Teddy Riley Performs At 2018 Essence Festival On Day 3
Teddy Riley performs onstage during the 2018 Essence Festival presented by Coca-Cola - Day 3 at Louisiana Superdome on July 7, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Essence

Teddy Riley Breaks Down Iconic Songs That Made Him The King Of New Jack Swing, Plans To Battle Babyface

A look back at VIBE's 2012 "Full Clip" interview with the celebrated man behind the keyboards.

Teddy Riley performed a medley of his greatest hits last night (April 2nd) in a well-promoted livestream mini-concert from his home studio on his teddyrileylive.com site. Flanked by his band: a drummer, a DJ on the wheels, a keyboard guy, his old Blackstreet crooning cohort Dave Hollister and two vocalists, Riley ran through his jam session like renditions of classic tunes from over 30 years of hit-making. After an hour and a half of giving the people that Riley rhythm, he closed out with an impromptu speech drumming up charity funds for the Coronavirus emergency, as well as shouting out his music industry colleagues and somehow squeezing in that he would be taking on the challenge in the popular social media music battle against another producing/writing legend in Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds this Sunday, April 5th on Instagram Live. The musical bout set up by producing wizards Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, scheduled for 6 pm EST, will consist of Riley and Edmonds playing 20 tracks a piece to not only see who has the stronger hit song catalogue, but more interestingly, also the better song selection counter skills. A day we are sure will live up to its high standards of anticipation.


And just think, nearly a decade ago, Teddy Riley couldn’t stop talking. This is a paradox in itself considering that the groundbreaking producer and architect of the fast-paced synth-gospel-hip-hop hybrid dubbed New Jack Swing, is a soft-spoken man who is much more at ease with playing the background. But here we were, back in March of 2012 running down some of the Harlem native’s greatest musical moments in a wild and at times turbulent career that spans over 30 years for VIBE’s Full Clip series.

To understand Riley’s impact you have to meticulously connect the dots to a long list of producers and artists who have worshipped at the altar of the genius one-man-band. Without the Guy and Blackstreet leader’s blueprint, there would be no Mary J. Blige, Jermaine Dupri, Jodeci, Usher, Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Dru Hill, the Neptunes, Chris Brown, The-Dream, or Bruno Mars. He was merging rap and soul before Roddy Ricch was literally conceived.

And so, after the glow of Riley’s live-streamed, multi-song set performance from his home studio to the masses, here is a look back at our Full Clip sit down with the celebrated man behind the keyboards whose reach extends beyond R&B to lace Lady Gaga and K-Pop with his golden touch. Here are the songs that made Teddy Riley an icon from Kool Moe Dee to Michael Jackson.

“The Show”—Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick & The Get Fresh Crew (1986)

“Before ‘The Show,’ I was playing in the church at age nine. My mother made me go up there to play the piano because the piano player was absent. When I was 11, I moved to another church, Universal Temple, where Red Alert was the DJ when we had certain gatherings. A few years later, as a kid growing up in Harlem, I was fortunate enough to have an uncle named Willie. He actually took me under his wing, performing in his nightclubs. He allowed me to make money and stay off the streets because I was getting in a lot of trouble. I got busted when I was 16-years-old for selling drugs. I got kicked out of Martin Luther King high school. This all changed my life.

I transferred to another school, and that’s where I met Doug E. Fresh. We would walk by each other because we didn’t know who each other was [Laughs]. Then we finally got introduced over the phone and we put two and two together and found out, ‘Hey, we go to the same school!’ So they were getting help fixing this one record called ‘The Show.’ And my friend told Doug E. and them, ‘Man, I have the perfect person to help fix this record.’ This was all in the same time span I was starting to produce for Classical Two and Kool Moe Dee.

We did everything at my house in the projects—225 West. 129th St. I lived on the first floor and Doug E. Fresh came over with Chill Will. Doug was asking me what I would do to the song? I told them to take out all of the commercials on the track because they had these mock commercials every 16 bars. I told them to make the commercial the bridge. I restructured the whole song and that’s how it came out. And then they came back with Slick Rick! The thing about it is I didn’t know anything about credits back then. I never knew anything about putting my name on a record. All I wanted was to hear something that I was a part of on the radio. I was proud of being involved with ‘The Show.’ It’s a classic song. We even got the chance to perform it at Doug’s graduation, and that’s how people knew I was a part of the song. That was a big moment for me.”

“How Ya Like Me Now”—Kool Moe Dee (1987)

“Yes, I knew ‘How Ya Like Me Now’ was a diss track. I was there. I was at Harlem World. I don’t think Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs ever went to Harlem World, which was on 116th St. on Lenox Ave, two blocks from where I used to hustle. I don’t think any of the rappers that call out Harlem World ever went to Harlem World. So this is where all the shows and battles were happening. You had Busy Bee, Lovebug Starski, Crash Crew, Fearless Four, and Kool Moe Dee all there performing.

I was there when Brooklyn used to come and shoot up the whole front door when Manhattan wasn’t taking it anymore. So I knew [there was beef between] Moe Dee and LL Cool J. That’s why Moe Dee recorded ‘How Ya Like Me Now.’ That record was so big. I felt like I was a part of history in the making. I mean, me and Moe Dee were kind of messing around when we were making ‘Do You Know What Time It Is’ and ‘Go See The Doctor’. But with ‘How Ya Like Me Now’ everything changed.

This is when our record company (Jive/RCA) started really backing our music. I got signed to Zomba publishing, and I was living in London for about six or seven months working on Moe Dee’s album and with other rappers. Between me and Marley Marl, we were the first to sample James Brown and really get away with it. The sample clearance laws were not in effect yet. I was even making James Brown sounds with my own voice [laughs]. That’s me saying, ‘Get on up!’ But James Brown and his team started to put a trademark on everything. Everything was changing. Hip-hop was changing.”

Make It Last Forever—Keith Sweat (1987)

“I was doing R&B with a band called Total Climax. We were competing with groups like Jamilah, which Keith Sweat was a part of. And that’s how we met. I didn’t realize what we were doing when we were making Make It Last Forever. So where did New Jack Swing come from? Church played a huge role. I actually played piano at Universal Temple and the organ player was my teacher. He took me to the next level of making different grooves and tempos and swinging. I learned pretty much everything about syncopation. My pastor was the most incredible piano player that I ever heard. He just blew me away…that’s when I started learning church chords. And that’s when I figured out that’s where R&B came from. I’m studying jazz artists like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and Jimmy Reed. And I was a huge Kid Creole fan…all the different swing beats he did. At the same time, I was learning that soulful funk from George Clinton, Parliament, Sly Stone, Prince, and Roger Troutman. You combine all that with hip-hop and you get New Jack Swing.

Me and Keith were just going along with the game; going along with what was going to make us famous. I took a chance with a group called Kids At Work. We had a record that later turned into ‘Don’t You Know’ for Heavy D & The Boyz because our original version failed. So all I did was apply my skills and what I learned from being a part of two groups and from my mentor Royal Bayyan (cousin of Kool & The Gang leader Robert ‘Kool’ Bell). He took me to all the different Kool & The Gang sessions, and Kashif, Freddie Jackson, and Mtume. I was there when it was taking them eight hours just to tune the drums. Everything I had experienced can be heard on Sweat’s Make It Last Forever.

