(May 9, 2021). SWV (Sisters With Voices) member Leanne “Lelee” Lyons may have tried her best to sum up the evening’s intended sentiment when she offered the following assessment at the end of it: “you don’t have to choose, we’re all dope, we’re all hot!”
She was referring, of course, to her group-mates of nearly 30 years plus the members of Xscape, the fellow ‘90s female group with whom SWV did battle on Saturday night’s (May 8) episode of Verzuz, which was live-streamed from Atlanta on both Instagram and Triller and also featured two battling DJs: Spinderella (formerly of the rap trio Salt-n-Pepa) and The DJ AONE.
Lelee could also have been speaking on behalf of the many R&B girl groups that came out of the 1990s – the decade that sported more such groups than arguably any other decade before or since (En Vogue, TLC, Brownstone, Total, 702, Jade, Zhané, The Good Girls, Divine are just a handful of the others from the era). The fact that SWV and Xscape were the first of the bunch to be chosen (or the first to accept an invite) to do a VerzuzTV battle speaks volumes for their status among the pantheon of female collectives from their era.
But anyone who thought what transpired on the Verzuz stage Saturday night was not a battle, you might want to think again.
Oh, it might also have been a chance for the two iconic groups to display true sisterhood and acknowledge each other’s respectable contributions to the ‘90s rich R&B culture – which they did – but there was some palpable tension in the air as each group used the B-word several times in referencing the affair.
That B-word was “battle,” and if the “Xscape vs. SWV” voting button at the bottom of the screen wasn’t a reminder of what this event truly was, then the thousands of Instagram comments pouring in from fans as each group made its case surely was.
Fans showered heart and fire emojis all throughout the affair as they made their assessments of which group “won” the night, with a general consensus that Xscape came more prepared than SWV to display their live vocal chops on top of their recordings. SWV appeared lethargic in the beginning – not even bothering to stand to sing several of the earlier songs (unlike Xscape who was all over the floor singing their asses off in the first half!). But SWV began to bring their A – or at least B+ – game after the halftime intermission, with lead singer Cheryl “Coko” Gamble finally displaying the vocal range that helped make SWV one of the most successful groups of the ‘90s, male or female.
As Xscape’s most talented member Kandi Burress noted after SWV turned up the heat considerably in Round 19 with their “Anything (Remix),” they “put the pressure on us” before Xscape countered with their No. 1 remake of The Jones Girls’ “Who Can I Run To?.”
In the next and final round, after SWV closed with the fan favorite “Weak,” their No. 1 R&B smash that also topped the pop chart in 1994, Kandi quipped “it ain’t over” several times before her group launched into their No. 1 R&B chart smash “Understanding.”
Yes, it was a celebration of the two groups’ longstanding sisterhood, both internally and with each other, but this Verzuz was a fight from its late start (at 8:41pm Eastern) all the way to the finish about two-and-a-half hours later.
Here’s a round-by-round analysis of the matchup, with a running tally of each round’s winner, followed by the blog’s overall assessment of who won the night.
Round 1: Xscape’s “Is My Living In Vain” vs. Coko ft. Faith Evans, Fantasia and Lil Mo’s “Endow Me.” Both groups gave nods to gospel greats the Clark Sisters with their opening salvos (which appropriately followed a heartfelt opening prayer by Xscape’s Tamika Scott). The harmonies on Xscape’s track alone were enough to secure this round, as SWV’s entry was clearly a vehicle for Coko, who hadn’t yet warmed up to the event. Winner: Xscape. Tally: X = 1, S = 0
