For music lovers, the COVID-19 pandemic effectively put an end to live performances for the foreseeable future. Many venues across the country have temporally (or permanently) closed or now operate with capacity restrictions. Never again will we take for granted the sweet simplicity of being able to catch our favorite artist/band in concert. But one of the few positive things to happen for live music during all the insanity that has taken place over the last year and counting is the emergence of the Verzuz series.
Curated by super producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, who dueled in the first battle last March, Verzuz gave fans a lifeline as we sat at home watching our favorite producers and singers reminisce about the creation of their classic songs, many of which have defined hip-hop and R&B. What began as a makeshift way to pass the time during quarantine — often with artists on their iPhones going live on Instagram with audio issues — soon transformed into a robust production complete with partnerships with Ciroc and Apple. Every Saturday night (now, any given night), Verzuz holds Black social media captivated as viewers debate who won and lost in real time.
Verzuz has also become a cultural and informational bridge that connects R&B and hip-hop fans with legendary artists from other genres and eras — ones that might have been just off their radars before — and educates the masses on the origins and producers behind some of their favorite songs. Some of the most memorable episodes have included battles between producers Teddy Riley and Babyface, The RZA and DJ Premier, singers Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, Brandy and Monica, rappers Snoop Dogg and DMX, dancehall legends Beanie Man and Bounty Killer, and the improbable pairing of sworn enemies Jeezy and Gucci Mane. Talk about culture and history coming to life.
When Timbo and Swizz first battled at Hot 97’s Summer Jam 2018, they had no idea that moment would turn into a cultural touchstone. And while they have pulled strings and called in favors before to land some big artists on the platform — which, interestingly enough, always boosts the streaming numbers for an artist — never could they have envisioned a scenario where they were able to convince D’Angelo to perform. Known as much for his elusiveness as his impeccable musicianship, D’Angelo, who only recently joined Instagram, seemed like an artist who would never take part in a Verzuz. And yet, Timbaland and Swizz pulled off the miracle.
Saturday’s Verzuz spoke so much to the show having become a cultural touchstone. For starters, the performance took place at the historic Apollo Theater, sacred ground for the experience of live Black music at the highest levels. After the legendary DJ Scratch warmed up the crowd for an hour by playing a scorching-hot set of R&B, soul, and hip-hop classics, D’Angelo, in a full-length black fur and wide-brimmed brown hat, took his seat at the keyboard, dressed like the second coming of Sly Stone. That feeling of historical importance only grew stronger as he began his set with an obscure cover of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “What Is Love” (accompanied by bandmate Keyon Harrold on a moody trumpet) and his more familiar cover of Motown legend Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin'”. D’Angelo followed up the Miracle man’s hit with a snippet of “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker” and the groovy “Alright” before he dropped two of his biggest songs from Brown Sugar on the audience at home: the silky “Lady” and the jazzier “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine”.
On a night with more substance than surprises, the first double-take came when Method Man and Redman joined D’Angelo for their Voodoo feature on “Left & Right”. The East Coast vets paid homage to D’Angelo with the enthusiasm in their performance, fire emojis filling the comment section before Red reminded viewers to lay down some virtual roses for the man of the night. The mutual respect ran so deep that D’Angelo and DJ Scratch returned the favor by cueing up Method Man’s “Break Ups 2 Make Ups”, which the night’s host had guested on more than two decades ago — another rich historical nod. D’Angelo himself seemed surprised when the night’s other big guest, the young R&B singer H.E.R., dropped in the building. These two soul masters blessed the virtual audience with a duet of H.E.R.’s “The Best Part” and a brief snippet of “Nothing Even Matters”, which he originally recorded with Lauryn Hill on her classic triumph The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Again. History.
The rest of the night was more about versatility than anything else, D’Angelo proving that he’s a master of so many sounds. He pulled funk from cuts off his phenomenal Black Messiah LP (“Sugah Daddy”), sang “Devil’s Pie” with the signature boom-bap production of DJ Premier, poured out a bubbling cover of Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Making Love”, and picked up the pace with the Afro-Cuban-inspired “Spanish Joint”. Viewers commented their approval as the evening touched upon a slew of staples, like the delicate crooner “Send It On” and his first single, the illustrious “Brown Sugar”, all of which gave good vibes. However, as the night wore on, the Instagram audience began to notice that one song in particular was missing. Their worries were alleviated, however, when D’Angelo performed the album version of his classic “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”, everyone loving every single second of it.
Last night’s Verzuz perfectly captured D’Angelo in a performance that combined his mystique and divine musicianship. Although he didn’t have a slew of friends join him like most were anticipating, just seeing him onstage, which was a rare occurrence even before the pandemic, was a sight to behold. In his own way, D’Angelo made his Verzuz an intimate space where we could appreciate his genius, despite the show gaining him the kind of attention he’s famous for shying away from.
Unlike other Verzuz showdowns where there’s a final tabulation to decide the winner, this night was a celebration of D’Angelo’s mastery of Black music as a vibrant and eclectic artform. He even received virtual flowers from his adoring fans and fellow musicians (Snoop Dogg, Lenny Kravitz) who tuned in. D’Angelo proudly carries the torch of soul and funk in the tradition of Marvin Gaye and Prince, and his installment of Verzuz embodied that stewardship from beginning to end. In two words: simply brilliant.
What Is Love (Johnny “Guitar” Watson Cover ft. Keyon Harrold)
Cruisin’ (Smokey Robinson Cover)
Shit, Damn, Motherfucker
Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine
Left & Right (ft. Method Man and Redman)
Break Ups 2 Make Ups (Method Man Cover)
Back to the Future
Feel Like Making Love (Roberta Flack Cover)
Jones in My Bones
Send It On
The Best Part (H.E.R. Cover)
Nothing Even Matters (Lauryn Hill Cover ft. H.E.R.)
Untitled (How Does It Feel)