December 15, 2011


Better Together

Kevin Winter
Kevin Winter

This year’s Z100’s Jingle Ball show in New York City featured Justin Bieber, Travie McCoy, Taio Cruz and many others. But the night’s MVP was possibly B.o.B, the Atlanta-based rapper who rose to recognition this year after a handful of excellent mixtapes culminated in his debut, B.o.B. Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray. Possibly the key factor that hastened his breakthrough into the mainstream: guest appearances from a kitchen-sink assortment of talent such as Lupe Fiasco, Rivers Cuomo, Eminem, Bruno Mars, and Paramore’s Hayley Williams. His Jingle Ball set was arguably the most crowd-pleasing, with the latter two popping up on stage with him to perform “Nothin’ on You” and “Airplanes” respectively.

It’s assumed that any rapper with common sense will align himself with an R&B or rock vocalist to produce a hit with a sticky hook. And given the potential money and publicity involved, any young songstress would be foolish not to acquiesce. Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Keri Hilson, and a decade earlier, Ashanti have practically pioneered this role in recent history—with the latter three using their clout-by-association as a stepping stone to launching their own solo careers.

Collaborations like this go back to the ’60s when folks such as Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell teamed up to duet on on singles such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Your Precious Love” (both written by Ashford & Simpson). Perhaps as a reaction to ever-present boy/girl singing duos—Sonny & Cher, Ike & Tina, Peaches & Herb—the next two decades found a spate of mini-supergroups churning out pretty ballads (like Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s “Some Velvet Morning” or Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”).

The ’80s, of course, were marked by excess, and the free-for-all collaborations during that time were no exception. More often than not, this resulted in vapid ear candy: Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s “Ebony and Ivory,” Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson’s “Say Say Say,” Phil Collins and Philip Bailey’s “Easy Lover,” David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s cover of “Dancing in the Street,” Ozzy Osbourne and Lita Ford’s “Close My Eyes Forever,” and so on.

But this was also the decade that introduced us to the idea that forging an alliance with the burgeoning rap scene may just be the shrewdest move of all. In 1986, Run DMC helped resurrect Aerosmith’s career by covering “Walk This Way” with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. In return, rock and pop devotees, skeptical of this emergent genre, now found rap more palatable; ultimately, opening up white audiences to rap music proved the home run that’d vault hip-hop album sales to the top of sales charts. Meanwhile, Anthrax, who’d already been dabbling in rap, attempted to re-create this DMC magic in 1991 by collaborating with Public Enemy on a cover of their “Bring the Noise.” For better or worse, they’d become the forefathers of the also-lucrative rap-metal genre.

In this day of sonic genre-hopping, the next logical step seems to be the collaborative one-off project. This year alone: BlakRoc found Damon Dash cherry-picking rappers to work with the Black Keys; Mark Ronson released another guest-reliant LP, Record Collection (featuring everyone from Q-Tip and Ghostface to Simon Le Bon and D’Angelo); TV on the Radio member/producer Dave Sitek’s Maximum Balloon launched with drool-worthy line-up that included Theophilus London, David Byrne, and Karen O; the ever-morphing Gorillaz released Plastic Beach (with contributions from Snoop Dogg, Mos Def and Lou Reed); and sneaker-company Converse dropped a summer single collaboration experiment from KiD CuDi and members of Best Coast and Vampire Weekend.

To dignify all of this cross-pollination, the Grammys even created a Best Rap/Sung Collaboration award (B.o.B and Bruno Mars, naturally, are one of the nominees) eight years back. But how long until that category phases out as a technicality?