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Justin Milhouse

Views From The Studio: Producer Key Wane Dissects Jazmine Sullivan And Bryson Tiller's "Insecure"

The Detroit native reveals the story behind that "sample" on "Insecure," the importance of the piano, and the power of prayer.

The rich music history and soul of Detroit engraved its presence within Key Wane's soundscapes the moment he decided to become a producer. Serving as the home of Motown, the Motor City has birthed some of music's past and present forerunners like the late J. Dilla, Black Milk, Dej Loaf, Royce da 5'9", Big Sean, Eminem, Tee Grizzley and more.

"You can spend three months here and be so influenced by the culture," Key Wane says. "It's one of the best cities ever, so much inspiration here. It's a city of soul. It's hard for you not to be soulful in any way with your recordings no matter what it sounds like."

That melodic plate of soul food that Wane cooks up behind the boards continues to be the main ingredient in his creations. From Meek Mill's "Amen" to Big Sean's "Play No Games" to Jazmine Sullivan's "Let It Burn," Wane's instrumentals are bound to leave a lasting impression, similar to his latest offering, "Insecure" by Sullivan featuring Bryson Tiller.

Wane said the song, which was featured on Sunday night's episode of Issa Rae's HBO series Insecure (Aug. 20), took "about a year-and-a-half to make it happen." Sullivan freestyled her verses once she heard the track and later reached out to Tiller to lay his vocals. Then Rae was introduced to the melody and the rest is soundtrack history.

Read what else Key Wane had to say about that "sample" on "Insecure," the importance of the piano, and the power of prayer.

VIBE: I read that one of the instruments you're well-versed with is the piano. I think it was in Rolling Stone, that Prince told Beyonce if she learned the piano, then her artistry could reach new heights. What are your thoughts on that statement and how important is the piano in producing?
Key Wane: There are many people who are skilled without it, there are many people who are skilled with it, but I feel it is important to know an instrument because you can definitely raise your creativity, have you think about a whole set of new ways to approach a song. I agree with Prince. Playing the piano helps out your artistry especially if you’re trying to be melodic, harmonic or just different. A lot of my favorite songs are created by people who know the instrument. Pharrell is a great piano player, he’s one of my favorite producers. You can tell by listening to his beats that clearly the instrument makes his production stand out more evidently. The chords on almost every song on Fly or Die or In Search of... stand out so much. My ear connects more to the musical, melodic side of things, so Pharrell is a big inspiration when it comes to that. To tie that into what Prince said, yes, playing the piano should be something that people should be trying. Not just the piano, the guitar too, the trumpet, the drums. I feel like an instrument heightens, raises your artistry or creativity. That’s just me, I’m not speaking for everybody.

Which process taps deeper into your creativity? Songwriting or producing?
I write to every beat so it’s both. I have to put some type of direction on the beat before I send it to an artist. If they don’t like it, it’s cool because you still have the beat, and if you like what I said now you know where to go. I love writing and I love making beats. I haven’t written as many hit records as I’ve done beats but when artists are either stuck or having a hard time trying to advance on the record, I would always say, ‘Can I pitch you an idea?’ “All Me” happened just like that. Drake had called me one day and said, ‘The beat is ill, we’re over here killing it, but I don’t really have a hook. I don’t know where to go. All we have are just verses.’ I asked him, ‘Can I write a hook to it?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I sent them a hook and he ran with it and it worked. I feel I have a great point of view on both producing and songwriting. I’m still growing as a songwriter but I can’t really choose between both. Technically, producing does include songwriting too.

That’s interesting, how producing in a way influences you to write as well, even though you’re not the main songwriter for the song you’re producing.
Never the sole songwriter. I’ve had people ask, ‘What do you think you would say on this?’ They’d send me beats from other producers and ask, ‘What would you say on the hook or the verse?’ Other times people would say, ‘send me hooks’ or ‘send me beats with hooks,’ or ‘play me beats with hooks.’ I’ve had people say, ‘Just play me all your hooks with your beats.’ If I make the beat, I’m always thinking of something to say on top of it, whether I was inspired and just decided to put a song out or just give it to somebody. For the last few years, almost every beat I make I try to put an idea with it because I try to give the artist direction if they can’t find it.

Walk me through the process of "Insecure?" What were the creative steps like, when did you get the notification to produce the track?
I had three different versions of the beat before I ran with one. Usually, when I make beats I make at least four or five different versions of it. I’ll send you something that’s a little rough to see where I’m going then I sit with it. I don’t finish beats in a day, I have to work on it day after day after day. I probably had that beat for a year. I kept going through different versions. One version had drums to it. The way the vibe was I didn’t want it to be drowned out with drums so I kept it simple and put a very light drum track on it. I liked it, ran with it, put some keys on it, loved it. Me and Jazmine Sullivan have been working together for some years, probably since I graduated from college. We’re always sending each other records. I did the “Let It Burn” record, “Mascara,” “Dumb,” I produced a great portion of her Reality Show album. Recording with Jazmine Sullivan is so great. She’s the most talented person I’ve ever worked with as an R&B singer. When we did “Let It Burn,” I think she did it in one take. She was like, ‘It’s done!’ because she can sing really good. I’m used to being in the studio with people that’ll do take after take. She just went in there and did it. She’s amazing, gifted, blessed, she got it going on.

[Big] Sean flew me out to New York when he was recording the I Decided album. I did “Jump Out the Window” which is a really good song, one of his current singles right now. Sean went back to L.A. and my flight got delayed so I couldn’t make it. I thought, ‘I’m going to be out in New York for a whole day. Might as well get into something.’ I don’t like sitting down, I hate being lazy. I remember Jazmine said, ‘I stay in Philly. The best way you can get here is to take the train.’ I took the train, got to her crib and I was only going to be there for the night. I was going to take the train out in the morning. I played her five beats that day and she was just vibing. We were in the room for hours listening to a lot of ideas I made before I came there. She heard the “Insecure” song and immediately she knew… I knew the song was going to be crazy by her immediate reaction and what came out her mouth when she started singing, how she started off her verse. She freestyled the whole thing! I’ve seen Sean freestyle records all of the time. He hears a beat and immediately goes in on it. Jazmine, she does the same thing. I was sitting there like, ‘You have the song already?’ We were just vibing and she recorded a reference.

