“Leaves are fallin', it's September/The night came in and made her shiver,” Adam Levine croons in his patented almost-falsetto, against a relatively spare track. He’s singing about a girl we can presume he was in love with when they were both younger, but who—like whiskey, the title of this particular song—made him grow up fast. This chorus repeats; we learn he doesn’t regret the time they spent together, that now, because years have passed, he’s merely happy to think back on those memories.
Then A$AP Rocky comes in and starts slowly name-dropping alcohols: Cognac, rum, tequila, vodka. There’s a reference to Dom Perignon and a “fine wine” and playing a game of Spin the Bottle. “Every time you kiss me, like some whiskey,” Rocky says, to pull things back together.
The connection of this verse to the track it lies within is tenuous at best. More telling is that “Whiskey,” off Maroon 5’s recent album Red Pill Blues (the band would like to make it very clear the name is not a reference to the men’s rights movement) is one of almost a dozen collaborations Levine or the band, known more for being soft than edgy, has done with some of the top rap artists of our time, a fact their lead singer is quite proud of.
Despite being firmly embedded in the pop charts, Maroon 5 has always shied away from devoting themselves to a genre; Levine has, from almost the beginning, proudly proclaimed that their sound has never belonged “to a specific club,” and pushed back at early characterizations of Maroon 5 as a “boy band.” In this way, the band emulates everything sacred about making a hit song today—they are unabashedly uncommitted to choosing sides, because the only side you should find yourself on is the one getting that hit. Doing everything—becoming almost flavorless by way of having too much flavor—is in many ways the key to musical success these days, and it’s a tactic Maroon 5 has mastered, seen nowhere as well as through the puzzling fruits of their musical collaborations.
Their embrace of rap artists on tracks when such a sound or lyrical choice barely seems to make sense is hardly without context; the band has collaborated with everyone from Lady Antebellum to Christina Aguilera (for the inescapable “Moves Like Jagger”) to Gwen Stefani. But there is something odd about their frequent work with rap acts. To be frank, shouldn’t rappers be cooler than to work with Maroon 5, and the band itself more self-aware, instead of producing tracks that will end up being labeled as simply “bad” by reviewers trying their hardest not to entirely decimate them? Or does it always come down to what the cynics think: that this is a blatant cash grab that will get all parties involved some radio play?
We can pinpoint the start of these collaborations on Levine, the only member of Maroon 5 you likely know the name of, because he is the band’s front man, has a tendency to date (and marry) Victoria’s Secret Angels, and is on The Voice, where he enjoys a prominent and highly irritating bromance with Blake Shelton. Levine’s crossover success stems from early on in his career. He was featured on Kanye West’s “Heard ‘Em Say” off the Late Registration album in 2005, and actually quite fittingly so, if you consider the latter artist’s later embrace of falsetto and feelings. Alongside a plinky piano track, and against West’s claim that “nothing’s ever promised tomorrow today” Levine is heard ooooooooOOOOooooing, repeating the sickly-sweet refrain that “nothing lasts forever.” (Levine would use these same lyrics for a Maroon 5 song released two years later, also called “Nothing Lasts Forever.”) The song didn’t get higher than 26 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it’s the way West discussed it in interviews that speaks to what would come from Maroon 5. "I had to fight with myself 'cause he's so good, yet he's so popular," he said of Levine in an interview with MTV. "The popularity takes away from the illness of having him."
"Then it's like, 'Kanye has a song with Adam Levine?" West continued. "It just seems so post-Grammy … but [Adam's] so ill! His voice sounds like a fucking instrument. The only other dude that has a voice like that is Akon."
It seems that Levine had written “Nothing Lasts Forever” and wanted to use it with Kanye’s song but wasn’t sure if his fans would like it. They did, and something about that success seems to have clicked for him:
"I played him the song," West explained. "He said, 'I got a song just like that, but I don't know if my fans will like that because it's a little R&B. But I want to do a record like that.'”
That same year, albeit much less memorably, Levine had found himself on the Ying Yang Twins’ “Live Again” singing about a sad stripper. (The lyrics to this song are literally: “She's stuck off in this little room/With nothing left to hold onto/Her life is in a little box/She's wondering will it ever stop?/The life of a stripper.”) It did not tug at America’s cultural heartstrings quite the way “Wait (The Whisper Song)”, also off the same Ying Yang Twins album, did, nor would this pairing age well. But at this time, it did make sense; after all, everyone involved was cool. “We met Maroon 5 at [MTV’s Video Music Awards] and knew that [Levine] would be good,” D-Roc told Billboard. “If we meet you and we’re cool, let’s do a song.” And as Levine explained it in an interview with XXL in which he outlined how some of his hip-hop collaborations came to be: “I was in Detroit, and they were like, ‘Do you wanna be on this record?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, cool,’ and got in the studio right away and sent it off to them.”
