Watching lengthy livestreams of artists past their prime playing their hits for each other while occasionally trying to handle tedious home-tech difficulties may sound like the opposite of entertaining, especially when compared with an in-person concert or club experience. But it turns out that is far from the case; in fact, it’s incredibly fun. Verzuz, a year-old Instagram live show that’s become a cultural powerhouse for the quarantine era, has gained millions of streams, hordes of capital, and the affection of music fans of all stripes through that simple concept: getting artists to play songs and chat with each other on social media apps. If you, too, are a music nerd, you likely got a taste of this on Saturday night, as fans live-tweeted the Verzuz faceoff between Wu-Tang Clan legends Raekwon and Ghostface Killah on a Cîroc-sponsored stage. The two blasted and rapped along with their solo tracks, guest features, and even past Wu-Tang group songs, while old friends like RZA and Inspectah Deck stopped by, tour stories were exchanged, and booze flowed freely. Unsurprisingly, fans new and old ate it all up.
It was a party full of unabashed joy that gave the rap head and the pre-pandemic concertgoer everything they could have wanted from their rap heroes: nostalgia, historical storytelling, live rapping, exciting announcements, iconic ’fits. It’s been decades since the release of the classic Enter the Wu-Tang, but Verzuz viewers saw that Rae and Ghost could more than keep up their mighty energy. If you’re getting FOMO because you missed the show Saturday night uptown, the good news is you can watch the recording on the official Verzuz Instagram feed.
As grand as that quasi-Wu reunion was, the episode hardly encompasses the wide-ranging impact and reach that Verzuz has established over the past year. Over the course of more than two dozen matchups across two seasons (yes, it’s a TV show and channel and livestream now all at once, whatever all those words mean anymore), Verzuz has gone from a DIY home-bound affair engaging with fans to a full-fledged production.
The first official battle, between producing legends Timbaland and Swizz Beatz in March 2020, was just an Instagram livestream joining the musicians’ official accounts together in the platform’s dual-stream feature. They quashed old beefs and followed in the tradition of their past beat battles to play against each other from their respective houses, with their virtual crowd peaking at 22,000 concurrent viewers. In a tweet ahead of the stream, Timbaland claimed that, with the pandemic keeping him from performing for audiences as usual, he was inspired to launch the show by Boogie Down Productions co-founder D-Nice, who’d held a “socially distanced dance party” and DJ livestream on March 21 that attracted thousands of viewers, including then-presidential candidate Joe Biden. (It is here I am obligated to note a particularly less-covered part of this origin story: the role that my colleague Derreck Johnson likely played in conceiving the very idea that would turn into Verzuz, right after the D-Nice stream. You can judge the case Johnson has made formidably in various threads for yourself.)
Following that first go-round, the Verzuz name and branding gained currency (literally) in April, when more matchups—like the much-hyped Scott Storch–Mannie Fresh superproducer battle—were promoted with a #Verzuz hashtag and V-shaped logo, which upped viewership numbers and spurred demand for more high-profile battles with established rules. The project came into focus by firming those parameters: There are 20 rounds, in which artists each play one of their older songs to stack up against their opponent’s choice of song; there is no official “winner” of each round or session, but various websites and viewers have taken it upon themselves to name victors through their own criteria. This makes Verzuz battles resemble less the DJ spins and battle raps of yesteryear and more a toe-to-toe on legacy, these artists’ impact on their genre’s culture, and their curation skills. And there are further constraints: Artists cannot play new material (though they can announce new projects), and they can play only 90 seconds of each song, making their choices all the more important. The streams regularly take up at least a couple hours of your time, despite this, but it’s always worth the watch.
This format proved to be a winner. Throughout the spring, battles (including those between T-Pain and Lil Jon as well as Erykah Badu and Jill Scott) set new viewership records for the Verzuz brand; more than 3 million users logged in to watch the Teddy Riley–Babyface battle on April 20. That month was also when Timbaland officially filed a trademark for Verzuz and its logo, letting monetization begin apace. By that time, the historic label Def Jam Recordings was sending out email blasts promoting its own artists’ Verzuz matchups, including those featuring Ludacris and Nelly, and linking custom playlists of the artists’ best songs. A series of recaps, after-parties, and excited fan discussions, including one regular digital series hosted by my colleague Derreck Johnson, started to flourish on multiple platforms.