The reference that she recorded ended up being the song. I said let me get a copy of this so I can see how I can work it. She said let me know what else you do to it. I went back to L.A. and played it for a bunch of people and asked, ‘What do you think of this Jazmine Sullivan song?’ They said this sounds hard. I was telling her it’s about to be a dope record and she said she wants somebody on it. I asked, ‘Who do you want?’ She said, ‘Who do you think?’ I said, 'Do you want a rapper on it or a singer because it’ll be good if you got a rapper on it.' She said she really wants somebody with vocals to feature on it. Then she said, Do you know Bryson [Tiller]?' I said I don’t know Bryson, but I know Bryson’s people. I know Neil [Dominique] is Bryson’s manager and he’s a really good guy. Neil and I have been working together since he used to work for Diddy. I got in touch with Neil and said, ‘Me and Jaz have this crazy record. She wants Bryson on it. I’m giving it to you. Let me know what you can do with it.’ He hits me back, and this is probably months after I left Jazmine’s house, when we did “Insecure.” He said, ‘I can get him on it, we’re literally recording right now.’ I think Bryson was finishing up his tour. They did the verse and sent it back to me. I sent it to Jaz and she really liked it. She recorded another verse to it. We were trying to figure out if we should let Bryson go either in the second or the third verse. We ended up getting that resolved then it was done. I remember going to her house again, this was a few months ago, and we were working on newer stuff because we have a few records that we haven’t put out that’s fire. My guy Tunji at RCA was hitting me up. He said they were about to release the record. I traveled a lot, nearly a year trying to work that song. We were trying to get that song finished. Hearing that the song was done I was really happy. We just had to do minor production at the end, fix some things around, add some color to it, basically put the finishing touches on it. They were telling me that they were with Issa Rae. I think Tunji played it for her, and she loved it and ran with it. It took about a year-and-a-half to make it happen.

Is that Pleasure P's "Rock Bottom" that you sampled? How'd you come across that melody and what made you utilize the ad-libs?
It’s actually Jazmine singing. I took some vocals that Jazmine sang. I have a bunch of her vocals on my computer. I had her engineer send me some of her stuff. I sample a lot, so I sampled her vocals and turned it into a beat. If I played it for you, it would sound totally different.

The beat is pretty minimal like you said the vocals drove the beat.
Cool & Dre made the song “Rock Bottom.” They had a guy reference, I don’t know who wrote it, I wanted to ask who is the guy. Tunji said, ‘Listen to this.’ It was the original, original version of “Rock Bottom.” It wasn’t Pleasure P’s version, it was the one Cool & Dre had. Cool & Dre asked, ‘What do you think about this?’ Tunji said, ‘See what you could do with this’ and I did what I could with it. I chopped up a portion of it. I couldn’t really fully chop up what Cool & Dre sent me. I had to combine what I did with the Cool & Dre chop with Jazmine Sullivan’s vocals and it came out really well. Kind of like when you cook food, and you chop things up to make it taste good is basically what I did. It came out right. I’m a minimalist. I don’t think you should flood beats with instruments. You need to let the beat breathe sometimes and that beat was for sure breathing.

How does that method of being a minimalist allow for your creativity to shine?
I don’t wake up and say, ‘Let’s be minimal,’ but some of my favorite songs have the most minimal sounds but have the biggest impact. “Amen” is a very minimal beat, but it’s hard because it’s filled with melodic sounds and a bright vibe. “All Me” is very minimal, the beat is simple. I f**k with beats that give the artist enough room to breathe. I can’t drown a beat out with sounds. That might be the most minimalistic beat I’ve ever made and it sounds so good. “Memories” by Big Sean, that beat is just a drum and a key. The stuff I did for Beyonce, the piano intro on “Mine.” I’m not trying to be minimalistic on everything, but it just sounds really good to me. It helps the people who hop on my records, it gives them enough room to breathe and not be cluttered or drowned out by the beat. But I do have a lot of songs where there’s a lot going on like Big Sean’s “Guap,” “Dumb,” “Mascara” by Jazmine Sullivan. Being a minimalist isn’t what I aim to be on every beat, but I always believe less is more.

9th Wonder said samples in hip-hop or R&B for this matter can serve as an educational tool. When you select your samples, what teaching purpose do you hope listeners will take away?
I definitely believe sampling is very educational because you learn techniques that people were doing back in the day that sounded too good to just leave it there. I was with Diddy, we did a record that’s coming out soon, and he feels the same way. Sampling is a lost art. He says it at the very beginning of the song. People aren't making stuff like this anymore. I was with Royce da 5’9" who feels the same way. I listen to everything, but some people say the whole vibe of boom bap doesn’t exist like it used to. That’s why I love JAY-Z's 4:44 album because that goes right up my alley; raps and beats. When it comes to sampling, I try to follow in those footsteps of 9th Wonder, J. Dilla, No I.D. and Kanye [West]. I grew up off of that. Some of the best records on earth are sampled. R&B, funk, everybody sampled it. When I look for things I try to look for stuff that either you never heard of that’s not on YouTube. I go crate digging at the record stores too.

