For months, Verzuz, the music battle series from Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, has sustained our quarantine. Catalogues, or singers, or producers, go head-to-head, song-to-song. The men have had notable battles — RZA vs. DJ Premier, Babyface vs. Teddy Riley, Kirk Franklin vs. Fred Hammond — but when women take over Verzuz’s livestream, we get the best shows. Brandy and Monica trading friendly (and not so friendly) jabs, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott serving dual charming stank faces. Sunday night, September 13, was the series’ “Auntie” edition: Patti LaBelle vs. Gladys Knight. The collard greens practically made themselves.
“One thing Black women gon do, is catch up,” read my favorite tweet of the night. For the first 30 minutes of the battle, LaBelle and Knight updated one another on their families, mutual friends, their own goings-on. Each pointed out that they’re a year apart in age and share 150 years between them; they’ve known each other their entire professional lives. Over the next two hours of livestream, they would reminisce, remind, laugh, and stand up to dance. Each woman knew the other’s catalogue just as well as she knew her own; both admitted to not really knowing what the night’s event was and needing a younger family member to convince them to do it. “Somebody called me and said, ‘Would you do Verzuz?’” LaBelle said. “I said, ‘With who? You know you have to have a partner.’ They said, ‘Gladys Knight.’ The best person in the world for me to do this with is you!” Those were the stakes of the night. It wasn’t anthem against anthem or hit against hit: This was a reunion.
Gladys lamented that her voice wasn’t as a high as it used to be, but she was still hitting those notes nonetheless. Patti complained that the engineers weren’t loading her teleprompter quick enough and couldn’t remember some words to her songs. They both gleefully sang along to one another’s hits. It was never really a competition, but Gladys came more prepared. (In the interest of full disclosure: Between the ages of 4 and 7, I wanted to be Patti LaBelle when I grew up. It is hard for me to admit this defeat.) She spaced her hits better and deployed the funky Claudine soundtrack perfectly; Patti didn’t really get points on the board until she let “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” loose in round five, wasting too many rounds on songs that couldn’t compete. A rushed medley of her Sesame Street “ABCs,” “New Day,” “Feels Like Another One,” and “Lady Marmalade” — two of those songs deserved more prime placement, and “WAP”-of-its-generation “Lady Marmalade” could’ve been her penultimate hit — came far too late in the game. Perhaps the spirit of Aretha Franklin was in the control room: Patti’s songs played for a fraction of Gladys’s, and technical difficulties made that medley quiet, weirdly mixed, and doubly confusing.
But these are both personalities who know how to put on a good show. Patti’s chair was adorned with Louis Vuitton trunks topped with red-bottom heels. More than once, she took out a gilded vintage-looking handheld mirror to dramatically check her makeup. Gladys was dressed like a dreamy human disco ball in a rouge-colored sequined suit set. Don’t let her shoulders start shimmying to “Love Overboard” now! In a second, she bounced up to do 33-year-old choreography.
I identify as an Auntie. I watch too many melodramas, I love soul food (but can’t cook it!), I usually go to bed at a reasonable hour, kids can’t run in my house, there are three mid-2000s Whitney Houston songs on my go-to party playlist, soon enough I’ll start carrying those candies. I spend an embarrassing amount of time on YouTube looking up old awards-show performances of divas bringing down the house; months into quarantine that time has tripled. There were so many awards shows in the early aughts, so many opportunities for Whitney and Mary J and Aretha and Patti and Gladys and Dionne and Chaka to be on the same stage, reviving and restoring each other’s hits, harmonizing together. When I was little, I’d stay up late watching these shows with my aunt. Oprah’s Legends Ball’s Sunday brunch, from 2005, is a masterwork: Nearly every Black woman singer whom I listened to on the way home from school, on the stereo before dinner, on both grandmothers’ porches, spontaneously joined in on the gospel song “Changed.” (It is a crime that footage from this brunch does not air, unedited, every first Sunday on the Oprah Winfrey Network.) The Gladys-Patti Verzuz is the closest we get to experiencing that in real time again.
“Anyway, I just really miss those days when there were always 25 black divas in one room and no one knew where to look because everyone could bring the house down,” I wrote for this site in February 2017, when Rembert Browne and I had the opportunity to fan the flames of Black music’s best diva rivalry. I felt that even more strongly on Sunday than ever before. The night’s Verzuz was a celebration, a reunion, a treat. But implicit in those performances, I felt, was knowing that we don’t know how much longer that generation will be with us, and we’ve lost so many of them so quickly to a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black people. There aren’t words for that. But on Sunday I didn’t have to sit with that fear and anxiety and uncertainty. I could watch Miss Patti sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” kick off her heels, accidentally bump her knee, and still smile.