For every collaborative project that blooms into fruition, there are dozens proposed that die on the vine. Estranged N.W.A members Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were supposed to reunite in the mid-1990s for Helter Skelter, but all we received was 1994’s “Natural Born Killaz” single (appropriately venomous, it wasn’t the colossal effort the public craved). Ten years later, Cam’ron and R&B singer Jahiem were reportedly working on The Best of Both Hoods, but they only mustered “Lord You Know,” a video and single that never appeared on an album, and “More Reasons,” for Cam’s 2004 LP Purple Haze. More recently, 50 Cent mused about the possibility of making an entire album with Eminem—we’re still waiting for an update on that.
In most cases, talk about an exciting tag-team project starts with the rappers themselves. To no one’s surprise, people who earn their livelihood stringing together boasts and hyperbole are prone to wild speculation. Of course, it’s the atmosphere, too. With a million blogs, message boards and gossip sites to echo every unsubstantiated half-truth until it resonates with authenticity, a rapper’s casual remark to a camera crew filming a hood DVD can balloon into something resembling fact. “Artists usually agree to do [collaboration albums] on a bumping, passing mission in the club, with two bottles of Patron, three girls next to them and 50 dudes around them,” says Buckshot. “That’s why a lot of them do not go down.”
In the sober light of day, there are plenty of logistical difficulties that can put a tandem project on the shelf. Contractual obligations, tours and the erratic lifestyle that accompanies an entertainment career make it difficult for artists to sync up their schedules. Ghostface Killah and MF Doom started talking about their album Swift & Changeable way back in 2006, but after repeated recording delays, only a handful of tracks have materialized thus far. Such snags are commonplace. “There are at least four or five artists on our roster that have talked about making a collaboration album together,” says John Franck, senior vice president of marketing at E1 Music. “Unfortunately, these things don’t come together, because they’re moving on totally different planes.”
Even if a pair of rappers manage to finagle their schedules into lockstep, record labels are prone to put a kibosh on the project. Artists are investments, and the suits often aren’t so enthusiastic about committing their stables to risky endeavors wherein they’re unlikely to see 100 percent of the profits. “They got that mentality like Death Row had back then,” says Kurupt, referring to the powerful West Coast label that notoriously forbade him and other signees from working with rappers outside their immediate camp in the early 1990s. “They want to keep the artist all to themselves, because they don’t want to oversaturate or jeopardize the records they’re selling.”
You can expect an entanglement of bureaucratic red tape when record companies are charged with sorting out the details of a collaborative album; the question is how suffocating it will be. For albums that involve artists from different labels, negotiations determine which company will put out the project. Another sticking point is whether the album will count against an artist’s contractual commitment to the label. Then there’s the problem of figuring out who gets more compensation when artists of varying stature work together.
Lil Wayne and Juelz Santana were on similar tiers when they first floated the idea of I Can’t Feel My Face, in 2006. Since then, though, Wayne has emerged as a triple-platinum icon, while Juelz has languished on the sidelines due to contractual issues with his label. Citing Cash Money’s long-standing relationship with Juelz’s Dipset clique, Baby says the disparity in popularity between the artists doesn’t concern him. “Even though Wayne might weigh a little more, in the business of it, everybody gonna manage that part to where everyone is happy,” he says. “We understand that, but that’s our partner. We always gonna do things together.” Of course, most artists don’t have the luxury of making such decisions themselves. “Once the machine gets involved, these labels make it fucked up for niggas to do collaboration albums,” Baby says. “The labels be wanting this and that. My artist weighs this; my [artist] weighs that. It puts friction in the game. Labels don’t understand a muthafuckin’ thing.”
Even If logistical landmines have been avoided, a full-length collaborative album between two highly regarded artists has to live up to lofty expectations. Back in the early naughts, the idea of Jay-Z and R. Kelly teaming up together for an entire album was both audacious and obvious. The top dogs of their respective genres, the pair had previously collaborated on 2001’s “Fiesta (Remix),” a single that rose into the top 10 on Billboard’s pop chart and demonstrated the potential of their combined hit-making abilities. The album’s vainglorious title, The Best of Both Worlds, seemed fitting. But the outcome was less triumphant. The grand design for the 2002 union of superstars was dismantled by critical indifference and R. Kelly’s controversial sex tape. When the smoke cleared two years later, Kelly and Hov released a second album, of unreleased material, titled Unfinished Business. The two musical icons then embarked on a tour, but after a bizarre confrontation at Madison Square Garden, where Kelly was pepper-sprayed by a member of Jay-Z’s entourage, Kells and Jay parted ways, and the tour collapsed. “The truth of the matter is that they’re two very different guys,” says Samuel “Tone” Barnes, one-half of the production team The TrackMasters, and the executive producer of Unfinished Business. During a recording process that yielded the material used for both albums, Tone acted as an intermediary, as the two headliners separately sent tracks back and forth from their respective bases, in New York and Chicago. “I don’t think we would have gotten an album done if they were in the studio together day in and day out,” he says of the arrangement. “They were never in each other’s company, so they never had to deal with animosity or competitiveness or being in each other’s faces.” Despite the drama, discontent and disappointment surrounding The Best of Both Worlds, the album made the journey from conception to public consumption—for that alone, it probably qualifies as a success.
It’d be difficult to find any two artists better suited for corralling their talents into something special than Jay-Z and Kanye West. They’ve worked together for years, admire each other’s abilities and have reached such pinnacles of artistic and financial success to make jealousy unlikely. That said, they’re wading against the tide of history. And due to their shared reputation for top-quality output, they’ll need to approach Watch the Throne with the same level of scrutiny they’ve always placed on their solo projects. “A lot of times, after you get into the studio with someone you respect, the artists themselves have to say whether or not it’s a good record,” says Tone. “Maybe you shouldn’t put it out. It could be as simple as that.”—Ben Detrick