I don’t sample everything. A lot of my songs are original music, but when it comes to sampling stuff, I try to sample something unique, that you will feel in your soul. Songs like “4th Quarter” by Big Sean, if you listen to the sample at the end you’ll feel that. I try to get something that you would just feel. I sample old and new sounds. It’s weird to explain the thought process of crate digging and sampling. I’m just looking for if the art cover was dope or if I’ve heard of it before, or just curious and grab something and go home and cook. A lot of songs happen like that where I just go to the record store, didn’t know what I was buying and it just came out good. When it comes to sampling, I’ll just take a Saturday, nothing to do, go to the record store, usually every Saturday out of the month and just buy records, just see what catches my attention. If I bought 100 records I probably will find two or three songs that are fire. I’m still going through records that I bought years ago, hopefully trying to find something. I do believe in being versatile too, but I’ll still play the entire song out for you like “Eternal Sunshine,” and “Mirrors” from Jhene Aiko are all original records, just me sitting in front of a keyboard playing chords, seeing if it’ll work. I try not to be or stay the same, I try to be versatile as much as possible.

How do you select your samples? What do you look for in that process?
It’s really the vibe I get listening to it. If I hear something in it and say, ‘This is going to be deep,’ usually when I’m listening to stuff… I really just go into it. I don’t sit and say to myself, ‘I’m going to make an R&B song today’ or ‘I’m going to make the biggest trap record,’ I don't do any of that. I just see if it sounds right. I flip it and turn it into a crazy rap record. Usually, with sampling, I just don’t know if it’s going to be the next biggest R&B record because [Beyonce's] “Partition” I gave to Wiz Khalifa first. I give a lot of R&B beats to rappers first. I gave “Let It Burn” to Meek Mill first. A lot of my beats usually are rap beats. It’s really who catches the vibe. I can go into the beat thinking it’s going to be a hard rap record and then it turns into being the biggest R&B record. I can go into it and it's the biggest R&B record turning into the biggest rap record. I sent the beat of “Mascara” to Drake because I thought that would be a really good record for him. He said, ‘I love this record, this sh*t is dope,’ but Jazmine ends up making it the greatest song for a woman. I don’t have a thought when it goes into making the beat. I just don’t sit in the front of the keyboard like, ‘This is going to be the biggest rap record.’ God will laugh and say, ‘Oh you thought it was,’ and then it be an R&B record. “Insecure,” I think I gave to Sean first. When I sample I just see what works, see where it goes. I don’t pressure myself like, ‘This has to be the biggest.’

Do you have a favorite sample that you've used thus far in your career?
The best song I’ve sampled my whole career, there’s three: the sample I used on “Higher” for Sean which is a John Legend song, then there’s the “All Me” sample is great. Every time I do interviews they always ask me how I chopped up the “All Me” sample which is one of my favorites. Another one of my favorite samples that I’ve used, it’s a song that didn’t come out yet but it is so good! I cannot wait for it to come out.

You also hail from Detroit, which was home to Motown Records for a while. Given that label's legendary roster of R&B artists, did your upbringing in Detroit play a role in how you approach your productions, or the use of samples today?
Motown and Detroit play a huge role in everything that I do because there’s so much soul, history, some of the best musicians are from here. J. Dilla is from Detroit, one of the best producers, period. It’s impossible for you to not soak that in. You can spend three months here and be so influenced by the culture here. It’s one of the best cities ever. So much inspiration here. I would drive downtown, listen to Jazz and get inspired and make something dope. It’s a city of soul. It’s hard for you not to be soulful in any way with your recordings no matter what it sounds like. You’re going to catch some type of soul that you can feel from anybody doing music in Michigan and that’s a proven fact from Eminem to Royce to Sean to Dej Loaf to Payroll to Tee Grizzley. Even producers from Black Milk to J. Dilla to even my little self. It’s real soulful here, the music sounds like a plate of soul food. I don’t think my music would sound nothing like this if I was from another city.

You utilize 90s R&B or even older songs as samples. How do you keep the spirit of those times alive or sound fresh in your productions?
Through a lot of chords that people were recording back in the day. I like how they crafted their chords. How do I feel about bringing the 90s into today’s music? Sometimes by sampling, making something that feels like it’s inspired by something from back in the day. A lot of stuff George Duke created is so good, I haven’t heard anybody use those chords in music today. He has a song called “Just For You” and I haven’t sampled that but the vibe of the song is so innovative, just to make something that sounds like that today...If the kids now knew what certain stuff in the 80s sounded like? That’s why I try to at least do my part and still hold onto that vibe in some of the songs that I produce. A lot of this is timeless from the 80s and 90s so I just love that time period. I’m mentally there sometimes so it’s hard for me not to make a beat and not have some type of 90s influence on it.

Anything you’d like to add?
On IG or when I run into people,  they say, ‘I’m in college too, how do I continue to do this?’ Because I was doing a lot of these songs during college. Some say they’re lost or uninspired, 'do I quit my job but I don’t know how I’m going to continue to get the money,’ all these questions that people ask me that I go through and I tell them the only thing that’s going to change anything around is prayer. I say this all the time. I used to work at a car wash, at a daycare, at a telecommunications place, and those places weren’t for me. I just prayed every day. I didn’t take a shortcut. I said, ‘Lord, please make this happen for me. I feel like you gave me a gift. If this is the gift you gave me, help me tap into it. Help me see the light behind all of this.’ I tell people all the time, ‘I had a job like you and I quit. I was broke like you. My boss fired me three times,’ and I still didn't let any of that stop me. I went to studios broke, I had no money. The way “Amen” happened is a prime example of God being real. I went to New York with no money. I was stranded in Times Square, didn’t know how I was going to get to the Greyhound to get back to Detroit just to hop in my raggedy car to drive back to school hoping that the car would make it. I’m thinking if I graduate this year with nothing I’m going to feel like a failure like I was lazy and I didn't achieve anything. I’m going to have to graduate and go right back to working these jobs. I just prayed, ‘Lord, change my situation if you feel like my situation needs to be changed.’ Then I ran into Meek Mill and gave him “Amen.” To bring my point home, a lot of people don't need anything. They ask, ‘Do I need all of this expensive studio equipment?’ I say all you need is prayer. You need to have a relationship with God and everything will fall into place after that. I remember when nobody emailed me for beats. Prayer changes everything.

