Photo credits: Timbaland.com
I can see it already. The kids on Instagram, young and young at heart, are going to lose their minds! R&B legends, Brandy Norwood and Monica Arnold, whose runs and riffs riddled the airwaves in the mid-1990s to early-2000s are set to battle it out again. The date, Monday August 31. The time, 8pm eastern. The stage, Verzuz TV—perhaps the most-watched entertainment streaming platform that has emerged in the Covid-19 era.
If you were born before the 1990s then you will likely remember the duo’s first vocal spar, crooning about to whom “the boy” belonged in “The Boy is Mine” that aced both artists their one and only Grammy for Best R&B Performance. It didn’t help that the beleaguered pair had a real-life on-again-off-again friendship that saw them feuding publicly on social media as late as three years ago, and, given that over the years, they have endured personal battles of being involved in a fatal car accident (Brandy), as well as a string of divorces and even witnessing the suicide of a boyfriend (Monica). Who will win? If you go by who had the last word in their award-winning song of vocal one-upmanship then Brandy will take the honor, but don’t count Monica out who might be still standing in the end.
This new form of couch-side entertainment, beyond a treat to see which pair of celebrated musicians will duke it out, has become a good outlet for musicians who otherwise would be performing on the road and, instead, must now park their behinds on the couch like the rest of us, because of the ongoing pandemic. But it also provides about two hours of escape to revel in the musical past of each artist’s discography as well as to remember a different time before we had a bad bug on the loose.
The brainchild of famed music Hip Hop producers and recording artists, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, Verzuz has put musical luminaries like Fabolous vs. JadaKiss, DMX vs. Snoop Dog, and Alicia Keys vs. John Legend among many others in a musical faceoff. As to how the pairing is chosen, Timbaland said in an Associated Press (AP) interview, “We try to do the unpredictable, not what people predict.”
The formula is simple. Match two artists: producer, songwriter or vocalist of equal stature in a similar genre; have each pair deejay, play or live perform a select list of songs in intervals; intermix the set with background information about their mutual acquaintance, lives in the business or the creation of each song—the end product of which is musical genius. A sentiment Swizz Beatz told the AP as well, “We don’t like the word ‘battle’ although it’s natural to say ‘battle’ when two people are playing songs with each other. More, this is an educational celebration.”
The first Verzuz began with Swizz Beatz vs. Timbaland in late March with some 22,000 viewers at max peak but has grown precipitously with 18 other battles and an average peak viewership of 300,000. The highest was RZA vs. DJ Premier’s which drew over 850,000 viewers. This is a feat by any musical standard, because there likely has never been any live musical event (that is not an awards show or the Super Bowl Halftime Show) with as many butts in seats or eyeballs, due to the fact that the whole production happens live via online streaming across Verzuz’ site, Instagram and YouTube.
Some may recall the battle between Babyface vs. Teddy Riley in April, wherein the couple, men of a certain age and each a noob to technology, couldn’t figure out how to get the audio system to work. They had to postpone to two days later where they saw an even larger following due to subsequent social media parodying and hype.
Jill Scott vs. Erykah Badu showed a sisterhood between two Neo Soul songstresses often pegged as rivals, but whose alternative and syncopated lyrics and rhythms created an ethereal mood that kept you aloft in a euphoric haze—like a spoken word event. It was even a full circle moment for Jill Scott who shared that Erykah had given her her first break in co-writing “You Got Me” 20 years earlier that earned Badu a Grammy.
And Jamaican dancehall artists Beenie Man vs. Bounty Killer set the livestream afire, literally with so much fire emojis by overjoyed fans due to the high intensity performance of each artist, who, unlike others before them, are used to these kinds of live battles, it being a part of the Reggae music culture in the island nation. Not to mention, they didn’t play recordings like the rest but performed live to a DJ set.
As the caliber of artists and viewership have grown, so too has the technology used to support them. In the early days, each artist was situated in separate locations, usually their homes, and had to configure their own set ups via their mobile devices to stream. This would cause a failure to launch, like the first Babyface vs. Teddy Riley battle, or a full break in connection in Jill Scott vs. Erykah Badu’s because Badu had poor WiFi signal. Since May, the Verzuz team retooled, set new ground rules and technical protocols, including sending each artist a kit by Roland, a leading manufacturer and distributor of electronic musical equipment, which should standardize the musical experience and create better audio quality. As well, now that shelter-in-place policies have lifted in most states, each artist has to be located in the same venue. Brandy vs. Monica will air live from Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia.
Verzuz is a tribute to the legacy of the rap and Hip Hop’s battle culture, even if it departs from its truest form that typically includes playfully dissing the other artist, incorporating your opponent’s lyrics to trounce them with an even better ad lib, and feeding off the energy of the crowd also known as a cypher. Instead, there’s a different kind of camaraderie that shows the mutual respect of both artists and their body of work, which the digital cypher gets to enjoy nostalgically—the kind of medicine needed during this time when so many of our fellow citizens, family members and friends are leaving us too short never to enjoy again the things that define our very lives, upbringing, and collective memory.
