J. Cole went platinum with no features. Twice. The fact became immortalized as a meme poking fun at his self-serious fanbase, but whether you’re a fan of his music or not, it does feel like a notable achievement. In pop music these days, barely a week goes by without news that two stars at the top of their game have linked up for a radio-ready, blockbuster single. And these songs can feel engineered with cross-promotion in mind, like a way to game hit single algorithms through “collabs.”
A quick look at last week’s Billboard pop singles chart shows just how integral “features” are in pop music today: There are almost as many songs with features in the current top 40 as songs without. And that’s not a trend that’s new to 2017. Some of the past few years’ biggest songs included major features: Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side” featuring Nicki Minaj, Sia's “Cheap Thrills” featuring Sean Paul, and Fifth Harmony's “Work From Home” featuring Ty Dolla $ign. More recent attempts include “Don’t Wanna Know” by Maroon 5 featuring Kendrick Lamar, and “Chained To The Rhythm” by Katy Perry featuring Skip Marley.
What ties many of these songs together, besides their commercial successes, is that the features feel largely disposable, relying on the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-feature-verse-chorus formula that listeners have likely grown accustomed to. But how did we get here?
The rise of EDM in recent years has helped fuel this trend; pairing producers with famous vocalists successfully broadened the genre’s appeal amongst pop fans and vice versa. Calvin Harris is the de facto king of the practice right now, and with good reason. He followed up last year's “This Is What You Came For” featuring Rihanna with “Slide” featuring Frank Ocean and Migos and “Heatstroke” featuring Pharrell, Young Thug, and Ariana Grande. Both songs feel like posse cut interpretation of the traditional pop feature. But elsewhere in EDM, The Chainsmokers’ cloying “Closer” featuring Halsey and “Don’t Let Me Down” featuring Daya were inescapable last year.
It’s been common for a minute for songs to feel as though a featured artist’s verse has simply been inserted into another artist’s song, a simpler approach to the kind of successful cross-genre collaborations pioneered by Run-DMC’s cover of “Walk This Way” featuring Aerosmith. The format has been used regularly since at least the ‘90s, but it feels more en vogue than ever. And while logic would suggest the potential for a fire release increases when you get more than one artist on a track, pop songs with features too often just end up being boring. What could be innovative collaborations are reduced to one-dimensional replications of the main artist’s solo work.
Consider Kanye West’s Grammy-nominated 2016 song “Ultralight Beam,” which features Chance The Rapper, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, and The-Dream, and in which multiple genres are synthesized to arrive at a song that is more than the sum of its parts. Conversely, think of a track like Meghan Trainor’s “Better” featuring Yo Gotti: It’s not only that it’s bad, it’s that it's just another Meghan Trainor song. Gotti’s guest appearance, which comes after two verses and two choruses by Trainor, could have been easily been replaced by a verse from another rapper.
Perhaps it’s that much pop music hasn’t escaped the mass content generation model that dominates other forms of media. If an artist doesn’t regularly have a new song or album to promote, they must remain relevant somehow, either by releasing one-offs or being active on Instagram and Twitter. And with social media shares serving as an important metric of success, songs that tap into multiple artists’ fanbases maximize potential exposure.
What could be innovative collaborations are reduced to one-dimensional replications of the main artist’s solo work.
Not only that, but they also lay the groundwork for pop stars to attract new markets and try on new styles. With “Side to Side,” Minaj solidified her stature as a crossover artist while lending some edginess to Ariana Grande, a singer perhaps looking to fully break free from her Disney/teen demographic. Grande’s “Love Me Harder” with The Weeknd, who is best known for dark songs about sex and drugs, similarly benefited her image and appeal.
When all else fails, labels can play the odds, throwing top-performing producers and artists together on tracks until a hit eventually emerges. Pop’s reliance on features is encouraged and facilitated by the accessibility of affordable recording and communication technology. Having a featured artist record and email a verse from the comfort of a hotel room is easier than getting them into the studio. A producer or engineer only has to drag and drop it into place, and you have a potential multi-star hit on your hands, even if it only tops the charts for a short time.
That said, not all features are boring. They have a long history in hip-hop, for example, where even the most calculated hip-hop collabs don’t sound nearly as forced as many pop features do today. When they are successful, they feel like natural exchanges. Take Mariah Carey’s 1999 song “Heartbreaker” featuring Jay Z, who reportedly contributed his verse in exchange for Carey’s singing the hook on his track “Things That U Do” later that year. Or, more recently, Rihanna’s “Work” featuring Drake, just the latest in their series of collaborative tracks.
Equally successful are those songs that manage to innovatively meld two different styles and artists, like 1999’s “Smooth” by Santana featuring Rob Thomas or 2014’s mega hit “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars. History may not look kindly at them, but these songs highlight both artists involved rather than distilling one’s essence to a single verse and then squeezing it into place. It’s a model that makes commonplace features in hip hop from becoming stale but one that, when it comes to pop, takes much more investment and risk on the artists’ and labels’ parts.
In a time where reaching the biggest audience as quickly as possible is priority number one, lifeless features are likely here to stay. And though innovation in pop music isn’t entirely dead, the landscape is as bleak as a gallery filled with framed paint-by-numbers coloring sheets. Thoughtful collaboration can save pop just as much as thoughtless cross-promotion schemes are ruining it. But until boring stops proving profitable, audiences will just be left with more of the same.