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Kirk Franklin And Fred Hammond's 'The Healing' Was More Than A Verzuz Event

Verzuz has been helping fill the void for live musical entertainment and, to an extent, live sports for two months now. On Sunday (May 31), the newly launched platform provided us with a digital worship service by way of gospel greats Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond.

As the online music battle has grown from producers to artists, Swizz and Tim have been transparent about their efforts to make Verzuz musically inclusive, starting first with giving women some much-needed representation and now expanding into different genres — because Black music is more than rap and R&B.

In April, contemporary gospel greats John P. Kee and Hezikiah Walker organized their own matchup that Timbaland (a COGIC kid himself) and Swizz cosigned and promoted, proving the desire and demand for a Gospel Verzuz outing. Fans have also requested to see Kirk participate because of his hip-hop based productions and his mainstream familiarity. But Sunday’s Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond pairing, while full of the progressive gospel sound both men are famous for, was straight-up church.

Between the time Timbaland and Swizz announced the special event earlier this week—billed as “The Healing” and featuring opening words of prayer from Bishop TD Jakes—and Sunday, escalation of protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has literally spread like fire to cities across the country and world. Video and news reports are coming in with furious speed. Peaceful protests are morphing into violence at the hands of agitators. People are furious and scared.

Franklin and Hammond had a large responsibility on their hands yesterday; a delicate balance to maintain. These are moments when even the churched don’t necessarily believe the church can help. But the men of God met the task, setting the tone from the very beginning by appearing in shirts that said: “I Can’t Breathe” (Franklin) and “I Can’t Breathe - Again” (Hammond). Over the course of the event, they mixed straight talk, spiritual encouragement, prayer, and proper acknowledgment of the chaos waiting for us all after we eventually clicked out of the Instagram Live.

Even though Kirk came with and maintained a good-natured “battle” energy, this was ministry and fellowship, not a match. So instead we’re going to review each round with an “and” instead of a “vs.” These two brothers in music ministry were building on and adding to each other’s energy over the course of 2.5 hours. Much like Beenie Man and Bounty Killer's session, this was more a concert than a competition. And the spirit in the room (plus the anointed sound quality) blessed our souls so much that we were willing to forgive the slight social distancing infractions. Even Instagram (allegedly) sent a message for them to ignore the 90-second copyright restrictions and let the spirit move.

ROUND 1: Fred Hammond's “I Am Persuaded” and Kirk Franklin's “He’s Able”

Both Fred and Kirk pulled out early signature songs to set the tone; Fred with the title track from his first solo album, and Kirk with one of the singles from the Kirk Franklin and the Family album. Both songs highlighted how each artist were trendsetters in the contemporary Gospel sound with their music’s early ‘90s New Jack Swing influence.

ROUND 2: Fred Hammond & Radical For Christ's “When the Spirit of the Lord” and Kirk Franklin's “Brighter Day”

Everyone knows Kirk Franklin has jams, but Hammond’s music is mostly known by those who put in years in the youth and young adult choirs, and those who came up in strict households with no secular music. But on Sunday, everybody learned that Frederick also has jams that will make you “dance like David danced.”

Kirk followed with another classic Family joint, and the tenors watching from home stepped up in their collective living rooms to hit that “brighter day” with their chest.

ROUND 3: Fred Hammond's “Awesome God” and Kirk Franklin's “He Reigns/Awesome God”

Kirk and Fred were working from a list, which suggested they coordinated at least parts of their lineups, leaving room for head-to-head rounds like this. If this was a scored match, however, Franklin would get this point. “He Reigns/Awesome God” isn’t his original work, but he flipped and updated it as only he can, and it instantly inspires whatever choreography listeners learned in the afore-mentioned choir 20 years ago.

ROUND 4: Commissioned's “Strange Land” and Kirk Franklin & Georgia Mass Choir's “Joy”

Again, this Verzuz wasn’t just about music, it was about music ministry, and both Franklin and Hammond wove moments of preaching, proclamation, and encouragement throughout. As Kirk had acknowledged at the beginning of the event that some people didn’t even want to hear about Jesus right now, Fred addressed the thought that Christians are just waiting on a “kumbaya moment.” He “(took) it back to Detroit” and played the first song of the night by Commissioned—his former gospel group—“How Can We Sing (In a Strange Land),” which spoke to the seeming futility of something like today’s Verzuz: singing for help in the midst of crisis.

If you're asking How can we sing When we're in a strange land How can we face adversity whoa whoa How can we stand in the midst of trouble When the enemy laughs at our beliefs Won't you take some time to realize You're His own that's why He died

Kirk also reached back to a foundational record; the first song he ever wrote as the young music director of the Georgia Mass Choir. “Joy” is probably the most traditional song in Kirk’s catalog, prompting him to declare that folks probably wouldn’t know it “if your grandmama ain't got peppermint wrapped up in pieces of toilet paper in her purse.” (If you didn’t get that reference, he’s right.) “Joy” is also one of the few songs Kirk actually sings lead on, which is probably why he didn’t play more than a short clip.

ROUND 5: Fred Hammond's "Prelude" (from Love Unstoppable) and Kirk Franklin's “More Than I Can Bear”

Hammond, who provided most of the afternoon’s solemn notes while Kirk mostly kept the energy up, chose a prelude his son and daughter recorded to open his 2009 album as an avenue to share his concern about his own son, a 6’2”, 22-year-old Black man. Kirk picked up the acknowledgment of pain, fear, and uncertainty with The Family’s “More Than I Can Bear,” and then jumped on the keyboard to follow it up with a reprise. This was the first shouting moment of the day.

ROUND 6: Commissioned's “King of Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Looking for You”

When Franklin and Hammond announced surprises at the top of the first hour, it was a safe assumption that some collaborators were spread out throughout Franklin’s house. First up; Hammond’s former Commissioned group member Marvin Sapp. When the group was already well established, Sapp joined the Commissioned in 1990 and his voice fit right in. The two shared the first single, featuring the then-22-year old, which is now one of Commissioned's signature songs.