Me and Keith didn’t know we were making a classic album. That main hook you hear on ‘I Want Her’ is all me. That’s my voice. And that song was huge! But it didn’t start off that way. I remember when Frankie Crocker played ‘I Want Her’ on ‘Jam It Or Slam It’ on WBLS. And the people slammed it! Frankie would rarely play new school R&B…he would only play the older stuff until Keith Sweat came with ‘I Want Her.’ Frankie said, ‘I know y'all slammed this record, but I’m going to jam it.’ I wanted to meet Mr. Crocker after that because he was responsible for my first R&B produced record being played on the radio. He took the chance. He knew that record was a classic. People started requesting it like crazy. And the same thing happened with Guy.

Another thing that stood out for me is that I made most of the Make It Last Forever songs on an Akai 12-track. I had the first one. And I did all of those Keith Sweat songs as well as the whole Guy album on that 12-track! I was recording and engineering my own sessions. I had trouble re-producing that sound when I went to the professional studios. We had to take the music from the 12-track, take the 12-track to the studio and duplicate each track from stereo. And we had to put it all together and try to synch it. Then we had the slow jams like ‘Make It Last Forever’ and ‘How Deep Is Your Love’. We did not know we were making history with that music. We were taking a chance. This was the start of New Jack Swing. I think it was only a few years later when me and Keith realized how big of an album Make It Last Forever would become.”

Guy—GUY (1988)

“Guy recorded our first single ‘Groove Me’ in the bathroom. Aaron Hall (lead Guy vocalist) stayed over my house because we didn’t have the money to make the record at a professional studio. And Aaron did all his vocals in the bathroom. We put towels over the shower curtains so we didn’t have too much of an echo. That was a special time for Guy. Aaron would always sleep on my couch. I would get up out of the bed, come to the living room and he would still be there writing lyrics. In the beginning, it was me, Aaron and Timmy Gatling. This was before Timmy left the group and Aaron’s brother Damian Hall joined. Aaron is so underrated as a vocalist. There was some great singing on that first Guy album. ‘Groove Me’ took a year for people to really get Guy. The first show we did—a show we performed with Johnny Kemp—we got booed. And we only got booed because the crowd didn’t know what we looked like. All they knew is that the ‘Groove Me’ song was playing on 98.7 Kiss and KTU. People were requesting that song every day, but when Kemp introduced us after he just performed ‘Just Got Paid’—a huge song I produced that was supposed to be on Keith Sweat’s first album—people were like, ‘Get them off the stage!’ Next thing you know our record came on, ‘Groove me…baby…tonight!’ Everybody went ‘Oh, my God…that’s them!’

Let me tell you something. I was so scared to do ‘Teddy’s Jam.’ I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want no record with my name in the title.’ [Laughs.] But Aaron and them were pushing me to do it. If you look at the ‘Groove Me’ video you could tell I was shy. I would do my thing and you would see my head go right down to my keyboard. I didn’t even want to do the Guy record…and I definitely didn’t want to be a singer. It was Gene Griffin (late manager of Riley and Guy) who pushed me out there. He told me, ‘Teddy, in order for you to be visually seen you have to go out there and sing.’ Gene got me voice lessons. He got me with some great guys. I just kind of put myself in the category of George Clinton and Johnny Guitar Watson…not a traditional singer. I grabbed the Vocoder like I did for Keith Sweat and then I started using the talkbox. I studied Roger Troutman. That’s how ‘Teddy’s Jam’ came about.

Looking back, that first Guy album took a year and a half later to go platinum. I was just thinking, ‘Dag, it takes this long to get famous?’ But that’s how God works. It’s never on your time…it’s on his time. God made us a successful group. When you look at the [artists] that came after us—like Jodeci and Boyz II Men—they were coming to our shows wanting us to sign them. We didn’t have egos or anything. Gene would just take us away after every show and put us in a car to leave. And this is when Boys II Men were just trying to sing for us.  I remember Wanya (Boyz II Men member) crying and saying, ‘Man, they didn’t give us a chance.’ They later got their deal with Michael Bivins. And Jodeci signed with Andre Harrell (head of Uptown Records, which boasted such star acts as Marley Marl, Guy, Heavy D, and Mary J. Blige). He was like, ‘I don’t want to do this to Guy, but this is another hot group…so we are going to make them sound different.’ But how much more different can you make gospel trained singers sound? K-Ci and JoJo were the next level of singers. They all were influenced by Guy. We [were] the group that made it cool for street dudes to dance. Dudes were not afraid to dance with their gators on.”

"My Prerogative"—Bobby Brown (1988)

“A lot of people don’t know that ‘My Prerogative’ was originally written for Guy. We wrote it and gave it to Gene. We thought he would stop the Guy album and put it on there, but it was too late. The album was already mastered, so we decided to give it to Bobby. That song took Don’t Be Cruel to the next level. It made Bobby a superstar. I remember when I was working on the music for ‘My Prerogative’ and Bobby Brown actually came to my projects. And nobody would just walk up in our projects thinking they could get through the whole thing without being harassed. But Bobby did!

When they saw him there was a whole swamp of people around him asking for autographs. Bobby was telling them, ‘I’m looking for Teddy Riley.’ And they pointed right to my building. And he knocks on my door. How incredible is that? Me and Aaron were there writing songs. Aaron started singing that hook, ‘Everybody’s talking all this stuff about me, why don’t they just let me live?’ I was like, ‘This is it!’ That’s all Aaron’s words. Because he really was crazy just like the lyrics said (laughs). Him and Bobby! That’s why they are still cool til’ this day.”

“We Got Our Own Thang”—Heavy D & The Boyz (1989)

“We changed the speed of radio with ‘We Got Our Own Thang.’ Actually, it went back to those Keith Sweat records. I changed the tempo and everybody followed…even groups like Tony! Toni! Toné! You know I made ‘We Got Our Own Thang’ for Wrecks-N-Effect. I had a few songs for them, but I knew they were more harder than Heavy, even though Heavy could pull off being hard and still be a dancer. I was living up in Riverdale and Heavy came to my house. Heavy was like my big brother even though I was one year older than him.

So every time Heavy would come over he would be like, ‘Teddy, I gotta have [a] song.’ And ‘We Got Our Own Thang’ was one of the songs he picked. That song became a huge hit for them. And it was so different than what was going on in hip-hop. Heavy’s death hit me hard because we were really close. We basically came up together in this industry. We go so deep back that when I used to go to New Rochelle to see my kid’s mother, I used to roll through Heavy’s block in Mount Vernon to see him.”

