SisQo Remember 'Unleash The Dragon' Album 20 Years Later
Courtesy of Def Soul

SisQo Shares Memories Of 'Unleash the Dragon' For Album's Anniversary

The R&B singer goes down memory lane on the 20th anniversary of his first solo studio album.

The late '90s was a magical time for R&B, with a plethora of talented acts infiltrating the genre. Among these new jacks was Dru Hill, a quartet out of Baltimore, Maryland with vocal chops reminiscent of the ensembles of yesteryear. Comprised of SisQó, Jazz, Woody, and Nokio, Dru Hill stormed the charts in 1996 with their self-titled debut, which struck platinum off the strength of hits like "Tell Me," "In My Bed," "Never Make a Promise," and "5 Steps." Riding high off the success of their debut, Dru Hill hit the movie soundtrack circuit hard, contributing singles for Soul Food ("We're Not Making Love No More") and How to Be a Player (“Big Bad Mama”) the following year. By that point, SisQó had emerged as the breakout star of the group, with his distinct vocals and palpable charisma quickly catching on with fans. He also began making waves with his songwriting, most notably his work for fellow DMV native Mýa, whose first two singles, "It's All About Me" and "Movin' On," were powered by his penmanship.

Returning alongside his groupmates with their 1998 sophomore album, Enter the Dru, SisQó and Dru Hill's careers skyrocketed, with the album peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard charts and earning double-platinum certification within months of its release. Featuring standouts like their chart-topping Rush Hour soundtrack single "How Deep," as well as ballads like "These Are The Times" and Beauty," Enter the Dru marked another victory for Dru Hill and positioned them as one of the hottest groups in all of music. However, Dru Hill would begin to splinter with the defection of member Woody in early 1999, leaving the direction of the group in limbo during the height of their success.

Taking matters into his own hands, SisQó capitalized on the buzz surrounding his name and decided to keep the fire burning with his own solo album, Unleash the Dragon, which was released on November 30, 1999, on Def Soul. A departure from the traditional Dru Hill sound, Unleash the Dragon, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, included a mix of ballads and amped-up club bangers and cast SisQó as a captivating dance machine with a voice thunderous enough to crush the buildings. Featuring the singles "Got To Get It," "Incomplete," and the seismic anthem, "Thong Song," Unleash the Dragon was one of the biggest R&B releases of the year, selling upwards of five million units in the U.S. alone and minting SisQó as a bonafide megastar.

With twenty years having passed since its release, VIBE spoke with SisQó about recording Unleash the Dragon, struggling to make the transition as a solo artist, the lasting impact of "Thong Song," label drama and much more.

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VIBE: When were you first approached to record a solo album and what's the backstory behind that?

SisQó: I was not really approached to do a solo album, basically what happened, it was right around the time all of the labels were consolidating. Back in the late '90s, early '00s, a lot of the labels were combining into one label and we were kinda being pushed onto the Def Jam imprint. We had previously worked with Def Jam and had great success with the song that we did, "How Deep," for the Rush Hour soundtrack. When we did that record, at the time, we had gotten paid more than anyone else to record a soundtrack song. So that song was our first No.1 single across the board and I believe it was a part of the Latin invasion, if you will, and that was all on Def Jam. We had also had another platinum success with the How To Be A Player soundtrack.

Dru Hill had just gotten on their label so they wanted a Dru Hill album. And we had just had prior success, like I said, with the song "How Deep" from the Rush Hour soundtrack and then we had a song with Will Smith called the "Wild Wild West." If you look at the video [for “Wild Wild West”], you'll see there were four of us in the beginning of the video and only three of us at the end. Woody [one of the members] decided that he didn't wanna sing with the group anymore. He had pretty much quit the group on the set of the "Wild Wild West" video and needless to say, it was pretty rough. That's why if you look at the video, I got my hat pulled down so far so you can't see my eyes 'cause I was really [upset].

We were really broken up because we had just gotten off our very successful European tour that *NSYNC and 98 Degrees were opening up for us on. We were at the pinnacle of our success, but when Woody quit the group, when we went to do the second leg of our tour, our American portion of the tour, the fans were very confused. They were used to the four of us being Dru Hill so attendance at the shows was kind of dwindling.

