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Watch: Lin-Manuel Miranda & The ‘Hamilton’ Cast Speak On The Musical’s Significance In Today’s Fight For Social Justice
Independence Day is about to hit different. As America takes part in another 3-day holiday weekend filled with socially distanced cookouts and quarantined binge-watching sessions, family and friends can finally see Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking musical, on the small screen. Alas, that subtle, 5-year feeling of envy felt by those of us who missed the opportunity to see the original cast at a sold-out showing can finally be let go. Thanks to streaming platform Disney Plus, musical theatre enthusiasts and followers of the Broadway production will now be able to relive the cultural phenomenon that debuted on January 20, 2015, after it went on to win nearly a dozen Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize of Drama, and a Grammy.
With the ongoing protests around the murderous killing of George Floyd, the unwavering #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the exposing spotlight on the systemic racism that has plagued America for centuries, Hamilton's film premiere couldn't arrive at a better time. There's a melting pot of actors, rappers, and singers of color telling the stories of figures in American history through the lens of hip-hop, R&B, and popular music. But what brings all of this full circle is the irony of how monuments dedicated to many of America's forefathers (and slave owners) are now being torn down in protest.
"Listen, I didn't care about these people either. I was not a history fan prior to reading Hamilton's book," shared Miranda—the filmed musical's protagonist Alexander Hamilton and producer behind its book, music, and lyrics—in an interview with VIBE during an on-camera interview. "All I knew about him was he was the white guy on the 10 and he died in a duel. And then I picked up this history book and my way in was that he grew up in the Caribbean and he came from somewhere else. And so, that was my way into the story. And I think that if you tell it that way, you see it through a kind of different lens. It's not an accident that we have Black and brown bodies playing these founders."
"And clearly, in this moment where we exist, it feels like if this show can give energy and momentum to the movement, then the show is serving the moment. And that's all that we can do..." adds Hamilton's director and producer, Thomas Kail. "Our hope is," he continues, "by putting it on Disney Plus where tens of millions of people can see it in one day, that maybe we're doing some kind of service towards that and just trying to participate and contribute."
Ahead of the Broadway play's cinematic debut, VIBE correspondent Jazzie Belle not only sat Miranda and Kali, but also members of the illustrious cast: Daveed Diggs (who plays Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler), Christopher Jackson (George Washington), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), and Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr). They talked hip-hop, today's climate around civil rights, and who they'd create a musical around if given the opportunity.Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail
On the decision to have the musical's characters inspired by hip-hop/R&B artists of past and present:
Miranda: My goal with it was I wanted to have as big a tent in terms of the casting as possible. I wanted people who had never auditioned for a musical to audition. I wanted musical folks who loved hip hop but had never been able to bring that, to come in. So, every character description was a half a musical theatre reference and half a hip hop reference. I think George Washington was a Mufasa meets ...
Kail: John Legend.
Miranda: Oh, John legend. Yeah. And Angelica's character was Desiree Armfeldt, who's the smartest character in Little Light Music meets Nicki Minaj because she's just got the fastest raps in the show and the hardest raps in the show. And it was the intelligence. That's the secret about Angelica. She's smarter than Alexander, she's smarter than Jefferson, but because she is a woman in this time, she only gets to exercise it in a few ways. And so, that was the thinking behind each of the characters. I'm trying to think of some of the other ones. King George was like Rufus Wainwright meets King Herod from Jesus Christ Superstar. I can't remember, but the fun of it was this mashup of a musical theatre character and a hip hop artist. And in contradiction, figuring out what actors would do with that.
It's Mobb Deep, it's [Big] Pun, it's Biggie, it's very East Coast '90s. There's even a little sneaky Brand Nubian in there. It's just sort of—
Kail: Wait, and Hercules Mulligan was Busta Rhymes. So, when Busta Rhymes raps or Hercules Mulligan raps in the mixtape, it was beyond anything you could comprehend.Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Leslie Odom, Jr.
On the "Dear White American Theater" open letter and the tough conversations around systemic racism within the musical theatre industry:
Odom, Jr.: There are two important talks that are happening. There's the talk that we're having with our white brothers and sisters, our white colleagues and peers, and then there's the talk that we're having amongst each other that sometimes we have never spoken about, about trauma. What everybody's asking themselves right now, what I think the most important questions are...white supremacy is upheld by systems. And so, it's like am I actively upholding the system? Do I have hiring power? Am I actively upholding the system, or am I being used to actively uphold this system?