As well, at a time when the very value of the lives of Black Americans are being questioned in the shadow of the civil unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and a growing list of unarmed Black cis and trans people, Verzuz shows why Black is more than symbolic for the richness of our lives, but also acts as the moral compass that has picketed and shed blood to end racial strife to bring us together and help us move forward. That the platform is founded by two African American men who have each raised themselves from America’s inner cities through success in Hip Hop is a testament why the ongoing Black oppression is cultural and economic homicide.
A great benefit for the performers that has come out of this new musical event experience is that it has also helped to drive new interest and musical streams for the artists. R&B recording artist Ne-Yo said about his experience to the AP in Ne-Yo vs. Johnta Austin in late March, “What it felt like for me was an absolute win for R&B, considering the fact that’s 80,000 people—that’s like Madison Square Garden three times over for an R&B event! That just makes me feel that much better about the fate of R&B as a genre of music.”
Nielsen Music and MRC released its mid-year report in July in which it looked at the state of the music industry, considering tentpole events, music festivals, concerts and tours had all but evaporated. The study found that in the first 10 weeks of the year, there was a 15% increase in audio consumption, but that changed after the pandemic hit, affecting mostly digital and physical album sales, both of which fell by double-digit percentage points. Streaming, on the other hand, saw a 13% increase year over year. The report also compared the combined performance of the battling artists’ catalog streams two days before the battle and the day after. Jill Scott vs. Erykah Badu saw a 217% increase, Beanie Man vs. Bounty Killer rose by 216% and Babyface vs. Teddy Riley had a 90% bump. This was a needed boost coming off a high for the industry after the 62nd Grammy Awards telecast and even earlier when Jennifer Lopez and Shakira performed at the Super Bowl at the start of the year. I’m sure the impact by Verzuz is also welcomed, since many of the artists that have been featured, although active performers, are not top billing or currently ruling the charts. Verzuz, it seems, has brought these artists new attention and new fans.
Mannie Fresh of Scott Storch vs. Mannie Fresh, a producer and recording artist of Cash Money Records fame in the late 80s and early 90s said in an AP interview, “What’s great about this? The numbers. Like after this was over, my numbers went up crazy, so, yeah, I’m definitely going to do it again. And it’s educated a lot of people. Before I did this there was a lot of people who didn’t know who was Mannie Fresh. I always thought in my heart like this was important music, but now for it to be 20 years later and all of these young kids are going like how do we just get a little bit of that? How can we get access to that? Will he let me use that song? Will he clear it? And I’m like, yeah, I’ll let y’all. It's beautiful to me that there’s a whole nother generation that’s growing up on this and that’s appreciating it.”
In the same AP interview, Swizz Beatz sees it not only as a way to celebrate the artists and records from the past, but as a place from which new artists can draw inspiration, given the music industry’s tendency to sample and remake old classics into big hits that resonate with a new generation, “They’re getting the chance to really reflect on a lot of those big records, and if you’re a producer, if you’re a writer, you can look at this case study and start to figure out how you want to affect your craft. But we encourage all of our peers to get involved and be a part, because you never know whose life you’re changing—from somebody watching who’s got the eagles at the door. Let’s flip it around and celebrate each other for real by playing amazing songs that change the world, amazing songs that everybody knows. And even if they didn’t know, they left with something special about those two particular people that’s being celebrated.”
In kind, Verzuz has done something for the culture and also for people’s spirits. With the great degree of uncertainty and worry because of the social unrest and pandemic, those who have been forced to remain at home day and night with their insufferable partners and roommates, those who must juggle assisting their kids in distance learning and working from home simultaneously, and those who can’t pull the exhaust from it all with a good night out, have something to look forward to. The same Nielsen report quoted earlier industry research, showing 73% of responders indicating they would go crazy without avenues of entertainment. Like all the physical events that have had to reconfigure to a digital-only format, Verzuz, which debuted as such, has really become a sort of panacea for the caged heart and psyche of the quarantined mind. Simply put, it illustrates beautifully why support for the arts is critical, especially in a down economy.
However, Verzuz evolves as a business is yet unknown, but for now it’s giving old music new life, old artists new fans, and for the day-ones, a chance to remember and renew. In Brandy vs. Monica, although the matchup is expected, it’s welcomed. Maybe Monday night will be just one of them days. All I know is I wanna be down.
Written and edited by Wesley Wade, Freshfruit CEO and Freshfruit contributor. Follow Wesley @twodoubleyoos (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter),
Follow Freshfruit @freshfruitinc (Facebook and Instagram), @freshfruit_inc (Twitter)