By Michael Luo
BY MICHAEL LUO
Unexpected musical collaborations
Musical collaborations are something of a hip trend. When you turn on the radio, the most advertised songs are usually the ones with the biggest stars. Of course, these tend to be one from pop and one from hip-hop. The archetypical Top 40 hit involves a catchy chorus and a memorable verse. Sometimes, the singer will be exclusively female, the diva of the day, and the rapper exclusively male, the man of his time. Nowadays, both genres of music have fortunately been permeated by both genders with backgrounds as diverse as the musical interpretations themselves. Yet even with the individuals changed, the formula remains more or less the same. The most popular is the “featured” rapper. The part of the song that gets stuck in your head gets repeated maybe two times before the added rap is dropped. Think Justin Bieber’s “Baby” featuring Ludacris. The less popular version involves a primarily hip-hop track with a more lyrical chorus prevalent through the whole song. Think B.o.B’s “Airplanes” with Hayley Williams or Jay-Z’s “Young Forever” featuring Mr. Hudson.
There is a certain compatibility between pop and hip-hop that has allowed for such fitting collaborations. As listeners, we seem to desire both immediate gratification and unanticipated surprises. Because songs can be so fleeting, the music needs to capture the attention of listeners while maintaining their interests through change and evolution. With the catchiness of a pop ballad merged with the lyrical wit of a rap verse, such song collaborations already have the potential to satisfy these requirements for the listener. A chorus can be both the theme and namesake of the song, while the hook can often take the place of a listener’s “favorite” part. For those trying to karaoke but can’t sing, the rap then becomes the ideal section for one to memorize. In effect, these elements showcase how a single track can contain elements that many fans may enjoy.
But a pop collaboration with rap is so trite that other combinations too often get forgotten. Take country music for example. Country music can so easily be attributed to one culture or one segment of the population in the same way that hip-hop is with its connotations. Yet, hip-hop collaborations with country artists have existed and attained great success. In the past decade, the standout would be Nelly’s hit single “Over and Over” featuring country star Tim McGraw. Though this song never reached a milestone on the Billboard charts, its uniqueness in bringing in two top stars of the day from contrasting genres illustrated how versatile music could be. With McGraw providing the chorus sung in country twang and Nelly narrating mellow verses on his lost love, “Over and Over” portrays how two dissimilar musical genres can adapt to fit each other in harmony.
Going through history, one iconic example of hip-hop turned on its side would be Public Enemy’s “He Got Game.” As the title track to Spike Lee’s 1998 film He Got Game, this song was built upon the backbone of Buffalo Springfield’s protest anthem, “For What It’s Worth.” With Stephen Stills’ folk rock riff in the backdrop as Chuck D spewed wisdom, “He Got Game” criticized the decadence of the American government in the 1990s as well as racial inequality. The chorus relies on Buffalo Springfield’s original 1967 response to a curfew law instated during the Sunset Strip riots in Hollywood, California. Public Enemy’s imaginative idea to draw on an already famous political tune to frame their own depicts the power of music to be inspired by past hits — and perhaps to draw the attention of the sampled genre’s demographic — in order to generate later masterpieces.
Without forcing any greater commentary, the fact that musical artists from such different backgrounds, tastes, and society can come together to create brilliant works proves that combining differences can be productive rather than conflicting. The musical tastes on campus are so diverse and comprehensive that it is hard not to be exposed to something new or to find someone else with the same dedicated passion to the same artist. One weekend’s theme can be a hipster vibe and the next’s can be an EDM flair, but people’s tastes at one moment do not particularly define their preferences as a whole. As I walk by dorm rooms blasting Kendrick Lamar or Ed Sheeran, I remind myself that just like these artists, students of seemingly different worlds could one day form the best possible collaboration. Here is where I must make a shout out to Kanye West. With all his controversy and ego, West’s discography exudes the creativity that music, especially hip-hop, can mold. Starting first with samples of sped-up, high-pitched soul classics, West later incorporated fusions of rock in songs like “Gorgeous.” Here, West’s poetic verse is delivered over a production of electric guitar elements. For more instances of musical brilliance and originality, just take a listen to West’s “Lost in the World” with Bon Iver. Call it experimental if you wish, but it’s hard not to appreciate the creativity in the face of formulaic pop hits.
So no matter the genre or the time period, musical collaborations are an inspirational way to appreciate the yield of difference. Nas once rapped with The Berklee Symphony while The Roots always perform with live jazz instrumentals. If not for anything else, songs that bring together artists from different worlds can also bring together fans and listeners of those different worlds. Obviously, this wouldn’t work for a DJ, but shuffling amongst musical genres can open new eyes (or ears) to otherwise unknown perspectives. The same can be said for the classes you take, the foods you eat, and the books you read. So go out there and share what you like and dislike and be receptive to the tastes of others. Mix and match the materials you once thought were incompatible. You don’t have to agree with those foreign tastes, and you may find that things clash more than they resonate. But one listen can’t hurt.
Michael Luo ’16 ([email protected]) is currently listening to U2’s Songs of Innocence.