Throughout quarantine, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s Verzuz beat battle series has grown from a novel event bridging hip-hop’s past and present into uplifting excitement in our indoor spring and summer, joining DJ sessions by D-Nice, Questlove, and others as well as Ontario artist Tory Lanez’s unpredictable Quarantine Radio series as the must-see remote-but-live viewing for rap and R&B fans while live shows and festivals are sidelined by COVID-19. Verzuz reimagines the DJ battles of hip-hop’s early days for the “one gotta go” set. The premise is simple: Two prominent producers (or singers or songwriters) pair up live on Instagram and compete to decide who has the better catalog. The rules came together on the fly through trial and error. As it stands, each battle goes 20 rounds, with each contestant playing a hit and hearing a rebuttal.
Verzuz is fun, simple, and wide open — maybe a little too wide open. The audience is mostly in charge of the scoring, and there’s rarely a consensus on points. Regional bias and generational schisms creep up. Playing a deep cut almost categorically loses you the point, even if it’s one of the greatest songs of all time. There’s nothing wrong with a slugfest, but it’s draining hearing people trash timeless classics. You can be a legend with decades of hits and lose the crowd trailing too far away from radio. You can be a veteran who changed the game forever and get smoked in the court of public opinion because someone else’s music is fresher in everyone’s shared memory. You can score points with records mostly made by someone else. If you’ve cultivated a relationship with an A-list artist, you’re almost guaranteed the win.
In spite of these minor issues, Verzuz is making drab weekends and weeknights feel fun again and restoring a spirit of friendly competition to the game. It’s also teaching fans how many heads it can take to make a hit record. You might hear the same song at three different battles: once from a producer, again from a co-producer, and then again from a songwriter who helped fine-tune melodies or flesh out lyrics. That said, hits being repeated also highlights a need for greater variety in the cast of contestants, a concern Swizz and Timbaland seem to be addressing in the lineup going forward. Still, Verzuz needs more talent from different regions and different eras, and it desperately needs more women. While we wait to find out what happens next, particularly after partnering with Apple Music in late July, let’s go over what we’ve seen so far, ranked from best to worst to absolutely doomed.
20. The-Dream vs. Sean Garrett
What’s the rundown? The outrageous showdown between Atlanta-based hitmakers The-Dream and Sean Garrett is the reason Verzuz now has ground rules. Dream — who has helped craft scores of hits, including Beyoncés “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body,” and made memorable songs of his own in “Falsetto” and “Rockin’ That Shit” — was cordial and timely in his Sunday night scrap. Garrett is best known to people who don’t read liner notes as the guest on Nicki Minaj’s “Massive Attack” but renowned to those in the know as the co-writer and/or co-producer of singles like Usher’s “Yeah!,” Ciara’s “Goodies,” and Yonce bangers like “Ring the Alarm.” That said, he showed up late mugging lasciviously at the camera and letting records rock too long. (This is why contestants are only allowed to play a song up to the first chorus now.) Antics ate up most of the first hour, where Dream let loose a steady stream of solid tunes, and Garrett played songs at random, digging up Blueprint 3–era Jay-Z songs and premiering unreleased solo cuts. But the scales tipped, and the fight got good when Garrett pulled it together and started to match Dream song for song.
Who won? The crowd swore Garrett smoked Dream, but what really happened is that he pulled a Rocky. He ate shots through the early rounds and came out swinging near the end when his opponent wound down. But this isn’t boxing. There aren’t knockouts. It matters that Sean blew the first hour. It also matters that Dream let a comfortable lead slip, giving up too many points by leaving too much heat on the table. Sean won … but it was close.
Highlights: The-Dream playing mini-golf on camera as Garrett came in seemingly sloshed and delivered impromptu opening remarks, Dream showing off the demo version of Jay-Z’s “Holy Grail” with himself on the hook instead of Justin Timberlake, Garrett spooking the crowd with love faces, famous spectators like Fat Joe, Kelly Rowland, and Rick Ross getting fed up and acting out in the comments.