The Future—Guy (1990)

“Going into The Future album, all three members of Guy were being pulled different ways. We all had too many people in our corners. But I thought it was best if I got everybody out of their contracts. And I suffered the consequences. I gave up a lot of money and I gave up my rights. But to me it was all about getting that freedom for Aaron Hall, Damian Hall, Tammy Lucas, Today, Wrecks-N-Effect…everybody. Most of the money I was making was through my production company, TR Productions, from the records I was doing with Boy George and Bobby Brown. So when all of my issues came about with wanting to leave Gene Griffin, that was pressure for all of us because we lost everything. I was down to $20 in the bank. I had a TR Productions credit card. And it was over the limit! I’m going back to Atlanta after I had a meeting with Aaron and everyone. And my card declined. We had called Gene, who came to the house and sat at my conference table. It was me, Gene and my mother. We knew Gene could do something wild, so I had my brothers upstairs just in case. So I tell Gene, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ That was part of the pressure of The Future album.

We were going through long litigation and lawsuits. Gene was suing us, so we told him we were going to strike. Gene was very hardcore. I can’t tell you everything I went through with him…that’s a conversation for you and me in a room. All I can tell you is that I basically feared for my life. There were things being left at my door. There were messages and threats being targeted towards me. I had my brothers and spiritual brothers with me all the time. Most of my guys who were security [were] staying with me. But after a little while, I stopped caring. I just thought, ‘You know what? If I go today it’s going to be God taking me home. So I’m not going to be afraid anymore.’ I had meetings with Quincy Jones, Clarence Avant, and LA Reid…they were all behind me. I was able to get my own deal. It was Lou Silas who helped me launch Future Records.

There was a lot of pressure doing that Future album. ‘I was singing lead again on ‘Wanna Get With U’. We thought that we had to start taking responsibility for ourselves and stop depending on people. We didn’t want anything taken from us; and we didn’t want our talents to be taken for granted. We knew we wanted to still do our love songs, but now we wanted to tell the truth about our lives. That’s when we did songs like ‘Let’s Chill,’ ‘D-O-G Me Out,’ and ‘Long Gone,’ which was about me losing my younger brother Brandon to violence.  I also lost my best friend to violence for what I call the first music industry beef. This happened during the New Edition/Guy tour. And it wasn’t a beef between us and New Edition. It was a beef amongst our backline and the people that worked for us. So I lost my friend. I can only remember doing our last show at Madison Square Garden announcing my leave of Guy. We did ‘Groove Me’ like it was our last day on earth. People in the audience was crying. I ran off the stage and got out of there really quick. There were issues in the group. We couldn’t even be in the same dressing room. I no longer wanted to be a part of Guy.”

“Don’t Wanna Fall In Love” (Remix)—Jane Child (1990)

“I was struggling. I had moved back to the projects. I was going from hotel to hotel. And you know what saved me on my way to working with Michael? It was doing the remix to Jane Child’s ‘Don’t Wanna Fall In Love.’ I can remember being in a hotel and Benny Medina (influential label executive whose life became the basis for the iconic Will Smith sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) called me. He’s like, ‘I really want you to do this Jane Child remix because I want it to go urban…it’s too white.’ Now, I already loved ‘Don’t Wanna Fall In Love.’ It’s a record that I had wished I produced. And then Benny calls me! Funny how the universe works. I knew I was going to tear that remix up.  That song saved my life. I’m thinking $20,000 for that remix. I thought it would help me pay off my credit card because that’s all I had. I was on the outs with Zomba, so I wasn’t getting any money from publishing. They thought I was stocking songs away. But Benny got me $75,000! That money got my family back to New York. I was ready to move everyone to New Jersey to a three flat condo. But my mom told me she wasn’t going to move in with us until I brought her a house. And then my brother Brandon was shot. This was all in my mind going into [Michael Jackson’s] Dangerous album."

Dangerous—Michael Jackson (1991)

“I was the scariest person on earth when I met Michael Jackson (Laughs). He scared the crap out of me…literally. I was at his compound in a room that housed all his accomplishments. I saw his humanitarian awards…all of that stuff. And there was also a chessboard there in the middle of the room. So I’m touching it because it’s gold and platinum. And when I put my hand on the first piece Michael had his hand on my shoulder. And all I could do was fall to the ground. All I saw was Michael laughing. That put me at ease because usually when you are touching somebody’s stuff in their house they look at you funny, but Michael just laughed. My heart was calmed down until it was time for us to go into the studio to work on Dangerous. But I was going through a big transition in my life.

Like I said, I lost both my brother and best friend. So, right after that Guy show, I’m driving in my Ferrari. I had gone through so much and all I wanted to do was produce. So I get a call on my cell phone from Michael Jackson! He’s telling me that he wants to work with me! Michael was like, ‘Can you be here next week?’ That was the transition between Guy and me taking my career to the next level. Bringing back Michael to his R&B roots is something that I stood for. I didn’t just want to go the pop route because that’s not what he called me for. He called me for that New Jack Swing. That’s what he wanted and that’s what he got.  When I was working on ‘Remember The Time’ this was at the same time I was doing a remix for ‘D-O-G Me Out’ in one room, ‘Don’t Wanna Fall In Love’ in another room, and all of the other tracks I was presenting to Michael. I was at Sound Works studio in New York. I was using Q-Tip’s (legendary lead MC and producer of A Tribe Called Quest) little studio he was renting out. When I told him I needed a studio to work on Michael Jackson songs he was like, ‘Oh, hell yeah!’

Working with Michael was like going to college. He basically gave me the map. He navigated me on how to actually compose. He taught me all the different ways of working with Quincy Jones and Greg Phillinganes. When I played my demos for Michael he stopped me at the fifth song, which was ‘Remember The Time.’ He took me to the back room and I thought I was going to get fired. I thought I had done something wrong, but it was a chord that he couldn’t get around. He didn’t know the church chords. The first chord you hear on ‘Remember The Time’ started off that song in a very church way. He never started off his songs in that way, and that’s why he pulled me in the back because it was so unusual for him.

Michael was testing me to see what the chord really was and what it meant to me. And he wanted me to play it right in front of him on this piano he had in his room. He was used to the straight C majors. He wasn’t used to the C augmented chords. I could say I introduced the New Jack Swing chords to him. All of those songs were great to work on: ‘In The Closet;’ ‘Jam;’ ‘Can’t Let Her Get Away’…that’s history for me. It was a great feeling to be a part of a huge selling album like that…over 30 million records of Dangerous.”

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(L-R) Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Jasmin Cephas Jones as Peggy Schuyler in the filmed musical, ‘Hamilton.’
Courtesy of Disney

Watch: Lin-Manuel Miranda & The ‘Hamilton’ Cast Speak On The Musical’s Significance In Today’s Fight For Social Justice

Independence Day is about to hit different. As America takes part in another 3-day holiday weekend filled with socially distanced cookouts and quarantined binge-watching sessions, family and friends can finally see Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking musical, on the small screen. Alas, that subtle, 5-year feeling of envy felt by those of us who missed the opportunity to see the original cast at a sold-out showing can finally be let go. Thanks to streaming platform Disney Plus, musical theatre enthusiasts and followers of the Broadway production will now be able to relive the cultural phenomenon that debuted on January 20, 2015, after it went on to win nearly a dozen Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize of Drama, and a Grammy.