At that moment, I basically came to the label and was like, 'Hey, man, I think maybe now might be a good time for me to do a solo album.' And of course, they didn't want a solo album because that was a gamble for them because they had never seen any prior success with myself as a solo artist and only saw success with Dru Hill. And it was like a new genre for them because they were a hip-hop label. So I took my own money, recorded my album and basically went up and asked for a meeting with the label. I played them my album, "Thong Song" included, I guess they realized that I had something special and they decided to put the album out. And over 10-12 million albums later, maybe I was right (laughs).

Being that you were used to creating and performing in a group setting, what was the adjustment like making the transition as a solo artist?

The studio part was easy because we had been working together since we were fourteen years old. We came right out of high school right into the entertainment industry so we found several different ways to work. The recording part, that part was very easy, the part that wasn't so easy was when it came time to do the video. Hype Williams had shot "Got To Get It”. They shut Hollywood Boulevard down just to shoot my video. So we're on the roof and I'm about to do this performance. Hype Williams, one of my all-time favorite directors, is doing my video, everything's set up. They were like, “And... action!” and I just froze. I froze and I'm not really a shy person, anybody that knows me can tell you that, but yo, I got cold feet. I don't know if Hype still has the footage, but I literally looked back and didn't see Dru Hill and I just rolled out. It might've been a low-key panic attack, I don't know. I was like, “Yo, I can't shoot, I can't do the video.” He was like, “What?” I was like, “Yo, get the car, I'm out.” We had two days to shoot this video and I'm up there like, “I'm not doing it.”

So I hop in the car, I go back to my hotel room and then my brother was like, “What's going on?” I was like, "Yo, I don't think I can do it. What if people don't like the music, what if they don't like me? I don't know if I can do it without Dru Hill." He was like, “Yo if you don't do it now, you'll spend your life wondering could've, should've, would've and you'll regret it for the rest of your life.

“That's the worst thing you could do so why don't you just go up there and just do it, at least you can say you did it.” I was like, “You know what? You're right.” I showed up the next day and we went and shot the video for ”Got To Get It” and the rest is history. I never got cold feet like that [again], but that very first time, I was messed up."

In light of your previous success with Dru Hill and the hype surrounding your solo turn, did you feel any pressure to live up to expectations, especially with y'all going through your internal beef?

Well, we didn't have any internal beef. As a matter of fact, when I got my deal, I made sure the entire group got paid. I don't know if there is another group member or boy-band member that when they went solo made sure that their group members got paid. I might've been the first one in history to do that. Within my contract, when they paid me for my album, I made sure my group members got paid. I was like, 'If y'all don't pay my group members and me, then I'm not gonna sign with y'all so I basically made sure everybody ate while I was eating. Not to mention that I opened up the album to any member of the group that wanted to do a song so they can get publishing. A lot of people don't know that album was on my own label so I own my own masters. Everybody's making it seem like it's something new, but technically, I was one of the youngest artists to ever own their masters, a lot of people don't know that to this day. Like, the "Thong Song' is on my label.

Your album kicks off with the title track, which features a guest appearance from Beanie Sigel, who was a relatively new artist at the time. How did that particular collaboration come to life?

Beanie Sigel being on that record, that was really Def Jam. Beans was fairly new and I knew who Beans was. I had no idea that he was gonna be a part of my record. I thought it was dope for him to want to be a part of that 'cause me being on Def Jam, a lot of times I would see the Def Jam artists around so we would talk to each other in passing from time to time. But Beans being on the record, I thought that that was dope 'cause I felt like Beans had a lot of street cred. And him being on the “Unleash the Dragon” record, I think it gave the words I was saying a little more validity 'cause of him being so street and a part of JAY-Z's camp and what have you.

The album's second single "Thong Song" was an international smash and helped launch your career to unprecedented heights. What was the inspiration behind you dedicating a song to lingerie?