And that's what that letter is about. It was crafted to this industry that we love so much, and we're saying to them, "Are you being used?" It's going to take work to dismantle this thing. I'll say this. Don't wait. If you love and care for Black people, don't wait for us to get murdered by the police to care about our Black lives. Don't wait for me to get murdered by the cops. Care about my Black life right now. That's what we talking about.
On the women rappers/singers they pulled inspiration from when preparing for their roles:
Goldsberry: I actually studied female rappers my whole life...It's one of those things you never know, when you're kind of feeding your soul with things, what you're preparing yourself for. We [Jasmine and I] almost had the opportunity to do a big tribute to Salt-N-Pepa. We were going to do "Shoop."
What we love... It also mirrors Hamilton. This is a show about a group of men fighting for something, and what our hip-hop queens represent is, in this seemingly very male world, the power of women. They're standing there saying, "I'm here, and I own this, too." They [Salt N Pepa, MC Lyte, etc] were my model way before anybody asked me to play Angelica Schuyler.
Jones: For me, I didn't rap that much at all in this, but what I loved about my number in "Say No to This," it was a huge ode to an R&B ballad. The fact that even Jill Scott sang "Say No to This" on the mixtape was like...I've seen Jill Scott like five times. You know what I mean? I love Jill Scott so much, so it's just full circle for me, even the fact that she was able to do that on the mixtape. And that's who also influenced me as an R&B singer.
On the significance of seeing Hamilton today as Black and brown people fighting for racial equality in America:
Jones: It's about inspiring, and it's about seeing diversity on stage. It's about going out, getting people to vote to make a change. If you can't feel like you can't do it yourself, then go out and reach out to your friends and come together. There are layers to this show. And as Leslie said, it's the beginning of a conversation. Have it open the conversation, and let's continue to talk about it.
Odom, Jr: The premiere on Disney Plus, we hope—in the same way that I felt before the show opened off-Broadway—was the beginning of a conversation. It's the beginning of critique. There can be an honest critique of the work. There's a lot of love and hard work that went into it, but it can be looked at with new eyes and picked apart if somebody wanted to. Again, I hope it's the beginning of a conversation. I leave it to other people to sell stuff, but I think that the show is about them, but it is also so clearly about us, and you feel that when you watch it. It's about Thomas Jefferson, but it's about Daveed. It's about Alexander Hamilton, but it's about Lin, and so that's worthy of your time.
Goldsberry: This is a show about this ragtag group of people that were the voices of a revolution, and they won. We won, we won, we won, we won, right? We are in a revolution right now, and we need to win it. The risk that these people took is an example and actually reflects the risks that people are taking right now. Not to mention, don't get it twisted. This is not a country that was made by others. This was a country that was made by our people, too. And seeing people that look like you play it is the first step in acknowledging that. I think that's really hugely important.
Don't write off your history because of the pictures that they put up and showed you to tell... It's the same thing like, how do you deal with your spirituality? Because of the picture somebody showed you of Jesus? No, you claim that. You claim that, and you should claim this country. You should claim that, too. We would hope that the work that's been done in the show breaks down some of those barriers and that people look with new eyes.Daveed Diggs and Christopher Jackson
On how he wasn't initially sold on the idea of Hamilton:
Diggs: It was Tommy [Kali] who told me what Lin was cooking up, and I told him it was a terrible idea. I stand by that, by the way. (Smizes) It was a terrible idea...The second that he sent me the sort of demos, which are not great. They're nothing like what we have now, but it was so clear that it was going to be amazing. The fact that it is a terrible idea has nothing to do with it being a great show. And as soon as he sent me the music, I was like, "This is a great show and I really, really want to be a part of it." It's still a bad idea. If you pitched me that idea today, I would tell you it's a bad idea.
On how his love for hip-hop began in his entertainment career:
Jackson: I grew up in Southern Illinois, right? My family, we didn't have cable and we didn't have what would be known as urban radio. We didn't have Black radio back there. Any of my friends, anytime they would go visit family in Chicago or St. Louis, we would all rush over to their house with blank tapes so that they could then record the mix shows on a loop and bring back whatever we could get. I remember running through the house singing Run DMC and "Roxanne, Roxanne" just had my mind. I had no idea what this was, but I was like, "Ahhh." I used to get in trouble for rapping at the dinner table because back then, you didn't sing or do anything at the dinner table. But I'm 44 years old. Hip-hop has been a presence in my entire life. Just as pop music has and just as Michael Jackson and any country artist because I'm from the South. It's just the amalgamation of all of these different musical things, which is why Lin and I get down so well because he's constantly mining for that kind of stuff in his work. I found that I have a little reservoir that I always get to pull from when we do stuff together.