With the ongoing protests around the murderous killing of George Floyd, the unwavering #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the exposing spotlight on the systemic racism that has plagued America for centuries, Hamilton's film premiere couldn't arrive at a better time. There's a melting pot of actors, rappers, and singers of color telling the stories of figures in American history through the lens of hip-hop, R&B, and popular music. But what brings all of this full circle is the irony of how monuments dedicated to many of America's forefathers (and slave owners) are now being torn down in protest.

"Listen, I didn't care about these people either. I was not a history fan prior to reading Hamilton's book," shared Miranda—the filmed musical's protagonist Alexander Hamilton and producer behind its book, music, and lyrics—in an interview with VIBE during an on-camera interview. "All I knew about him was he was the white guy on the 10 and he died in a duel. And then I picked up this history book and my way in was that he grew up in the Caribbean and he came from somewhere else. And so, that was my way into the story. And I think that if you tell it that way, you see it through a kind of different lens. It's not an accident that we have Black and brown bodies playing these founders."

"And clearly, in this moment where we exist, it feels like if this show can give energy and momentum to the movement, then the show is serving the moment. And that's all that we can do..." adds Hamilton's director and producer, Thomas Kail. "Our hope is," he continues, "by putting it on Disney Plus where tens of millions of people can see it in one day, that maybe we're doing some kind of service towards that and just trying to participate and contribute."

Ahead of the Broadway play's cinematic debut, VIBE correspondent Jazzie Belle not only sat Miranda and Kali, but also members of the illustrious cast: Daveed Diggs (who plays Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler), Christopher Jackson (George Washington), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds), and Leslie Odom, Jr. (Aaron Burr). They talked hip-hop, today's climate around civil rights, and who they'd create a musical around if given the opportunity.

Lin-Manuel Miranda  and Thomas Kail

On the decision to have the musical's characters inspired by hip-hop/R&B artists of past and present:

Miranda: My goal with it was I wanted to have as big a tent in terms of the casting as possible. I wanted people who had never auditioned for a musical to audition. I wanted musical folks who loved hip hop but had never been able to bring that, to come in. So, every character description was a half a musical theatre reference and half a hip hop reference. I think George Washington was a Mufasa meets ...

Kail: John Legend.

Miranda: Oh, John legend. Yeah. And Angelica's character was Desiree Armfeldt, who's the smartest character in Little Light Music meets Nicki Minaj because she's just got the fastest raps in the show and the hardest raps in the show. And it was the intelligence. That's the secret about Angelica. She's smarter than Alexander, she's smarter than Jefferson, but because she is a woman in this time, she only gets to exercise it in a few ways. And so, that was the thinking behind each of the characters. I'm trying to think of some of the other ones. King George was like Rufus Wainwright meets King Herod from Jesus Christ Superstar. I can't remember, but the fun of it was this mashup of a musical theatre character and a hip hop artist. And in contradiction, figuring out what actors would do with that.

It's Mobb Deep, it's [Big] Pun, it's Biggie, it's very East Coast '90s. There's even a little sneaky Brand Nubian in there. It's just sort of—

Kail: Wait, and Hercules Mulligan was Busta Rhymes. So, when Busta Rhymes raps or Hercules Mulligan raps in the mixtape, it was beyond anything you could comprehend.

Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Leslie Odom, Jr.

On the "Dear White American Theater" open letter and the tough conversations around systemic racism within the musical theatre industry:

Odom, Jr.: There are two important talks that are happening. There's the talk that we're having with our white brothers and sisters, our white colleagues and peers, and then there's the talk that we're having amongst each other that sometimes we have never spoken about, about trauma. What everybody's asking themselves right now, what I think the most important questions are...white supremacy is upheld by systems. And so, it's like am I actively upholding the system? Do I have hiring power? Am I actively upholding the system, or am I being used to actively uphold this system?

And that's what that letter is about. It was crafted to this industry that we love so much, and we're saying to them, "Are you being used?" It's going to take work to dismantle this thing. I'll say this. Don't wait. If you love and care for Black people, don't wait for us to get murdered by the police to care about our Black lives. Don't wait for me to get murdered by the cops. Care about my Black life right now. That's what we talking about.

On the women rappers/singers they pulled inspiration from when preparing for their roles:

Goldsberry: I actually studied female rappers my whole life...It's one of those things you never know, when you're kind of feeding your soul with things, what you're preparing yourself for. We [Jasmine and I] almost had the opportunity to do a big tribute to Salt-N-Pepa. We were going to do "Shoop."

What we love... It also mirrors Hamilton. This is a show about a group of men fighting for something, and what our hip-hop queens represent is, in this seemingly very male world, the power of women. They're standing there saying, "I'm here, and I own this, too." They [Salt N Pepa, MC Lyte, etc] were my model way before anybody asked me to play Angelica Schuyler.

Jones: For me, I didn't rap that much at all in this, but what I loved about my number in "Say No to This," it was a huge ode to an R&B ballad. The fact that even Jill Scott sang "Say No to This" on the mixtape was like...I've seen Jill Scott like five times. You know what I mean? I love Jill Scott so much, so it's just full circle for me, even the fact that she was able to do that on the mixtape. And that's who also influenced me as an R&B singer.

On the significance of seeing Hamilton today as Black and brown people fighting for racial equality in America:

Jones: It's about inspiring, and it's about seeing diversity on stage. It's about going out, getting people to vote to make a change. If you can't feel like you can't do it yourself, then go out and reach out to your friends and come together. There are layers to this show. And as Leslie said, it's the beginning of a conversation. Have it open the conversation, and let's continue to talk about it.

Odom, Jr: The premiere on Disney Plus, we hope—in the same way that I felt before the show opened off-Broadway—was the beginning of a conversation. It's the beginning of critique. There can be an honest critique of the work. There's a lot of love and hard work that went into it, but it can be looked at with new eyes and picked apart if somebody wanted to. Again, I hope it's the beginning of a conversation. I leave it to other people to sell stuff, but I think that the show is about them, but it is also so clearly about us, and you feel that when you watch it. It's about Thomas Jefferson, but it's about Daveed. It's about Alexander Hamilton, but it's about Lin, and so that's worthy of your time.

Goldsberry: This is a show about this ragtag group of people that were the voices of a revolution, and they won. We won, we won, we won, we won, right? We are in a revolution right now, and we need to win it. The risk that these people took is an example and actually reflects the risks that people are taking right now. Not to mention, don't get it twisted. This is not a country that was made by others. This was a country that was made by our people, too. And seeing people that look like you play it is the first step in acknowledging that. I think that's really hugely important.

Don't write off your history because of the pictures that they put up and showed you to tell... It's the same thing like, how do you deal with your spirituality? Because of the picture somebody showed you of Jesus? No, you claim that. You claim that, and you should claim this country. You should claim that, too. We would hope that the work that's been done in the show breaks down some of those barriers and that people look with new eyes.

Daveed Diggs and Christopher Jackson

On how he wasn't initially sold on the idea of Hamilton:

Diggs: It was Tommy [Kali] who told me what Lin was cooking up, and I told him it was a terrible idea. I stand by that, by the way. (Smizes) It was a terrible idea...The second that he sent me the sort of demos, which are not great. They're nothing like what we have now, but it was so clear that it was going to be amazing. The fact that it is a terrible idea has nothing to do with it being a great show. And as soon as he sent me the music, I was like, "This is a great show and I really, really want to be a part of it." It's still a bad idea. If you pitched me that idea today, I would tell you it's a bad idea.