At the time, no one had really seen one before, myself included. I had gone on this date and the girl had the thong on and I was like, “Yo, what is that?” And she was all nonchalant, “This old thing? It's called a thong.” So basically, when I was putting the album together, I had got to this one song that had this track produced by this group of producers called Tim & Bob. It wasn't even a full song, it was a sample of about, I wanna say, thirty seconds maybe and it was at the end of a CD with a bunch of tracks on it. And this one specific sample was on there and that was the only one out of the whole CD that I liked so I called them and asked them if they could loop it and send it back to me. They looped it, sent it back and I basically freestyled the whole song to the "Dump like a truck"  'cause I didn't really know what I was gonna put right there.

And after I saw that girl’s thong, I told all my boy, “Yo, you gotta see this thing that I saw." He was like, "What are you talking about?' I was like, “Yo, I don't know what it was, but it's like some dental floss, it was like these tiny draws called a thong.” He was like, "A what?" I said, "A thong." I'm from Baltimore, so these are inner-city dudes. So all of a sudden everybody rolled out, going on a pilgrimage to find that one ring... it wasn't a ring though, it was a thong. The next day, my boy came back like, "Guess what this girl gave me?" I thought that she had handed him something and he said, "That thong-thong-thong-thong-thong!" I thought it was super funny that he made this big deal over this thing and even to this day, a thong is a big deal. If you're in some kind of relationship and the person that you're with come out with a thong, that is gonna be a story that you tell your friend the next day. Facts.

The song itself was a success, but it is also remembered in large part for its accompanying music video, which was a watershed moment for the video vixen era. How would you describe the activity on set and what are some memories from that shoot you can share?

Man, that's a whole separate interview, it was a lot going on (laughs). It's a whole other story with the stuff that went on that video. We just got our biopic green-lit by BET. I wanna save some of the stories for the biopic, but I can share one thing. When we had to do the auditions, it was about two days of just different women coming into a room, us pressing play on "Thong Song" and them just shaking off in thongs for two days straight. We had like five tapes of like several hours of different women from Miami and from all over the world that wanted to be in that video and at the time, it was crazy 'cause you couldn't even show a thong in a video. If you look at the "Thong Song" video, you notice you never see a straight-on thong 'cause you couldn't show it. Like when I'm walking on the beach [in the video], the girls are upside down so you're not really seeing a butt in a thong. And then when they're on the beach playing ball, it's like from the side, so you never really see a straight-on thong. After that video, the FCC kinda lightened up and then everyone went bananas. The only thing you didn't see was maybe an areola in a video and you even saw that on BET After Dark [Or BET: Uncut], so you're welcome (laughs).

The "Thong Song" can also be credited with popularizing thongs on a mainstream level and becoming synonymous with sex appeal. How did it feel to play a part in that and helping women feel more liberated?

I feel like women took their power back with "Thong Song," which was the magic of the record. It could've been looked at as misogynistic, which some people tried to make it that. But women took it as empowering because I believe women realized that and found the power that they had in their sexuality. When we were growing up, there was a lot of chauvinists, women were only being objectified in different ways and it was very hard for a lot of women to find their voice. And I feel like younger women of that time, they took that moment and seized it and now women are running everything. They took that like, "Oh, okay, we're gonna use this to kick the door open" (laughs). And that's awesome.

I read somewhere that Lil Kim was originally slated to be on the album version of "Thong Song." Is there any truth to that?

That story got mixed up. What happened was Lil Kim and I did the song "How Many Licks," I had written the chorus. So when I did the record, a lot of people don't know. If you're on a label and you have ownership of the label, basically you and whoever your distribution is, which was Def Jam at the time, basically have ownership of the music. Not only the music but the artist and artist's likeness and how the artist is portrayed and what have you. In order for Def Jam to be on board with me being a part of Lil Kim's album, I had to do some kind of favor for them. The favor that I did was to do a remix to the "Thong Song." Now granted, everybody knows that "Thong Song" didn't need a remix, but they wanted to put the remix on the Nutty Professor soundtrack. So I was like, "Okay, cool, y'all want me to do this remix, then y'all gotta sign off on me being in Lil Kim's video." They were like, "Okay, well if you're gonna do that, we want you to do this song for DMX, and that was "What These Bi***es Want." I did those two songs for them in order for them to not have a problem with me doing Lil Kim's video, but unfortunately, they got amnesia when it came time for me to be in Lil Kim's video and that kind of started the friction between myself and Def Jam.

