The Future of 'Verzuz' Looked Bright at the Garden

·12 min read

Image via Getty/Johnny Nunez

The contentious atmosphere for The Lox and Dipset Verzuz battle was set by a literal heavyweight fight.

Triller, who bought into Verzuz in March of this year, augmented the main event with a pair of boxing matches on Tuesday, August 3. Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater was already astir when I walked in, though it was probably only 50% full at first. Boxer Michael Hunter had Mike Wilson reeling, hitting him flush with blows he was too dazed to do much about.

“Stone Cold about to go down,” an onlooker repeatedly yelled behind me, joking about Wilson’s resemblance to the wrestling icon.

Wilson indeed went down shortly after. Hunter then bowed to the crowd, which, if they were anything like me, was half enthusiastic about his display, and half excited that the preliminaries were over and it was time for Dipset and The Lox to go at it. Little did I know that the knockout had set the tone for the rest of the night.

The Lox, gritty Yonkers vets (and apparent underdogs for many), brought it to Dipset with a level of showmanship that showed what all live Verzuz events should be going forward. While Dipset at times seemed too stuck on what Verzuz has been in the past, feeling as unorganized as last year’s shaky wi-fi moments, The Lox put on a show worthy of Madison Square Garden.

Swizz Beats and Timbaland have come a long way from their impromptu Instagram Live battles in the early days of the pandemic, with Swizz in his car and Timbaland’s daughter having to step in and teach him how to work Instagram. Verzuz is now a cultural staple. And now, with Triller, Apple, Ciroc, Peloton and other name brand corporations involved, and the country starting to open up more (I think?), it’s on the verge of becoming big business. With money involved come heightened expectations from patrons.

There may not have been a better testing grounds for the experiment than New York, hip-hop’s birthplace. The building was full of hip-hop heads, from the fans to the usher who excitedly asked me if I saw Fabolous walking by at one point and gave me a quick treatise on Verzuz attendee Adrian “A Butta” Walton, a New York basketball legend who used to play for Fat Joe’s Entertainers Basketball Classic team at Rucker Park.

The attendee demographic looked about as you’d expect for two veteran New York acts. People mostly appeared to be in their mid-20s and up. There were some pink shirts and hats, some Lox hoodies, and plenty of chains. Rap media personality ItzBizkit showed up in the same kind of oversized attire he’s worn in viral IG skits—except this time the 2000s chic wasn’t parody.

The crowd was full of rappers like Fat Joe, Fabolous, French Montana, A$AP Ferg, Maino, and Takeoff, as well as celebrities like Carmelo Anthony, and Jalen Rose (with his co host David Jacoby). Michael Hunter, the victorious boxer, walked around belt-in tow, looking to see the festivities. The last few Verzuz matches have had crowds who spectated the onstage acts, but this was a ramp up. This felt like a full concert. By the time the crews got in the ring (expectedly an hour and change after the announced 9:00 p.m. start time) the vibrant crowd was standing room only.

Fan engagement with the stream-only Verzuz battles was defined by live-tweeting and IG comments. There was plenty of that on Tuesday night, but there was also a standing room only crowd of take-no-shit New Yorkers, and it was clear early that we were steering the show.

In the digital-only format of Verzuz, Technician the DJ would have never felt backlash for playing Lil Uzi Vert’s crooning in a mix of gritty New York rap. But, with respect to Uzi, we were in a different lane last night. New York wasn’t trying to hear that, and large portions of the crowd let Technique know by booing until he switched to another track. Despite some mishaps that were well-chronicled on social media (“Hit Em Up” in New York?), he did a solid job of keeping the crowd mostly hype, as he ran through a mix of mostly New York and Philly rap staples.

The mix got me excited. I pondered if some of the artists he played would make an appearance, then realized that artists like Jay-Z (yeah right), Diddy (maybe), and Beanie Sigel (I could see it) could have shown up to perform for either side. The tracks had me in a web of thought, delving through the rich history of East Coast rap, which is what the night was about, after all.

When you talk about gritty rap, The Lox is at the top of the list. And when you talk about New York rappers with national appeal, Dipset is near the top of the list. For all the Timbs and oversized Pelle Pelle homogenization people employ when it comes to New York hip-hop culture, Dipset and The Lox are two starkly different acts. Talk about “New York sounding like New York” usually comes up to police artists into a rigid rubric of neck-snapping drums and 95 BPM. But last night showed the true beauty of New York rap: all the acts onstage sounded different within that New York rap classification.

There were Dipset’s left-field, high-pitched samples, as well as churning beats like “Santana’s Town,” with rapid hi-hats that felt like razors ready to pierce through the speakers. The Lox ran through Swizz Beatz’ nostalgic keyboard sound and Jadakiss’ cadre of mid-00s radio staples, and they were also slick enough to mix other artists’ classic songs into their own hits, like when they infused the iconic “All Night Long” bassline into “Knock Yourself Out.” The crowd was excited. One guy in the row in front of me moved into an unoccupied area just so he could have the space to giddily two-step while Jada was going in. It felt like a party.

If it was merely a playback of their songs, the winner would have felt more detabale. But last night, even Dipset fans would have to admit they got upstaged, which was a new wrinkle to live Verzuz. You can’t just play your songs and dance (or Harlem Shake) in this format. Dipset’s performance seemed a bit disjointed all night, with Cam’ron only casually participating, not even rapping on songs he could have, like “I’m Ready.’ They were talking plenty of trash, but weren’t quite backing it up the way The Lox was.

