Since making its debut at the start of the global pandemic, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s Verzuz battles have united music fans across the diaspora by showcasing the rich discographies of some of the industry’s best and brightest. But as the virtual event grew more popular over time, the purpose of it has also morphed, and it looks like they’re just letting anyone in now. Point in case, Justin Timberlake.
Verzuz launched in March 2020 as a means of bringing together the culture during an unprecedented time, its growing numbers demonstrating the unifying power of music — particularly Black music. The Instagram Live broadcast featured icons like Babyface, Jill Scott, T-Pain, Beenie Man and more, each battle of the greats reminding us that although Blackness and Black culture are far from monolithic, we like what we like; across the globe, we get down to Lil Jon with just as much as we vibe out to the musical stylings of Patti LaBelle.
In the Sunday, May 30 Verzuz matchup, founders Swizz Beatz and Timbaland linked up for a second round because their respective discographies are just that expansive. Timbaland’s many hits included “SexyBack,” “Cry Me a River,” and “Holy Grail,” just some of the songs he produced for longtime friend and collaborator Timberlake. Though no one could deny those are bangers, Swizz playfully pushed back against his opponent pulling the Timberlake card.
“Until you can get Justin Timberlake on Verzuz, I don’t really wanna hear those vocals,” Swizz fired during the livestream. “He gotta admit that he love the Black culture and he gotta be on this stage. You took from the Black culture, you give to the Black culture! Come to Verzuz and be a part of the Black culture!”
In the aftermath of the Verzuz, the mega-producers reunited on a separate Instagram Live to recap the competition, and Timbaland pushed back at Swizz for calling Timberlake out. Swizz clarified that he has nothing but love for the "Suit and Tie" singer and reiterated his invite.
“We can’t wait to get you on stage, having fun,” Swizz said. “You deserve it, too.”
Swizz may have invented the idea of the Verzuz, but opening up the VIP section to Timberlake didn’t sit well with many fans and viewers. And for good reason: how does Justin Timberlake get an invite to the club before the many, many Black artists who have enriched and influenced different Black genres over the past few years? Like...I don’t know...Janet Jackson?
It’s easy to see why the invite riled up fans given the history between the pop stars; the world still hasn’t quite forgiven Timberlake for his role in stalling Jackson’s music career for several decades following their controversial Super Bowl performance. But even beyond Nipplegate, the choice to consider Timberlake over Jackson as a viable participant in the music competition isn’t just misogynistic — it’s also utterly ridiculous.
Keeping it real, a lot of the R&B and pop girls that we know today wouldn't be able to exist without her; songs like "I Get Lonely," "The Pleasure Principle," and "All for You" are quite literally the road map for spiritual descendants like Aaliyah, Beyoncé, Ciara, FKA twigs, Teyana Taylor, and Tinashe. In short, Janet Jackson is Black music. She is Black culture.
There's no denying that Timberlake has certainly earned his place as an industry icon — the music speaks for itself — but his early solo discography is also heavily influenced by R&B and hip hop sounds that he himself wouldn't even stay true to. (We didn't forget Filthy.) I know that I’ve definitely joked around and named some non-Black talent in a potential Verzuz lineup in the past, but the reality is that there are still so many other Black artists who deserve their flowers. Where's our Mariah Carey and Friends moment? When are we highlighting Mary J. Blige's catalogue? Why haven't Usher or Ciara been given the stage? Hell, I'll even take that Bow Wow moment now; in seriousness, we couldn't have done the early 2000s without him.
Sure, a significant part of the problem is getting these greats to agree to sit on Instagram Live for four hours, but even if Verzuz was to continue in perpetuity, I don't think it would ever run out of willing Black artists to participate. Maybe it's just me, but I feel like Justin Timberlake would be okay with watching the livestream from home like the rest of us. Since he's for "the culture" and all.