On how his love for hip-hop began in his entertainment career:

Jackson: I grew up in Southern Illinois, right? My family, we didn't have cable and we didn't have what would be known as urban radio. We didn't have Black radio back there. Any of my friends, anytime they would go visit family in Chicago or St. Louis, we would all rush over to their house with blank tapes so that they could then record the mix shows on a loop and bring back whatever we could get. I remember running through the house singing Run DMC and "Roxanne, Roxanne" just had my mind. I had no idea what this was, but I was like, "Ahhh." I used to get in trouble for rapping at the dinner table because back then, you didn't sing or do anything at the dinner table. But I'm 44 years old. Hip-hop has been a presence in my entire life. Just as pop music has and just as Michael Jackson and any country artist because I'm from the South. It's just the amalgamation of all of these different musical things, which is why Lin and I get down so well because he's constantly mining for that kind of stuff in his work. I found that I have a little reservoir that I always get to pull from when we do stuff together.

On how Hamilton should be interpreted in light of America's forefathers' monuments being torn down today:

Diggs: I think we have to accept the fact that there are sides of the people that we have considered heroes for a long time that don't deserve to have monuments about them, that those monuments don't serve us. I don't think that is a reason to not learn about them. I think it's actually an argument to learn about them in their totality and struggle with the idea of what is useful about the things that a dude like Thomas Jefferson came up with or penned what is instructive about them. And what about him do we disagree with? He was a human being. You know what I'm saying? I think the same argument is true of watching the show.

Jackson: Hamilton shouldn't be confused with hero-worship. It shouldn't be confused with the type of veneration that historically, we viewed a history through that lens and that's not what we're doing. I think that one of the many statements that are made happen to be about the fact that we're bringing these men and women down off of pedestals, we're looking at them in their most trifling states. The founding of this country was always aspirational and was always meant to not live up to it because the men that were actually in charge at that point were not capable of being their greatest selves in regard to the way that we view this now. But slaves back then, sure enough, didn't see any greatness in them.

Interview's music bed provided by Gus.

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Jadakiss and Fabolous perform at The Rich and Famous All Star Weekend Grand Finale at The Metropolitan on February 20, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Prince Williams/Wireimage

A Look At Fabolous And Jadakiss' 'Verzuz' Battle

After pairing two of the most acclaimed stars in contemporary R&B on Juneteenth, Verzuz returned to its rap roots, as Jadakiss and Fabolous went heads up to see whose catalog reigns supreme. While the event between the two — who joined forces for the highly-anticipated and critically acclaimed joint-album, Friday on Elm Street, in 2017 — was undoubtedly friendly and laced with compliments throughout the battle, there was no question that each came with the intent to outlast the other and walk away the victor.

With both having released their debut solo albums in 2001, Jadakiss and Fabolous' trajectories within the rap game have been eerily similar. While Jadakiss spent the latter half of the '90s as a key cog in the Bad Boy Records machine as a member of The LOX, Fabolous bided his time dominating the mixtape circuit under the guiding hand of DJ Clue, who helped him secure a record deal through his imprint, Desert Storm. Throughout the aughts, both artists matched their commercial success with standout showings alongside other rap and R&B artists and on the mixtape circuit, building reputations as elite wordsmiths. Today, both continue to churn out material and are regarded as OG's in the game, with resumes that place them on the list of the greatest rappers of all-time.

As two of the greatest rappers out of New York to ever pick up a mic, and with their willingness to perform and compete out of love for the culture, it was a given that Freddy and Jason face off in a Verzuz matchup tosee whose lyrical sword cuts the deepest, once and for all. Aside from minor technical difficulties during the tail-end of the battle, this edition of the Instagram Live event continued the seamlessness of previous battles, with Jada and Fab proving that R&B and gospel artists aren't the only ones who know how to put on a show in effective fashion.

In this matchup, Jadakiss went first for the first ten rounds, with Fabolous responding with his own selection, before switching the rotation for the final ten rounds, with Jadakiss answering with a song of his own. The evening, which included backstories behind each artist’s most popular records, friendly, albeit competitive banter, and countless trips down memory lane for the viewers and those commenting in the chat, is one that rap fans will remember for quite some time and is a testament to Fab and Jada’s staying power and music contributions to the culture. Here’s a round-by-round breakdown and recap of the Verzuz battle between Jadakiss and Fabolous, along with who we felt walked away as the victor when all was said and done.

ROUND 1: DMX feat. The LOX & Jay-Z's "Blackout" vs. Lil Wayne feat. Fabolous & Juelz Santana's "You Ain't Got Nuthin'"

Jadakiss wastes no time throwing down the gauntlet, as he lets off his verse from "Blackout," his collaborative effort with his LOX brethren, JAY-Z, and DMX, from the latter's 1998 LP, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. In return, Fabolous contests Kiss' opening pitch with a freestyle, which ultimately pales in comparison to Kiss' memorable posse-cut

Winner: Jadakiss

ROUND 2: The LOX's "Recognize" vs. Cassidy feat. Lil Wayne & Fabolous' "6 Minutes" DMX feat. The LOX & Jay-Z's "Blackout" vs. Lil Wayne feat. Fabolous & Juelz Santana's "You Ain't Got Nuthin'"

Sticking to the Ruff Ryders era of his career, the raspy one comes through with "Recognize," the standout, DJ Premier-produced cut off The LOX's sophomore LP, We Are the Streets. From there, Loso draws another lyrical miracle out the deck via "6 Minutes of Death," his scorching showing alongside Lil Wayne and Cassidy from Cass' I'm A Hustla album, which lands with impact, but falls short of a deafening blow in this matchup.

Winner: Jadakiss

ROUND 3: Nas feat. Jadakiss & Ludacris' "Made You Look (Remix)" vs. Lloyd Banks feat. Fabolous, Kanye West, Swizz Beatz & Ryan Leslie's "Start It Up"

Having captured the momentum early on, Jada continues to run up the score by tossing Nas' "Made You Look (Remix)" out on the table. Fabolous makes a valiant attempt to put some numbers on the board with Lloyd Banks' 2010 single "Start It Up," and although the track itself is a certified street banger, it's no challenge for one of the most memorable remixes of the early aughts.

WINNER: Jadakiss

ROUND 4: Jadakiss' "By Your Side" vs. Fabolous feat. P. Diddy & Jagged Edge's "Trade It All Pt. 2"

Having secured the first few rounds in convincing fashion, Al Qaeda Jada lets his foot off the gas, throwing out one of his more beloved deep cuts, "By Your Side," from his sophomore LP, Kiss of Death. His back against the ropes, the captain of the Street Family resorts to his grab-bag of hits, pulling out the Jagged Edge and Diddy-assisted summer smash, "Trade It All Pt. 2," giving the Brooklyn Don his first round of the bout.

