In just a month, 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, 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 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, as boom bap giants RZA and DJ Premier squared up recently for one for the ages and a rematch between ’80s and ’90s R&B vets Teddy Riley and Babyface is in the works after a failed first attempt. Verzuz needs talent from different regions and different eras, and it desperately needs women. While we wait to find out what happens next, let’s go over what we’ve seen so far, ranked from best to worst to absolutely doomed.
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.
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.
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.”
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 ***y 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.