nightclub, where a lot of money has been tossed to both rappers’ lyrics. They sat in plush thrones on top of runway-like stages, Jeezy in a black ankle-length lambskin shearling over a matching basketball jersey, and Gucci in a more fashion-forward deep tan get up — point, Guwop. Instead of the event starting off with the tension that many anticipated — the pair’s…impassioned dislike for one another is so deep and long-running that even the idea of them coming together for a Verzuz battle felt laughable until the two actually walked out — a cloud of purely bizarre vibes persisted, including a surprise introduction from Stacey Abrams.
Half of the tracks Jeezy played were from his classic, double platinum 2005 major label debut Thug Motivation 101 — “Go Crazy,” “Standing Ovation,” “Get Ya Mind Right” — while only three came from the mixtapes that established his credibility in the genre: “Jeezy The Snowman,” “Trap Or Die,” and his verse on a remix of Shawty Lo’s “Dey Know.” His first four albums — all Shawn Carter-esque sermons on turning an illegal hustle into a legitimate empire — are certified platinum, he has four Grammy nominations, and his 2008 track “My President” ushered in Barack Obama’s first term. But he’s had barely any impact on the trap diaspora. Gucci Mane, on the other hand, has too many mixtapes to name (more than six dozen and counting), but not a single platinum album, and spent so much time in and out of prison that he had a hard time achieving mainstream stardom. Still, he undeniably laid the foundation of both trap and its successor, drill. And while he did play some of his better-known street hits — “Bricks”, “Photoshoot”, and the cult classic unbothered redemption song “First Day Out” — as well as big mainstream songs like “Lemonade” and “Wasted,” things came to a tense, screeching halt when Gucci performed a handful of his many Jeezy disses, including “Truth,” the infamous 2012 track that instructs Jeezy to disinter his friend Pookie Loc, who tried to kill Gucci in 2005 over a song that dropped that year, “Icy.”
The Zaytoven-produced single featured both (then, Young) Jeezy, rap’s hottest newcomer at the time, and Gucci, catapulting the latter beyond his renown in Atlanta’s rap scene onto popular cable television music video countdown shows and the Billboard charts. The two meshed well on the record, with both incorporating hilariously elongated ad libs — Jeezy’s “Yeeeaaahhhhh” and Gucci’s similar, but more squawky “Yaaaahhh” — that presaged a new trend in rap, and the video felt like an homage to the hood-rich activities of legendary New Orleans record labels No Limit and Cash Money. Everything went to shit from there, though. By some accounts, they fought to claim the track for their respective albums; by others, Gucci felt slighted when Jeezy turned down an offer to perform the song together live because of a throat injury. Regardless, the disagreement saw them exchanging diss records that year, including Jeezy’s “Stay Strapped,” on which he placed a $10,000 bounty on Gucci’s “So Icy” chain. Some of Jeezy’s associates came to collect, and Gucci killed one of them, Pookie Loc, in an act of self-defense.
Since then, more altercations (musically and otherwise) and empty gestures at moving past their differences have taken place. When Gucci doubled down on those sentiments last night and in the days leading up to the battle, going as far as to say that he’d do it all over again if given the chance, Jeezy took the high road and said that a 15-year-old incident shouldn’t have been brought into the equation, especially on the heels of rappers like King Von, Pop Smoke, and Nipsey Hussle recently losing their lives to gun violence. But refined Jeezy fell flat in those moments: He used his involvement in real estate investment, his platinum-selling records, and a “let’s move on” attitude to minimize Gucci’s inclination to have a no-holds-barred grudge match in favor of a disingenuous display of comradery. He’s long been a master at putting his own commercial success against Gucci’s repeated prison stints, admitted substance abuse, and sporadic behavior in order to portray Gucci as the menace in their saga. In a 2012 interview with LA’s Power 106 he said, “Everybody knows that boy is retarded. Ain’t nobody taking him seriously. He has an ice cream cone on his face, let’s be for real.” It’s a framing that absolves Jeezy of his alleged involvement in trying to take Gucci out and dismisses Gucci’s justifiable anger for almost being murdered. (In a Friday morning interview with The Breakfast Club, Jeezy said he has since worked tirelessly to hold himself accountable and grow.)
This is the first Verzuz battle in its short history that simultaneously made all the sense in the world and none at all. T.I. was originally supposed to be in Gucci’s place, and his mainstream stature would have been a more logical foil for Jeezy’s. But Gucci and Jeezy’s careers, running parallel on two sides of the same coin, is what made it compelling. Their Verzuz leaned into rap’s longtime awkwardness around translating the real violence, anger, and unresolved tension that feeds the genre’s energy into a spectacle, as if it were a professional wrestling match: By night’s end, after a handful of cringey (verbal) shots fired from both sides, the two performed “So Icy” together for the first time in 15 years. But instead of feeling like a burying of the hatchet, it was more like uncomfortably watching two old men trying to out-“Bigger Man” each other, halfway fuming, through deranged, phony grins of friendship.