This was a turn-up round, so Franklin followed up with the high energy, Patrice Rushen sampled “Looking for You,” but first...

BONUS: Marvin Sapp's “Never Would Have Made It”

Marvin ain’t break social distancing just to sing over the radio track for “King of Glory.” Franklin introduced him with a quick note of “Never Would Have Made It,” Sapp’s powerful 2007 testimonial praise and worship anthem. Sapp feigned reluctance to sing the whole song, but we all know that’s what he was there for. That was the second shout of the day.

ROUND 7: Fred Hammond's “Glory to Glory” and Kirk Franklin's “Hosanna”

This was the praise & worship round: songs with relatively simple and repetitive lyrics that are often used to set the tone in worship. Gospel music contains and or reflects scripture; praise & worship is exactly what the description says and what the lyrics of Hammond and Franklin’s respective selections express:

Let the people praise Him, rejoice in all His goodness, and be thankful for all He has done. - "Glory to Glory"

Hosanna forever, we worship you - "Hosanna"

ROUND 8: Fred Hammond's “Please Don’t Pass Me By” and Kirk Franklin's “Something About the Name Jesus”

Kirk and Fred were a perfect pairing for this Verzuz edition because they both bridged gospel and secular music in groundbreaking—and at times controversial—ways. Fred and former group Commissioned are credited with influencing a generation of male R&B singers; he mentioned later how church elders and gospel traditionalists wouldn’t support Commissioned because they wore jeans on the album cover. Similar to Kirk, Fred’s been known for music that sounded more like something you’d hear on mainstream radio than anything you’d hear in church. Case in point: the music bed for “Please Don’t Pass Me By” brings R&B group 112’s “Cupid” to mind.

In contrast, Kirk responded with the old-school-styled “Something About the Name Jesus” featuring gospel OG Rance Allen and gospel Men of Standard from Franklin's 1998 The Nu Nation Project.

ROUND 9: Fred Hammond's “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and Kirk Franklin's “Love Theory”

Rounds 8 and 9 illustrated how this was more of a digital concert than battle; selections that felt more like a well-curated playlist than a back and forth of comparative tracks.

Perhaps taking a cue from Kirk and “Something About the Name Jesus,” Fred shared some of his influences before offering his rendition of gospel standard “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me.” Even though the song is now a standard for church elders, the singers who first popularized it—original writer Sam Cooke with legendary gospel group The Soul Stirrers, soul crooner Lou Rawls with The Pilgrim Travelers (the version closest to Fred’s), and Supreme’s influences The Meditation Singers—were all known for toeing the line between R&B and pop and traditional gospel in their time.

Kirk followed with the lead single from his most recent album, 2019’s Long, Live, Love, a bop (a whole bop) that sounds a million miles away from “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me” and in fact complements Fred’s choice; It’s also about Jesus being a protector. And Kirk blessed us with a little choreography.

ROUND 10: Commissioned's “Love is the Key” and  Kirk Franklin & The Family's “Now Behold the Lamb”

Even if Kirk hadn’t announced what song he was about to play, hands would have shot up in preparatory praise as soon as he played the opening keys of “Now Behold the Lamb.” Originally on The Family’s 1995 Christmas album (Kirk Franklin & the Family Christmas) and featuring vocals of original members-turned- TV-stars David and Tamela Mann, the song still has the power to quickly bring listeners to tears, 25 years later.

ROUND 11: Kirk Franklin's “Revolution” and Fred Hammond's “Let the Praise Begin” 

Before starting this round, Fred and Kirk took a minute to say the names of the Black men whose lives have been unjustly cut down by police or self-appointed vigilantes. (They took a moment later to add the Black women they neglected to initially include.) As protests rapidly grow across the country with many having morphed into riots, Kirk Franklin's Rodney Jerkins-produced “Revolution” hit even harder than usual.

On Fred’s turn, he demonstrated his secular influence again with “Let the Praise Begin”—which Chance the Rapper sampled on his Coloring Book mixtape, “Blessings”—a track the rapper used for an unofficial altar call at the end of his live performances.

ROUND 12: Kirk Franklin's “Silver and Gold” and Fred Hammond's “All Things are Working”

As mentioned earlier, the primary difference between traditional gospel songs and praise & worship songs is the lyrics. “Gospel” is, by definition, from the actual gospel: scripture. Kirk and Fred are both part of a generation of contemporary gospel singers that have been somewhat chided for gospel music’s transition into more of a praise & worship space, but both also have deep foundational gospel roots. These two songs are each prime examples, both taken directly from scriptural influence:

“Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee” - Acts 3:6

“And we know all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” - Romans 8:28

ROUND 13: Kirk Franklin's “Imagine Me” and Commissioned's “Ordinary Just Won’t Do”

If these rounds were themed (I’d love to see their notes), Round 13 was about finding unconditional love and trust in God.

Imagine me, being free, trusting you totally, finally, I can Imagine me I admit it was hard to see You being in love with someone like me But finally I can Imagine me - "Imagine Me"

The ordinary just won’t do I need a love that's pure and true I can always find it in you Jesus The ordinary just won’t do I gotta have a touch from you I can always find it in you, Jesus - "Ordinary Just Won’t Do"

ROUND 14: Kirk Franklin on Kanye West's “Ultralight Beam” and Fred Hammond on Kanye West's “Hands On”

Some collective digital groans went up amongst those in the house solely for Fred and Kirk jams during the round devoted to tracks each done with Kanye West. For Kirk, the rousing “Ultralight Beam” from The Life of Pablo, which also featured Chance the Rapper and R&B/gospel singer Kelly Price. For Hammond, a track from West’s hotly debated “gospel album” Jesus is King. It did make sense: Verzuz started as a hip-hop-leaning platform. Fortunately, though, both seemed to know this round would change the energy if they let it and kept the moment brief.

