Earlier this month, Big Sean and Metro Boomin dropped a joint album, Double or Nothing. The album’s title is a pun (probably Big Sean’s doing) alluding to the fact that not one, but two major artists are principally responsible for the record’s creation. (The 10-song collaborative project features additional appearances from Travis Scott, 2 Chainz, 21 Savage, Young Thug, and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee.) By my count, Double or Nothing is the 10th major-label rap collaborative project that has been released in the last two years—and the eighth in 2017 alone. That number doesn’t even include the Travis Scott–Quavo collab that the Migos rapper recently confirmed during an interview with Zane Lowe. This sudden uptick in joint albums is curious, and on its face, bears no obvious creative explanation.
Most of these projects don’t look very different from conventional single-artist major-label releases. They span 10 to 15 songs, feature guest spots from the usual gaggle of en vogue rappers—Quavo, Offset, Travis Scott, 21 Savage, etc.—and traffic in similarly zeitgeist-driven themes: drugs, money, and money via drugs. On some of these albums, not all the songs even feature both headlining artists. Often, all that distinguishes these projects from the ones that the collaborating artists normally put out is the fact that they are advertised as joint projects.
None of this, of course, stops them from selling. Future and Young Thug’s October release, Super Slimey, moved 75,000 units in its first week, making its debut at no. 2 on the Billboard 200. In November, 21 Savage, Offset, and Metro Boomin’s Without Warning debuted at no. 4 on the album charts, moving 53,000 units in its first week. Droptopwop, Gucci Mane and Metro Boomin’s joint tape from May, sold 32,202 units in its first week and landed at no. 12. Even Perfect Timing, Metro Boomin’s collab with the critically maligned Toronto rapper-producer Nav, was able to sell 30,053 units in its first week and sneak in at no. 34 on the chart in mid-August. Collab albums do well because they’re made to. Their chief function is to sell. And while their numbers may not rival those of the year’s true blockbuster releases, they do draw plenty of attention and work to keep the primary artist on our minds (if not also in our ears). In other words, they’re a marketing tool.
While anyone familiar with the music industry won’t find this explanation shocking, I think the money-grab nature of these projects does shine a light on an interesting development in rap’s evolution. It’s an indication that rappers and their labels are trying to get while the gettin’s good, and it’s also a glimpse at how unprecedentedly good the gettin’ is right now. In May, for only the second time ever, five of the top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 were rap songs (Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.” was no. 1; Lamar’s “DNA.” no. 4; Future’s “Mask Off” was no. 5; Kyle’s “iSpy” featuring Lil Yachty no. 6; and “XO Tour Llif3” no. 10). In his September piece for Vulture about Spotify’s marquee rap playlist “RapCaviar,” Craig Marks found that Spotify and Apple Music users stream hip-hop and R&B tracks at nearly twice the rate as the next most popular genre (rock). Three of the United States’ top five most-streamed songs on Spotify this year were rap songs. Twelve of the top 20 most-streamed albums on Apple Music this year were rap albums. And that’s before we count the Hamilton soundtrack!
Metro Boomin in particular has had quite a prolific year. In November, Forbes reported that the 24-year-old beatmaker from St. Louis was responsible for 10 percent of the songs on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week of November 11. It’s safe to say that in 2017 he was a very hot commodity. This is in part why so many collab projects include him. Having the Metro Boomin producer tag at the beginning of your song is as close as rap has gotten to a “Certified Fresh” rating. According to Discogs, Lil Metro produced songs for close to 20 different artists during this calendar year, working with everyone from Gucci Mane to Lana Del Rey. But why just recruit him for a song? Why not make a whole album with him and slap his name on the cover? Major-label rap stars have saturated the market. Names like Metro Boomin and 21 Savage have become so ubiquitous that it can sometimes be hard to remember that there was a time when rappers didn’t run the show.