On how Hamilton should be interpreted in light of America's forefathers' monuments being torn down today:
Diggs: I think we have to accept the fact that there are sides of the people that we have considered heroes for a long time that don't deserve to have monuments about them, that those monuments don't serve us. I don't think that is a reason to not learn about them. I think it's actually an argument to learn about them in their totality and struggle with the idea of what is useful about the things that a dude like Thomas Jefferson came up with or penned what is instructive about them. And what about him do we disagree with? He was a human being. You know what I'm saying? I think the same argument is true of watching the show.
Jackson: Hamilton shouldn't be confused with hero-worship. It shouldn't be confused with the type of veneration that historically, we viewed a history through that lens and that's not what we're doing. I think that one of the many statements that are made happen to be about the fact that we're bringing these men and women down off of pedestals, we're looking at them in their most trifling states. The founding of this country was always aspirational and was always meant to not live up to it because the men that were actually in charge at that point were not capable of being their greatest selves in regard to the way that we view this now. But slaves back then, sure enough, didn't see any greatness in them.
Interview's music bed provided by Gus.
After pairing two of the most acclaimed stars in contemporary R&B on Juneteenth, Verzuz returned to its rap roots, as Jadakiss and Fabolous went heads up to see whose catalog reigns supreme. While the event between the two — who joined forces for the highly-anticipated and critically acclaimed joint-album, Friday on Elm Street, in 2017 — was undoubtedly friendly and laced with compliments throughout the battle, there was no question that each came with the intent to outlast the other and walk away the victor.
With both having released their debut solo albums in 2001, Jadakiss and Fabolous' trajectories within the rap game have been eerily similar. While Jadakiss spent the latter half of the '90s as a key cog in the Bad Boy Records machine as a member of The LOX, Fabolous bided his time dominating the mixtape circuit under the guiding hand of DJ Clue, who helped him secure a record deal through his imprint, Desert Storm. Throughout the aughts, both artists matched their commercial success with standout showings alongside other rap and R&B artists and on the mixtape circuit, building reputations as elite wordsmiths. Today, both continue to churn out material and are regarded as OG's in the game, with resumes that place them on the list of the greatest rappers of all-time.
As two of the greatest rappers out of New York to ever pick up a mic, and with their willingness to perform and compete out of love for the culture, it was a given that Freddy and Jason face off in a Verzuz matchup to see whose lyrical sword cuts the deepest, once and for all. Aside from minor technical difficulties during the tail-end of the battle, this edition of the Instagram Live event continued the seamlessness of previous battles, with Jada and Fab proving that R&B and gospel artists aren't the only ones who know how to put on a show in an effective fashion.
In this matchup, Jadakiss went first for the first ten rounds, with Fabolous responding with his own selection, before switching the rotation for the final ten rounds, with Jadakiss answering with a song of his own. The evening, which included backstories behind each artist’s most popular records, friendly, albeit competitive banter, and countless trips down memory lane for the viewers and those commenting in the chat, is one that rap fans will remember for quite some time and is a testament to Fab and Jada’s staying power and music contributions to the culture. Here’s a round-by-round breakdown and recap of the Verzuz battle between Jadakiss and Fabolous, along with who we felt walked away as the victor when all was said and done.
ROUND 1: DMX feat. The LOX & Jay-Z's "Blackout" vs. Lil Wayne feat. Fabolous & Juelz Santana's "You Ain't Got Nuthin'"
Jadakiss wastes no time throwing down the gauntlet, as he lets off his verse from "Blackout," his collaborative effort with his LOX brethren, JAY-Z, and DMX, from the latter's 1998 LP, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. In return, Fabolous contests Kiss' opening pitch with a freestyle, which ultimately pales in comparison to Kiss' memorable posse-cut
ROUND 2: The LOX's "Recognize" vs. Cassidy feat. Lil Wayne & Fabolous' "6 Minutes" DMX feat. The LOX & Jay-Z's "Blackout" vs. Lil Wayne feat. Fabolous & Juelz Santana's "You Ain't Got Nuthin'"
Sticking to the Ruff Ryders era of his career, the raspy one comes through with "Recognize," the standout, DJ Premier-produced cut off The LOX's sophomore LP, We Are the Streets. From there, Loso draws another lyrical miracle out the deck via "6 Minutes of Death," his scorching showing alongside Lil Wayne and Cassidy from Cass' I'm A Hustla album, which lands with impact, but falls short of a deafening blow in this matchup.