WINNER: Fabolous

ROUND 5: The LOX's "All For the Love" vs. Fabolous feat. Kobe's "Imma Do It"

Faltering a bit in the previous round, Jadakiss returns fire with his solo selection from The LOX's '98 debut, Money, Power, & Respect, which Fabolous ironically jacked for his Friday Night Freestyles series, five years ago. In turn, Fabolous fails to regroup, misfiring with "Imma Do It," an underwhelming offering from his Loso's Way album, accounting for one of the more lopsided rounds in this edition of #Verzuz

WINNER: Jadakiss

ROUND 6: The LOX's "Chest 2 Chest Freestyle" vs. Fabolous' "Keepin' It Gangsta"

Jadakiss goes out of the confines of the rules a bit by unleashing a vintage freestyle over Showbiz & A.G.'s "Next Level (Nyte Tyme Mix)," which pairs his bars with DJ Premier's sonic craftsmanship. While a strong selection in its own right, it gets outgunned by Fabolous' early street anthem, "Keepin' it Gangsta," adding another point to the Brooklynite's scorecard.

WINNER: Fabolous

ROUND 7: Ruff Ryders "WW III" vs. Fabolous feat. Junior Reid's "Gangsta Don't Play"

When in doubt, Jada seems to mine material from his Ruff Ryder catalog to gain an edge against his opponent, this time drawing "WW III," the star-studded battle royal featuring Scarface, Snoop Dogg, and Yung Wun, out the deck. In turn, Loso misplays his hand, deciding to strike back with the Junior Reid-assisted "Gangsta Don't Play," a solid composition on its own merit, but no threat to the Ryde or Die Vol. 2 compilation.

WINNER: Jadakiss

ROUND 8: Noreaga feat. Big Pun, Nature, Cam'Ron, Jadakiss & Styles P's "Banned From TV" vs. Fabolous feat. Jay-Z & Uncle Murda's "Brooklyn"

Looking to further increase the distance between himself and his opponent, Jadakiss goes for the jugular with "Banned From T.V.," Noreaga's epic posse-cut featuring New York's prized rookie class of 1998. Fabolous, who continues to struggle to find his footing, mails it in with "Brooklyn," which is an admirable display of his pride for the thoroughest borough, but does little to move the crowd, in this scenario.

WINNER: Jadakiss

ROUND 9: The LOX's "Blood Pressure" vs. Fabolous' "Young OG"

Sticking to the script, Jadakiss caters to his core base once again with "Blood Pressure," his murderous solo outing from The LOX's We Are the Streets album. Fabolous, who has yet to play off of his versatility or track record as a hitmaker, goes with "Young OG," a favorite from his Soul Tape series, again failing to answer the bell.

WINNER: Jadakiss

ROUND 10: Black Rob feat. The LOX's "Can I Live" vs. Jeezy feat. Fabolous & Jadakiss' "OJ"

For the last round of the first half of the #Verzuz proceedings, Jadakiss picks "Can I Live," as his last shot before skipping to the showers for half-time. An opportunity to grab an easy basket before retaining the rock after the half is squandered by Fab, who again misfires with a lackluster counter, in the form of "OJ," a record that actually includes an appearance from Jadakiss himself.

WINNER: Jadakiss

ROUND 11: Fabolous feat. French Montana's "Ball Drop" vs. Puff Daddy feat. The Notorious B.I.G. & Busta Rhymes' "Victory"

For the second half of this #Verzuz battle, Fabolous gets the first possession and rises to the occasion with "Ball Drop," his festive, French Montana-assisted NYE anthem. However, Jada, who's history as the pen behind some of Diddy's biggest hits is well-documented, goes left-field, playing Diddy's verse from "Victory," effectively snatching this round from the jaws of defeat.

WINNER: Jadakiss

ROUND 12: Meek Mill feat. Fabolous & Anuel AA's "Uptown Vibes" vs. Sheek Louch feat. Jadakiss, Styles P & J-Hood's "Mighty D-Block"

After spending the first half of the battle attempting to steal rounds with sleepers, Fabolous finally decides to lean on his strengths, which is delivering high-octane radio hits and club banger. However, being that he's now on the offensive, his appearance on Meek Mill's "Uptown Vibes" gets quelled by "D Block Anthem," giving Jadakiss an overwhelming advantage over his Freddy vs. Jason costar on the scoreboard.

WINNER: Jadakiss

ROUND 13: Fabolous feat. Nate Dogg's "Can't Deny It" vs. The LOX's "F--k You"

For Round 13, Fabolous lands a haymaker, using 2Pac's "Ambitionz Az a Ridah" instrumental to incorporate his breakout, 2001 hit, "Can't Deny It," into his playlist. While Jadakiss claps back with the incendiary We Are the Streets cut, "Fuck You," the Nate Dogg-assisted "Can't Deny It" is too strong of a record to be denied.

WINNER: Fabolous

ROUND 14: Fabolous feat. The-Dream's "Throw It in the Bag" (Remix) vs. Jadakiss' "Knock Yourself Out"

With the majority of his winning rounds coming off the strength of his high-charting singles, Fabolous looks to rely on that formula, coming through with the Drake-assisted remix to his 2009 single, "Throw It In The Bag." Unphased, Jadakiss brings out "Knock Yourself Out," the equivalent of his big joker, for neutralization, stealing yet another round.

WINNER: Jadakiss

ROUND 15: Fabolous' "Young'n" vs. Ghostface Killah feat. Jadakiss' "Run"

Fabolous takes it back to his throwback jersey and tilted brim days with "Young'n," one of the biggest singles of the rap star's career. Not to be outmatched, Jadakiss goes with "Run," his collaborative effort with Ghostface Killah, for this round, but falls short of landing the knockout punch.

WINNER: Fabolous

ROUND 16: Fabolous' "You Be Killin Em" vs. Puff Daddy feat. The Notorious B.I.G., Lil' Kim & The Lox's "It's All About the Benjamins" (Remix)

Just when Fabolous looks to have cracked the code to victory, Jadakiss comes through with a record that's simply too seismic and timeless to overcome. This occurs yet again in Round 16, when Jadakiss counters Loso's 2010 smash, "You Be Killin Em," with "All About the Benjamins," one of the definitive rap records of not only the Bad Boy era, but the '90s as a whole.

WINNER: Jadakiss

ROUND 17: Fabolous feat. Ne-Yo's "Make Me Better" vs. DJ Clue feat. Jadakiss & Mary J. Blige's "Back 2 Life 2001"

Despite finding himself in a deficit, Fabolous remains vigilant, keeping Jadakiss honest with formidable salvos like his Ne-Yo-assisted chart-topper, "You Make Me Better," which he pulls out in Round 16. Jadakiss shows love to his Yonkers comrade Mary J. Blige by spinning "Back 2 Life 2001," their collaboration from DJ Clue's The Professional 2 album, but it's not enough to overcome one of Fab's smartest chess moves of the night.

