In December 2016, NPR invited Gucci Mane and Zaytoven to be apart of their Tiny Desk concert series to end a triumphant year on a high note. Gucci was released from a federal penitentiary in Indiana a few months early back in May of that year, and immediately checked off his to-do list: proposing to his girlfriend Keyshia Ka’oir and setting a wedding date (10/17/17); releasing three albums that celebrated his sobriety; and re-entering the mixtape circuit with projects alongside hip-hop’s new all-stars, Future and Lil Uzi Vert.
Known for its stripped-down approach, Gucci and Zay tackled the Tiny Desk style with a backing track and a piano — a performance that put a smile on your face mainly for its simplicity and heart. Fast forward to Red Bull Music Academy Festival’s “Piano Nights: Gucci Mane and Zaytoven, A Throwback Piano Bar Show,” on Tuesday night (May 16) at NYC’s The Box, and the pair returned to that back-to-basics style to run through career highlights – a few from Gucci’s early 2000s albums and one remix to “Jingle Bells” – with the understanding that everyone in attendance would revel in watching two of Atlanta’s innovators perform in the relaxed ambiance of a speakeasy.
Guwop teased his arrival with the Drumma Boy-produced “Classical,” off 2009’s The State vs. Radric Davis, an early example of the rapper experimenting with gospel and church choirs. The warm-up was a perfect segue into the duo’s first song of the evening: “St. Brick Intro.” As Ziggy faded out with an impromptu piano melody, Gucci quipped that he felt like one of The Temptations. The assessment given the nature of the hip-hop concert: Just Gucci on vocals and Zay on piano.
After running through “Guwop Home” and “Waybach” from 2016’s Everybody Looking, as well as deep mixtape cuts like “I’m a Dog” and “Stoopid,” Gucci started to get more comfortable, as he delved into some of his best-known songs. Throughout the evening, the rapper was visibly beaming, likely from excitement over his unplugged performance; a special one-off from his Trap God Tour that wrapped earlier this month. His rendition of “Icy” — an early signature hit, which featured a rare guest spot from Atlanta’s then-reigning street king Jeezy (the two have been in heavy disputes over the years) — broke the crowd’s polite silence. Zaytoven must have felt the energy in the room because he augmented “Icy” by singing the hook himself. “That was hard,” Gucci said, impressed with his partner’s vocal range. “Damn Zay, you shoulda sang the hook on the real one. We shoulda put you on the first one.”
At the tail end of the show, Gucci explored the trap songs that his core fanbase would gotten most hyped for if these were played in a stadium setting. There was “Bricks,” originally with Yo Gotti, and “Make Tha Trap Say Aye,” a featured turn on a single by his protégé OJ Da Juiceman. Then there was those Hard to Kill songs, with “My Chain” and “Street Ni**az” proving that the 2006 album was an underrated classic in his catalog.
In less than 40 minutes, Zaytoven and Gucci Mane were ready to say goodbye, but not without a grand finale. It’s doesn’t get said enough that these two have a producer-rapper relationship on a level of a Dre and Snoop or Biggie and Puff, extending almost two decades, since they initially started working together. You were able to relish in their closeness, either live in person or through the RBMA live stream. A perfect send-off came from Zaytoven, sharing an anecdote about the time they recorded “First Day Out,” when Gucci was fresh out of a jail stint in Fulton County Jail in 2009.
“This is my favorite song that Gucci Mane have ever, ever done before,” Zay told the crowd. “It’s like my No. 1. I remember when he got out of jail and he came and recorded this song. He was fresh out of jail. And he recorded a few songs already. But he was like, ‘Zay, gimme a beat man. I wanna do a song with no hook on it. So I’m like ‘Bet…’ I give him the beat and he start rapping, talkin’ about ‘I’m startin’ out my day with a blunt of Purp.’ So listen, as he’s rapping, the hair on my arms started standing up. So I’m like, I know for a fact this my favorite rapper in the world right here”.
“Gucci, you the king,” his producer partner proclaimed. “You the real big dog.”