The Lox knew they had the crowd, as Jada kept saying the fight was “fixed,” and Styles confidently engaged with fans to his side of the ring, playfully asking us if one of Dipset’s tracks was a “6” or “7” with hand gestures. Early in the battle, the Lox set the narrative by chastising Dipset for rapping over beats with backing vocals.

Maybe the Ruff Ryders got an internal pep talk from their partner and Verzuz co-owner Swizz Beatz about properly approaching the live iteration of the show. They set a tone where live Verzuz shows aren’t going to be just a celebration of catalog and personality, but a true clash between masters of ceremonies. The world isn’t saying Dipset lost because The Lox’s catalog is so much better, it’s because The Lox outperformed them. They set a new bar for future live Verzuz acts, who are going to have to go into the events like sporting events—which seems to be what the Verzuz brass wants. Going forward, an artist might debatably have better material but still end up getting upstaged if they don’t perform well that night.

That’s not to say Dipset didn’t make their presence felt. They had their moments playing beloved hits, and Jim Jones getting the crowd in tune with Byrdgang deep cuts spoke to how invested their fanbase is. And collectively, their jewelry alone had to count for something. I was watching Juelz, especially, thinking to myself, “This is what rappers must be referring to when they rhyme about diamonds dancing in the dark.” They didn’t fully lose the crowd until the end, when things got too disorganized and Cam started trying to freestyle. They had spent all their goodwill and things devolved to the unprecedented point of Cam’ron getting booed in his own city.

The hilarious banter that Styles P and Jim Jones had stoked with their ongoing Instagram feud carried over into the night, with plenty of barbs. Cam’ron’s “rice and peas” putdown of the Lox’s suite of guest features needs to be added to the lexicon. But at some point, the banter worked against them. Cam told Jada he doesn’t have a New York anthem like “Welcome to New York City,” then Jada set off the crowd, who couldn’t wait to say, “I’m from New Yooooork.” Then Juelz accused The Lox of “not liking girls” before Jada (and their clutch DJ) delved into a flurry of singles that had all the women I saw dancing.

The trash talk had the event feeling like the most demonstrative barbershop debate ever. I could see someone getting lost in The Lox’s gruff image and questioning if they could appeal to women who enjoyed softer music, but being corrected by another person who brought up Jadakiss’ hits. Except it wasn’t just a conversation, it was Kiss having the crowd in the palm of his hand. The best Verzuz moments are the ones where artists remind you who they are. Jadakiss, who had already beat Fabolous in their battle (in the minds of many), firmly claimed the crown as the Verzuz king. Too many people, including Dipset, forgot just how deep Kiss’ discography goes. They forgot that there was a time around the turn of the millenium that he was very much an immensely-supported contender for the figurative “King of NY” crown. You don’t get into that kind of rarified air without being a landmark of rap, which Jadakiss reminded us of.

The Lox as a whole showed out. Rap is so ubiquitous that we take terms like MC for granted. But being a master of ceremonies is about captivating a crowd, no matter the situation. It’s why Rolling Loud festival goers felt like there was something off with performances from rappers who leaned on their backing tracks. It’s why Snoop can commentate anything and people will pay attention. Part of being an MC is being a recording artist, but the part so many of us forget is being able to engage and entertain people in a live setting. The Lox captured the crowd, and their power shone through—even in a confusing Verzuz format.

At one point, to me at least, it stopped feeling like a track-tor-track battle and turned into a back-and-forth war of attrition, akin to the street corner battles both camps are well-accustomed to. One side did what they could to captivate the audience. Then the other side took the floor and did the same. Verzuz organizers should have let fans and viewers know that the format wasn’t song for song but (apparently) dueling minutes-long blocks, which is a necessity going forward.

If Swizz and Timbaland really want to give fans bang for their buck when it comes to heavyweights like Dr. Dre, Diddy, and the other rap icons people speculate about doing Verzuz in the future, they’re going to have to give them space for more than 20 songs. And the rounds should be better delineated. Maybe the DJs, or a neutral host, could efficiently take us from round to round (and keep nonessential people off the stage).

Overall, it was a great night. Verzuz is still figuring out exactly what it is, and that answer may just depend on the competing artists. Last night was an authentic dose of New York culture. It felt like the energy of the Bounty Killer – Beenie Man clash with a kayfabe dash of Gucci and Jeezy’s tension—all in front of a ruckus crowd. An optimist could say that The Lox and the New York crowd showed the best-case scenario for the long-term viability of Verzuz as a live show. But someone with their glass half empty could feel like there aren’t many brands with the devotion of either crew, the years-honed stage show of The Lox, or the vigor of the New York crowd.

I’m willing to bet that Timbaland and Swizz, industry vets, will be smart enough going forward to figure out the right chemistry of artists and crowds for live Verzuz shows. As long as you have charismatic acts with extensive discographies who are ready to actually perform, this can work going forward. The best moments of the night were when the DJ dropped the beat and you heard the crowd rapping in unison with the song. They got me excited to potentially attend shows featuring artists with nothing but rap-every-word anthems.

Who knows when or where the next live Verzuz will be, or how frequently large crowds will be implemented into the Verzuz formula, but they have a tough act to follow.

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