“Live Again” was hardly the weakest of Levine’s rap collaborations. In 2012, 50 Cent released “My Life” featuring Levine and Eminem. Levine’s vocals dance lightly on this track. “Nowhere to run and hide/No matter how hard I try,” he sings, his voice again high, contrasting particularly sharply with the lower register maintained by his co-writers as they rap about the pressures of fame and wealth. This kind of song was frankly pushing it for Levine, the contrast of his voice--and message--sounding puny against 50 and Eminem’s well-publicized struggles. And the intent of it was clear to reviewers, one of whom wrote that it “should serve its purpose of giving Street King Immortal [the album the track was featured on] its crowning pop single.”
Maroon 5 proper didn’t release a song featuring a rapper until that same year, with their fourth studio album Overexposed. Overexposed followed Hands All Over, which seemed like a bit of a flop after their first two albums, both of which had made it to number one. Most reviewers acknowledged that it was good for one thing: pop hits. Hands All Over had one very notable quality however; though the original album made it only to platinum (its predecessors had gone multi-platinum), the re-release had “Moves Like Jagger” on it, which Maroon 5 had recorded with Christina Aguilera, Levine’s fellow coach on The Voice. The success of “Moves Like Jagger” pushed the band to release the album with that new track on it the year after the original had come out. Destined to become a staple on every wedding playlist for the next 20 years, “Moves Like Jagger” showed that Maroon 5 wasn’t content to stay small; they wanted to get big, which meant teaming up with other artists in a splashy way. It propelled them straight into Overexposed, so named because Levine’s new reality TV career was getting the band too much attention, if such a thing is really possible.
The time period of 2011 to 2012 was a turning point for Levine, who soon found himself eclipsing the rest of his bandmates in terms of name recognition, becoming his own brand. A 2013 Hollywood Reporter article went so far as to suggest Levine could be “the improbable face—if not the savior” of NBC and described him as “perhaps the most successful example of the new business model for musicians in an age of declining record sales.” Levine was against the idea that he could have been selling out, so to speak. "I was never that guy that thought it was uncool for a band to be successful. I always thought, 'Wow, wouldn't it be amazing to be able to pay your bills and also be a musician?' It's just nice that being motivated to be successful is not a crime anymore."
When it came to the music itself, Levine was forthright about the fact that something hadn’t been working according to his standards, describing the band before he joined The Voice as “not doing as well at that point as we had wanted to be doing." And so, with “Moves Like Jagger,” the writing was on the wall for collaborations to come, particularly when that track actually ended up getting an official remix from Mac Miller.
Maroon 5 soon made up for lost time; the lead single off Overexposed was “Payphone” featuring Wiz Khalifa, a legitimate success, despite the fact that its target audience had probably never used the item named in the track’s title. While the lyrics mainly speak to a relationship that our protagonist does not recall quite so fondly (“All those fairytales are full of shit”), Wiz’s verse takes the song in an entirely different direction from what Levine is wailing about; instead of lamenting, he’s boasting of how great his life is without his past love.
It is through this album that we see how far Maroon 5 had come from their self-described R&B influenced 2002 debut Songs About Jane, which featured songs entirely written by the band themselves. “Payphone” producer Benny Blanco laid out their evolution, and the evolution of most popular artists nowadays to boot , when he explained that he (in Rolling Stone’s words), “wanted to throw a wrench into the Maroon 5 machine by adding some hip-hop flavor to the band's sound,” which is why he brought in Wiz Khalifa to work with them. "I love when things don't make sense, like, 'Holy fuck!'" Blanco said. "You don't hear him on the song at all. I like when bands dip into a whole different genre."
Levine had a different take on how the pairing could have gone. “Sometimes, those situations can kind of blow up in your face if it’s not the right vibe and people don’t get along, you never really know,” he told XXL. Overexposed debuted at number two on the charts, Maroon 5’s best showing since their sophomore album.