WINNER: Fabolous

ROUND 18: Fabolous feat. Mike Shorey & Lil Mo's "Can't Let You Go" vs. The LOX feat. Timbaland & Eve's "Ryde or Die, B---h"

In one of the more stylistically intriguing rounds of the night, Fabolous deploys "Can't Let You Go," his syrupy, 2003 hit, "Can't Let You Go," featuring Mike Shorey and Lil Mo, while Jadakiss goes with The LOX's 2000 single, "Ryde or Die, B---h" featuring his LOX brethren, Timbaland and Eve. While "Can't Let You Go" was the bigger Billboard hit, reading the room is an invaluable skill when participating in a #Verzuz battle, and according to the demographic and expectations of those tuning in to see these particular artists face-off, "Ryde or Die, B---h" is the more enticing offering, all things considered.

WINNER: Jadakiss

ROUND 19: Fabolous feat. Tamia's "Into You" vs. Jaheim feat. Jadakiss' "Diamond in da Ruff" (Remix)

As the battle winds down, and with Jadakiss having all but secured his bragging rights, both artists choose to play off of one another's selections, with Jadakiss answering Fabolous' "Into You" with "Diamond in da Ruff (Remix)," a sleeper of a gem in his catalog. However, "Into You, which is universally regarded as one of Fabolous' signature records, nabs him a latter round

WINNER: Fabolous

ROUND 20: Fabolous' "Breathe" vs. Jadakiss feat. Styles P's "We Gonna Make It"

For the final round in the battle between Freddy and Jason, Fabolous unleashes what may be his biggest trump card with "Breathe," one of the most impactful street anthems to come out of New York City in the past twenty years. Luckily, for Jadakiss, he still has one more trick up his sleeve, which turns out to be "We Gonna Make It," his beloved duet alongside Styles. P from his 2001 solo debut, Kiss Tha Game Goodbye. Two of the biggest rap records to hit the streets of New York. "Breathe" and "We Gonna Make It" are seemingly impossible to choose from, resulting in the lone draw of the night.

WINNER: Draw

 

Devoid of any bad blood or shade, Jadakiss and Fabolous were content playing to the Verzuz crowd and enjoying the moment, particularly Jadakiss, whose level of intoxication visibly rises throughout the proceedings, giving the battle an even more light-hearted feel. While Fabolous, whose laundry list of Billboard charting lead-singles and guest appearances, didn't play his best hand this go-round, there were a few moments during the battle that reminded the viewers of his versatility as a songwriter with a catalog of unsung gems. For his part, Jadakiss, the winner of this Verzuz edition, by all accounts, played to his strengths, relying on the sheer amount of blockbuster posse-cuts and guest verses on his resume. Following the battle, each artist's DJ let off a brief medley of each artists' biggest records and fan favorites that didn't make the cut of their playlists, ending the night on a respectful and celebratory note.

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Alicia Keys and John Legend attend the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards at STAPLES Center on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
Jon Kopaloff/Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

A Look At Alicia Keys And John Legend's 'Verzuz' Juneteenth Celebration

After the collective family service we had with Verzuz: The Healing at the end of May, the Instagram Live event took a small break. On Friday, June 19th, Verzuz returned with a special Juneteenth edition featuring a modern-day dueling pianos between Alicia Keys and John Legend.

For the first male/female matchup of the series, Legend and Keys are—on the surface—a perfect match. They’ve been much compared over their careers, having both emerged at the height of the neo-soul era and becoming the remaining two pianists in R&B. Despite the ways in which they’re similar, the two singer-songwriter catalogues are actually very different, which was evidenced during their celebratory pairing.

Legend, whose latest studio LP Bigger Love debuted on Friday, used the occasion to remind viewers—many of which were core Legend fans that have drifted since he’s gone more Adult Contemporary with his music—why they loved him in the first place. He leaned heavily into his deep discography of features and some uncredited assists fans may not have known of. Keys, who has also released new music with her self-titled album earlier this year, was a little less focused in her playlist for the night but covered all bases from big hits to newer cuts.

This Verzuz wasn’t full of the meme-generating moments, technical difficulties, and quotables that have become the secondary appeal of previous matches. In fact, one of the few viral moments was between comedian Tony Baker and Teddy Riley in the Verzuz chat at the very beginning of the evening. Much like Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond’s Healing, Alicia and John joined more as a celebration than a battle, jumping on background vocals for each other’s songs and collaborating on select pieces like their collective welcome for the night’s festivities, a rendition of Bob Marley's very fitting “Redemption Song.”

ROUND 1: Cham feat. Alicia Keys “Ghetto Story Chapter 2” vs. Lauryn Hill's “Everything is Everything”

In each Verzuz, one of the artists feels less strategic with their lineup than the other. This week, that artist was Keys. Surprisingly so, considering the advantage of having Verzuz head (Captain? Owner? Don King?) Swizz Beatz as a personal coach. Her featured turn on “Ghetto Story” was a bop, but not enough of a favorite to merit an opening position. For Legend, the piano setup allowed him to flex the rules and pull out his first appearance on a major project before he even had a deal: playing the keys on Lauryn Hill’s 1999 single, “Everything is Everything.”

WINNER: Legend

ROUND 2: Alicia Keys' “Underdog” vs. Slum Village's “Selfish” feat. Kanye West and John Legend

Alicia started the second round with “Underdog,” a track from her 2020 self-titled album. A curious choice despite debuting it at the Grammy’s earlier this year, viewers still don’t know the song that well. John moved into the “things I did with Kanye” portion of his early catalogue (it’s easy, now, to forget that Legend started as part of Kanye’s G.O.O.D Music camp) with the Slum Village jam “Selfish.”

WINNER: Legend

ROUND 3: Alicia Keys' “Karma” vs. John Legend's “Used to Love You”

On the third round, Keys gets into her hits, but Legend counters with his debut jammy jam from 2004's Get Lifted. That “Holla, holla, holla” still goes. Hard.

WINNER: Legend

ROUND 4: Eve and Alicia Keys' “Gangsta Lovin’” vs. John Legend's “So High”

The songs were too different in this round to easily call a winner. Alicia wins points for “Gangsta Lovin’” being a somewhat forgotten gem in her arsenal. “I forgot about that one!” is always a plus during a Verzuz event, and part of the reason Swizz and Tim insist that participants have a deep catalogue in the first place. But John’s move into his wedding song tunes, and again utilizing the piano, gave him an edge.

WINNER: Legend

ROUND 5: Usher and Alicia Keys' “My Boo” vs. John Legend's “Ordinary People”

“My Boo” is a strong AK favorite. High sing-along factor, high nostalgia. This round should have been a lock for Keys, but John countered with his 2004 seminal ballad “Ordinary People” and sang live at the piano (Alicia didn’t even get all the way into her verse on “My Boo.”)

WINNER: Draw

ROUND 6: Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down" vs. Common's “They Say” feat. John Legend and Kanye West

Keys’ 2009 “Empire State of Mind (Part II)” was an appropriate tribute to resiliency and potential for current times, even if some viewers were wondering why she chose her solo version instead of the Jay-Z collaboration (my guess at the answer: piano). Common’s “They Say” still holds up now, but Keys wins out for sentiment.

