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At the very back of my English literature class is where the crucial hip hop conversations took place. We were 10th graders, the age of critical thinking, and all our thoughts went toward T.I. vs. Ludacris, Lil Wayne vs. JAY-Z, and Young Jeezy vs. Gucci Mane.
Of the three match-ups, I noticed, you could be a fan of both Carters and no one would make a huge fuss. Applauding T.I. and Luda as two uniquely talented southern craftsmen would raise eyebrows, but wasn’t a punishable offense. But, by no means could you toe the line between the final pair. If someone asked, “Jeezy or Gucci?” they expected a direct, definite answer. You had to wear your fandom like an article of clothing, an unseen t-shirt the school couldn’t suspend you for wearing, but we all knew you had it on, and you couldn’t take it off.
Watching social media reignite the conversation of Young Jeezy vs. Gucci Mane in preparation for their forthcoming Verzuz match on Thursday (Nov. 19) took me back to sophomore, junior, and even senior year. When those two were the main event of countless rap royal rumbles. I still remember how Gucci enthusiasts would swear on the son of God that The Movie was a better Gangsta Grillz mixtape than Trap or Die. The Jeezy fellowship would fire back with how Jeezy’s 2005 major-label debut, Thug Motivation 101, was an untouchable classic, vastly superior to every album created by the man born Radric Davis.
The debates back then would be endless back and forths — song against song, album against album, mixtape against mixtape. Neither opposing side would budge. No one would agree to disagree. The unmoving rigidness of our opinions, reinforced by their ongoing conflict, persisted until graduation, which is funny in contrast to freshman year when their infamous 2005 collaboration, “Icy,” hit Atlanta airwaves. Ringtones and radio were the barometers for measuring a record’s popularity, and “Icy” resonated immediately. You heard phones ringing the infectious hook in hallways, at lunch tables, inside classrooms, and outside school buses. If you cut on local hip hop and R&B radio stations V-103 or Hot 107.9, “Icy” would either be at the tail end, closing on Lil Wil’s AutoTune chorus, or right at the start, as Gucci Mane La Flare asked, “Where yo ice at? Where yo chain and yo ring at? Where yo bling at?”
Although “Icy” was Gucci’s record, Jeezy’s opening verse casted a dual spotlight upon them. The South Carolina-born, Atlanta-based underground rapper was the hotter street artist at the time. He stacked a Jenga tower worth of quotables to start the song, as if Jeezy knew this was his breakout chance to greet a wider audience and couldn’t waste a bar. Even his self-referential way of identifying himself ― ”You better act like you know, man, in my hood they call me Jeezy the Snowman, you get it? Get it? Jeezy the Snowman, I’m iced out, plus I got snow, man” ― was an unforgettable introduction to a man of original character and effortless charisma.
The strong performance doesn’t steal the Zaytoven-produced song from the Alabama-born, East Atlanta-bred newcomer who follows up with a well-crafted verse of memorable boasts ― “I’m icy, so motherfucking snowed up, little kids wanna be like Gucci when they grow up” ― that stuck to our brains as if they were wrapped in velcro. Each lyric further drove home this larger-than-life figure that made the absurd sound excellent. By the end of his verse, you knew Gucci Mane, he who’d rather women kiss on his chain than lay lips on him. Gucci Mane, a man of great wealth — so much money in his pockets he couldn’t walk steadily. Gucci Mane, simply unforgettable.
It’s rare to witness a breakout single feature two underground artists with all the bells and whistles of an instant hit, but “Icy” was a flawless debut. A contagious earworm from unknown voices new to the mainstream who made you want teeth the tint of gold and a neck frozen by low-hanging diamonds. All the hype built around them and their bonafide banger made the track appear massive to us in the south — much bigger than No. 46 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The song may have continued to climb if it wasn’t for their fallout over Def Jam, Jeezy’s major label, desire to have the single on TM101. But, Gucci said no, this is my record for my independent debut, Trap House, also released in 2005. Which led to “Stay Strapped,” Jeezy’s taunt-filled Gucci diss rapped over T.I.’s “ASAP” that concluded with a $10,000 bounty on his Icey chain. Gucci responded with the scathing “Round 1,” accepting beef as their unavoidable collision course.
The crash came May 10, 2005, when Henry Lee Clark III died, shot and killed by Gucci Mane after four men attempted to rob him at gunpoint. News broke connecting Clark, who rapped under the moniker Pookie Loc, to Jeezy and his label CTE (Corporate Thugz Entertainment), and from that moment forward, the “Icy” rappers have been locked in an ice age never to thaw. Diss records, interview shade, cold shoulders, disrespectful tweets ― every way two men could feud has transpired between them. Seeing Nas and JAY-Z, 50-Cent and The Game, Meek Mill and Drake squash their storied beefs did not change my stance.
Death, taxes, and Jeezy being at odds with Gucci were life guarantees I counted on. They were Batman and Joker, Democrats and Republicans, The Falcons and The Saints. That’s why we, as dumbass kids, were so adamant about picking one. Their rivalry went beyond friendly competition. They embodied a problem that would never resolve. A beef that became deeper than rap, and yet, you couldn’t disassociate rap from them. Music brought them together and music widened the divide. Now, 15 years since their breakout collaboration, rap and friendly competition are bringing these titans together, supposedly in the same room, to broadcast their clash of classics on a world stage. Verzuz, from my perspective, is doing the impossible, bridging a gap that has resisted closure. Today, if all goes as planned, will end the “Icy” era.
To Verzuz’s credit, the webcast series created by producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz is a return to the feeling you had in high school when music was fun to discuss, debate, and dissect. Every match takes you back to a different time. You don’t just remember the songs they play. You remember how they made you feel. The impression they left. No matter if you loved or hated them, they were on the radio, in the clubs, played on 106 & Park, shared amongst you, friends, and family. That meant something. The warmth of Verzuz is why this matchup seems so unreal. You don’t expect two Gladiators who fought in colosseums to have their final showdown in an arcade, but after 15 years, how else could this end?
On the chance we get to witness 20 rounds of Young Jeezy vs. Gucci Mane, my forecast is 13-7 Jeezy. He was the rapper I picked in high school, and he’s my pick now. Only a few rappers can compete with him in a battle of street anthems. Gucci, a mythical street rap legend in his own right, is one, but Verzuz doesn’t benefit the prolific. It’s a challenge that celebrates who had the biggest splashes, not who made the most waves. Either way, this will be one for the history books. A night cemented alongside all the other unforeseeable events 2020 has brought our way.
So, when you hear Gucci play “Icy,” which I hope he does, remember that’s how it all started, a banger, a classic, a hit, whatever you want to call a song that jumpstarted two careers still worth discourse almost two decades later. That is the power of being unforgettable, you keep the people talking.
May the next Young Jeezy vs. Gucci Mane conversation be a warm one.