OPINION: Why The Earth Wind & Fire/Isley Brothers Verzuz Was a Three-Generation Epic
This Verzuz was the one. The one.
Every since the web series capitalized on the House that D-Nice Built and kicked off March 2020 as a respite from the nascent days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all gathered around our phones, computers and other screens to watch beloved musicians and groups go track-for-track in a feigned competition (with maybe a couple exceptions) in which the only real winners are the fans.
As Verzuz founders Timbaland and Swizz Beats are legendary architects of 90s hip-hop and R&B, pretty much every artist chosen for Verzuz is nostalgic catnip for Generation Xers and whatever they’re calling us older Millennials born in the beginning of the 1980s. But with The Isley Brothers vs. Earth Wind & Fire going head-to-head on Easter Sunday, Verzuz nailed the most generationally and culturally inclusive meeting to date.
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Gladys Knight vs. Patti LaBelle formally held that title with their Verzuz last September, which I delightfully watched with my mama on Apple TV before Verzuz was sold to Triller and ruined the best way to watch. But the appreciation and impact of the Isley Brothers and Earth Wind & Fire’s collective oeuvre runs deeper than Knight’s catalog, and certainly LaBelle’s. Many of us might not exist had certain songs not been created; our parents caused us to love them by playing them when we were kids, and we’re in turn playing it for our kids. Though Jeezy vs. Gucci Mane had the largest peak audience for a Verzuz at 1.8 million, three generations in one family didn’t gather around a device to enjoy that (unless your grandma really enjoys the turn-up. No judgments.).
Triller pulled out all the stops for the event: D-Nice was on the boards and Steve Harvey took a break from entertaining “mainstream” audiences to host. In an event with such amazing music, Harvey was arguably one of the most entertaining elements of the night: From his blinding purple suit that was probably tailored somewhere in Detroit to his constant reminders that he is, indeed, from Cleveland to every story he had about that one time he did whatever with some girl to “Between the Sheets” to his almost mean-old-man-esque reminders that you don’t know s--- about s--- if you aren’t familiar with their music, he was with the s---s on Resurrection Sunday.
The tweets and posts about Harvey alone were worth the price of admission.
I wondered going in what a Verzuz would look like with a bunch of borderline septuagenarians (and one borderline octogenarian – Ron Isley turns 80 this May) who’ve probably never heard of Triller (like the rest of us) and who need their grandkids to work the Instagram thingy. It certainly wasn’t a frantic, hop-in-place, kick-s--t-over performance in the spirit of Bounty Killer vs. Beenie Man, but the brothers laid live vocals over their tracks at their leisure and actually got off of the couch to sing stuff…at their leisure.
(It was a bit hilarious that the Verzuz most targeted at Baby Boomers had the longest run time since the original with Swizz Beats and Timbaland and was the latest to ever finish at around midnight on the east coast. I was heavy with the eyelids when it was over, so I know damn well your Auntie Verna didn’t make it through the whole thing.)
Even though the 20-song Verzuz format doesn’t always align well with the chosen artists (I’m looking at you, Ashanti and Keyshia Cole), it was built for bands like these: The Isleys have hits older than your mama and have clocked Prince numbers in their discography (32 albums!). Earth Wind & Fire have fewer albums but more hit singles than they could’ve played on Verzuz. The only unfortunate effect of the format is that the songs cut early; I’m cool with one verse from Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice,” but “Footsteps in the Dark” was meant to breathe.
Ron Isley, the most famous member of either band, was the star of the evening. Or, rather, his beard was – Mr. Biggs’ cat daddy energy was in full effect. He was even able to get away with performing “Contagious,” the group’s last chart-topping hit but one with R. Kelly’s DNA all over it. Black Twitter certainly had a collective clinched sphincter in anticipation of a song that they simply had to perform for Verzuz.
The best part about the night was the undeniable, unbridled blackness of it all. Sure, even Negro-hating yokels in the Appalachian mountains love “Twist and Shout” and “September.” But both bands are inextricably intertwined with the Black American experience of the late 20th century, and that came through in how the music made us feel on an Easter evening in a zeitgeist where “Throat Baby” is a thing.
The Isleys and EWF are your uncle whipping around the corner in a Deuce and a Quarter with a brim hat. They’re your mama reflecting on that time your daddy was courting her in simpler times before they had to worry about raising your ass. They’re a beautiful Saturday afternoon on a porch, watching the kids ride their bikes on the sidewalk as your glass of iced lemonade leaves rings on the card table. They are love and happiness; curls and melanin.
Really, the blackness is the best part of Verzuz overall. As much as I’d love to see Usher go against Justin Timberlake, I rather enjoy that this is one of very few things that is ours and ours alone.
Dustin J. Seibert is a native Detroiter living in Chicago. He loves his own mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day only so his French fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him at wafflecolored.com.