Round 2: Xscape’s “Feel So Good” vs. SWV’s “Can We” (feat. Missy Elliott). Xscape’s members joked that the video for this Jermaine Dupri-produced single (from their second album in 1995) was when they finally became sexy, noting their growth from “being boys to grown women.” SWV gave a nod to Missy Elliott and Timbaland with this 1997 bouncer from the Booty Call soundtrack. Winner: SWV. Tally: X = 1, S = 1
Round 3: Ol’ Skool feat. Xscape & Keith Sweat’s “Am I Dreaming” vs. SWV’s “All Night Long.” Xscape grabbed this Atlantic Starr remake from their featured credits and gave an appropriate nod to fellow Atlantan Keith Sweat. SWV recalled how great it was to work with Babyface on this contribution to the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack. Winner: Xscape. Tally: X = 2, S = 1
Round 4: Xscape’s “What’s Up” vs. SWV’s “When U Cry.” Xscape’s “Planet Rock”-sampled tune was one of the few bangers they brought to the table (as most of their repertoire is sultry ballads and mid-tempo jams), while SWV slowed the tempo considerably with a nod to hip-hop’s fallen (DMX, Black Rob, André Harrell) and a song that Lelee linked to the late Kim Porter’s eulogy. Winner: SWV. Tally: X= 2, SWV = 2
Round 5: Xscape’s “The Arms of the One Who Loves You” vs. SWV’s “Downtown.” From their third album, Xscape followed SWV’s previous downtempo entry with this slow ballad that reached the top ten on both the R&B and pop charts. Lelee took it “nasty” with this ode to pleasing a woman down there…orally. Nice and sweet vs. nice and nasty. We’ll go with nasty. Winner: SWV. Tally: X = 2, S = 3
Round 6: MC Lyte feat. Xscape’s “Keep On Keepin’ On” vs. SWV feat. Puff Daddy’s “Someone.” Xscape can be forgiven for misremembering which soundtrack their song in this round came from (after all, it was more than a quarter century ago). They linked it to the Above the Rim soundtrack, prompting SWV’s “Taj” to remark, “I didn’t realize we were all on that soundtrack.” Taj was right, they weren’t. Winner. Xscape by a hair. Tally: X = 3, S = 3
Round 7: Xscape’s “Work Me Slow” vs. SWV’s “Everything I Love.” Xscape brought this fan-fave album cut to the table (it would have been better paired against “Downtown”) while SWV countered with a single from their 2012 album, with lead vocals by Lelee. Taj heaped some praise on her group-mate finally getting some shine, but Xscape owned this one. Winner: Xscape. Tally: X = 4, S = 3
Round 8: Xscape’s “Just Kickin’ It” vs. SWV’s “You’re the One.” This was Xscape’s Fan Choice Moment, where the fans’ voted on which of the group’s songs they wanted to hear. They went with Xscape’s debut single, which went up against SWV’s bouncier “You’re The One,” one of the many tracks that – as Lelee noted – made them the “remix queens of the 1990s.” Agreed. Winner: SWV. Tally: X = 4, S = 4
Round 9: Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills” vs. SWV’s “Right Here (Human Nature). Kandi Burress happens to be an extremely talented songwriter, as she reminded us by pulling out this No. 1 single she wrote for Destiny’s Child (it was their first No. 1 pop hit). But nothing we heard all night from Xscape could top “Right Here (Human Nature), the iconically transformed smash from SWV that not only made them remix queens, but soundtrack queens as well (it was from the Free Willy soundtrack in 1993). Spinderella topped it off with a piece of the famous instrumental hook from Michael Jackson’s original “Human Nature.” Winner: SWV. Tally: X = 4, S = 5
Round 10: Xscape’s “Tonight” vs. SWV’s “If Only You Knew.” Anyone who thought that Xscape came to play games need only listen to the group perform “Tonight” (done a capella) to get calibrated. Their stellar performance had fans declaring them the winners before the second half even started. SWV countered with their respectable remake of the Patti LaBelle No. 1 classic “If Only You Knew.” It was a risk for SWV to cover Patti, especially after Xscape had just raised the bar significantly. Coko rose to the challenge by hitting that impressive soprano high note near the end. But the bar was too high. Winner: Xscape. Tally: X = 5, S = 5
After a long break and another battle between DJs AOne and Spinderella, the ladies returned with even more energy than they had in the first half.