ROUND 3: Nas feat. Jadakiss & Ludacris' "Made You Look (Remix)" vs. Lloyd Banks feat. Fabolous, Kanye West, Swizz Beatz & Ryan Leslie's "Start It Up"
Having captured the momentum early on, Jada continues to run up the score by tossing Nas' "Made You Look (Remix)" out on the table. Fabolous makes a valiant attempt to put some numbers on the board with Lloyd Banks' 2010 single "Start It Up," and although the track itself is a certified street banger, it's no challenge for one of the most memorable remixes of the early aughts.
ROUND 4: Jadakiss' "By Your Side" vs. Fabolous feat. P. Diddy & Jagged Edge's "Trade It All Pt. 2"
Having secured the first few rounds in convincing fashion, Al Qaeda Jada lets his foot off the gas, throwing out one of his more beloved deep cuts, "By Your Side," from his sophomore LP, Kiss of Death. His back against the ropes, the captain of the Street Family resorts to his grab-bag of hits, pulling out the Jagged Edge and Diddy-assisted summer smash, "Trade It All Pt. 2," giving the Brooklyn Don his first round of the bout.
ROUND 5: The LOX's "All For the Love" vs. Fabolous feat. Kobe's "Imma Do It"
Faltering a bit in the previous round, Jadakiss returns fire with his solo selection from The LOX's '98 debut, Money, Power, & Respect, which Fabolous ironically jacked for his Friday Night Freestyles series, five years ago. In turn, Fabolous fails to regroup, misfiring with "Imma Do It," an underwhelming offering from his Loso's Way album, accounting for one of the more lopsided rounds in this edition of #Verzuz
ROUND 6: The LOX's "Chest 2 Chest Freestyle" vs. Fabolous' "Keepin' It Gangsta"
Jadakiss goes out of the confines of the rules a bit by unleashing a vintage freestyle over Showbiz & A.G.'s "Next Level (Nyte Tyme Mix)," which pairs his bars with DJ Premier's sonic craftsmanship. While a strong selection in its own right, it gets outgunned by Fabolous' early street anthem, "Keepin' it Gangsta," adding another point to the Brooklynite's scorecard.
ROUND 7: Ruff Ryders "WW III" vs. Fabolous feat. Junior Reid's "Gangsta Don't Play"
When in doubt, Jada seems to mine material from his Ruff Ryder catalog to gain an edge against his opponent, this time drawing "WW III," the star-studded battle royal featuring Scarface, Snoop Dogg, and Yung Wun, out the deck. In turn, Loso misplays his hand, deciding to strike back with the Junior Reid-assisted "Gangsta Don't Play," a solid composition on its own merit, but no threat to the Ryde or Die Vol. 2 compilation.
ROUND 8: Noreaga feat. Big Pun, Nature, Cam'Ron, Jadakiss & Styles P's "Banned From TV" vs. Fabolous feat. Jay-Z & Uncle Murda's "Brooklyn"
Looking to further increase the distance between himself and his opponent, Jadakiss goes for the jugular with "Banned From T.V.," Noreaga's epic posse-cut featuring New York's prized rookie class of 1998. Fabolous, who continues to struggle to find his footing, mails it in with "Brooklyn," which is an admirable display of his pride for the thoroughest borough, but does little to move the crowd, in this scenario.
ROUND 9: The LOX's "Blood Pressure" vs. Fabolous' "Young OG"
Sticking to the script, Jadakiss caters to his core base once again with "Blood Pressure," his murderous solo outing from The LOX's We Are the Streets album. Fabolous, who has yet to play off of his versatility or track record as a hitmaker, goes with "Young OG," a favorite from his Soul Tape series, again failing to answer the bell.
ROUND 10: Black Rob feat. The LOX's "Can I Live" vs. Jeezy feat. Fabolous & Jadakiss' "OJ"
For the last round of the first half of the #Verzuz proceedings, Jadakiss picks "Can I Live," as his last shot before skipping to the showers for half-time. An opportunity to grab an easy basket before retaining the rock after the half is squandered by Fab, who again misfires with a lackluster counter, in the form of "OJ," a record that actually includes an appearance from Jadakiss himself.
