Radio Killaz: the Collaborative Nature of Popular R&B

Popular R&B is arguably one of the most collaborative genres of music, and yet, much of the population doesn’t seem to consider it so much as a contender.

Because of the way it’s portrayed on television, in websites and magazines, and on the radio, the general public tends to think of R&B as a genre of music that focuses on individual performers. Take, for example, the Billboard’s current* “Top 10 Hip-Hop and R&B Singles” list. All ten tracks appear not on a GROUP but on a single artist’s record:

1 – Chris Brown – “Look At Me Now (Feat. Lil’ Wayne & Busta Rhymes)”
2 – Kanye West – “All Of The Lights”
3 – Nick Minaj – “Did It On’em”
4 – Nicki Minaj – “Moment 4 Life (Feat. Drake)”
5 – Lil’ Wayne – “6 Foot 7 Foot (Feat. Cory Gunz)”
6 – Trey Songz – “Love Faces”
7 – Wiz Khalifa – “Roll Up”
8 – Marsha Ambrosius – “Far Away”
9 – Miguel – “Sure Thing”
10 – Jennifer Hudson – “Where You At”

Now, look a little closer. Three of these Top 10 feature one or more “guest artists,” and one of the remaining seven – Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” – is such a collaborative clusterfuck that none of the other artists on the track (Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Elton John, and M.I.A., just to name a few) are even credited.

And this is just barely scratching the surface. For the past ten years, producers such as the The-Dream and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart have quietly been crafting pop perfection for artists other than themselves. These guys work almost 100% behind the scenes (The-Dream has pursued a modest solo career, but hasn’t reached anywhere near the level of success that he’s had writing for other artists). And yet, both of them have made more money in the past 100 radio spins than you or I will see in an entire lifetime.

Why is this, exactly? Well, The-Dream and Stewart have together been responsible for dozens of smash hits, including Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” and Rihanna’s career-defining “Umbrella.” In between they have written and produced records for artists such as Usher, Mariah Carey, and Britney Spears. Let’s face it, these dudes are practically bajillionaires – and neither of them is even over the age of 40.

Funny enough, The-Dream’s solo material is far and above his best work (check out 2009′s Love vs. Money for a stellar introduction). But in all likelihood he will probably always remain something of a cult hero in the R&B world, and will be best recognized for his collaborations with other more well-known artists.

And since we’re on the topic of R&B, one of 2011′s great records so far has surely been the House of Balloons mixtape from Toronto-based The Weeknd. While The Weeknd’s spacious, haunting approach doesn’t quite gel with the crossover hits previously mentioned in this article, House of Balloons is still a very, very good mixtape, worth checking out if not for the Beach House-sampling “The Party/The After Party” and “Loft Music” alone.

So, do it. Even if you’ve never considered it before, go out and listen to some R&B – and then think about the collaborative efforts that have resulted in what you’re hearing. It might just be worth your while.

*One could almost certainly apply the same rule of thumb to the Billboard Top 10 Hip-Hop and R&B Singles list from any given week – at least 40% of the week’s songs are bound to feature one or more guest artists. Try it, I dare you:

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