Thanks to the likes of Quavo and Young Thug, rap music has entered a golden era of feature artists

By Shawn McFarland

The year was 1990. Gas was $1.39 per gallon, George H. W. Bush was in his second year as president, and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby” was a hit.

It was also the first year where a song with a featured artist made it big.

Glenn Medeiros’ “She Aint Worth it” rose to the top of the Billboard 100 in the summer, and unlike most of its Billboard predecessors, the “byline” featured the name of another artist – Bobby Brown. It was among the verst dual-artist songs to go big, and while it might be a below average song looking back, its helped shape music 27 years later.

In the current era of music, rarely does a song ever make it to the top of the charts without a “feat. [insert artist here]” after the song title. Five songs in the top 14 of Billboard’s Top 100 have featured artists, including Migos’ “Bad and Boujee,” a song which held the top of the charts for ransom before Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” dethroned it.

It also featured a verse (a trash verse, at that) from Lil Uzi Vert.

But Bad and Boujee is just a small sample of the deep world of feature artists. Take Drake’s More Life for example. Released this past Sunday, the album has a total of 11 features, spread across nine of the project’s 25 songs. On Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, 12 of the mixtape’s 14 songs had features. Five of the songs on Migos’ Culture had features.

I could go on, listening albums on albums from the recent past. But there’s one things all of the previously mentioned albums have in common: they were all hits, and a big reason was the loaded supporting cast.

So yes, on one side it’s fair to credit the songwriters for compiling a talented host of rappers for whichever song they’re working on. But at the same time, they’re working with a pool of artists willing to spit a guest verse better than we’ve ever seen. For recency, look at More Life. The list of guest stars is unreal: Kanye West, 2 Chainz, Quavo, Travis Scott and Young Thug (twice).

Drake’s More Life reached 90 million streams after just 24 hours following its release (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP, File)

Sure, Drake has some pull in the rap world. But getting arguably one of the best rappers of all time (West), one-third of the hottest rap group on the market (Quavo) and two up and coming starts coming off of critically claimed albums (Scott and Young Thug) is impressive.

Feature artists are able to add a new layer to each song. Take “Ice Melt” on More Life. Drake kills the chorus with a very Take Care-esque sentimental and longing vibe (“Look, I want you to myself /But I know you just left someone else /I know you did, he did a number on you /That must be why you move so icy.”)

But when Thugger starts to spit, the beat picks up, and Young Thug’s patented aggressive rhymes are imposed on the listener: I wan’ beat it up with somethin’ somethin’ /You’re a diamond out the rough or somethin’ somethin’ /You need to give it up to someone /You need to give love to someone /You need to—f*** what you need! /You need to give it up to someone.

Then, the music slows back down and Drake comes in with his melodic chorus once more.

It’s the same on most songs with features. On Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem,” 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne contrasted Chance’s raspy, gospel style with their unique style, and created one of 2016’s top songs. On Kanye West’s “FML,” West and The Weeknd (yes, I know what you’re thinking, it is an interesting combo) teamed up and weaved a ballad of heartbreak, love and lust – something both artists are privy to despite the differing styles.

In certain cases, however, its when rappers of the same genre and style team up that the best work is made. “Good Drank” by 2 Chainz is a near perfect example. 2 Chainz (the feature gawd, as I’ve declared him) enlisted the help of two of the world’s top guest stars to create a trap fan’s dream in 2016.

It’s an inner circle of rappers helping rappers, really. It’s borderline collusion – but instead of conspiring to screw others over, artists are ganging up to create some of the hottest tracks out there. Take Travis Scott’s Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, for example.  He enlists Young Thug on “Pick up the Phone,” and then turns around to appear on Thugger’s JEFFERY, as he spits on “Floyd Mayweather.”

Quavo is another one. This man may be in and out of the studio more than any rapper in the game. I’m no mathematician but I firmly believe he’s been featured on over 1,000 songs in the past six months (someone should probably fact check me on that.) But it all comes around in a circle when he and Migos feature the likes of Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz and Travis Scott on Culture, released in January.

You may not necessarily like features – maybe you just want to listen to a specific artist and that’s why you clicked play on that song. You like Drake, so you want to hear Drake – not Quavo. You came to hear Chance the Rapper, not 2 Chainz. And that’s fine. But there’s a certain depth that features add to music. It’s like adding a new spice to a pot of chili. Damn, this chili tastes good, but what if I put some garlic powder in here? Oh, wow, that’s a nice kick. 

That’s music, really. Yes, I’m comparing music to chili here. Features are the garlic powder, cinnamon and crushed red pepper in this metaphor, and in 2017, the musical spice cabinet has never been deeper.


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