19. Jagged Edge vs. 112
What’s the rundown? The battle between R&B groups 112 and Jagged Edge was a perfect matchup, at least on paper. Both hail from Atlanta and rose to prominence in the late-’90s run on male singing groups in the wake of Jodeci going on a long hiatus in 1996. 112 was discovered by Diddy as Bad Boy Records took flight on memorable albums from Faith Hill and Biggie. Jagged Edge, a quartet fronted by identical twins, found Georgia producer Jermaine Dupri. Both groups benefited from having a world class producer and label owner with a solid roster in their corner. Both groups charted strongly through the early 2000s, often in competition. You’d hear Jagged Edge’s “Where the Party At” in the same urban radio block as 112’s “Peaches and Cream.” But the Memorial Day battle illuminated the differences between two groups with very similar career trajectories.
Who won? Too many yearning, midtempo Jagged Edge songs in a row made the group’s catalog seem formulaic. 112 brought in songs with Mase, B.I.G., Mobb Deep, Puff, and Faith to balance out the syrupy album cuts. The range won.
Highlights: 112 randomly bringing out new jack swing legend Keith Sweat, Jagged Edge playing “Nasty Girl” (their song off the posthumous Frankenstein job Biggie Duets) and getting hit with “Sky’s the Limit” off Life After Death, Jagged Edge catching jokes into the night about bad sound quality and shaky WiFi.
18. French Montana vs. Tory Lanez
What’s the rundown? New York rhymer French Montana is a trap artist whose true gift is hooks; the catalog of hits he’s featured on is surprisingly deep. Depending on the song, Tory Lanez is either an R&B singer employing rap cadences or a rapper with a keen ear for melody. (Lanez’s Quarantine Radio pairs the raunchy humor of a radio shock jock with a steady stream of famous guests like Megan Thee Stallion and Drake and a long line of fans ready to twerk on camera. It’s the breakout hit of the spring, drawing an average quarter million heads every time.) This sounds like an offbeat matchup until you play a lot of their songs back to back and see the common threads.
Who won? Tory Lanez has chops, but French has connections. On a field where the biggest hit always takes the point, songs like “Stay Schemin’” and “Pop That” are always going to demolish “Ferris Wheel” and “K Lo K,” even if they’re all good songs that share aesthetics. French won by a mile.
Highlights: Lanez playing “Kika” from Tekashi 6ix9ine’s Day69 but refusing to acknowledge whose song it was, French nonchalantly smoking hookah, Lanez being a good sport about losing.
17. Mannie Fresh vs. Scott Storch
What’s the rundown? Mannie Fresh is a Southern rap hero best known as the architect of the Cash Money sound. In the ’90s, he produced the early Lil Wayne, Juvenile, Big Tymers, B.G., and Hot Boys albums in full, making beats essentially from scratch. The streak continued in the next decade with T.I.’s “Front Back” and “Big Things Poppin’.” Scott Storch started out as a member of the Roots and grew into one of the go-to beatmakers and session players of the aughts, working with everyone from 50 Cent and Chris Brown to Paris Hilton and Brooke Hogan. Storch’s story is complicated in a way that Mannie Fresh’s isn’t — by 2010, Storch’s career had become a cautionary tale about addiction and overspending — but repeat customers like Brown and newer stars like 6ix9ine and Russ sought him out in recent years, as Fresh’s relationship with Lil Wayne led to good placements on Tha Carter V and this year’s Funeral. In the battle, both producers played classics alongside a few newer songs, but the age gap in the crowd was palpable. Verzuz caters largely to aughts nostalgia; hits from ’99 and 2000 don’t always do so well.
Who won? People swear this was a blowout in Storch’s favor, accusing Mannie Fresh of having a sound too specific to its era and area. This is a riot, since Storch’s flair for quirky synth sounds, handclaps, and Americanized ragas screams 2000s as much as “Back That Azz Up” does 1999. But Storch did take this one in the end.
Highlights: Storch smoking fat blunts the whole hour and lighting them with a portable torch, Jadakiss laughing in the comments when his Mariah Carey collaboration “U Make Me Wanna” came on, Storch sneaking Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” into the mix on the technicality that he’s credited as the song’s clavinet player in the Justified album liner notes.