ROUND 11: Fabolous feat. French Montana's "Ball Drop" vs. Puff Daddy feat. The Notorious B.I.G. & Busta Rhymes' "Victory"
For the second half of this #Verzuz battle, Fabolous gets the first possession and rises to the occasion with "Ball Drop," his festive, French Montana-assisted NYE anthem. However, Jada, who's history as the pen behind some of Diddy's biggest hits is well-documented, goes left-field, playing Diddy's verse from "Victory," effectively snatching this round from the jaws of defeat.
ROUND 12: Meek Mill feat. Fabolous & Anuel AA's "Uptown Vibes" vs. Sheek Louch feat. Jadakiss, Styles P & J-Hood's "Mighty D-Block"
After spending the first half of the battle attempting to steal rounds with sleepers, Fabolous finally decides to lean on his strengths, which is delivering high-octane radio hits and club banger. However, being that he's now on the offensive, his appearance on Meek Mill's "Uptown Vibes" gets quelled by "D Block Anthem," giving Jadakiss an overwhelming advantage over his Freddy vs. Jason costar on the scoreboard.
ROUND 13: Fabolous feat. Nate Dogg's "Can't Deny It" vs. The LOX's "F--k You"
For Round 13, Fabolous lands a haymaker, using 2Pac's "Ambitionz Az a Ridah" instrumental to incorporate his breakout, 2001 hit, "Can't Deny It," into his playlist. While Jadakiss claps back with the incendiary We Are the Streets cut, "Fuck You," the Nate Dogg-assisted "Can't Deny It" is too strong of a record to be denied.
ROUND 14: Fabolous feat. The-Dream's "Throw It in the Bag" (Remix) vs. Jadakiss' "Knock Yourself Out"
With the majority of his winning rounds coming off the strength of his high-charting singles, Fabolous looks to rely on that formula, coming through with the Drake-assisted remix to his 2009 single, "Throw It In The Bag." Unphased, Jadakiss brings out "Knock Yourself Out," the equivalent of his big joker, for neutralization, stealing yet another round.
ROUND 15: Fabolous' "Young'n" vs. Ghostface Killah feat. Jadakiss' "Run"
Fabolous takes it back to his throwback jersey and tilted brim days with "Young'n," one of the biggest singles of the rap star's career. Not to be outmatched, Jadakiss goes with "Run," his collaborative effort with Ghostface Killah, for this round, but falls short of landing the knockout punch.
ROUND 16: Fabolous' "You Be Killin Em" vs. Puff Daddy feat. The Notorious B.I.G., Lil' Kim & The Lox's "It's All About the Benjamins" (Remix)
Just when Fabolous looks to have cracked the code to victory, Jadakiss comes through with a record that's simply too seismic and timeless to overcome. This occurs yet again in Round 16, when Jadakiss counters Loso's 2010 smash, "You Be Killin Em," with "All About the Benjamins," one of the definitive rap records of not only the Bad Boy era, but the '90s as a whole.
ROUND 17: Fabolous feat. Ne-Yo's "Make Me Better" vs. DJ Clue feat. Jadakiss & Mary J. Blige's "Back 2 Life 2001"
Despite finding himself in a deficit, Fabolous remains vigilant, keeping Jadakiss honest with formidable salvos like his Ne-Yo-assisted chart-topper, "You Make Me Better," which he pulls out in Round 16. Jadakiss shows love to his Yonkers comrade Mary J. Blige by spinning "Back 2 Life 2001," their collaboration from DJ Clue's The Professional 2 album, but it's not enough to overcome one of Fab's smartest chess moves of the night.
ROUND 18: Fabolous feat. Mike Shorey & Lil Mo's "Can't Let You Go" vs. The LOX feat. Timbaland & Eve's "Ryde or Die, B---h"
In one of the more stylistically intriguing rounds of the night, Fabolous deploys "Can't Let You Go," his syrupy, 2003 hit, "Can't Let You Go," featuring Mike Shorey and Lil Mo, while Jadakiss goes with The LOX's 2000 single, "Ryde or Die, B---h" featuring his LOX brethren, Timbaland and Eve. While "Can't Let You Go" was the bigger Billboard hit, reading the room is an invaluable skill when participating in a #Verzuz battle, and according to the demographic and expectations of those tuning in to see these particular artists face-off, "Ryde or Die, B---h" is the more enticing offering, all things considered.