ROUND 15: Kirk Franklin's “The Reason Why I Sing” and Fred Hammond's “Running Back to You”

Heading into the home stretch, the men each offered their break-out hits. Franklin’s “The Reason Why I Sing” broke records on gospel, Christian, and R&B radio and set him on the path for mainstream crossover. Commission’s “Running Back to You” is one of many templates the groups inadvertently created for male R&B groups that came along a few years later, having come of age singing and studying the Detroit vocalists’ music. Jodeci’s K-Ci Hailey even ad-libbed part of the chorus, “(My) arms are open wide, and I don’t have to cry no more…” on the torch 1992 track “I’m Still Waiting” from the group’s debut album, 5 years later.

ROUND 16: God's Property's  “My Life is in Your Hands” and Fred Hammond's “They That Wait” feat. John P. Kee

“My Life is in Your Hands” by Kirk's gospel choir, God's Property, feels like a sequel of “The Reason Why I Sing,” so it made sense as Franklin’s next choice.

Hammond’s selection was a collaboration with contemporary gospel great John P. Kee. Even though Kee already had his own Instagram Live match, it was plagued with a muffled sound, so he deserved a moment.

ROUND 17: Kirk Franklin's “I Smile” and Fred Hammond's “You are the Living Word”

Before playing the bouncy “Smile,” Kirk acknowledged that in a week that feels like we’re in a civil war, the idea of smiling is likely difficult (the guys did a solid job of reading the room.)

Hammond in turn played fan-favorite “You are the Living Word” but cut it off just as listeners at home were getting into their parts of the three-part harmony. Kirk knew it was too soon and jumped on the piano keys again so Fred could get to the bridge and we could properly get our sing-along on at home.

ROUND 18: Tamela Mann's “Take me to the King” and Fred Hammond and Radical For Christ's “This is the Day”

Tamela Mann just casually strolling into the studio from making the potato salad for post-battle repast in Kirk’s kitchen or wherever she was didn’t fool anybody. Real ones have known what’s up since we were introduced to her voice over 25 years ago as an original member of Franklin’s Family. I knew she was about to make us cry when memes hit our Twitter timelines before she even opened her mouth. Her live rendition of “Take Me to the King,” a song about those moments when prayer just doesn’t feel effective enough, was so powerful and resonated with the times of right now. If you listened carefully, you could hear her shouting for minutes after she left the room.

ROUND 19: Kirk Franklin's “Melodies from Heaven” and Fred Hammond's “No Weapon”

Kirk had a sense of humor about his reputation as a “secular” gospel artist and called his gorgeous wife Tammy into the room to dance as he played “Melodies from Heaven,” a song that’s been played in many a club and has been remixed with Junior Mafia’s “Crush on You,” a mashup that Kirk himself performs in concert.

Hammond used 2007’s “No Weapon” to bring the tempo down as they prepared to close. After Franklin took a minute to call Wanda Cooper, the mother of Ahmad Aubrey, Hammond extended a prayer of invitation and salvation for listeners. If there’s one moment that defines this Verzuz event as a ministry rather than just musical exchanges, that prayer is the moment.

ROUND 20: Kirk Franklin's “Stomp (Remix)" and Fred Hammond's “We’re Blessed”

The men held their strongest jams for last: Kirk with his 1997 career-defining and genre-changing “Stomp (Remix)" (again, former choir members watching the live stream broke out their choreography without even thinking), and Hammond with 1995’s “We’re Blessed,” a track that runs almost six minutes in length that almost all of us would have been happy for him to play in full.

BENEDICTION SELECTIONS: Kirk Franklin's “Strong God,” Fred Hammond's “Alright” and "My Desire"

As everyone filed out of the digital church and tried to figure out where to go for dinner, Franklin and Hammond each offered one last song.

Kirk played “Strong God” another single from his latest album and announced the video’s Monday release (see below). Hammond also rendered a selection from his most recent album, the title track from 2019’s Alright.

To close it out, the men played their first collaboration "My Desire," off Franklin's The Nu Nation Project.

THE WINNER: While The Healing drew fewer numbers than most of the Verzus of the last month, peaking around 277K, the positive responses were overwhelming. Viewers shared that they felt lifted, renewed, and energized. Some expressed that they felt hopeful for the first time in several days. We all won. But if we have to list specific winners, that run down includes Black folks, church kids, music lovers, the audio, and our collective and communal spirits. And Tamela Mann.

Watch Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin's The Healing over on Verzuz's official Instagram account.  

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Courtesy of DubShot Records

Boomshots: The Unstoppable Rise Of Dre Island

"We rise to the top," Dre Island sings on "We Pray," his massive collab with Popcaan, "cause we know what it takes."

Building on that theme of musical and spiritual elevation, the multi-talented musician—singer, deejay, songwriter, producer, and pianist—has just released his debut album Now I Rise. The project features the aforementioned "We Pray" as well as crucial collaborations with the likes of Jesse Royal and Chronixx. "Ah mi family dem deh," says Dre Island, who has toured Europe backed by Chronixx's band Zincfence Redemption. A graduate of Kingston’s Calabar high school—alma mater of both Jr. Gong and Vybz Kartel—Andre Johnson aka Dre Island is a living link between the vaunted “roots revival” movement and the sound of the Jamaican streets.

“The revival is really within the people," he says. "Reggae music never stop. Reggae artists always been touring. So it’s just the people’s awareness.” During a time when reggae and dancehall stand at a crossroads, Dre Island has emerged as one of the few artists capable of bringing together dancehall vibes and the ancient roots traditions—not to mention outernational connections like "People" his collaboration with UK talents Cadenza and Jorja Smith. “An island is a small land mass surrounded by water,” the artist told Boomshots correspondent Reshma B in their first interview. “But if you read further it’s also a place where you go to find yourself.”