16. Boi-1da vs. Hit-Boy
What’s the rundown? The second Verzuz event paired two hitmakers who’ve impacted the last ten years. Best known for drums that pop like bombs, West Coast rapper and producer Hit-Boy has scored songs by Jay, Kanye West, Bey, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Nicki Minaj. Toronto’s Boi-1da has worked with Drake since his 2007 debut mixtape, Room for Improvement. “Miss Me,” “Headlines,” “0-100/The Catch-Up,” and “Over” — all him. The catalog also includes Eminem’s Hot 100 topper “Not Afraid” and scorchers with everyone from Rick Ross to Rihanna. This seemed like an even matchup until everyone realized just how endless Boi-1da’s stash of Drake classics is. Hit-Boy applied pressure with big radio records like Bey and Nicki’s “Feeling Myself” and Kendrick’s “Backseat Freestyle,” but Boi-1da had an answer for almost every one of them.
Who won? Trying to push Boi-1da out of his comfort zone was a solid strategy that kinda backfired on Hit-Boy in the end. He pulled a few too many of his biggest hits too early, and that cost him in the back half of the battle, when Boi-1da locked in, playing ten years’ worth of Drake hits. It was a lot like people who spam fireballs in Street Fighter: It’s rude, but if you can’t beat it, you can’t beat it.
Highlights: Hit pulling his Rihanna card with the Anti banger “Woo” but then catching “Work,” Boi-1da showing up with a drop of Drake saying, “I should prolly sign to Hit-Boy ‘cause I got all the hits, boy,” on “0-100,” both producers previewing unreleased music by Nipsey Hussle, Nas, Drake, and Roddy Ricch.
15. Ne-Yo vs. Johntá Austin
What’s the rundown? The third Verzuz battle restored order as successful R&B singer-songwriters Ne-Yo and Johnta Austin matched wares. Both artists are masters of tasteful love songs with hot streaks lasting through the mid- to late aughts. Ne-Yo’s hits like “So Sick,” “Because of You,” “Miss Independent,” Bey’s “Irreplaceable,” Rihanna’s “Take a Bow” are smooth R&B classics. Johntá’s catalog — see: Bow Wow and Ciara’s “Like Mine,” Chris Brown’s “Run It!,” Trey Songz’s “Can’t Help But Wait,” and Mariah’s “We Belong Together” and “Shake It Off” — fills out the picture of a bygone era of wholesome 106 & Park countdowns and carefree rhythmic contemporary radio fare.
Who won? Both songwriters cherrypicked their best material, for the most part, although Johntá could’ve applied pressure with a few more platinum Mariah joints. Ne-Yo edged out the victory in the end, although this one is better appreciated as a two-and-a-half-hour 2000s nostalgia playlist than a formal beat battle.
Highlights: Johntá sipping wine in a suit and looking peacefully unbothered, Ne-Yo offering gentlemanly trash talk, The-Dream popping up in the comments wondering why he couldn’t have a battle this civilized.
14. Fabolous vs. Jadakiss
What’s the rundown? Fabolous and Jadakiss are both New York City hip-hop veterans, the former, a mixtape killer turned certified hitmaker from Brooklyn, and the latter, a Yonkers-born alumnus of the Bad Boy and Ruff Ryder Records cliques and one third of the LOX with Styles P and Sheek Louch. The matchup makes a certain sense on paper; both rappers had radio hits and formidable mixtape freestyles during the early aughts run on New York rap. But it was never going to go well for Fab, since Jadakiss was five years deep in the game by the time the BK rhymer’s 2001 debut Ghetto Fabolous dropped and continues to command a respect as a guest feature that his friend can’t match. The battle was the first Verzuz night to carry an official sponsor, thanks to Diddy and Ciroc, at once a logical conclusion for the series and a puzzlingly bad idea, because the last few times Fab’s name made national news, it was for a video of him publicly threatening his girlfriend and her father, an arrest for domestic violence, and a rumored plea deal for the case.
Verzuz attaching its first branded night to that guy in a summer where women from all over hip-hop media are coming forward with experiences of mistreatment by male coworkers and superiors isn’t just tone deaf. It’s business as usual for a community where the slightest talk of accountability is quite often met with grumbling indifference. Verzuz needs more tact and more women. Everyone who couldn’t miss a night of internet engagement for cheering a guy with a grisly DV case has something to work on. This was an easy test. Everyone failed.
Who won? Jadakiss ran off with it because he has written no less than a dozen songs better than the best Fabolous song. (Do you ever imagine what could have been if Jay-Z got the “Breathe” beat? I do.)