The “Verzuz Effect,” in which participants see successive upticks in streaming numbers, became music industry lingo. More viewers kept tuning in, to the point where Verzuz streams’ ratings occasionally surpassed those of music-related TV events like the Grammys and The Masked Singer. By late May, Verzuz had started streaming the matchups on the @VerzuzTV Instagram account instead of having the artists host them on their own accounts. Apple Music created a special radio station through which its viewers could watch the Verzuz streams or revisit audio and visual recordings of the episodes. Older artists found new audiences and fans as well as renewed interest in their best work. Meanwhile, Gucci Mane and Jeezy, who’ve had a long-running, even deadly beef, used their Verzuz episode to together perform the very song that sparked their enmity. Timbaland and Swizz gained a new brand as not just great musicians but men of entertainment business acumen. They’ve used that to expand their roster beyond musicians to feature football stars; the NFL and Verizon teamed up with Verzuz to sponsor comparisons of various athletes’ career highlights. Earlier this month, Timbaland and Swizz sold the rights to Verzuz to the short-form video app Triller, making them and all Verzuz participants up to that point shareholders in the controversial app. (Episodes are still streaming on the @VerzuzTV Instagram channel, but now you can also stream them through Triller; because of this deal, the episodes will no longer stream live on Apple Music.) They’re now planning more big events for next month and beyond, including the Isley Brothers vs. Earth, Wind, and Fire, as well as a special reunion of the Redman–Method Man duo for, aptly, April 20.
It’s remarkable that an idea that stemmed from a combination of lockdown-necessitated adjustment and a few tweets now commands worldwide attention. What was once the provenance of hip-hop nerds and the artists they love has massively expanded its viewer base and guest star roster to garner mainstream attention. This all may seem like a natural development for an era where video game streamers attract massive followings and teenagers control song charts through TikTok memes. Yet there are aspects unique to Verzuz that make it stand out among other digital-age music phenomena. After all, Instagram celebrity livestreams, along with dual livestreams, have been a popular arena for music discovery and performance—but utilizing it as an oldies radio station/MTV replacement is a newer concept.
Verzuz also succeeds because, at its core, rap has always been about competition. The DJs who performed at the block and basement parties that gave rise to the genre held regular scratching and mixing contests; the long breakbeats they played out inspired B-boys to compare their moves on the dance floor. Rappers freestyled boasts of their lyrical prowess on stages and in back alleys, and the scenes from the East Coast, West Coast, and South all faced off against one another for cultural dominance. Diss tracks broadcast targeted insults over the radio, and fans still make endless lists ranking artists and albums and songs while tracking the winners of rap beefs. Verzuz is yet another manifestation of this mano-a-mano ethos—except here, beloved musicians put up their very legacies for debate for our entertainment. No matter where in the world they are, whether they end up broadcasting from a Jamaican club or via janky home setups to sync up communication with their opponents, Verzuz participants have a chance to virtually box, show the entire world of music listeners their mettle, and give their viewers grist for the gossip mill (Brandy vs. Monica is a saga that will never die).
The high stakes of old rap beefs aren’t always here, though: The Verzuz forum can be aggressive but still superficially respectful, dedicated primarily to elevating the music itself. But Verzuz also plays into the simple fact that people like to see and hear their favorite celebrities interact, as long as they’re actually doing something substantive, not corny “Imagine” singalongs. And for hip-hop diehards, there’s little more tempting than opportunities to hear their favorite artists speak at length on their creations. Verzuz grants that, from DJ Premier explaining the inspirations for his best sonic soundscapes to E-40 giving a West Coast rap history lesson. That nostalgia factor will always win over those who fondly remember tracking down and making tapes and CDs of their favorite artists. Even if Verzuz is primarily aimed at those who live in the Instagram Age, it still provides the opportunity for newer generations to be directly exposed to Too Short’s freaky tales or Ashanti’s classic ballads, much to older generations’ delight.
There’s one piece of the show that reigns supreme, however: Watching Raekwon and Ghostface go at it Saturday, it struck me that what I most gained from the experience was the feeling of sheer joy. I loved relistening to some of my favorite jams, like “Ice Cream” and “Nutmeg”; I loved seeing Rae and Ghost jump around onstage, reminisce together, throw out jokes, and reunite with their old stage partners and friends. Perhaps the most valuable service Verzuz has offered its viewers over the past year has been the anticipation of a high-power cultural event, the pleasure of a “live” performance, the opportunity to connect with fellow music lovers through various platforms, and a collective experience with people who will appreciate it as much as you do. It will still be a while before our favored entertainment complexes, from theaters to stages to auditoriums to reading spaces, will open up fully (at least, whichever ones are still standing); by the time we get to that point, maybe Verzuz will become just a corporate object suited for a particular moment and end up scuttled or sold off, following the fate of so many other creative platforms. Even so, the sheer musical pleasure it has given to so many will remain a sterling memory for music lovers everywhere. It’s hard to put a price on that.