ROUND 19: Fabolous feat. Tamia's "Into You" vs. Jaheim feat. Jadakiss' "Diamond in da Ruff" (Remix)
As the battle winds down, and with Jadakiss having all but secured his bragging rights, both artists choose to play off of one another's selections, with Jadakiss answering Fabolous' "Into You" with "Diamond in da Ruff (Remix)," a sleeper of a gem in his catalog. However, "Into You, which is universally regarded as one of Fabolous' signature records, nabs him a latter round
ROUND 20: Fabolous' "Breathe" vs. Jadakiss feat. Styles P's "We Gonna Make It"
For the final round in the battle between Freddy and Jason, Fabolous unleashes what may be his biggest trump card with "Breathe," one of the most impactful street anthems to come out of New York City in the past twenty years. Luckily, for Jadakiss, he still has one more trick up his sleeve, which turns out to be "We Gonna Make It," his beloved duet alongside Styles. P from his 2001 solo debut, Kiss Tha Game Goodbye. Two of the biggest rap records to hit the streets of New York. "Breathe" and "We Gonna Make It" are seemingly impossible to choose from, resulting in the lone draw of the night.
Devoid of any bad blood or shade, Jadakiss and Fabolous were content playing to the Verzuz crowd and enjoying the moment, particularly Jadakiss, whose level of intoxication visibly rises throughout the proceedings, giving the battle an even more light-hearted feel. While Fabolous, whose laundry list of Billboard charting lead-singles and guest appearances, didn't play his best hand this go-round, there were a few moments during the battle that reminded the viewers of his versatility as a songwriter with a catalog of unsung gems. For his part, Jadakiss, the winner of this Verzuz edition, by all accounts, played to his strengths, relying on the sheer amount of blockbuster posse-cuts and guest verses on his resume. Following the battle, each artist's DJ let off a brief medley of each artists' biggest records and fan favorites that didn't make the cut of their playlists, ending the night on a respectful and celebratory note.
After the collective family service we had with Verzuz: The Healing at the end of May, the Instagram Live event took a small break. On Friday, June 19th, Verzuz returned with a special Juneteenth edition featuring a modern-day dueling pianos between Alicia Keys and John Legend.
For the first male/female matchup of the series, Legend and Keys are—on the surface—a perfect match. They’ve been much compared over their careers, having both emerged at the height of the neo-soul era and becoming the remaining two pianists in R&B. Despite the ways in which they’re similar, the two singer-songwriter catalogues are actually very different, which was evidenced during their celebratory pairing.
Legend, whose latest studio LP Bigger Love debuted on Friday, used the occasion to remind viewers—many of which were core Legend fans that have drifted since he’s gone more Adult Contemporary with his music—why they loved him in the first place. He leaned heavily into his deep discography of features and some uncredited assists fans may not have known of. Keys, who has also released new music with her self-titled album earlier this year, was a little less focused in her playlist for the night but covered all bases from big hits to newer cuts.
This Verzuz wasn’t full of the meme-generating moments, technical difficulties, and quotables that have become the secondary appeal of previous matches. In fact, one of the few viral moments was between comedian Tony Baker and Teddy Riley in the Verzuz chat at the very beginning of the evening. Much like Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond’s Healing, Alicia and John joined more as a celebration than a battle, jumping on background vocals for each other’s songs and collaborating on select pieces like their collective welcome for the night’s festivities, a rendition of Bob Marley's very fitting “Redemption Song.”
ROUND 1: Cham feat. Alicia Keys “Ghetto Story Chapter 2” vs. Lauryn Hill's “Everything is Everything”
In each Verzuz, one of the artists feels less strategic with their lineup than the other. This week, that artist was Keys. Surprisingly so, considering the advantage of having Verzuz head (Captain? Owner? Don King?) Swizz Beatz as a personal coach. Her featured turn on “Ghetto Story” was a bop, but not enough of a favorite to merit an opening position. For Legend, the piano setup allowed him to flex the rules and pull out his first appearance on a major project before he even had a deal: playing the keys on Lauryn Hill’s 1999 single, “Everything is Everything.”