Highlights: Jadakiss getting methodically shitfaced since it was clear this would be a blowout, Jadakiss continuing to take every opportunity to jab at Puff for fumbling the relationship between Bad Boy and the LOX in the mid-‘90s, Jadakiss saying “corporately,” Jadakiss taking credit for writing Puff’s “Victory” verse, Fab’s DJ Boof tweeting the ROFL emoji after the battle.
13. Babyface vs. Teddy Riley (Parts 1 & 2)
What’s the rundown? Babyface writes stately, masterful love songs for a long list of clientele that’s included Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Bobby Brown, Boyz II Men, and Ariana Grande. His solo albums Tender Lover, For the Cool in You, and The Day rank among R&B’s finest in any era. Teddy Riley, along with producers like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, brought new jack swing to the masses in the ’80s and ’90s, melding hip-hop drums and R&B melodicism for famous collaborators like Bobby, Whitney, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, and Michael Jackson. Riley’s singing groups Guy and Blackstreet scored classics in “Piece of My Love,” “Groove Me,” and “No Diggity.” Saturday night’s main event drew the pregame excitement of a Tyson fight for the grown and sexy crowd. Unfortunately, the battle ran about as long as an Iron Mike match, descending into chaos early on as tech issues surfaced on Teddy’s end and sabotaged the whole first hour. He was trying to perform for his website while streaming the battle on IG Live, with a room full of staff in tow, while Babyface ran his end of the stream alone in headphones. We heard about six songs in the first hour and a quarter, after which point Riley asked for 20 more minutes to work out sound and Babyface quietly escaped and promised to reschedule the already rescheduled battle.
Saving this battle from the bottom ranking is the Monday night rematch, which went down without many technical difficulties or really any Teddy Riley razzle dazzle. After a hilarious couple minutes of trying to figure out how to pin a comment on IG Live, the duo settled in, played a bunch of classic records, talked trash, threw shade, and reminded everyone why we consider them to be R&B greats.
Who won? You could argue that Babyface won the first night after coming in hot with two Bobby Brown classics and remaining a good sport while Teddy’s full band, hype man, staff, and camera crew fumbled around with microphones and speakers, trying to livestream on two separate platforms and drown out a deadly echo Riley swore at one point was coming from the other guy. The rematch went to Babyface, and it wasn’t close, although Teddy landed a few good rebuttals, reminding us that Keith Sweat’s new jack swing classic “I Want Her” is (almost) just as good as Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step.”
Highlights: Toni Braxton on the warpath on Twitter, Mariah Carey and Adele getting jokes off, Babyface playing “Change the World” on acoustic guitar while Teddy figured out sound on Monday, Raekwon in the comments talking about robbing people to Babyface songs, Riley’s team trying to sort out mic problems by bringing in even more mics, Babyface getting a little dig in about social distancing while Riley streamed from a room with what looked to be ten heads present but no masks in sight, the MEMES.
12. 2 Chainz vs. Rick Ross
What’s the rundown? 2 Chainz and Rick Ross are both southern rappers who toiled hard toward much deserved breakthroughs in the back portion of the aughts: Chainz with his group Playaz Circle’s “Duffle Bag Boy,” and Ross with his hit “Hustlin’.” Both artists found their musical footing years after attending college on sports scholarships and have since made a mint by threading engaging street narratives with borderline cartoonish moguldom, some of which you could see on display during the duo’s battle. Ross was accompanied by twerking dancers and got a shirtless massage — both Verzuz firsts. Fans who were expecting iconic banter and performances after the prior installment’s entertaining meetup between DMX and Snoop Dogg saw a more subdued evening that picked up steam the more Ross stunted. Chainz later explained he was feeling out the energy in the room because he didn’t want to come on too strong. Either way, it’s the Verzuz that feels most like a promotional music-industry event. If you know, you know.
Who won? Ross, but it shouldn’t have cut his way as easily as it did. Both rappers have gigantic back catalogues and more than a few bright spots as guest features, but Chainz mostly stuck to the big singles from his solo albums, which run a little too mainstream-y sometimes, while Ross pulled ahead digging into a treasure trove of lush deep cuts.
Highlights: Ross playing a spot on Kanye West’s “Famous” that didn’t make the final cut, the pile of cash that lingered on the floor at 2 Chainz’s feet all night after Ross’s antics.
