Erykah Badu vs. Jill Scott, Teddy Riley vs. Babyface...Verzuz is what's getting me through lockdown
The culture's coming together to celebrate and heal, and we're doing it on Instagram Live
It took me approximately two and a half hours to get out of bed this morning to begin writing this article. The past few weeks of lockdown have been challenging for many. For Black folks, last week in particular felt like an endless tidal wave of pain and despair.
On May 5, video footage of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery was released. May 7, reports from the U.K. confirmed that COVID-19 is disproportionately killing Black people, a pattern matched in the U.S. (These findings have finally prompted some provinces in Canada to begin tracking race-based COVID-19 data.) On top of all that, we lost pioneering music executive Andre Harrell and legendary music icon Little Richard in a span of 24 hours. It all felt like too much. And these times are already challenging every facet of our lives.
And then, as though the universe knew we would need something to temporarily halt the pain, Jill Scott turned on her Instagram Live, sharing recordings of poems by Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. Erykah Badu joined her, drinking tea while flanked by a giant black-and-white projection of Bruce Lee kicking ass. And over the next three and a half hours, these two women ushered in the single most positive, uplifting and healing experience I've had since this lockdown began.
Their Insta Live session was part of a music battle series called Verzuz. Started by hip hop producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, it was initially a one-off; the heavyweights turned on their Instagram Live to have a fun battle session, going song for song on tracks they had produced.
The sound wasn't great. At one point, Swizz was literally sitting in the dark, trying to find a stronger wifi connection in his car. And these veterans repeatedly displayed their lack of knowledge when it comes to selfie angles. But none of that mattered to the audience. It was a rare invitation to a meeting between two prolific producers — stars who were not only showcasing their impressive catalogues, but frequently expressing admiration and respect for one another. Yes, it was a battle, and of course there was shit-talking. But there were also a whole lot of compliments and even the odd expression of envy.
Since then, Swizz and Tim have become the curators of what is arguably the best music series to hit the internet since the lockdown began. They've featured face-offs including Mannie Fresh vs. Scott Storch, Ne-Yo vs. Johntá Austin, T-Pain vs. Lil Jon, RZA vs. DJ Premier — and perhaps the most iconic match-up (in my R&B-loving opinion), Babyface vs. Teddy Riley.
By the fourth battle, the rules were defined — and they are simple. No excessive lip-licking (thanks to a mildly uncomfortable performance by Sean Garrrett); performers can do a maximum of 20 songs a piece, with only 1 minute and 30 seconds of each song played; the winner is decided by the people.
As the battles have progressed, the importance of crowning a champion seems to have become less and less important. Instead, the winners are the fans (both famous and otherwise).
What I've loved about Verzuz thus far is its commitment to putting a spotlight on a part of the process that's usually behind the scenes. This element may change, but by featuring songwriters and/or producers, the show gives new insight into their work.
This was most notable for me during the Johntá Austin vs. Ne-Yo battle. I'd casually heard Austin's name in the past, but I was unaware of his stacked catalogue of hits. From Mariah Carey to Aaliyah, it turns out he's the pen behind some of my favourite artists. Rocking a three-piece suit and swigging from his wine glass, I quickly became a fan of a man I'd never even seen before.
Similarly, the T-Pain vs. Lil Jon battle was an education. Beyond being one of the most surprisingly entertaining match-ups in the entire series, it packed revelations like this one: who knew Lil Jon produced a remix of a Capleton reggae song in the '90s? Definitely not me.
As fun as it is watching two artists battle it out, the virtual twist on the beat-battles tradition has made Verzuz a whole new experience. From former First Lady Michelle Obama showing love (Erykah Badu vs. Jill Scott) to Toni Braxton laying down a hilarious amount of shade (Teddy Riley vs. Babyface), the comments section has been just as entertaining as the music. It was endearing to see Black Thought get emotional over Jill Scott's memories or Solange rage over the internet's lack of appreciation for Mannie Fresh. Verzuz has created a powerful point of connection. We're all tuning in at the same time to geek out over artists who have created the soundtracks of our lives.
As Swizz Beatz has said in his post-battle live videos, this series has become a win for Black music. Keeping up with new music can feel like a high-speed sport. Inviting viewers to look back and appreciate is now an increasingly rare concept. And at a time when Black life feels more devalued and disposable than ever, crafting a space that celebrates and appreciates those who have built regional and global cultural movements feels like a spiritual intervention in the midst of a crisis. Nothing illustrated this more than last Saturday's battle between Scott and Badu.
It was the first match-up of the series to star two women, and historically, the mainstream media has pitted the duo against each other. But Badu and Scott were quick to set the tone of the night. Many on social media had joked about getting their incense lit, their sage ready and their chakras aligned in time for the battle. But once it began, those jokes began to feel like reminders: if sage and incense gets me even an inch closer to achieving their confidence and radiance, then light it up. (Badu even sells her own brand of incense called Badu Pussy if you want to head in that direction.)
Both artists have always exuded a confident intentionality about their public personas, and they brought that sense of purpose to this session immediately, setting the record straight about their friendship and mutual love. Sipping tea (Badu) and wine (Scott), it felt like the two were manifesting the lyrics of Scott's song "Love Rain." (On the track, she recaps a wide-ranging conversation between her and her boo: they "talked about Moses and Mumia, reparations, blue colours, memories of shell-topped Adidas...") Badu and Scott chatted about motherhood and music, sex (a.k.a. "the good nasty") and scrapping, mourning and rebirth, homeschooling and time (which apparently Badu has no concept of). And they wrapped what was arguably the best (and definitely the technically smoothest) Verzuz session thus far, with Scott's "Cross My Mind." The late Andre Harrell had reportedly been looking forward to hearing the tune. It was perfect.
In the days following their battle, which drew more 700,000 viewers (a new record for the series), the artists' combined streaming numbers have more than tripled. During the Babyface and Teddy Riley battle, Instagram reportedly struggled to handle the 3.5 million people who attempted to tune in. Only 500,000 were able to access it directly, and the demand eventually crashed the livestream, prematurely ending the night. In spite of that, their respective social media followings increased by more than 129 per cent, and in the days following, they were booked and busy with interviews on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and The View.
Beyond the material benefits, it's uplifting to see programming that celebrates an artist's catalogue outside of award-show tributes and biopics. Three and a half hours is a luxurious amount of time to bask in music without all the extra frills required by highly produced television affairs. The rawness of Verzuz allows us to immediately get to the good stuff.
Last Saturday felt like music therapy. This Saturday promises to be entertaining — but in a different way. It's a match-up between Ludacris and Nelly that calls for a resurrection of old jersey dresses and Band-Aids placed directly under one eye. Personally, I can't wait.
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