"I have no doubts that when we look back 25 years from now, that Verzuz will still be in the top five of things that we remember about 2020."
That's how singer-songwriter and producer Johntá Austin described the music livestream phenomenon, which is returning for season two on Thursday, Nov. 19, in a recent GQ oral history. He's speaking from experience, having competed against Ne-Yo in the fourth battle in Verzuz's first season back in late March.
And the thing is, he's not wrong.
In a year that put nearly everything on hold, Verzuz has emerged as one of its few bright spots. The brainchild of producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, the series invites two music icons, thus far predominantly from the R&B and hip-hop genres, to go head-to-head as they highlight their discographies in two 10-song rounds. Over the course of its two-part first season, Verzuz attracted heavy-hitters like John Legend, Alicia Keys, Nelly, Snoop Dogg and Brandy to join in on the fun. And with each new battle announced, the audience only continued to grow, with folks like Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey and Michelle Obama tuning in and commenting along with the average fan.
As Lil Jon, who battled T-Pain back in April, told GQ, "That's one of the greatest things about Verzuz, that you can see Michelle Obama, whoever it is. Everybody and anybody in pop culture, sports, fashion, politics is in those Verzuzes and commenting. I think that's one reason why the average person connects to Verzuz so well. They're basically in the VIP room in the conversation."
Before rappers Gucci Mane and Jeezy duke it out in the season two premiere, we thought we'd look back on the highlights of season one. These are the five best Verzuz battles so far.
5. Timbaland vs. Swizz Beatz
The one that started it all! While the virtual clash of the titans between the A-list producers bears little resemblance to what a Verzuz battle has become since its debut on March 24, there would be no series to speak of if it weren't for this five-hour face-off. The lo-fi affair was essentially just two dueling DJs, but the way an early lockdown audience connected to it let its creators know they were on to something.
As Swizz told GQ, "Without an announcement, 30,000 people were paying attention. That's with no flyer, that's with nothing. That's just us up there just going. Engagement [on Instagram Live] is usually 30, 40 seconds—not four hours, five hours. People stuck around with me losing Wi-Fi and taking it to the car and going up the hill and doing it from the car...We knew we had something. We started getting phone calls, and then me and Tim was like, 'Let's just keep this thing going and celebrate the writers and producers and the musicians.'"
4. Alicia Keys vs. John Legend
As a special Juneteenth celebration, this moment between the two piano virtuosos—one of whom happens to be Swizz Beatz's significant other—allowed for them both to lift one another up, with Legend even accompanying Keys during her performance of "You Don't Know My Name." It also gave us plenty of footage of Legend performing simple "1-2-Step," for which we're endlessly thankful.
3. Erkyah Badu vs. Jill Scott
The first battle to put the spotlight on women—and the only one in the first half of season one to involve any ladies at all—this May 9 livestream was more a warm reminder of what these two neo-soul legends are capable of than anything else. And that was by design, according to Scott. "At first I said no, because I thought it was going to be mandatory that there'd be a battle. I didn't want to battle," she told GQ. "Not with music. I love music. But when I talked to Erykah, she was like, 'Yeah, let's love each other. Let's celebrate each other.'"
2. Gladys Knight vs. Patti LaBelle
To close out season one on Sept. 13, Verzuz delivered a masterclass in the form of these two soul-singing legends filming together on stage at The Fillmore in Philadelphia. With Michelle Obama and Oprah watching, they ran down their incomparable catalogues of hits and even brought out Dionne Warwick to join them for a finale that included performances of "Superwoman" and "That's What Friends Are For." The winner that night? All of us watching.
LaBelle told GQ, "Most people were calling it a battle. There's never a battle with friends who have the same reach to people. Whenever people meet me and say how much they really love me, the second person they say is, 'We love Gladys Knight also.' People love both of us, and we're not trying to outdo each other. We just do what we do."
1. Brandy vs. Monica
With over 6 million people across Instagram and Apple Music tuned in to see the two "The Boy Is Mine" collaborators not only face off at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, but speak to one another for the first time in eight years, this late August reunion delivered. It allowed the two '90s R&B princesses to bury an old hatchet and rekindle an old friendship, while reminding everyone watching of their killer discographies.
As Brandy gushed to GQ, "For us to come together and to be this powerful together, it just spoke volumes as women, as Black women coming together. I felt like we really were able to seize the moment, and I think it was a sign that we should work together more. We should do more things together. And not to take away from what we do individually, because she's a force all by herself, but it's something about when we come together. I wanted her to feel that, and I just wanted her to feel celebrated from me. And I wanted her fans and I wanted my fans and everyone to know that this was a real thing between the two of us. I didn't want it to end."
Verzuz returns for season two on Thursday, Nov. 19, at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on Instagram and Apple Music.