Music producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland created “Verzuz” to bring joy and entertainment to millions of hip-hop and R&B fans stuck indoors due to the coronavirus pandemic. But they may have ended up spawning a new cultural touchstone.
The idea was simple: Pit two of the biggest names in music against each other on Instagram Live for a friendly head-to-head battle. No one would actually be declared the winner. But fans could hear their favorite songs and endlessly argue over who had better hits.
The performances are powerful, the format is sometimes glitchy and the audience is altogether hilarious. In short, it’s a good time.
And given the tragedy unfolding around us, Verzuz is a welcome distraction.
Here are 5 reasons why the weekly showdown is such a big hit.
It’s a joke machine
The cultural jokes made in real time and after the livestreams are what make the Verzuz battles amazing.
Viewers tune in for the talent and songs, but especially for the comments section, where they often poke fun at the artists and their performances.
Whether it’s technology issues, song choice or even what the artists are wearing, folks on social media come ready with the jokes.
Like when Teddy Riley and Babyface got roasted for their age and inability to use Instagram during their first attempt at a Verzuz battle.
“This is like watching old folks use Jitterbug phones,” singer Toni Braxton tweeted during the battle in April.
Nelly got roasted for having Wi-Fi issues during his battle with Ludacris. Corey Townsend, a writer for The Root, likened it to that scene in Nelly’s music video for “Dilemma,” when Kelly Rowland texted him on an old Nokia phone using Microsoft Excel.
“Kelly checking to see if Nelly’s WiFi is ok,” Townsend tweeted.
Folks in the comments section aren’t safe, either. Remember when singer Tyrese got lit up for a typo? The singer-actor commented “throw in the tile” during the Babyface and Teddy Riley battle. He probably meant “towel,” but autocorrect wasn’t on his side that day.
“Throw in the WHAT Tyrese?” one person tweeted.
“”Throw in the tile…” - Tyrese. Lawd I can’t,” tweeted freelance journalist Natelegé Whaley.
It takes us back in time
How old were you when Babyface dropped “When Can I See You,” or when Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” was blasting nonstop?
The songs played during Verzuz battles bring us all back to that moment in time where we either first heard the song or were constantly replaying it on our MP3 or CD players, or even our Walkmans.
“I’ll never forget how gushy inside this song made me feel,” singer Jessie Woo tweeted during the Nelly and Ludacris battle, referring to Nelly’s hit “Dilemma.”
“Babyface’s music brings back so many memories. Saturday morning my Mom was using the broom as a microphone, an old album cover for a dust pan, and threatening to throw away any toys we didn’t come and claim,” tweeted ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson.
Specific song lyrics also brought about unity during Verzuz. Many viewers were tweeting their favorite lines to hit songs.
“EVERY LITTLE STEP I TAKE!” one person tweeted as on ode to Bobby Brown’s hit “Every Little Step,” which was produced by Babyface.
There was also virtual harmony of “GRIIIIIIIITS” when Jill Scott played her hit “The Way.”
We get to see stars interacting in real time
Sure, we all know these stars have all interacted in some way or another, but on Verzuz we get to see it in real time.
At times it feels like eavesdropping on a private conversation. And when they express respect and mutual admiration for each other’s work, the feels kick in.
“You inspired me,” Teddy Riley told Babyface during their livestream.
“We keep each other on our toes,” Babyface responded.
Of course, the candid conversations reveal some of the artists’ idiosyncrasies. When Jill Scott and Erykah Badu lost track of time during their stream, Badu admitted that was nothing new for her.
“I don’t have no conception of time. I don’t know what that means,” Badu told Scott.
Moments like that are what make Verzuz so special.
It brings us together
The biggest draw about Verzuz is that it feels more like a house party than a competition.
The cookout vibes attract all different types of viewers, from Snoop Dogg to Michelle Obama.
“Our First Lady is in the chat!” tweeted director Jennifer Lé in April during the Babyface and Teddy Riley battle.
The livestreams also cut across generations. Many of those commenting on the battles admitted they were watching with a parent or older relative.
“I told y’all Word Of Mouf was the first album that EYE bought. Me and my Uncle D used to bump Rollout nonstop,” tweeted Maura Chanz about the Ludacris album. She added that she was texting her mother about the livestream.
Others had to teach their parents how to use Instagram just for the Verzuz occasion.
“I called and gave my mom a 10-minute crash course on Instagram *just* so she could log into this #Verzuz,” tweeted NBC correspondent Blayne Alexander.
And that’s the thing about Verzuz, it’s not just a Generation X or a millennial thing, it’s for everyone across all generations to come together. Flashbacks for some were new additions to playlists for others.
It’s a break from coronavirus
For a lot of fans, tuning in and singing along has been a welcome distraction from the scary news on TV. It’s transported listeners back in time – maybe to a better time – when life seemed easier and more carefree.
As of Saturday evening, the Unites States has had more than 1.6 million confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 96,000 deaths. After shutdowns lasting more than a month, states are finally starting to open up, but experts caution about a second wave.
“The #Verzuz tweets have had me HOLLERING. Whew, I needed this laughter,” tweeted poet Saeed Jones.
“Yo, I haven’t laughed in two weeks. I needed this. Thank you #VERZUZ,” tweeted writer Sean A. Malcolm.
Journalist Yamiche Alcindor summed it up perfectly.
“Verzuz is literally saving the week,” she tweeted.
CNN’s Chloe Melas contributed to this report.