Released through a joint-venture partnership with New York-based DubShot Records and the artist's own Kingston Hills Entertainment imprint, Now I Rise is a 13-track set that includes the hit single “We Pray” featuring Popcaan, “My City,” as well as the recently released “Be Okay” feat Jesse Royal. Never-before-heard tracks include “Days of Stone” featuring Chronixx and “Run to Me” featuring Alandon as well as tracks produced by the likes of Jam2, Anju Blaxx, Teetimus, Winta James, Dretegs Music and Barkley Productions. The artist is now managed by Sharon Burke, founder of the Solid Agency in Kingston, Jamaica. Earlier this month, Dre Island premiered the official music video (directed by Fernando Hevetia) for the last song on the album, “Still Remain.”

“This album speaks of arising, growth, new beginnings and emerging from the ashes," Dre Island states. "At this time, these are all the things we need based on what is happening right now. The truth is, since 2015 I have been advertising that the album is coming. It has been five years and the time is right. As an artist and person Dre Island move different. I embrace Rasta and this way of life, but I am not part of any group like Boboshanti or Twelve Tribes. Everything I do is inspired by the father. I am moved to drop this album at this time because I am divinely inspired to do so. When you look at a song like “We Pray” I can take no credit for a song like that. Yes I wrote the lyrics and built the rhythm and I voice the track, but it's a prayer, not just a song so how a man fi tek credit for something that come from above.”

Dre Island and Boomshots have been linking up from early in his musical journey. During a recent trip to New York City, he sat down with Reshma B to speak about the new project and his unstoppable rise. Check the reasoning:

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Carlos Perez

Anuel AA Breaks Free

In 2015, an entourage of close to 30 men drew guns among one another during a traditional Christmas parranda in Puerto Rico. The scene turned into something straight out of a movie when a pair of gangsters clandestinely attempted to kidnap local rapper Anuel AA. After a brief scuffle and flagrant shouting match, however, the man born Emmanuel Gazmey Santiago went on to finish the evening’s holiday spree in the boisterous company of his loyal posse.

Months later, after ushering in the new year on a promising note by featuring on one of Latin trap’s first global hits – De La Ghetto’s sex anthem “La Ocasion” with Arcangel and Ozuna – someone delivered Anuel AA a divine premonition of sorts: “If you keep talking about this stuff in your songs, something really ugly is going to happen to you.”

A Puerto Rican music legend, Hector “El Father” of reggaeton-turned-son of God, paid Anuel a visit to share his foreboding message. “He and I did not know each other,” explained Anuel, who prides himself on waxing poetics about the real-life experiences Hector was concerned with, “but God spoke to him and Hector felt he needed to reach out to me. When he warned me, he said it with so much conviction that he even cried.”

Having forged a legacy of his own as one of the key trailblazing reggaeton entertainers of the ‘90s who later signed a deal with JAY-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, Hector – now a devoted Christian – understood life imitated art when it came to Anuel’s lyrics.

“My lyrics talked a lot about God and the devil, so when he told me that,” Anuel continued, “I knew I needed to make some changes. Those themes, good versus evil, they were my mark and what separated me from the rest.”

On April 3, 2016, just two weeks after meeting with Hector, Anuel was arrested and held in Guaynabo’s correctional institution on charges of illegal gun possession. Following his biggest musical break yet, just as he was touching the cusp of international stardom, a court judge sentenced Anuel to 30 months in federal prison without bail.

Raised east of San Juan, in the Puerto Rican city of Carolina, Anuel AA has a lot in common with many of my favorite MCs: he’s charming, resolute, and lyrically gifted, yet marred by a criminal past, complicit misogyny and the constant struggle between right and wrong. “I had no choice but to carry those weapons with me, because of the issues I had on the street,” the rapper said to VIBE Viva over the phone, while quarantined in Miami. “I thought to myself I’d rather be locked up than found dead.”

Indeed, Anuel had evaded his probable demise when he was nearly abducted and landed right behind bars months later, fulfilling a prophecy that cost him both his freedom and a flourishing start at the tipping point of trap music en Español. “I was being forced to reckon with all the bad things I had done for money in the past,” Anuel expressed, regretfully. “I started reading the Bible for the first time and realized that my talent and blessings came from God, not anywhere else.”

Anuel had begun to take music seriously around the same time his father, José Gazmey, was laid off from his coveted A&R position at Sony Music. With his back against the wall, a scrappy Anuel left home at 15 and began to engage in felonious activity to help provide for his family and finance his music endeavors.

Like many rappers on the island, Anuel was influenced by popular culture and trends on the mainland, most discernibly by contemporary trap. Anuel understood the genre’s synonymy with street life and the drug enterprise and immediately took to Messiah El Artista, a Dominican-American rapper VIBE profiled for championing Spanish-language trap music all over New York.

“I figured if Latin trap was doing well in New York, it was for sure going to pop in Puerto Rico,” said Anuel, who had signed with the Latino division of Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group the year prior to his arrest. “I spent about a month in New York before I returned to Puerto Rico. Then I started to release all the songs I had, one by one, and they began to gain popularity.”

While artists like J. Balvin helped breathe new life into the reggaeton genre in Colombia, Anuel wanted to spearhead a movement in Puerto Rico with a sound all their own. “I recorded the ‘Esclava’ remix with Bryant Myers and it might not have taken off worldwide, but it became a huge trap song in Puerto Rico.”

Akin to the heydays of reggaeton, an Afro-Caribbean genre-fusing hip-hop and reggae that originated in Puerto Rico, trap music was considered lowbrow and was heavily criticized for its vulgarity, violence, and explicit lyrics. Puerto Rican critics and artists alike had very little faith in the music’s potential and therefore denounced it. “DJ Luian, who is like a brother to me, couldn’t understand why I wanted to put all my energy into music that none of our artists wanted to sing.”

“Reggaeton went dormant for years,” he continued. “It was necessary to make trap music, because it felt like reggaeton was stuck in another era.” A self-described student of the late and oft-controversial Tupac Shakur, Anuel thought reggaeton had reached its pinnacle and believed Latin trap would be its successor.

