Welcome To The Collaborative Rap Album Boom
It didn’t start with Watch The Throne. For decades, established rappers have been forming groups or teaming up for one-off collaborations. In the ’90s, there was TRU (Master P, Silkk The Shocker, C-Murder) and Westside Connection (Ice Cube, WC, Mack 10). With 1999’s Blackout!, Method Man and Redman, two rappers who got famous in different groups, became their own thing, which led to, among other things, a pretty great stoner-comedy movie and a short-lived Fox sitcom. Then there was Best Of Both Worlds, Jay-Z’s first full-length superstar team-up, one that hasn’t aged nearly as well. On the backpack underground, it became a cottage industry. Mos Def and Talib Kweli were bubbling on their own, but neither one really took off until they joined forces as Black Star in 1998. Something similar happened in a very different sector of the underground with Lil Boosie and Webbie’s classic Gangsta Musik in 2003. On 2003’s Champion Sound, J Dilla and Madlib took turns rapping over each other’s beats, which begat the 2004 landmark Madvillainy. Since Madvillain, these ad hoc groups have been popping up all over the place: Gangrene, Random Axe, both sets of Step Brothers. From time to time, they’ve been enough to revive careers. DJ Quik and Kurupt’s BlaQKout turned out to be a left-field triumph. Run The Jewels started off as a one-off rapper/producer combination; it’s now a festival-dominating institution.
After Watch The Throne, Future and Drake’s What A Time To Be Alive reimagined the superstar event-rap team-up as a goofy lark, something that two guys could knock out in a week. And in the last few months, we’ve been getting more and more albums like that. Another one seems to arrive every week. Future and Young Thug made Super Slimey. 21 Savage, Offset, and Metro Boomin made Without Warning. And at this point, nobody is expecting albums like these to be masterpieces. They’re low-stakes, fun affairs — a few famous rappers getting together to flex, to ad-lib each other’s verses, to provide friendly competition. In the streaming era, it seems to be easier and easier to make projects like this into a reality. They’re simple ways for rappers to keep their names out there, or to lift each other up when it’s hard for anyone to grab a whole lot of attention on his own. They make sense. And at their best, they can be a whole lot of fun.
Consider Friday On Elm Street, the deeply inessential, pretty likable new album from Jadakiss and Fabolous. These two make too much sense together. They’re two New York veterans and two longtime hitmakers who reached their respective commercial peaks around the turn of the century. They’re raspy, monotonal punchliners, and they both have problems with trying to sound too commercial. Neither one has ever made an end-to-end great album, mostly because they get lost whenever they attempt to make music for the radio. But both have end-to-end great mixtapes (2005’s The Champ Is Here for Jada, 2010’s There Is No Competition 2: The Funeral Service for Fab), since that format allows both of them to stop trying to get on the radio and just bust heads. They’re the two best parts of the greatest BET Cypher of all time. And the fact that one has a name that starts with F and the other has a name that starts with J means they get to go for an extremely goofy Freddy Vs. Jason theme on the album. You know you want to hear Jadakiss rapping about killing people with machetes.
Nothing on the album quite approaches the grand silliness of the intro track, where the two take turns rapping over horror-movie synths. The rest of the time, they’re back to their old hit-chasing tendencies, whether that means recruiting a sleepwalking Future to robo-gurgle his way through a hook or recruiting a sleepwalking French Montana to robo-gurgle his way through a different hook. The world-gone-wrong lines on “Talk About It” hit hard, but it still works as a lesser sequel to Jada’s “Why?” And I can’t help wondering what could’ve happened if these two just took turns talking shit, not even bothering with hooks or production sheen. Still, the album is worth hearing, if only to hear Jadakiss in his full guttural street-talk glory: “I came out of the lake, but I be in the boondocks / Flannel with overalls, work boots, tube socks / I put something right through your face from out the toolbox / Niggas get hot and make the news, I make the news hot.” If Jada doesn’t give you at least a full few face-scrunch moments on this album, you probably don’t really like New York rap.