ROUND 2: Alicia Keys' “Underdog” vs. Slum Village's “Selfish” feat. Kanye West and John Legend
Alicia started the second round with “Underdog,” a track from her 2020 self-titled album. A curious choice despite debuting it at the Grammy’s earlier this year, viewers still don’t know the song that well. John moved into the “things I did with Kanye” portion of his early catalogue (it’s easy, now, to forget that Legend started as part of Kanye’s G.O.O.D Music camp) with the Slum Village jam “Selfish.”
ROUND 3: Alicia Keys' “Karma” vs. John Legend's “Used to Love You”
On the third round, Keys gets into her hits, but Legend counters with his debut jammy jam from 2004's Get Lifted. That “Holla, holla, holla” still goes. Hard.
ROUND 4: Eve and Alicia Keys' “Gangsta Lovin’” vs. John Legend's “So High”
The songs were too different in this round to easily call a winner. Alicia wins points for “Gangsta Lovin’” being a somewhat forgotten gem in her arsenal. “I forgot about that one!” is always a plus during a Verzuz event, and part of the reason Swizz and Tim insist that participants have a deep catalogue in the first place. But John’s move into his wedding song tunes, and again utilizing the piano, gave him an edge.
ROUND 5: Usher and Alicia Keys' “My Boo” vs. John Legend's “Ordinary People”
“My Boo” is a strong AK favorite. High sing-along factor, high nostalgia. This round should have been a lock for Keys, but John countered with his 2004 seminal ballad “Ordinary People” and sang live at the piano (Alicia didn’t even get all the way into her verse on “My Boo.”)
ROUND 6: Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down" vs. Common's “They Say” feat. John Legend and Kanye West
Keys’ 2009 “Empire State of Mind (Part II)” was an appropriate tribute to resiliency and potential for current times, even if some viewers were wondering why she chose her solo version instead of the Jay-Z collaboration (my guess at the answer: piano). Common’s “They Say” still holds up now, but Keys wins out for sentiment.
ROUND 7: Alicia Keys' “Teenage Love Affair” vs. John Legend's “Heaven”
This was an uninspiring round for me. “Teenage Love Affair” and “Heaven” are both good songs for what they are and encourage some head-nodding when played. I think they’re songs that nobody turns off or skips, but they don’t exactly go back to listen to them when thinking of these artists either.
ROUND 8: Alicia Keys “Un-thinkable (I’m Ready)" vs. John Legend's “Another Again”
In my anecdotal experience, if you poll 20 Black women in their mid-late ‘30s and ask them their favorite John Legend track, a good 15 are going to give “Another Again” as their second choice. If not, their first. (Probably because the lyrics reflect early experience staying in cycles with people they knew they needed to move on from.)
But, Keys' ode to relationships we have no business being in, the Aubrey Graham co-penned “Un-Thinkable,” is undeniable.
WINNER: Drake. I mean Keys.
ROUND 9: Alicia Keys' “If I Ain’t Got You” vs. John Legend's “This Time”
“This Time” is a Legend sleeper ballad from the largely slept-on Evolver, but “If I Ain’t Got You” has all the things we love about Alicia: the keys, the lyrics about devotional love, and one of her best uses of her raspy alto.
ROUND 10: Alicia Keys' “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart” vs. John Legend's “Tonight (Best You Ever Had)” feat. Ludacris
I mean… John’s lovingly awkward two-step aside, do we even have to discuss a round with “Tonight” in it? No, we don’t.
ROUND 11: Alicia Keys' “A Woman’s Worth” vs. John Legend & The Roots' “Wake Up Everybody” feat. Common and Melanie Fiona
John Legend and The Roots' version of “Wake Up Everybody” was poignant for the day (as is their entire 2010 Wake Up! project if you’ve never listened to it), and it provided another opportunity for Keys and Legend to collaborate, but “A Woman’s Worth” is Keys right in her pocket.
ROUND 12: Alicia Keys' “Diary” feat. Tony! Toni! Tone! & Jermaine Paul vs. Kanye West and John Legend's “Blame Game”
I was really, really, really hoping John was going to fully take on Jermaine Paul’s part for “Diary” (he came in with some teases here and there). Still, even without the full “I won’t tell” back and forth we would have all loved to see live, “Diary” is still a winner. Plus, John lost points for having to apologize to Ms. Phyllis (his mama) on air for the curse words in “Blame Game.”
