COVID-19 is a major adjustment for everyone, but hip-hop has been working overtime to offer consolation for tour and festival cancellations. DJ D-Nice's HomeSchool party has already inspired a stream of live DJ sets, and now Swizz Beatz and Timbaland's Verzuz competition is rap's newest way to cope with social distancing.
The duel, which happens every few days, is a modern take on rap battles and Jamaica's massive soundsystem competitions known as sound clashes. While everyone is confined to their homes, Instagram Live is hosting the friendly rivalry between hip-hop heavyweights in the name of quarantine content. Competitors go back and forth playing 20 classic singles from each of their catalogs, offering up commentary along the way. In 2017, Swizz Beatz and Just Blaze went head-to-head in a similar fashion, but the looming uncertainty surrounding the fate of the music industry has revived the sport.
We've been lucky enough to see battles between Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, The-Dream and Sean Garrett, Johntá Austin and Ne-Yo, and Scott Storch and Mannie Fresh. With each rivalry, hip-hop is celebrating its innovators in real-time, instead of posthumously. But T-Pain and Lil Jon's competition over the weekend proved these events can be so much more than a way to pass the time.
T-Pain and Lil Jon didn't hold back. With T-Pain's "Good Life" and Lil Jon's "Get Low" facing off as their first songs, it was clear that viewers were in for a long night with the two super-producers. "We only got hits," T-Pain said. "It's weird." For hours, the two battled it out, putting their musical chemistry on display. Lil Jon matched every twerk song T-Pain threw out, and T-Pain spat back his best club bangers when he was challenged.
But it was a competition after all, and Lil Jon came prepared with a bulletproof strategy. His catalog includes songs people didn't even know he produced, like the 1994 remix of Capleton's "Tour," and told the story of how a squeaky chair ended up as the backbone to Trillville's "Some Cut." The two exchanged contemporary songs they inspired, like the "I'm Sprung" sample in Tory Lanez's "Jerry Sprunger" and the "Freak-a-Leek" sample in Saweetie's "My Type." Nearly three hours and 280,000 viewers later, we weren't only listening to the best of the autotune and crunk eras, but learning about how some of our favorite songs came to be.
But the night was not all mindless fun. T-Pain played his verse from "I'm a Flirt," a collaboration with R. Kelly, underscoring that cancel culture is not as simple as erasing every memory associated with an artist. It brings up questions, yet again, of whether it's possible to separate art from the artist: can you be aware of the allegations against Kelly and still celebrate T-Pain's contribution to a song that is equally his?
Regardless, what Swizz Beatz and Timbaland have created is the beginning of what hip-hop artists desperately need. Verzuz is more than a virtual competition; it is the start of a frank conversation about the shelf life of the legacy for Black artists. It forces culture to assess who is eligible to be considered great and to celebrate their impact without waiting to be acknowledged by institutions like the Grammys who have traditionally shut Black artists out. The format also allows artists to break their records live, and T-Pain and Lil Jon did just that. Thanks to their show, R&B fans got to hear the collaboration with Usher and Ludacris Lil Jon has been sitting on for two years—no middlemen required.
But how much longer can we expect top-tier entertainment for free? In an interview with VIBE, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland don't seem to be in a rush to cash in on their idea just yet.
"Right now, there's no politics involved and we're having a great time," Swizz told VIBE. "The minute you see a logo running across that screen, it's just gonna feel crazy. And I think we should be promoting what we promoting: the artists."
Whether we like it or not, monetizing off these face-offs is a step toward the direction of ownership. It may sacrifice the authenticity of two legendary artists talking shit on their Instagram, but at least it will provide the foundation that lives beyond Instagram's terms and policies.
R&B legends Teddy Riley and Babyface are the next pair to enter the proverbial ring, but it won't be without upgrades. Initially scheduled for last Sunday, the showdown has been postponed because they are working on "taking the quality to another level," according to Swizz Beatz's Instagram. Since the postponement, Riley chatted with Charlamagne Tha God about the plan to move his battle to a media platform he's partnered with. The two stand to draw the biggest crowd yet.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.