At the onset of the pandemic, as states issued lockdown and stay-at-home orders, Timbaland was plotting a revival of an idea that he and fellow rapper-producer Swizz Beatz had had years earlier.
In 2018, they had battled hit for hit onstage at Hot 97's Summer Jam in New Jersey, highlighting songs they had produced for Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Aaliyah and DMX, among others.
"People were very into it," Timbaland said. "It was just a matter of when it was time to be manifested."
Fast-forward to March, when he and Swizz debuted the series Verzuz (pronounced "versus"), in which two musicians face off on Instagram Live. Timbaland said that at the time, he thought Instagram Live was being underused.
"At the beginning of the pandemic, I'm like, 'What else we got to do? Let's explore this platform that we have,'" he said. "And it worked."
Timbaland and Swizz were the first to battle on Verzuz, which has become a cultural success, securing some of the most revered names in hip-hop and R&B and, on one occasion, in dancehall by way of the reggae artists Beenie Man and Bounty Killer. The series has drawn millions of viewers, and it consistently captivates Black Twitter, where at each turn it is often the No. 1 trending topic.
Perhaps most notably, it has translated into streaming success for the musicians it features — creating what's been called the "Verzuz effect." Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle held a Verzuz battle in September, leading to their best career streaming totals afterward, according to Billboard and Nielsen Music. The soul titans had a combined 4.1 million on-demand streams in the U.S. from Sept. 13 to Sept. 16.
In addition to streaming on Verzuz's Instagram account, each battle is simulcast for free through its partner, Apple Music. ("Verzuz is still 100% Black-owned," Swizz and Timbaland said in July when they announced the partnership.) Instagram Live sessions typically last an hour and then need to be restarted, but many Verzuz battles have gone on longer without interruption.
Season 2 premieres Thursday with the rappers Gucci Mane and Jeezy. Unlike typical battles, a Verzuz session provides a space for musicians to candidly discuss the origins of their hits and to reflect on their lives and careers and the contributions of other artists, including their opponents.
"We found a way to still keep it competitive, classy, educational and where you're celebrating at the same time," Swizz said in a recent interview. "We just like it that way better."
'Like the Super Bowl and the Grammys and Coachella rolled into one'
Gerrick Kennedy, a journalist and author, said he has tremendous respect for what Timbaland and Swizz have done with Verzuz and for Black people in particular.
"So little do we see ourselves celebrated in such a way that has moved the culture the way that Verzuz has — that has had the impact for the artists immediately after the way that Verzuz has," said Kennedy, author of "Parental Discretion Is Advised: The Rise of N.W.A and the Dawn of Gangsta Rap."
The access Verzuz gives artists has been significant.
"This is something that you truly don't really see unless you are performing at the Super Bowl," he said. "We're talking about hundreds and hundreds of thousands of streams right after, millions of eyeballs on you."
A Super Bowl halftime show is 13 to 15 minutes long, Kennedy said.
"But this is you for three hours," he said. "Sitting with another artist of your same caliber. Probably a peer. Probably a friend. And celebrating one another."
Kennedy, who grew up with R&B and hip-hop and who has spent the past 11 years writing about it, said, "Every single Verzuz is legitimately like the Super Bowl and the Grammys and Coachella rolled into one."
The Verzuz effect
On Sept. 1, a day after the singers Brandy and Monica battled on Verzuz, they had 30 out of 40 of the top songs on Apple Music's Top 40 R&B & Soul Tracks chart, which has been attributed to the Verzuz effect.
"It's unreal to see that with any R&B artist, let alone an R&B artist over the age of 35," Kennedy said. "So when you see someone like Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight do this and then their music goes up on streaming — that's an audience that historically has not really engaged with digital service providers."
Timbaland and Swizz have a small team who decide who will battle each other. Timbaland said he and Swizz are the primary curators.
"When you put both of us together, we just know how to make a great playlist," Timbaland said. "It really is a playlist of great songs that touch your soul."
Because Verzuz airs live, Swizz said, he and Timbaland have the benefit of real-time feedback.
"A lot of people request a lot of things," Swizz said. "So we get to see what the people want, as well. And that's a big part because the people gon' tell you what they want to see."
Not everything makes sense, he said, which is why they act as curators.
When they launched Verzuz, their first mission was to highlight under-heralded artists, such as Johntá Austin, Sean Garrett and The Dream, Timbaland said. Austin, a songwriter, battled the singer-songwriter Ne-Yo in March. Austin has written songs for Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Aaliyah and many others.
"People didn't know Johntá wrote all those records," Timbaland said. "But after Johntá did the Verzuz with Ne-Yo, everybody was calling Johntá to write."
Among the most touching elements of Verzuz, Kennedy said, are the moments when artists have shown each other "pure respect," or as Swizz describes it, "bringing each other flowers."
"When you can see DMX, who has gone through so much — he's made a lot of mistakes; he's also been very upfront about a lot of these mistakes — when you can see him have a moment where Snoop Dogg, of all people, another person who's made mistakes and who's changed the way they are, what they represent, but to see him sit with somebody like DMX and give him that respect, give him that reverence, this is major," Kennedy said.
"There's no other platform where that exists for two artists, regardless of the color of their skin, to share in that moment," Kennedy said.
That has helped persuade some artists to take part in Verzuz battles.
"A lot of people, when we approach them, they always say: 'Nah. That's not for me. I'd rather watch,'" Swizz said. "But most of those people come back around and say: 'You know what, at that time, it wasn't for me. But right now, I'm ready, and we should do it.' So just to see people coming around and experiencing it and taking their time and growing from it and learning from it, it's been a blessing."
'It's not just something that's for the pandemic'
The ways Verzuz has gathered people and created a shared community have also been profound.
"The world is on fire," Kennedy said. "Everything right now points to how hard it is to be Black and brown in this country, and to have this moment of celebration and just so much pure joy that comes with this has been remarkable."
While many people may have been introduced to Verzuz during the pandemic, Swizz said, "it's not just something that's for the pandemic."
"It's something that's for the culture," he said. "And it's something that we should've been doing a long time ago — which is celebrating each other."
Swizz said he and Timbaland plan to expand Verzuz to other genres.
"I think that what they've been doing with this is so phenomenal, there's a million other ways that they could go about it," Kennedy said. "They could start doing pop. They could do Latin. They never explicitly said this is only something for Black music, this is only something for Black people. So I think there's lots of opportunity for them to go in lots of different directions."
None of those plans involve moving Verzuz from Instagram, Swizz said.
"As far as enhancing and adding experiences that people are probably not thinking about that would be great, of course — we're innovators."