ROUND 13: Alicia Keys' “Like You’ll Never See Me Again” vs. Rick Ross' “Magnificent” feat. John Legend
Another uneven round that’s hard to call at face value. Legend reminded us early in the evening that he and Rozay have damn near an album’s worth of collaborations, and “Magnificent” is one of the best ones. But “Like You’ll Never See Me Again” is a “Purple Rain” sample—almost a cheat code. Also, they used “Magnificent” as a Ciroc intermission.
ROUND 14: Alicia Keys' “Superwoman” vs. Estelle's “American Boy” feat. Kanye West
“Superwoman” wins by default here because while John co-wrote “American Boy” and signed Estelle to his brief HomeSchool imprint, he played the song more as a vehicle to tell his career story than as a formal submission towards his 20.
ROUND 15: Alicia Keys' “You Don’t Know My Name” vs. Rick Ross and John Legend's “Rich Forever”
Before Alicia and John got into their songs at the top of the night, they mentioned a song they’d both worked on together, but never named the track. That song was the 2003 Kanye-produced “You Don’t Know My Name,” which John provided the soulful “Ooh oohs” for throughout. Legend put up another strong showing in the Legend/Ross collection, but AK did the (slightly stalkerish and not advised under modern social norms) call to “Michael” live, and that alone is a winner.
WINNER: Keys but really Legend because he sang the “Ooh’s” live.
ROUND 16: Alicia Keys' “Unbreakable” vs. John Legend's “Green Light” feat. Andre 3000
Whew, those Black couple references in the beginning of “Unbreakable” have not aged well over the last 15 years, and the instant retro feel of the track wasn’t enough for us to overlook it. Legend’s “Green Light” with 3 Stack’s beloved voice shined a little brighter as we all tried to let that cringey moment go.
WINNER: Legend by default
ROUND 17: Alicia Keys's “In Common” vs. John Legend's “U Move, I Move” feat. Jhene Aiko
This round is tough, because while AK’s “In Common” was a groove, the song never really gained traction (despite SNL performances, ad campaigns, etc). Legend and Aiko’s “U Move, I Move” also feels like a groove, but is fresh-out-the-box new and a single on Legend’s new album.
ROUND 18: Alicia Keys' “Girl on Fire” vs. John Legend's “All of Me”
“Girl on Fire” is one of Keys’ biggest hits. But it was so ubiquitous at its height, no one really wants to hear it anymore. Collective sighs and groans rippled throughout the internet from the beginning of the song. Fortunately, Keys herself seems to know everyone’s tolerance for “Girl on Fire” is low; she kept it short. Legend’s own ubiquitous monster, “All of Me,” was going to win whatever round John decided to play the song anyway, so just as well.
ROUND 19: Alicia Keys' “Fallin’” vs. DJ Khaled's "Higher" feat. Nipsey Hussle & John Legend
“Higher” was a Grammy winner, a number one hit, and has become a tribute to Nipsey Hussle, having been released immediately after his death. But “Fallin’” is still magic, from those opening notes that wanna-be singers butchered everywhere throughout 2001. No contest.
ROUND 20: Alicia Keys' “No One” vs. John Legend and Common's “Glory”
Let’s just skip over the “No One” moment because “Glory” is an Oscar-winning song and a Black freedom anthem and John gave a history lesson on Juneteenth while introducing the track, so we don’t even need to talk about anything else.
WINNER: The Fight for Justice
BONUS ROUND: Alicia Keys' “Perfect Way to Die” and John Legend's “Never Break”
The two closed out on solemn and pensive notes for their benediction offerings. Keys with her latest tribute to the many Black lives continuously being cut short without justice; and Legend in response with one of his new tracks, a story of the strong foundation of love, that can also be applied to our endurance and our fight in the face of injustice and tragedy.
They came marching in the city that day, they say
Carryin' signs in the street
Cryin' eyes in the streets
But they heard nothing from the city that day, they say
Just another one gone
And the city moved on
- "Perfect Way to Die"
We will never break
We will never break
Built on a foundation
Strong enough to stay
We will never break
As the water rises
And the mountains shake
Our love will remain
- "Never Break"
Friday night’s Keys and Legend card wasn’t as eagerly anticipated or as big a draw as some previous Verzuz matches. They were also competing with no small amount of virtual Juneteenth programming, including a Friday night R&B concert series Keith Sweat hosts in partnership with iHeart Radio. But it was a fun night, a good reminder of the power of live musicianship and good songwriting (or, as Legend said frequently during the night, “a copyright”), and just a good vibe all around. The ultimate winner, as with all Verzuz matches, was the music.