11. Ludacris vs. Nelly
What’s the rundown? Ludacris and Nelly rose to prominence in 2000, when gifted southern and midwestern rappers like Eminem and Juvenile built on the success of pioneers like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, UGK, and Three 6 Mafia, breaking the Northeast and West Coast’s stranglehold on mainstream hip-hop once and for all. Nelly’s “Country Grammar (Hot Shit)” landed like a bomb that summer, masking coarse street talk in playground melodies. Luda’s porn-rap anthem “What’s Your Fantasy?” completed his pivot from Atlanta-area radio host to airplay mainstay. Both artists enjoyed a string of blockbuster albums and singles that slowed on the other end of the aughts, when Ludacris followed minor roles in Crash and Hustle and Flow into a career in action films, and Nelly took sporadic roles in television. A battle between the two made perfect sense, and once technical difficulties on Nelly’s end subsided, the night took off.
Who won? Luda was always going to win because Nelly’s hot streak ended effectively when he took four years to follow up 2004’s Sweat/Suit double, a stretch where Luda was on a tear making hits with Pharrell (“Money Maker”), Jamie Foxx (“Unpredictable”), Mary J. Blige ("Runaway Love”), Ciara ("Oh”), and Fergie ("Glamorous”). Nelly put points on the board, bafflingly avoiding his platinum-selling Tim McGraw collab “Over and Over,” but it wasn’t enough.
Highlights: Luda bringing back the Afro he wore in the Chicken and Beer era, Luda’s barely masked frustration at Nelly’s abysmal internet connection turning into a meme, Luda revealing a version of “Money Maker” with Nelly on the hook instead of Pharrell.
10. T-Pain vs. Lil Jon
What’s the rundown? Lil Jon and Teddy Paindergrass are the yin and yang of mid-’00s hip-hop radio. (Peace to the Ying Yang Twins, though.) T-Pain made Auto-Tune the wave in rap almost single-handedly off the strength of records like “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” and “Can’t Believe It” and produced most of them himself. (Some other time, let’s talk about the towering synths on “Drank” and “Chopped N Skrewed” being every bit as instrumental to the massive sound of ’05-’08 hip-hop as DJ Toomp jams like T.I.’s “What You Know” and Jeezy’s “I Luv It” or Drumma Boy on Tip’s “What Up, What’s Haapnin’” and Jeezy and Kanye’s “Put On.”) Jon brought rowdy Atlanta crunk music to the masses and produced for everyone from Usher and Ciara to Pitbull and, yes, T-Pain.
Who won? Back to back bangers and lively banter from these two made this battle less of a war and more of a club night. It was too close to call. The winner this time was us.
Highlights: Lil Jon reminding T-Pain that “Buy U a Drank” borrowed its hook from “Snap Yo Fingers,” T-Pain dancing and singing along with live renditions of his hits until Swizz said, “What you think we at, Essence Fest?,” Jon spooking the crowd with anti-vax conspiracy theories, all hell breaking loose when T-Pain played the remix to R. Kelly’s “I’m a Flirt.”
9. Fred Hammond vs. Kirk Franklin
What’s the rundown? As a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist for the groups Commissioned and Radical for Christ, and later as a solo artist and a producer, gospel music giant Fred Hammond helped to push the form beyond the traditional sounds of early 20th century black church music, advancing on the gains made by R&B/gospel hybridists like the Winans and the Clark Sisters in the ’80s and embracing contemporary R&B across ’90s albums including Deliverance and Pages of Life - Chapters I & II. Texas songwriter, performer, producer, and choir director Kirk Franklin followed Hammond’s lead in the ’90s with his choirs God’s Property and the Family, adding funk and hip-hop into the mix and crossing over with unlikely R&B radio hits like 1997’s Funkadelic-sampling “Stomp.” Franklin and Hammond’s Verzuz meet wasn’t a battle so much as a necessary moment of calm led by intergenerational talents. As Kirk said at the beginning of the night, “He’s the goat, and I’m the alpaca.” The duo played two and a half hours worth of inspirational music to cool tensions in the early days of the protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, chatting and duetting and calling on special guests for what was billed as a night of healing.
Who won: Millennials who grew up with the God’s Property from Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation album in lieu of secular hip-hop, who are now old enough to appreciate a show that starts at 5 p.m. and lets out before 8.
Highlights: Kirk Franklin owning up to the fact he looks like the rapper Plies, powerful words of comfort from Bishop T.D. Jakes at the start of the night, commissioned member and gospel legend in his own right Marvin Sapp dropping by to sing his classic “Never Would Have Made It,” former Family member Tamela Mann’s surprise rendition of her standard, the triumphant, Franklin-penned “Take Me to the King.”