WINNER: Keys

ROUND 7: Alicia Keys' “Teenage Love Affair” vs. John Legend's “Heaven”

This was an uninspiring round for me. “Teenage Love Affair” and “Heaven” are both good songs for what they are and encourage some head-nodding when played. I think they’re songs that nobody turns off or skips, but they don’t exactly go back to listen to them when thinking of these artists either.

WINNER: Draw

ROUND 8: Alicia Keys “Un-thinkable (I’m Ready)" vs. John Legend's “Another Again”

In my anecdotal experience, if you poll 20 Black women in their mid-late ‘30s and ask them their favorite John Legend track, a good 15 are going to give “Another Again” as their second choice. If not, their first. (Probably because the lyrics reflect early experience staying in cycles with people they knew they needed to move on from.)

But, Keys' ode to relationships we have no business being in, the Aubrey Graham co-penned “Un-Thinkable,” is undeniable.

WINNER: Drake. I mean Keys.

ROUND 9: Alicia Keys' “If I Ain’t Got You” vs. John Legend's “This Time”

“This Time” is a Legend sleeper ballad from the largely slept-on Evolver, but “If I Ain’t Got You” has all the things we love about Alicia: the keys, the lyrics about devotional love, and one of her best uses of her raspy alto.

WINNER: Keys

ROUND 10: Alicia Keys' “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart” vs. John Legend's “Tonight (Best You Ever Had)” feat. Ludacris

I mean… John’s lovingly awkward two-step aside, do we even have to discuss a round with “Tonight” in it? No, we don’t.

WINNER: Legend

ROUND 11: Alicia Keys' “A Woman’s Worth” vs. John Legend & The Roots' “Wake Up Everybody” feat. Common and Melanie Fiona 

John Legend and The Roots' version of “Wake Up Everybody” was poignant for the day (as is their entire 2010 Wake Up! project if you’ve never listened to it), and it provided another opportunity for Keys and Legend to collaborate, but “A Woman’s Worth” is Keys right in her pocket.

WINNER: Keys

ROUND 12: Alicia Keys' “Diary” feat. Tony! Toni! Tone! & Jermaine Paul vs. Kanye West and John Legend's “Blame Game”

I was really, really, really hoping John was going to fully take on Jermaine Paul’s part for “Diary” (he came in with some teases here and there). Still, even without the full “I won’t tell” back and forth we would have all loved to see live, “Diary” is still a winner. Plus, John lost points for having to apologize to Ms. Phyllis (his mama) on air for the curse words in “Blame Game.”

WINNER: Keys

ROUND 13: Alicia Keys' “Like You’ll Never See Me Again” vs. Rick Ross' “Magnificent” feat. John Legend

Another uneven round that’s hard to call at face value. Legend reminded us early in the evening that he and Rozay have damn near an album’s worth of collaborations, and “Magnificent” is one of the best ones. But “Like You’ll Never See Me Again” is a “Purple Rain” sample—almost a cheat code. Also, they used “Magnificent” as a Ciroc intermission.

WINNER: Keys

ROUND 14: Alicia Keys' “Superwoman” vs. Estelle's “American Boy” feat. Kanye West

“Superwoman” wins by default here because while John co-wrote “American Boy” and signed Estelle to his brief HomeSchool imprint, he played the song more as a vehicle to tell his career story than as a formal submission towards his 20.

WINNER: Keys

ROUND 15: Alicia Keys' “You Don’t Know My Name” vs. Rick Ross and John Legend's “Rich Forever”

Before Alicia and John got into their songs at the top of the night, they mentioned a song they’d both worked on together, but never named the track. That song was the 2003 Kanye-produced “You Don’t Know My Name,” which John provided the soulful “Ooh oohs” for throughout. Legend put up another strong showing in the Legend/Ross collection, but AK did the (slightly stalkerish and not advised under modern social norms) call to “Michael” live, and that alone is a winner.

WINNER: Keys but really Legend because he sang the “Ooh’s” live.

ROUND 16: Alicia Keys' “Unbreakable” vs. John Legend's “Green Light” feat. Andre 3000

Whew, those Black couple references in the beginning of “Unbreakable” have not aged well over the last 15 years, and the instant retro feel of the track wasn’t enough for us to overlook it. Legend’s “Green Light” with 3 Stack’s beloved voice shined a little brighter as we all tried to let that cringey moment go.

WINNER: Legend by default

ROUND 17: Alicia Keys's “In Common” vs. John Legend's “U Move, I Move” feat. Jhene Aiko

This round is tough, because while AK’s “In Common” was a groove, the song never really gained traction (despite SNL performances, ad campaigns, etc). Legend and Aiko’s “U Move, I Move” also feels like a groove, but is fresh-out-the-box new and a single on Legend’s new album.

WINNER: Draw

ROUND 18: Alicia Keys' “Girl on Fire” vs. John Legend's “All of Me”

“Girl on Fire” is one of Keys’ biggest hits. But it was so ubiquitous at its height, no one really wants to hear it anymore. Collective sighs and groans rippled throughout the internet from the beginning of the song. Fortunately, Keys herself seems to know everyone’s tolerance for “Girl on Fire” is low; she kept it short. Legend’s own ubiquitous monster, “All of Me,” was going to win whatever round John decided to play the song anyway, so just as well.

WINNER: Legend

ROUND 19: Alicia Keys' “Fallin’” vs. DJ Khaled's "Higher" feat. Nipsey Hussle & John Legend

“Higher” was a Grammy winner, a number one hit, and has become a tribute to Nipsey Hussle, having been released immediately after his death. But “Fallin’” is still magic, from those opening notes that wanna-be singers butchered everywhere throughout 2001. No contest.

WINNER: Keys

ROUND 20: Alicia Keys' “No One” vs. John Legend and Common's “Glory”

Let’s just skip over the “No One” moment because “Glory” is an Oscar-winning song and a Black freedom anthem and John gave a history lesson on Juneteenth while introducing the track, so we don’t even need to talk about anything else.

WINNER: The Fight for Justice

BONUS ROUND: Alicia Keys' “Perfect Way to Die” and John Legend's “Never Break”

The two closed out on solemn and pensive notes for their benediction offerings. Keys with her latest tribute to the many Black lives continuously being cut short without justice; and Legend in response with one of his new tracks, a story of the strong foundation of love, that can also be applied to our endurance and our fight in the face of injustice and tragedy.

They came marching in the city that day, they say

Carryin' signs in the street

Cryin' eyes in the streets

But they heard nothing from the city that day, they say

Just another one gone

And the city moved on

-  "Perfect Way to Die"

We will never break

We will never break

Built on a foundation

Strong enough to stay

We will never break

As the water rises

And the mountains shake

Our love will remain

- "Never Break"

Friday night’s Keys and Legend card wasn’t as eagerly anticipated or as big a draw as some previous Verzuz matches. They were also competing with no small amount of virtual Juneteenth programming, including a Friday night R&B concert series Keith Sweat hosts in partnership with iHeart Radio. But it was a fun night, a good reminder of the power of live musicianship and good songwriting (or, as Legend said frequently during the night, “a copyright”), and just a good vibe all around. The ultimate winner, as with all Verzuz matches, was the music.

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