Another one that makes perfect sense is Fed Baby’s, the new collaborative mixtape from Moneybagg Yo and YoungBoy Never Broke Again. Months before the mixtape came out, I was thinking about writing a column grouping those two rappers together as proof that Southern street-rap is still quietly thriving. Moneybagg Yo is 26 and from Memphis; YoungBoy Never Broke Again (formerly NBA YoungBoy) is 18 and from Baton Rouge. Those two have plenty in common. They’ve both had legal issues, referenced in both the mixtape’s title and in many of its songs. They both have bad horrendous first-draft rap names. They both released albums that did shockingly well in the charts over the summer. And more importantly, they’re stylistically complementary. Both have melodic singsong deliveries, and both favor bottom-heavy slow-crawl beats. Neither one seems to be aiming to end up in a Sprite commercial. Instead, both are part of a long, proud tradition of tough, shit-talking chitlin-circuit rap music.
Fed Baby’s — like Friday On Elm Street and practically every other collaborative rap album in history — would work better as an EP; it gets a bit turgid and monochromatic before its 44 minutes are up. But Moneybagg Yo and YoungBoy make a strong combination. Their voices bounce off of each other with authority, and they seem to draw energy from one another; the way they amplify each other’s flows on “Preliminary Hearing” is a beautiful thing. The guests (Young Thug, Quavo) are big stars, but they’re not there for radio-airplay reasons. Instead, they seem excited to be there; Thug, especially, practically loses his mind on “Mandatory Drug Test.” And they should be excited. Moneybagg and YoungBoy are still finding their voices, but they’ve already built up audiences and personas and mystiques. And they’re only going to help each other.
But my favorite of the month’s full-length collaborations is a more leftfield affair. The Brooklyn rappers Elucid and Billy Woods have been recording together under the group name Armand Hammer for a few years now. They released two albums before the new Rome, and I slept on both of them. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Woods and Elucid both make music on their own, but their fractured, grizzled flows work better together. As a group, they’ve already figured out their own aesthetic: A murky, splintered noir stagger. It recalls the things that fellow New York veterans like Roc Marciano and Ka have done in recent years, but it’s even more broken and off-kilter. Rome is a dense, flickering, apocalyptic soundscape, a heady combination of full-throated tough-talk and experimental sonics. Like-minded guests like Mach-Hommy and Quelle Chris show up, but Rome still sounds like two guys building their own sound-world together. If Fabolous and Jadakiss or Moneybagg Yo and YoungBoy Never Broke Again keep making music together, maybe they’ll eventually be able to do something similar.
This is going to keep happening. The aforementioned Mach-Hommy recently released the Fete Des Morts EP, produced almost entirely by his enigmatic and verbose peer Earl Sweatshirt; I would’ve included it in this column if I could afford the $111.11 price tag. Lil Durk and Tee Grizzley have a collaborative mixtape coming out next week. Maybe we’ll get another classic out of it, or maybe we’ll just get more decent-enough farting around. Either way, it should push a whole lot of rappers to be better at what they do. Nobody wants to be the guy weighing down the collaborative album.
1. DDG – “Givenchy”
Every once in a while, you can tell from the very first line — from the very first adlib, even — that someone is going to matter. I’m getting that sense with this kid. DDG is from Michigan, just turned 20, and got the most attention of his career for dissing Lil Yachty. None of this makes him particularly interesting. What makes him interesting is the deranged nasal intensity he brings to this weird-as-fuck flex: “Pockets looking like snot!”
2. Boosie Badazz – “America’s Most Wanted”
The Meek Mill situation that we’re watching unfold right now is ridiculous and infuriating and depressing. And something similar happened about a decade ago with Boosie, who went to prison for years on a weed charge and who faced a death-row murder trial that, by most accounts, was utterly trumped-up and absurd. And here is he is rapping about it, all of it, with the emotional intensity that the situation demands: “I got blamed for niggas’ bodies I ain’t even fuckin’ know / In my cell, tears falling on the floor, I wanna go.”
3. Smokepurrp – “Geek Alot”
Producer Ronny J is the low-key hero of this entire SoundCloud rap wave, the one guy capable of taking a nonentity like Smokepurrp and making him sound like a world-beater by giving him a beat that sounds like a riding mower with a police siren.
4. Hoodrich Pablo Juan – “Money On Fleek”
Do people say “on fleek”? Related question: Does it matter? I don’t know the answer to the first question. But I know the answer to the second question is “no” because this goes.
5. Mase – “The Oracle”
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
me in the kitchen not helping: pic.twitter.com/0yNLhsoBOZ
— PLAIN JANE. (@CTheCurator) November 23, 2017