8. Alicia Keys vs. John Legend
What’s the rundown? Alicia Keys and John Legend are both singer-songwriters who blew up in the early aughts on arresting piano ballads, Keys on the rocky 2001 relationship anthem “Fallin’,” and Legend with the 2004 breakup jam “Used to Love U.” Both made incredible music with Kanye; West produced Keys’s “Unbreakable” and “You Don’t Know My Name” and worked with G.O.O.D. Music signee Legend over the years on songs including “Blame Game” and “They Say.” Both performers have worked in other mediums. Legend is the youngest performer to EGOT, joining the likes of Rita Moreno, Mel Brooks, and Audrey Hepburn. Keys’s memoir, More Myself: A Journey, was released this spring. At the special Juneteenth edition of Verzuz, both artists sat at pianos rattling off hit after hit, performing some and letting others ride out on nearby stereos. Legend proved the more gifted singer with the more versatile catalog but met stiff competition in Keys and her trove of Billboard chart toppers.
Who won? John Legend charged ahead out of the gate and played a wide-ranging list of hits, deep cuts, and features, but Alicia Keys came armed to the teeth with hits and wisely avoidant of latter-day songs that didn’t chart well. Legend outsang her in the room, but she walked away with more points.
Highlights: Legend starting with Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything” and revealing that he played piano on the Miseducation hit before he blew up, the duo having an impromptu Ciroc toast in the middle of Legend and Rick Ross’s “Magnificent” (a harbinger of brand partnerships to come), Keys doing the phone call from “You Don’t Know My Name” as Legend recreated the sample using his voice and piano.
7. Beenie Man vs. Bounty Killer
What’s the rundown? Beenie Man and Bounty Killer are dancehall legends with a complicated history stretching across over 25 years of clashes, feuds, and reunions. Beenie Man began as a ten-year-old DJ making shockingly sexual music in the early ‘80s, then grew into one of the most well known dancehall artists on a global scale as ‘90s hits like “Who Am I (Sim Simma)” led to cross-genre collaborations like the 2000s Neptunes and Mýa classic “Girls Dem Sugar.” Bounty Killer got into music on a lark around the same time Beenie took off and developed a pliable style that’s a little bit wise, a little bit raunchy, and a little bit hard, the kind of presence equally at home on a song with Mobb Deep as on one with No Doubt. The battle between the Doctor and the Warlord proved both to be gifted performers, hitmakers, and guest features on other artists songs. The duo’s longstanding frenemy status (and the fact that both parties were present in the same room) made the night electric, especially in the middle of the battle when the cops paid a visit.
Who won? It was a little too close to call. We lose, though, because, as Shaggy pointed out on Instagram over the weekend, neither artist is allowed in the U.S. since the government restricted access for Beenie, Bounty, Sizzla, and others in 2010.
Highlights: Every dance move, Beenie getting the Jamaican Constabulary Force to leave by asking an officer if he “really wanted to be that guy” and ruin the night for over 400,000 viewers, Beenie and Bounty freestyling over “Astronomia” (better known to savvy internet citizens as the Ghanian pallbearers’ song), intercontinental luminaries in the black diaspora like Usain Bolt, Rihanna, Skepta, and Popcaan paying homage in the comments.
6. Snoop Dogg vs. DMX
What’s the rundown? The first Verzuz battle after a recently announced partnership with Apple Music was also the first to offer a landscape-mode option, breaking up the off-the-cuff feel of the early Instagram Live meets (though it was simulcast on IG, so you could still watch if you’re not an Apple Music subscriber). The shift in view was all for the best in a competition involving Snoop Dogg and DMX, two of the most animated characters in the history of rap. Snoop is best known for having one of the greatest voices in modern music of any genre, for his unflappable stoner cool, and for his impeccable dance moves. The cornerstone of DMX’s mammoth five-album reign in the late ’90s and early aughts was the leashed-pit-bull intensity of hits like “Get at Me Dog” and “Party Up.” At first, this seemed like a questionable matchup: the brash electronics and coarse vocal tones of DMX’s heyday and the impossibly smooth G-funk of Snoop’s rich back catalogue felt like perpendicular vibes. But the duo synced up as energetic performers and — let’s be honest — purveyors of problematic rap. The battle was a trip back to a raunchier, more reckless time, as X played faves like “Money, Cash, Hoes” and Snoop responded with villainous career highlights like “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None).” When the duo later freestyled back and forth, Snoop reminded us that he’s just as good at rhyming off the top of his head as he is at writing songs, and X barked out a litany of threats and trash talk, forgetting what decade we were in at one point and dropping an F-bomb (the other one). Otherwise, mess was thankfully at a minimum.
