One year of Verzuz – how musical competition brought the timeline together

10 tracks, two artists and a few billion views – one year on from the very first Verzuz battle, Jenessa Williams investigates how Swizz Beats and Timbaland crowned music the ultimate winner.

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If you’re a regular Twitter user, you might have noticed some seemingly-random artists appearing in your ‘trending topics’ over the past year. Gucci Mane, Lil Jon, Jadakiss… names you haven’t thought about in years but which bring back rich memories of early noughties RnB and Hip-Hop, when the only ‘lockdown’ any of us cared about was Kanye West’s struggles with love. Click through those hashtags, and you will find that it’s all down to Verzuz, the brainchild of super-producers Swizz Beats and Timbaland.

Part playback session, part chat-show, Verzuz is a low key, friendly competition between two stylistically matched artists or producers, swapping the aux cord between them to celebrate some of the highlights of their back catalogue. Streamed through Instagram live and Apple Music, the pairings teased across social media the same way a boxing match or big NFL game might be. It’s billed as a battle, but ultimately, music is crowned the winner of each episode, with fans left to debate the real victor at their leisure (and often, for many weeks after). When said fans include Michelle Obama and Oprah, you know you’re onto a good thing.

As a relatively simple but well-curated endeavour, it’s no wonder why Verzuz has been such a success, drawing in millions or even billions of views. Stuck indoors, we’ve all responded well to nostalgia – digging out old photos, listening to familiar music, even eating meals that felt comforting as kids. By focusing predominantly on stars who were at their peak in the 90s and 00s, Verzuz draws heavily on our “OMG remember that” sensibilities, as well as fan’s inherent desire to ‘win’ the music industry for their preferred star. Told through friendly banter and studio anecdotes, it recalls a time before Stan language, when trash-talking and fanbase-competitiveness was a little less aggressive. Occasionally things do escalate, but for the most part, Verzuz is an opportunity to show some good old-fashioned pep-rally spirit, uniting fans and artists across generations and dodgy Wi-Fi connections.

But it also goes deeper than just fandom. For the Black community, Versuz is a space where cultural excellence is celebrated, providing a much-needed respite from a year that has thrown all manner of extra hardships and scrutinising racial debate on top of pandemic isolation and worry. Through both the Twitter discussion and the live Instagram chat, it’s become an important space through which Black people can gather with joy and on their own terms; dressing up, ordering traditional food, even throwing their own at-home virtual after-parties to keep the fun going. While white artists or viewers have never been explicitly excluded from Verzuz (and indeed, it also has a huge non-Black audience), it is clear that the focus is on recognising Black art as the hugely influential force that it is, putting respect on some legendary artists names.

It’s also been great for the musicians. Some pair-ups have been a little dry (see Ashanti and Keyshia Cole’s popular but businesslike session), but for the artists who embrace the personable, humorous spirit of the occasion, it’s a great way to re-introduce yourself to audiences both new and old. Reports state that streams for both Erykah Badu and Jill Scott increased by 217% after their glorious three-hour May 2020 match-up, while Usher, an artist who hasn’t yet actually appeared on the series, has trended pretty much consistently this past year, such is the strength of the public desire to see him win. Having recently sold the format to TikTok competitor app Triller, Swizz Beats and Timbaland have split the equity with all of the artists who have participated in the series, furthering the sense of ‘for the community, by the community spirit.

The success of Verzuz is also likely to encourage other similar projects, feeding back into the wider music industry. Already, J-Pop and K-Pop fans have been organising their own fan-voted head-to-heads through Twitter, and fan speculation in the pop space has followed suit, creating natural trending debate around potential competitors. We all know that music-making isn’t really a competition, but the dream-team making and passionate fan enthusiasm is a heartening thing to see, part and parcel of the in-jokes and shared knowledge that properly cements a musical culture. 

In an industry that works so hard to search constantly for the new big thing, Verzuz is a reminder that true musical greatness comes from acknowledging those who have paved the way for the successes of others. It’s important to give those people their flowers while they’re still with us, and Verzuz does exactly that, reminding us of the music we used to love and the production techniques that set the precedent for what we still get giddy over today. The Swizz Beats and Timbaland shared-phonebook isn’t exactly short on names, and with Earth, Wind & Fire vs The Isley Brothers being the latest legendary announcement, one can only imagine just who else might appear. As a means of giving us back some excitement, fun and healthy pandemic distraction, we can’t really have asked for much more. 

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