It wasn’t until recently that the prospect of making a living in rap (much less getting rich) was anything more than a pipe dream. Throughout the ’90s and the early ’00s, the Diddys, Jay-Zs, and Master Ps of the world were anomalies. Still, as Kim Gittleson noted for the BBC in her coverage of Dr. Dre’s groundbreaking, multibillion-dollar 2014 deal with Apple, entrepreneurial acumen has been present in hip-hop from its earliest days. Early rap pioneers had to be canny businessmen in order to insert their product into what was initially not a very receptive market. Of course, as the years progressed, rap’s commercial viability became more and more apparent. In 1987, the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill became the first rap album to reach no. 1 on the Billboard 200. In spring of 1993, “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang,” the lead single off Dr. Dre’s seminal The Chronic, was certified platinum. By the late ’90s, rap’s financial opportunity was evident and representations of its spoils had proliferated through pop culture. With the money at the top so visible and increasingly more attainable, the rap world became more acutely aware of the genre’s money-making potential. Rappers were cool. In fact, the only thing cooler than one rapper, it seemed, was two.
Signs of this new consciousness began to manifest in the early-to-mid 2000s. At that time it became standard practice for any song that became massively popular to also merit a remix. On these remixes, the object was to get as many other big-name artists on the track as possible. Prominent examples of this model were Busta Rhymes’s “Touch It (Remix),” DJ Khaled’s “I’m So Hood (Remix),” T.I.’s “Swagga Like Us” (not technically a remix, but still). All these songs were major-label releases with a laundry list of their respective era’s biggest names pinned to them. Like 2017’s collaborative albums, these songs functioned as profit vehicles, another item for the main artist to wring a handsome royalty check out of. The songs also doubled as a way to draw attention back to the songs’ original versions, and thus make even more money for the original rapper. It was rap’s first racket.
This isn’t to say that rap’s biggest stars haven’t been trying to release joint albums for decades. After N.W.A. split up, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were reportedly working on a project that never saw the light of day. In the mid-’90s, Jay-Z and Biggie supposedly had a project called “The Commission” in the works, but the 24-year-old Bad Boy artist was tragically gunned down before the release of his own second album. Tupac and MC Hammer were even rumored to have had an album planned during Hammer’s brief stint on Death Row Records. In all these cases, the process of recording and distributing the album was likely too logistically and financially prohibitive to be worthwhile. Today, with the advent of powerful music production software and file-sharing technology, rappers can complete projects together without ever having been in the same room. This, coupled with the marketing and distribution shortcuts offered by streaming services and social media platforms, has worked to bring a relative ease to the collaboration process.
Still, the most important difference between the time in which those failed collaborative attempts were made and now is that rap is king. Fittingly, its coronation was a joint album. Every aspect of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s 2011 blockbuster Watch the Throne, down to its gilded, Riccardo Tisci cover art, screams, We’re rappers, we’re rich now, and it’s awesome! Two artists occupying the highest echelon of rap’s prestige class, who had achieved virtually everything there was to accomplish in the field, went out of their way to make the most aesthetically and thematically braggadocious work in recent memory. It was a celebration of their matriculation to the top and, in retrospect, a harbinger of the total rap eclipse we find ourselves in now.
The Rapper has ascended from pop culture figure of interest to the center of the pop culture universe. Where the “rapper” was once a faceless do-rag and baggy-T-shirt-clad monolith in the eyes of the public, they are now some of the world’s biggest stars with fully formed, idiosyncratic, and recognizable brands. They’ve successfully dabbed their way into our living rooms, sang their way into our Sprite commercials, and shimmied their way into the public conscious. These figures are increasingly commandeering the top of the charts and becoming household names. The effects of rap’s rising thematics, aesthetics, and culture are evident.
Rap has become the McDonald’s of the pop culture world, and the collab album is its McRib. Its constitutive parts are essentially the same as any other McDonald’s offering—fatty, bloating, and delicious—but the McRib is pitched to us as a special, premium product that we simply can’t get all the time. This is a business model that can work only if you’ve already won the public’s trust, if you already have them hooked, if they’re willing to buy just about anything you’re putting out. Considering nine of the 14 songs on 21 Savage’s solo debut, Issa Album, were produced by Metro Boomin, should we really expect a Metro Boomin–21 Savage collab album to sound very different? Rappers are delivering the same product to us in new packaging. And with things going this well for the artists who do, can we really blame them?