Socially-distanced audiences have enjoyed the rabbit hole of COVID-19 (coronavirus) dance challenges, live streams with scruffy-faced celebrities, and endless DJ sets. But Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s brilliant and educational Verzuz series brings nutrients to the junk food we ingest on social media.
Since March, the super producers have crafted unforgettable match-ups with prominent producers and songwriters stretching across hip-hop, R&B, and pop. With each battle, the series has gradually gained a structure and formality that fans can anticipate: a total of 40 songs are played (the combatants get 20 songs each) and they have to play at least 90 seconds of their chart-topping or culturally significant jams.
This has led to some memorable exchanges: the chill-up-the-spine moment that was Scott Storch dropping Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” against Mannie Fresh’s “Real Big,” or Johnta Austin casually playing Aaliyah’s “Come Over” against Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent.” RZA and DJ Premier’s dive into New York’s golden era of rap was a master class in the genre, while Babyface and Teddy Riley reminded us that good things come to those who wait through Riley’s ego — sorry — technical difficulties.
As female vocalists like Rihanna, Beyonce, and Mariah Carey were heard in the aforementioned battles, women behind the pen and the soundboards have been widely overlooked. On Friday, May 1, a Verzuz battle featuring Erykah Badu and Jill Scott was announced in association with Heather Lowery’s Femme It Foward initiative. That it took some time for such a battle to come to fruition serves as a reminder that “Ladies First” isn’t the rule anymore.
In January, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released the study Inclusion in the Recording Studio? with results that were not surprising. Female songwriters made up 14.4 percent of 800 of the most popular songs between 2012 and 2019 (via Spotify stats and Billboard’s Hot 100 chart); eight out of 1,093 producing credits were hailed by women of color. The numbers might be a bummer but there’s a long line of women in the industry who’ve helped create some of the biggest hits in and out of hip-hop with little fanfare.
In her 2007 book I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft, author LaShonda Katrice Barnett pointed out the significance of Black songwriters such as Nina Simone, Chaka Khan, and Miriam Makeba, and how the female pen can impact all audiences.
“As always, the future demands that artists chronicle the times in which they live, and that they do so in a manner that is accessible to audiences,” Barnett told Songfacts in 2009. “There is no indication that Black women songwriters will turn their backs on what they’ve always written about — their own lives and the lives of others. Given the state of the world (wars — yes! But also the persistent demand for human rights and new challenges for defining those rights), it is safe to believe that expression in general will increase and deepen and expand all of our notions on the human experience.”
Women are essential to the music industry but they’re still left behind when we need them the most. The industry is nearly filled to the brim with men who dictate the culture, which leads to bittersweet feelings about Verzuz, and it shouldn’t take the public to constantly call out gatekeepers to highlight women. Timbo and Swizz aren’t blind to the requests or ignorant of women in their industry. The immediate jump to the likes of T-Pain vs. Lil Jon, The Dream vs. Sean Garrett, or Benny Blanco vs. Ryan Tedder comes from convenience. From TikTok to YouTube algorithms, hits from the aughts — that these men had a hand in — have become an aesthetic. Pulling the biggest producers from that time assures viewership and causes the biggest debates and, as we’ve seen from previous battles, everyone is watching.
With Badu and Scott representing the inaugural feminine match, Verzuz expands the playing field with other legacy artists hungry for a cheeky battle. Cuts from Baduizm like “Other Side of The Game ” and “Next Lifetime” will ignite the palo santo, while Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 standouts like “He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)” and “The Way” are bound to remind everyone about Scott’s impeccable range. It’s not only a perfect pairing considering their stirring track records, but it also serves as a celebration for the 20th anniversary of Words and Sounds Vol. 1 which, prior to the pandemic occurring, Scott was supposed to go on tour for. With the inclusion of more vocalists, Verzuz can now fulfill their mission statement to truly educate the masses with Black music.
Having her own catalog of producer and songwriter credits, it’s no surprise that Missy Elliott — also a longtime friend and collaborator of Timbo’s — has been the primary person fans have requested for Verzuz. Elliott’s career encompasses producer and songwriter credits for girl groups like 702, Destiny’s Child, TLC, and Total, as well as solo acts like Aaliyah, Beyoncé, Fantasia, Keyshia Cole, Monica, Jasmine Sullivan, Tweet, and Whitney Houston. Like her male counterparts, Elliott has plenty of lesser-known credits. In a 2010 interview with VIBE, Sheek Louch of the LOX recalled how she was the reason his verse made it onto the classic “It’s All About The Benjamins.”
“…when we got there Puff [Daddy] had the beat on and this chick was just dancing by herself..some crazy shit with her feet,” he said. “Then, of course, he tells us to just rhyme over it. ‘I’m strictly trying to cop those…’ And the girl was like, ‘That’s it, keep that whole verse.’ I didn’t even know at the time that it was Missy Elliott. [Laughs] She was the one who told Puff to keep my verse.”
As for who Elliott could potentially be pitted against, fans have offered a few suggestions: Diane Warren, Ester Dean, and Kandi Buruss. The latter is the most sensible choice considering the pair has some overlap in terms of songwriting credits. Like Elliott, Buruss has also written for Destiny’s Child and TLC, helping co-write “Bills Bills, Bills” and “No Scrubs,” respectively. The Xscape member also made a name for herself as a co-writer, writing for Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, Usher, Whitney Houston, and others.
As for Dean, a more fitting pairing for her could be Makeba Riddick-Woods. The songwriters are similar in that they primarily work in pop and R&B, and have both written hits for Beyoncé and Rihanna.
“Most artists have an awareness that they can sing, but they don’t know how to go into the studio and deliver the vocals and the emotion that grabs people out in radio land,” Riddick-Woods said of working with Rihanna on the 2006 hit “Unfaithful.” “There are a lot of people who can tear a stage down, but recording? Not everyone has a grasp on that. With Rihanna, she didn’t even know she had such an incredible tone. I helped her find her confidence with that.”
Although Riddick-Woods has the seniority (she started off in 2002 with B2K’s “You Can Get It” and the Jennifer Lopez and LL Cool J hit “All I Have,” which led to publishing deals with Diddy and a managing deal with Roc Nation), Dean could hold her own, having also written for Mary J. Blige, Nicki Minaj, and Christina Aguilera.
In discussing Dean and Riddick-Woods, Keri Hilson also has to be acknowledged. Before her solo career bloomed in the late aughts, the Atlanta native enjoyed crafting hits for Ciara, Britney Spears, Cassie, and Justin Bieber as a part of the production and songwriting team The Clutch.
As the other battles have shown, the best bits include the stories behind the hits. Surely, Elliott has countless anecdotes to share, and Buruss likely has a story about the making of “No Scrubs” that no one has ever heard before. With Badu and Scott’s upcoming match, it’s not far-fetched to think the pair will take time out of their battle to reminisce on the creation of “You Got Me,” and decide in real-time who gets to claim the track as their own.
The appeal of Verzuz isn’t only the camaraderie it encourages among casual and die hard music fans. It educates just as much as it honors, both working hand-in-hand to give some of Black music’s greatest figures their flowers before it’s too late. We’ve witnessed producers and songwriters get reintroduced to the masses through this series, and it’s only right women are given the same luxury to battle not only with their peers but their male counterparts, too.
Desire Thompson is a writer and editor rooting for everyone black. She’s flexed her pen on black/Latinx culture with Billboard, VIBE, its Latinx vertical VIBE Viva, Medium, and ABC. She can be found on Twitter @Desire_Renee
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