Songs like “Nunca Sapo,” where Anuel channels Rick Ross’ Teflon Don ethos and spits a grimy slow-tempo flow over a sinister 808-laden instrumental, helped put a face to Anuel’s little-known name in the US. On cuts like Farruko’s “Liberace,” Anuel speeds up his delivery for fun and plays on the “Versace” rhythm popularized by Migos, who all hail from Atlanta—the widely credited birthplace of trap music.

For Anuel, whose life mantra “real hasta la muerte” is now a famous hashtag, music aspirations had little to do with radio play. Anuel, 27, was largely concerned with dominating the digital space, especially while incarcerated. Despite his arrest, he continued to release music from behind prison walls while his team fed his massive following up-to-date content.

Hear This Music CEO, DJ Luian heeded what Anuel was trying to accomplish and began to work with Bad Bunny, the Latin Grammy-winning artist and star voice of the current Latin trap movement. “When I was locked up, Luian helped develop Bad Bunny and he basically became in charge of keeping trap alive while I was away,” said Anuel, who ironically came under fire recently and was accused of throwing shade at Bad Bunny for the video treatment of “Yo Perreo Sola,” in which the rapper-singer dresses in drag as a stance against toxic masculinity.

“I couldn’t believe something like this was going viral,” Anuel interrupted anxiously before I could expound on a question concerning their relationship. “It looked like it was something that was edited or put together to make my Instagram posts read that way. I immediately texted Bad Bunny about it and he was like, ‘Don’t worry, people are always going to be talking sh*t.’”

Anuel considers Bad Bunny a genius at what he does and maintains that despite not knowing each other very well, he and his fellow compatriot are friendly collaborators with a working rapport: “When he and I do a new song together, what will people say then?”

Today, the collective jury will reach a verdict upon listening to Anuel’s newly-released sophomore studio album Emmanuel, where fans will find a track titled “Hasta Que Dios Diga,” a sultry, mid-tempo reggaeton number. Fans can expect to hear a star-studded project riddled with guest features, including Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, Enrique Iglesias, J. Balvin, Ozuna, and Karol G, to name a few.

Discussing life during a global pandemic, Anuel spoke fondly of his partner-in-rhyme, Colombian singer-songwriter Karol G. “She’s the love of my life. She’s been there with me through the good and bad. People who really love you are the ones who stand firm by you when things are bleak. In my toughest moments, Karol was there. She’s shown me how to be a better man,” he gushed.

“Karol comes off as super feminine—which she is, but Karol also has a really tough masculine side,” Anuel laughed heartily on the other end of the line. “She rides motorcycles and likes taking them up these crazy hills. She rides jet skis too! She’s like a dude, haha. We work well together and we give each other advice all the time.”

The pair are making the most of quarantine life in South Florida, releasing a self-directed and self-shot music video for their joint single “Follow,” a reference to flirting over social media in the era of social-distancing, the idea that shooting one’s proverbial shot can lead to a budding romance.

On July 17, 2018, Anuel dropped his debut studio album, Real Hasta La Muerte, hours before he was released from jail. By September, the RIAA certified his introduction to the game platinum, garnering the attention of Roc Nation artist Meek Mill. When the Philly wordsmith released his fourth studio LP in November of the same year, followers were geeked to learn Anuel had earned himself a place on Meek’s highly anticipated Championships album with “Uptown Vibes.”

I always wanted you and anuel aa to make a track together bc i feel like he’s the meek mill of spanish trap , how was it working with him ?

— Nagga (@naggareports) December 17, 2018

“Recording with Meek Mill for me was like when Allen Iverson played with Michael Jordan for the first time,” Anuel said, singing praises about their first-ever partnership. “I’m a huge fan of Meek; when his music took off I was still in the streets, so I related and identified with a lot of the things he was saying.”

“Meek doesn’t understand a lick of Spanish,” he mused in jest, “but he’s always with a bunch of Latinos. When I speak to him he says, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying, but my Spanish [speaking] ni**as tell me you be talking that sh*t!’”

Anuel leveraged his knack for storytelling and released “3 de Abril” earlier this year, an emotional freestyle about the day he was arrested and a graphic snapshot of his trials and tribulations.

“I did things without caring about the consequences. I thought I was a man because I was street smart. Now I know what it’s like to lose everything, so I wanted to talk more about my life and the experiences of me and my family,” Anuel described the inspiration behind the song.

Following the release of “3 de Abril,” Anuel again turned hip-hop heads when he and Lil Pump shared a fiery audiovisual for their collaborative effort “Illuminati,” stamping Pump's first new song since summer 2019. This year, Anuel also has songs with Colombian pop empress Shakira (“Me Gusta”) and with the late Juice WRLD (“No Me Ames”).

Albeit Anuel and Juice WRLD never got to meet in person, Anuel learned about the Chicago rapper from listening to his singles on the radio in jail. “The same year I won Billboard Latin’s Artist of The Year award, Juice WRLD won New Artist at the American Billboard Awards. We ended up recording the song after that but held off on releasing it for a bit because he and I had respective singles coming out at the same time,” Anuel explained.

“By the time we were finally ready to premiere it, Juice WRLD had passed away. We were never able to record together in person, but at least we got to feature him on the video. I know the tribute gave his fans and family some needed strength.”

Less than 30 minutes have gone by and already I am forced to wrap my conversation with Boricua’s burgeoning superstar:

Anuel, explain “real hasta la muerte” for me. Why exactly is this mantra of yours so important? 

“I can’t betray anyone. I don’t know what it’s like to really betray someone. I’m very loyal to my circle, my family, and those I hold close to me. Being real is what keeps me humble. It doesn’t matter how much money I make or how much I accomplish. What’s critical is staying real to myself and keeping my feet on the ground. That’s what helps keep me going.”

This interview was translated from Spanish to English and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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