Round 11: SWV’s “I’m So Into You” vs. Xscape’s “My Little Secret.” The second half was introduced by Tameka “Tiny” Cottle’s husband T.I.’s “Bring Em Out,” which segued into SWV’s debut single “I’m So Into You.” Xscape countered with their “side-chick anthem.” As good and nostalgic as SWV’s first hit was, it’s hard to top a cleverly written “other woman” anthem from that woman’s perspective. Winner: Xscape. Tally: X = 6, S = 5
Round 12: SWV’s “Ain’t No Man” vs. Xscape’s “Softest Place On Earth.” SWV pulled a nice jam from their last album, 2016’s Still, while Xscape took it old school with another chart hit from their third album, 1998’s Traces of My Lipstick. The euphemism alone gets this one. Winner: Xscape. Tally: X = 7, S = 5
Round 13: SWV’s “Use Your Heart” vs. E-40 feat. T-Pain & Kandi Girl’s “U And Dat.” SWV showed why they might also be the ‘90s queens of R&B ballads (in addition to remixes and soundtrack cuts) with their stellar “Use Your Heart,” while Kandi Burress took another step towards making this her solo showcase. Winner: SWV. Tally: X = 7, S = 6
Round 14: Will Smith feat. Coko’s “Men in Black” vs. Mariah Carey feat. Da Brat and Xscape’s “Always Be My Baby (Mr. Dupri Mix).” By this point in the match, some commenters had quipped that the groups were beginning to run low on their own hits. This reach in the grab bag for songs by Will Smith and Mariah Carey (on which Coko and Xscape were featured, respectively) did little to quell that notion. Da Brat’s appearance onstage (Jermaine Dupri also showed up) to perform her classic verse with Xscape was the clincher. Winner: Xscape. Tally: X = 8, S = 6
Round 15: SWV’s “You’re Always On My Mind” vs. Trick Daddy feat. LaTocha Scott’s “Thug Holiday.” SWV gave one of several shoutouts to their producer and writer Brian Alexander Morgan, the mastermind behind their debut album and many of their hits. Xscape’s LaTocha Scott declared that her solo collabo with Trick Daddy should really be a thug anthem. Winner: SWV by default. Tally: X = 8, S = 7
Round 16: Coko’s “Sunshine” vs. Xscape’s “Love On My Mind.” Coko’s solo take on the inspiring “Sunshine” was made even brighter when her “singing baby” son, Jalen Clemons, appeared for a brief duet with his mom in a fitting Mother’s Day tribute (one of several on the night). Xscape’s Tamika Scott joked that Kandi “wanted to remove the only song she sang lead on” from their debut album, to which Burress responded, “I get blamed for everything.” Hmmm…a little in-fighting, as one SWV member noted. Winner: SWV. Tally: X = 8, S = 8
Round 17: SWV’s “M.C.E. (Man Crush Everyday”) vs. Xscape’s “Do You Want To.” When Spinderella abruptly cut short Xscape’s track in this round, audience members began shouting “bring it back.” When they did, Xscape’s LaTocha and Tiny gave a performance for the ages, with Ms. Scott displaying her still-intact, room shattering vocals that likely sold a few extra thousand concert tickets when they decide to go on tour again. Winner: Xscape. Tally: X = 9, S = 8
Round 18: SWV’s “Rain” vs. TLC’s “No Scrubs.” Lelee gave a nod to TikTok and the fact that “Rain” was one of SWV’s three songs trending on the platform. Kandi and Tiny wrote “No Scrubs” for TLC in 1999. To show how liberally British singer Ed Sheeran borrowed from the TLC track, the DJ mashed up “No Scrubs” with his “Shape of You,” the song on which Kandi and Tiny now rightfully have writing credits. Winner: SWV. Tally: X = 9, S = 9
Round 19: SWV feat. Wu-Tang Clan’s “Anything” (remix) vs. Xscape’s “Who Can I Run To.” As the evening wore on and I knew that one of SWV’s two remaining tracks would be “Weak,” I began to wonder whether my personal fave by them would appear. It did, and “Anything (Remix)” served as yet another reminder of why SWV were both the soundtrack and remix queens of the 1990s. Xscape countered with a sweet No. 1 remake of The Jones Girls classic, “Who Can I Run To,” which also happens to be my favorite by them. Winner: Tie. Tally: X = 9, S = 9, Tie = 1
Round 20: SWV’s “Weak” vs. Xscape’s “Understanding.” After SWV performed their crowd-pleasing biggest hit, “Weak,” in a rousing, concert-like singalong with fans in the audience, Xscape’s Kandi Burress was clearly feeling the pressure as she noted “it ain’t over” before launching into her group’s second No. 1 single (of three in their career), “Understanding.” Kandi then backed up her claim by hitting that high note near the song’s end. But even that valiant effort couldn’t top the show-stealing performance that SWV saved for last. Winner: SWV. Tally: S = 10, X= 9, Tie = 1.
Both groups had three No. 1 R&B chart singles apiece and a slew of additional crossover top-20 pop hits as well. So this was about as evenly matched a Verzuz battle as there could be.
Xscape was clearly the crowd favorite at the beginning and their harmonies were definitely more intact, but their energy seemed to wane in the second half, while SWV’s noticeably picked up. Coko’s vocals were strained at times, but she occasionally pulled out notes we hadn’t heard from her in years. Xscape relied a little too much on features and external solo projects by Kandi (and to a lesser extent, Tiny).
So, SWV wins the intangibles 1-0 and the overall song tally (10-9-1), and therefore wins the night 11-9-1!
But congratulations go to both groups for their unprecedented show of solidarity and the fact that they’re both fully intact and performing together after nearly 30 years!
No other female groups before them can claim that. And certainly no one since then can!
DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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