Swizz Beatz and Timbaland weren’t doing much in March. Most of the country was in lockdown, their national concerts were canceled and most of their musical projects were put on hold as the world was on pause.
And so Verzuz was born. An Instagram live series produced by the two and created during the pandemic, Verzuz has a brilliantly simple premise: two artists go head to head by picking songs and sharing the best stories. Even though there’s no official winner, viewers get to react to who has the best song of the round and encourage the competitive atmosphere.
While the series has always been a fun way to stay entertained, the second season — which started in May — began to expand to a greater variety of styles and themes. Unsurprisingly, the first season focused mostly on hip-hop production, since that’s what the creators and core audience members were most familiar with. However, as the show’s audience grew, so too did the ambitious pairings.
Season two opened with a special episode,“The Healing,” that discarded some of the more hyper-competitive aspects of the show to focus instead on the power of connection and unity. Verzuz realized its power to connect and reveal aspects of the Black experience to an audience that included viewers of all races, and so the very next episode continued with the same themes.
The Juneteenth episode that pitted Alicia Keys against John Legend was a new direction for the program. The more hip-hop focus was now expanded to include pop, R&B and soul music — all genres in which Black artists have had major influence. Politics and culture were intermingling, expanding a once-basic battle show into a more meaningful event. It culminated with the Brandy versus Monica battle that, at its peak, brought in 1.2 million concurrent views. But the best was yet to come.
There’s a reason the Patti LaBelle versus Gladys Knight battle was called a “one night only master class.” And that might have been an understatement. Two of the greatest singers of all time, Knight and LaBelle brought a weight and history to the proceedings the show had never beheld before. More recent legends have appeared, but the status of the two queens of southern soul was unprecedented. There was no winner in this master class, because we were all winners. And when Dionne Warwick appeared in the episode’s finale, it was like dying and going to diva-heaven.
If you’ve never seen Verzuz, you really should build up to the second season. Check out Teddy Riley’s boisterous confidence as the show encounters technical problems. See the police interrupt the Bounty Killer versus Beenie Man episode. Watch the inaugural episode to see how the show expanded its format beyond its modest beginnings. By the time you make it all the way to the DMX versus Snoop Dogg episode in the second season, you’ll understand why prominent figures such as Michelle Obama and Oprah have stopped by to watch.
Verzuz, more than anything else, feels like a cultural moment. There likely won’t be another point in time where all of these musical legends are just sitting at home, ready and waiting to unleash their greatest hits in front of a live Instagram audience. But even if the show only gets two seasons, those two seasons have still given us some of the most entertaining and rousing content of the pandemic. It almost makes quarantine worth it. Almost.