Who won? It was a lock for Snoop the minute they announced his sparring partner. DMX put on a good show, but his well of hits dried up in the mid-aughts, while Snoop caught a second wind thanks to a string of gold- and platinum-certified Neptunes collaborations. The battle wasn’t the blowout fans might’ve expected, but the West Coast legend ran off with it. (Dear Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, as long as we’re relitigating East Coast vs. West Coast, deliver us Dr. Dre vs. Puff, please and thanks.)
Highlights: Snoop’s Doggystyle album-cover shirt, DMX playing capable hype man on Snoop’s classics, X joking about putting on weight and Snoop quipping that if they took their shirts off they would look like the number 10.
5. Swizz Beatz vs. Timbaland
What’s the rundown? Swizz was a 17-year-old from the Bronx when he started making beats for DMX and the Ruff Ryder clique in the late ’90s. Virginia innovator Timbaland was the era’s other go-to. If you didn’t have Swizz or Tim or the Neptunes involved with your major label album, you were slouching. This was true from Jay-Z’s Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life to Drake’s Thank Me Later and beyond. The depth of the catalog made this battle a war of attrition; these are guys who can go song for song, artist for artist. The two squared off on records by Jay, Drake, Missy Elliott, Kanye West, Aaliyah, Justin Timberlake, and dozens more. The inaugural Verzuz battle is the longest and hardest to call. Timbaland is the more compelling musician; there’s wilder stuff going on in a measure of a Timbo beat than a Swizz one seven times out of ten. But Swizz is a wild card willing to play parts no one with better chops would dare. Run back Jay-Z’s “Jigga My Nigga.” The melody doesn’t make sense. It’s hard as nails!
Who won? I’m giving the edge to Timbo for baiting Swizz into playing R&B and standing strong when his opponent’s (killer) stash of 2006 Beyoncé classics ran out, revealing his opponent’s shortcomings while showcasing his own strengths.
Highlights: The six-song Jay-Z war where we got to hear classic cuts from the In My Lifetime albums, every time Swizz played DMX and Timbo quipped, “You playing your artist.” Trash talk is key.
4. Brandy vs. Monica
What’s the rundown? Brandy and Monica got their start as teen singing sensations in the mid-’90s, as Brandy parlayed the success of “I Wanna Be Down” and “Baby” into lucrative sitcom and Disney acting gigs, and Monica built a career on the honest lyrics and effortless vocals of songs like “Before You Walk Out of My Life” and “Don’t Take It Personal.” Their famous chart-topping duet, “The Boy Is Mine,” popped thanks to a peculiar chemistry between the two, which sometimes appeared to the outside observer as something of a rivalry — egged on by shady moments like Brandy changing the hook to sing, “The song is mine,” at a live performance a few years back because she’d pitched in with writing and Monica hadn’t. Their Verzuz battle was a master class in old friends with unresolved business. It seemed as if they hadn’t spoken in years before sitting down in front of the cameras. You could tell they like each other and the music they’ve made together and apart; you could also understand how they would get on each other’s nerves.
Who won? Brandy took it, but Monica held her own, even if she started to run out of hits toward the end.
Highlights: Brandy hearing a new Monica song and asking if it was the intermission music, Brandy telling the story of the time she geeked out and yelled “West side!” at 2pac, Monica refusing to give the audience live vocals on “The Boy Is Mine” while Brandy sang hers, the debate over whether Monica was wearing waist-high boots or leather pants obscuring high heels that culminated in Solange creating a Twitter poll in which pants won by a narrow margin.
