How Hip-Hop Collab Projects Became the Norm in the 2010s
What was once the stuff of rap nerd fantasy has become the new normal.
The collaborative hip-hop album—those mythical dream teams of your favorite two (or three) artists that so frequently failed to come to fruition in the 1990s and early 2000s—has wonderfully leapt to the forefront over the past decade, as full-length joint projects now drop on the regular. Straight up, young millennials don’t know how lucky they have it.
There was once an enduring era of lost collabs, when streaming services were nonexistent and anticipation of a rumored team-ups would mount and mount… until the hype spoiled into skepticism and eventually dissipated into disappointment.
Consider the list of lost late-1990s and early-2000s classics that remain only theoretical:
• The reconciled N.W.A duo of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube dropped a bomb with 1994’s “Natural Born Killaz” single off Death Row’s Murder Was the Case soundtrack, whetting appetites for a joint LP titled Helter Skelter and plotted guest features from Scarface, Snoop Dogg and the D.O.C. A business rift between Death Row and the D.O.C., however, led to some leaked reels and Dre walking away from the project.
• Among the what-ifs surrounding the Notorious B.I.G. was a floated supergroup album featuring fellow N.Y. giant Jay-Z and femme fatale Charli Baltimore under the handle The Commission. Of course, Biggie’s way-too-soon demise deprived the world of more Jigga-Biggie collabs in the vein of “Brooklyn’s Finest” and “I Love the Dough.”
• Jay-Z was also a central component of an Irv Gotti–proposed gritty trinity that would unite Hov with fellow NYC chat-toppers Ja Rule and DMX under the group heading Murder Inc. Indeed, the three late-’90s megastars did link for mix-and-match singles (“Murdergram,” “Money, Cash, Hoes,” “Can I Get A…”), but egos and accounting issues meant a complete LP had about as much of a chance as Fyre Festival.
• Since 2007, Juelz Santana and Lil Wayne oft hinted at an album of flaunty, wordy duets in the vein of their swaggerific remix of Nas and Jay-Z's “Black Republicans.” But the pipe dream that is I Can’t Feel My Face dissolved into scattered, unpolished Dipset/Young Money mixtape tracks and never hit shelves.
Those are but a few of the epic on-wax alliances that ended up only sounding good on paper. Linkups between Nas and DJ Premier (Finally), Ghostface Killah and MF Doom (Swift & Changeable), and Scarface and Beanie Sigel (Mac & Brad) also tumbled into the fan-fiction wasteland.
Sadly, the phrase "too good to be true" held true.
And then, the 2010s happened, and the gates dividing artist and fan, label and artist, and artist and artist began breaking down for a number of reasons.
Watch the Throne—that golden triumph of Kanye West and Jay-Z still wielding the powers of their prime—began to take shape in the fall of 2010, and after globetrotting recording sessions that spanned Honolulu; Sydney; New York City; Abu Dhabi; Wiltshire, England and (yep) Paris, the kingly collab yielded a product that lived up to its parts. A trend was born. The floodgates opened.
The past 10 calendars have ushered in high-powered full-lengths from Drake and Future (What a Time to Be Alive); Nas and Damien Marley (Distant Relatives); Jay-Z and Beyoncé (Everything Is Love); 21 Savage, Offset and Metro Boomin (Without Warning); Future and Juice Wrld (Wrld on Drugs); Jadakiss and Fabolous (Friday on Elm Street); Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz (Collegrove); Travis Scott and Quavo (Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho); Big Sean and Metro Boomin (Double or Nothing); and Future and Young Thug (Super Slimey).
Y’know, just to name a few.
Newly formed superduo Run the Jewels gave soloists Killer Mike and El-P a new lease on rap life and opened them to whole swath of fans that know little of their respective Dungeon Family and Company Flow origins. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib are arguably best served as a combo platter, already giving the underworld two grimy classics with Piñata and Bandana.
Yes, the underground is now thriving on the formula. The past few months saw the release of projects by the late Sean Price and Lil Fame; Showbiz and Milano; Fat Joe and Dre; Curren$y and Smoke DZA; Boosie Badass and Zaytoven; and Skyzoo and Pete Rock.
Sure, the formula had been pulled off prior to the ’10s (Jay-Z and R. Kelly teaming for 2002’s Best of Both Worlds, or legends KRS-One and Marley Marl reconciling for 2007’s Hip-Hop Lives), but never have the combinations been so plentiful or produced fresh tunes so quickly.
And it’s spilling fast into the stadium circuit, with co-headlining tours with one giant, intertwining setlist fast becoming the go-to format. Think: Jay-Z and Beyoncé; Nas and Mary J. Blige; Pro Era and The Underachievers; Jay-Z and Kanye; Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa.
But why, you ask? There's a number of reasons.
The decline of major-label control that has coincided with the rise of technology has cut out the middlemen and pocket snatchers between artists that can now deal with each other directly, free of the red tape that used to stifle a signed artist’s freedom.
Technology has also made quality recording more accessible and affordable than ever before. MCs and producers can share sound files with the tap of a few keystrokes, then upload completed songs without the delay of marketing and promotion.
Just as important is the immediacy of fan influence. The 2010s music fan wants choice, and hungers fresh combinations of voices weekly. Thus, there is an inherent pressure on today’s artist to keep coming up with unique concepts or features to rise above the fray and stick out.
A collaborative album brings intrigue and buzz. It’s not solely a healthy artistic experiment; it’s a marketing scheme.
Rappers of the aux-cord age are more open to genre blurring and much more business-savvy than their predecessors. They recognize the power in leveraging their own following to gain fans from the next man.
Hard geographical lines that once meant so much in the game are getting erased by a faster, more open-minded movement. It’s not where you’re from or where you’re at; it’s who you can link with and how you can snatch the world’s attention.
So, we’ll hold out hope that the 2020s build upon these cooperative ways and cross our fingers for the rumored J. Cole/Kendrick Lamar LP.
Just don’t hold your breath for that Drake/Kanye album anytime soon. —Luke Fox
See 12 of the Best Hip-Hop Collab Projects of 2019