Aside from your own singles, "What These Bi***es Want" was another song that really boosted your own profile as well as DMX's. What was it like working with DMX on that song?

Nokio, one of the members of Dru Hill, he's one of the producers on that record. I didn't know X that well and I had already done my favor for Def Jam which was the "Thong Song (Remix)" so I wasn't really interested in doing an extra favor for Def Jam. But Nokio had sent me the record and asked if I have an idea for it. Just out of respect for my brother, I was like, "You know what? I'ma go 'head and lace this joint and hopefully Def Jam won't have amnesia when it comes time for them to make good on their part of the bargain." But we all saw how that panned out.

The song recently gained new life and was reintroduced to a new generation of listeners via the #DMXChallenge on social media. What was your reaction to the song becoming a viral sensation twenty years after its release?

Let's just put it this way, it's good to have hits. Because you have a whole bunch of younger cats, a whole new generation who might not have even known the song or might not even have been born when it came out that got introduced to the song. That was cool, I was really happy to be a part of that song at that moment. It's crazy though, I just got back from Australia and they don't know the song as much as people know it over here. That's wild how different songs impact people in different ways.

Another song from Unleash the Dragon that caught on with the public was "Incomplete." How did that record fall into your hands?

Even to this day, people don't even know Montell Jordan wrote "Incomplete." I didn't even want to sing "Incomplete" initially because it sounded too much like Dru Hill, but to be fair, I hadn't really listened to it. I just heard the first couple of piano licks and was like, "Nah, that's too much like Dru Hill." If you notice, I sing in Dru Hill so it's undeniable that my voice is there and I can't not sound like me, but my music doesn't sound like Dru Hill's music. Like you can never hear Dru Hill singing "Thong Song," it's not a Dru Hill [type of] record. Back then [former Def Jam executive] Kevin Liles had asked me, "Just listen to the song... I mean, have you even heard the song?" I said "Nah, 'cause I didn't want anything that sounded like Dru Hill." And he was like, "Yo, just listen to the song, if you just listen to the record and you still think that it's bullsh*t, I won't try to force you to sing it." I listened to the record and then soon as I heard that line, "Got a bank account bigger than the law should allow," I was like "Yeah, I'm singing that." (laughs)

If you could choose three of the album cuts outside of the singles that struck a chord or are among your favorites, which three would you name?

I would say "Enchantment Passing Through" because the great Elton John had written the song and I produced and arranged it with Nathan Morring, my MD (music director) from my band and Dru Hill. And that song, I think, is just an incredible record. The song I did with my female group [LovHer], "Is Love Enough" was an incredible record. And the song "How Can I Love U 2nite" which I did with Nokio, which I feel was the best ballad that I sang as a solo artist that was written and produced by him.

What can the public look forward to from SisQó moving forward?

On Black Friday, you'll be able to pick up my brand new EP called SisQó Genesis. It's got three new songs and a song from the last album I did, The Last Dragon. I'm basically doing a series of EPs where I'm releasing three separate EPs and one new song from The Last Dragon and maybe I'll compile 'em all together and make one album. It's basically a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Unleash the Dragon album, that's why I called it SisQó Genesis.

Twenty years later, how does it feel to see the album still being talked about and celebrated as a classic body of work?

When we did the album, I had gotten nominated eight times for a Grammy. At the time, I was told that was the most that anybody had ever been nominated. And then a couple of years ago, Beyonce had gotten nominated nine times, which broke my record, but it was almost twenty years that I held that record so that was pretty cool. Even though I didn't win a Grammy, for some people who may not know the music so well or relegated the album to the most popular record, "Thong Song," for the whole album to still be recognized today, it really makes you feel good as an artist that you can still be recognized. It's a validation of your artistry and every artist just wants to be validated in their art.

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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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