3. RZA vs. DJ Premier
What’s the rundown? When Babyface first delayed his battle with Teddy Riley this month (as the R&B icon born Kenneth Edmonds took time to get back to good health after testing positive for the coronavirus), fans wondered who’d fill those shoes over Easter weekend. Wu-Tang mastermind RZA and Gang Starr’s DJ Premier stepped up. The New York native built his legend on gritty sonics and brash funk and kung fu samples, shoveling a heap of dirt from the underground onto mainstream hip-hop’s doorstep in the early ’90s with classics like Enter the 36 Chambers, Liquid Swords, and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Premier, a New York hip-hop hall of famer by way of Houston and Boston, is a turntable wizard capable of creating new melodic lines out of preexisting records. While RZA made noise in Staten Island, Preemo made magic with Nas, Biggie, Jay-Z, Mobb Deep, and more. Their competition was a clash of rap titans that’ll go down in history. The duo played cat and mouse across 20 rounds of legendary street rap and then blessed us with a lengthy bonus round full of hits they forgot to get to in the main battle.
Who won? Preemo was the favorite in the days leading up to the battle, but RZA showed up armed with great records by Method Man, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Raekwon. This one was too close to get hung up on scoring. The winner is anyone tuned in to hear the story of New York hip-hop song by iconic song. (That said, I’m siding with RZA.)
Highlights: Decades of hip-hop royalty camped out in the comments, RZA arriving in a sleeveless vest and gloves with Afro Samurai playing in the background, Premier calling the reviled Wu-Tang hit “Gravel Pit” a pop song and following with Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man,” RZA chasing the scorching Biggie diss track “Kick In the Door,” off 1996’s Life After Death, with “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” another diss track off the same album.
2. Erykah Badu vs. Jill Scott
What’s the rundown? Erykah Badu and Jill Scott rose out of the neo-soul wave of the mid- to late-’90s as much needed rejoinders to the masculine perspective of singers like D’angelo and Maxwell. Each has walked her own path, Jill mixing frank, soulful songwriting and spoken-word poetry in her catalog while Erykah blended funk, soul, and hip-hop into her own strange brew. Both singers have made movies. Jill was a wonder in BET’s The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel; Erykah was memorable in Cider House Rules and a riot in What Men Want. Their meet was more a reunion and a Mother’s Day celebration than a proper battle. Throughout the night, the singers shared memories and matched vibes with their musical selections. Fans who’ve held onto the idea that there was smoke between the two were met with a night full of mutual admiration and soothing music. You came away feeling uplifted, which is the mark of top-tier entertainment in quar.
Who won? Earth, chakras, angels, babies.
Highlights: Scene-setting poetry from Nikki Giovanni before the battle, Jill revealing that the hook for the Roots’ “You Got Me” (which she wrote and Erykah sang) was the first piece of music she ever wrote, the comforting lighting, that split second where both singers made a scrunch-face and it turned into a meme.
1. Gladys Knight vs. Patti LaBelle
What’s the rundown? Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle are soul-music institutions celebrated as much for their grace as for possessing two of the greatest singing voices in recorded-music history — Gladys for her rich contralto and Patti as a soprano with a shocking range for whom no note seems too high. Gladys scored Motown classics with her family band, the Pips, including “If I Were Your Woman” and “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye),” and persevered long enough to have hits in the ’80s like “Love Overboard,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” and the Bond theme “License to Kill.” Patti’s Blue Belles evolved from a ’60s girl group into the successful funk group Labelle, but her biggest hits would happen in her solo career with staples like “New Attitude” and the Michael McDonald duet “On My Own.” For Verzuz, the longtime friends and collaborators celebrated each other, sang as beautifully as they did at their peak, and offered words of encouragement for the generations coming up behind them. Although a few hiccups with Patti’s sound stood as a reminder of how quickly and off the cuff this series came together in just six months, the night’s overall excellence suggests it’ll be here as long as there’s a captive audience.
Who won? Blackness won. Women won. Singers who sound better than their records 50 years later won.
Highlights: Both sounding incredible in their late 70s; mic control; Patti kicking the night off with a dance routine to “All Right Now” that gave Mary J. Blige a run for her money; Gladys singing “Midnight Train to Georgia” twice and no one caring about the repetition; Patti kicking her shoes off during “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and having backup footwear options on her desk; every celebrity that got roasted for projecting in the comment section; Dionne Warwick joining the pair for “Superwoman” and “That’s What Friends Are For,” reuniting the lineup from the trio’s iconic 1986 HBO special, Sisters in the Name of Love, which, if you’re anything like me, you’ve already watched this month. If you have not done this, you have your homework.