The band’s fifth album, the aptly titled V, would take the remix concept a step further, featuring several cameos and several songs remixed by rap artists. It included the track “Animals,” which became Maroon 5’s seventh number one on the pop charts and got two remixes featuring rap verses, one with J. Cole, and the other with Big Boi. Both explore the theme of a couple who are so intertwined they can’t control themselves (it’s that animal instinct, you see), but thrown in there are some drug analogies as well. Both are concepts J. Cole and Big Boi push themselves, J. Cole saying he needs a “fix like d-boys need bricks” and Big Boi explaining, “I am one of a kind like a white lion.” Also off this album was “Sugar,” which also got a remix, featuring Nicki Minaj (herself not immune to the full embrace of the featured vocal in a quest for chart domination). “Sugar” (which also made it to number one on the pop charts) is about what you’d think it’s about—sex, duh—and has Minaj joking around about having “them Now & Laters and them Jolly Ranchers, too.” The original track is full radio pop pandering, with hardly any edge—see the video for a clear example of this—making Minaj’s appearance on the remix about as fitting as her appearance on a track of queen of the sugary sweet, Katy Perry.
“I think the album has more depth than the last one, not to say the last one wasn’t great,” Levine said of V in an interview. “But I feel like this one kind of has hits, but it has hits that mean something just a little more.”
The past year has seen the introduction of three collaborations that have further cemented Maroon 5 as the go-to pop band for rap artists looking for a single that requires minimal lift on their end. First was “Don’t Wanna Know” featuring Kendrick Lamar. Though Lamar managed to skip appearing in the highly embarrassing video for the song (but did not avoid the required appearance on The Voice), both he and Levine agree on this track that they’d rather not know anything about a former paramour’s new lovers. They probably also both agreed that the track making it to number one on the pop charts was a win as well.
This year also reunited Levine with Big Boi on the rapper’s “Mic Jack,” a single off his recent album Boomiverse. (Yes, the pair performed the song on The Voice together.) A funky jam that recalls some of Maroon 5’s recent embrace of disco-esque tunes, the video takes place in a dry cleaners and the song has Levine singing “You’re hotter than July (super hot)/Super colder than December (so cold).” It is here that we see, as we have in other videos like the aforementioned “Don’t Wanna Know,” Levine’s embrace of humor (at least, his idea of it), and from that we can surmise that a portion of his success with so many artists outside of his band’s bread-and-butter stems from the fact that he’s a chill guy to hang with.
Nowhere is this laid out better than on the remix for “Cold,” off Red Pill Blues, which features Future and Gucci Mane. The video has Levine stopping by a party at Future’s house, which soon gets trippy as hell; in the song proper, Future and Levine each talk about women who have cooled towards them. Levine ends up back at home with his wife, claiming he was drugged at the party. The point of all this is seemingly unclear, save the most important one: he is friends with cool rapper Future.
Whether any of these collaborations made truly good tracks (or, in the case of remixes, improved upon their originals) is hardly the point. Ubiquity is the name of Maroon 5’s game, and it’s a focus that has overshadowed the natural tendency all artists have to experiment and create new work with one another. The more successful this band got, the more they were encouraged—by new producers, by their hits—to work with other artists, the result of which is something charting largely because it has a catchy chorus and a mere association with a person with another fan base. The quality of the rap verse in question, a topic heavily fixated on by reviewers and fans alike, is seemingly unimportant.
For Maroon 5’s identity is whatever they want it to be, whatever is cool and therefore profitable. Red Pill Blues debuted at number two, making it their fifth such album to do so. They have had 13 songs in the Billboard Top 10, five of which have been remixed by or featured rap/hip-hop artists. Levine has made no secret of his desire to be extremely successful; rather, he embraces it. He talks openly of making hit songs, though seems to have a different perception of some of them than others do, telling the BBC in 2014 that “…quality control is the number one criteria to us: If a song doesn't feel special, we wouldn't include it. And we don't mean that in a cheap way. We mean that like, ‘Could this song connect with the world?’ Then, after we decide that, we say, ‘but is this the kind of hit song we want to have on our record?’”
Maroon 5 is not an outlier in the pop world, but they are doing the most blatantly what everyone else is trying to do. Levine is smart enough to have been able to figure out how to get where others wouldn’t, or couldn’t, or hadn’t thought to go, though less gifted at consistently creating something legitimately worthwhile with that information. Far be it for an audience to tell its creators to be less creative, but one has the feeling Maroon 5 could stand to be a little more choosey. It hardly matters though; Levine is the punch line, but the joke is on the audience.
Kate Dries is a New York City-based writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter.