Since rap first emerged as a vibrant counterculture, it has been quite surprising to see how it has infiltrated popular music. In particular, the surge of rap music into popular hits through guest features is a proliferating trend. Considering that around a quarter of the current Billboard Hot 100 chart contains features, the ubiquity of rapped guest verses is staggering. However, these features are often unnecessary throwaways and take away from the actual song. Some rap artists are especially guilty of selling out, appearing in numerous songs for other artists just to make a quick buck. The “Rent-A-Rapper” syndrome is in full swing, increasingly ruining artists’ integrity and rap music itself.
In its essence, a rap feature serves an obvious purpose by adding some variety into the tried-and-true structures of pop songs. Hearing a different voice on an artist’s material can be exciting and add a different energy to a song. It is only when features are shoddily put together and thrown in for the hell of it — which is unfortunately the current trend — that they become burdensome and unnecessary. Katy Perry’s #1 hit “E.T.” contains a weak guest appearance by Kanye West, who seems to have put the verse together at the last minute. Although you don’t have to hear the original version to tell the rap was added without any regards to proper editing, the difference between versions can be striking. Sacrificing a great bridge for a terrible rap is not a fair trade-off, yet it is something that is constantly occurring in popular music.
“E.T.” also exemplifies why artists are adding rappers to their songs at the sake of originality and quality. Featuring a famous rapper is almost always a surefire recipe for a hit, regardless of the quality of the actual single. In my opinion the original “E.T.” isn’t incredibly special, but it is definitely better than the remix. However, without the star power of Kanye, the song probably wouldn’t have reached #1. Adding rappers for no reason is simply a shameless way of achieving chart success. It ruins artists’ integrity, as it exhibits a sense of insecurity about the artist’s ability to make a product that will sell.
If artists want to use rap features without ruining their integrity, they should make sure the rap isn’t tacked on and actually adds to the song. Features can be done correctly, as some past hits have utilized them in bringing their tracks to another level. Usually, a continued presence in a song as opposed to a quick verse at the beginning or the bridge is effective. Pitbull’s feature in “On The Floor” plays a role throughout the song and also adds an uptempo influence to the rather light club tune. 50 Cent’s central role in Jeremih’s “Down On Me,” which is probably his best contribution to a song in a while, is catchy for similar reasons. Snoop Dogg’s rap in Katy Perry’s own “California Girls,” while only temporary, fits well and adds relevance considering he’s a Californian native.
Although singers should set higher standards for their feature tracks, part of the responsibility also lies with the rappers themselves. I highly doubt that Kanye thinks that his verse in “E.T.” is among his best work. After all, this is the perfectionist who recorded the universally lauded My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I understand the motivation of money, but that doesn’t mean quality has to be sacrificed. If Kanye wants to avoid being labeled as a “Rent-A-Rapper” as he has in the past, he should bring his features up to par. The same goes for other “Rent-A-Rappers,” such as Lil’ Wayne, who seems to be everywhere these days, despite a highly publicized stint in jail. Although he may feature in songs with such shallow lyrical content as “Hit The Lights,” clever wordplay does not mean rhyming “shades on” with “dreads long.”
Unfortunately, the current phase of constant rap features seems unlikely to end soon. Although this may be annoying, it’s not that all features are bad — it’s just that most are shoddily put together, distracting and virtually useless. If both artists and rappers step up their game and make their union work, with songs that are more interactive and play more like duets, rap features will become more tolerable. The same goes for features as a whole, not just rappers. Rihanna’s utterly pointless and downright terrible addition of Britney Spears to “S&M” for the sake of a #1 hit is the latest dud in a larger trend of features in popular music. If artists truly want a hit on their own accord and integrity, they should find or write better songs, not hire rappers to make a quick buck without regards to quality.