Verzuz participants Erykah Badu and Jill Scott
Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images; Paras Griffin/WireImage
The Verzuz Effect: How Swizz Beatz & Timbaland's Beat Battles Showcase Music's Past, Present And Future
The culture will not be televised. Better yet, it shall be streamed.
What originally started as a live song-for-song set at Hot 97's Summer Jam concert in 2018 between musical powerhouses Timbaland and Swizz Beatz has now found its way into countless quarantined homes. The recommence of Verzuz began and continues to serve as a celebration of Black musical pioneers: the DJs, songwriters, singers, rappers, producers, performers—and everybody in between.
The battles are selected by how sonically and entertaining both artists can be together. Kicking off in March, the growing phenom has showcased battles between Teddy Riley vs. Babyface, Boi-1da vs. Hit-Boy, The-Dream vs. Sean Garrett, Erykah Badu vs. Jill Scott, Johntá Austin vs. Ne-Yo, Nelly vs. Ludacris, T-Pain vs. Lil Jon, Scott Storch vs. Mannie Fresh, DJ Premier vs. RZA, Ryan Tedder vs. Benny Blanco, 112 vs. Jagged Edge and Beenie Man vs. Bounty Killer.
While each battle gives birth to memorable memes, it serves as a masterclass and introduction to the other masterminds behind some of our favorite songs. GRAMMY winner Sean Garrett expresses how Verzuz gave him the opportunity to build with new fans. "I noticed people were putting a face to the name in addition to the younger generation that didn’t necessarily grow up on the music I created." During his Verzuz battle with songwriter and singer The-Dream, Sean shared an incredible story relating to Usher's 2004 smash, "Yeah." "Originally, it wasn’t even supposed to be a part of Confessions. Usher wasn’t crazy about the song but we ended up leaking it over the Christmas holiday and before we could even record a music video for it, it was no. 1 on the Hot 100 charts. It sat at no. 1 for 12 weeks and is currently no. 14 on the greatest hits of all time on the Hot 100 list."
When media personality Joe Budden suggested a battle between Johntá Austin and Ne-Yo on Twitter, Austin felt encouraged to participate in the online battle that offers no monetary compensation. "A lot of people didn’t know who I was before the battle," Austin says. The two-time GRAMMY winner is credible for contributing to Mariah Carey’s biggest record, We Belong Together, which spent 43 weeks at no. 1 on Billboard. His extensive resume also includes hits with Mary J. Blige, Aaliyah, Chris Brown and more.
After his participation in Verzuz, more labels and artists have reached out about his songwriting skills. His Instagram Live series, Mastery, which he hosts alongside fellow hitmaker Bryan-Michael Cox, has also blossomed post-battle. "Verzuz educates people on who did the song, and Mastery picks up and continues the education on the stories not just behind the songs, but the journey of the creatives over the years of their careers and how they came to create that magic," he states.
What also results from the battles is what is now called the "Verzuz Effect," i.e., an influx in streams, social media engagement and widespread recognition. Following the Teddy Riley and Babyface battle, they collectively registered three million on-demand audio streams in the U.S. According to the Verzuz Instagram account, Babyface's Instagram following increased by 129 percent, going from 420K to breaking the million mark. Teddy Riley made the jump from 328K to just under a million followers. Both Jill Scott's and Erykah Badu’s catalog skyrocketed over 300 percent by the next morning. Recently, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland won a Webby award for Verzuz "Breaking the Internet." Instagram's Head of Music Partnerships, Fadia Kader, shared sentiments that further confirms that their Webby award was well-deserved. "[Verzuz] is definitely one of the most viewed Instagram Lives. It brings the community together, fans together, creates a safe space for reminiscing on good times and nostalgia. It celebrates artists and gives them their flowers in real time."
Fadia and her team work diligently with Swizz, Timbaland and the "competitors" to ensure their "Verzuz kit" of preparation has been put to full use to avoid technicalities during the anticipated affair. As "live" continues to serve as the current cord of connection between the artist and their audience, Instagram’s long-term goal is to elevate the musical experience for the user. A common issue the series came across, for example, was that the series would cut off after an hour. However, Erykah and Jill’s show continued past the 60-minute mark undisturbed. "I definitely think ‘live’ has shown that there is a need to connect in real time, as a product and company, we’re going to seek opportunity to add new features and tools to elevate the experience," Kader says.
Along with DJ D-Nice's Dance Parties and Tory Lanez's "Quarantine Radio," Verzuz has become a livestream staple for the Facebook-owned platform. Although both organizers have established that they have not profited off of the series, artists have ingeniously created merchandise for the virtual event. The implementation of a 90-second rule for artists has now been regulated to avoid copyright claims that have disrupted livestreams. Prior to this rule, the New Jack Swing originator Teddy Riley allegedly attempted to stream his battle with Babyface on his personal platform. Despite facing criticism for it, a question on the value of Instagram's partnership with this impactful cultural movement could be made in hindsight. "We [Instagram] have always collaborated with hip-hop and R&B. I think just more than ever, the rest of the world is seeing that hip-hop is really pop culture. It is the driver, it is the influence that influences the influencers." Kader continues, "So I am glad that we have been a part of that narrative and been contributing to the culture all along."
This spirit of this type of musical competition is far from new in the island of Jamaica. Legendary reggae and dancehall artists Beenie Man and Bounty Killer exuberantly performed their songs together in one room for their musical sound-off. This influential form of battling, also known as a sound clash, derived from being an underground event in the West Indian capital of Kingston. It soon inspired the inception of the hip-hop battles in the Bronx, and shortly after was adopted all over the world. The digital combat, which was the first one to go live on the Verzuz Instagram account, was not only proof of the global impact Caribbean culture has on music but was a trajectory moment for Verzuz. The two performers ended their in-studio sound clash with a prayer and an ode to the late Bob Marley with his timeless classic "One Love." It was another demonstration of a vital aspect of what Verzuz represents: a source of healing during this uncertain and dark time.
The magnitude of Verzuz may come as a pleasant surprise, however, the ability for us as a culture to prevail in wavering times seems almost innate. Best known for popularizing the Crunk musical genre, Lil Jon was more than happy to participate in the friendly competition with T-Pain. "Verzuz is a good way to get your mind off of what is going on in the world right now. You can’t deal with this all day every day. You need relief every now and then to keep your sanity. I think we gave some people a good time," says the Atlanta native.
So what comes next for Verzuz? That part is still a mystery to the dedicated followers who remain optimistic for an expansion in some form beyond the online platform. Swizz Beatz mentioned on his own Instagram account that he is currently filming the Verzuz documentary. Timbaland spoke on rumors of Ludacris and Nelly touring together and how Kevin Hart wants to do a Verzuz Comedy series. Lil Jon and T-Pain are also considering a tour and collaborating in the television and film realm. Jon, who along with Garrett, won a GRAMMY for Usher’s Yeah, agrees that Verzuz is powerfully moving the needle for the culture. "Verzuz showed me that we as a people can adapt. No one was using Instagram the way we are using it now. All of the urban artists took that platform, turned it upside down and changed it into something that when they created it—they never could imagine it would turn into this. That's urban, that’s Black folk. We did that. It's our culture that is taking over the internet at this time. Swizz and Tim created a TV show for us to watch and enjoy through our cell phones. They even brought Babyface out of nowhere!"