It’s 2019, it’s the new year. Perhaps your head is awash with fresh and novel ideas or maybe you took too much MDMA and those horrible brain zaps have kicked in, crawling the cranium like bumblebees. Still, whatever your state, it’s worth looking back over the past 12 months if only to remember a) the horrible things you indulged in to let the memories burn, burn, burn; and b) trends that started to plant their seedlings into the earth and will soon be blooming industry wide.
Thing is, pulling a defining trend from 2018 is a difficult task. It was a pluralistic year. UK drill moved to the step of diasporic production, such as Steel Banglez’ collaboration with Loski. Pop got slightly weirder – from Charli XCX entering the year with her Yeezus in Pop 2 or Ariana Grande reeling out cooking instructions (“flip it”, “twist it”, “mix it”) over one of the better recent Pharrell beats, proving there’s still eccentricity in both underground and mainstream pop. Then there’s everything else, like Soundcloud rap blowing up in a proper Billboard Chart way, the growing dominance of globalised pop – whether that’s BTS, Bad Bunny or Rosalía – and again, memes.
But cast an eye over the credits to your favourite albums and there is one more sticking point. Look to Swimming, the recent (and lush) album from the recently deceased Mac Miller and you’ll find vocal contributions from The Internet’s Syd, Dâm-Funk, Thundercat, Dev Hynes and Snoop Dogg, who also appears on A$AP Rocky’s recent album Testing with a similar, sparse vocal. And like Miller’s album, Rocky’s Testing, with its street-level psychedelia and nods to – or sibling-like reimagining of – Frank Ocean’s Blonde, is just as collaborative as Swimming. There’s a whole galaxy of names buried in the credits, from Skepta and Frank Ocean, to Kid Cudi and FKA twigs. Dev Hynes is there, too.
Of course collaboration is nothing new. Since day dot one, rappers have got on one another’s tracks. Take everything from Death Row Records in the 90s, like 2Pac and Snoop rapping about just how well California knows how to party, to newer stuff like TDE, with Kendrick Lamar providing (uncredited) backing vocals on a swathe of tracks from Jay Rock’s 2018 album Redemption (the title track with SZA is a particular stand-out). Largely though, but not always, a lot of that stuff has been label and crew based – Eminem rapping with label mate 50 Cent, for instance; or anyone involved with Lil Wayne’s Young Money getting on each other’s albums, from Drake to Nicki Minaj.
And though countless rap albums of the past have featured friends trading bars with non-label associated pals, the modern spark for this cross pollination is perhaps Kanye West’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, where voices as disparate as Elton John, La Roux and Fergie were brought onto “All Of The Lights” – a giant nebula of a tune that featured, among others, something like 15 other famous singers. Elsewhere on that record you’ll find good Wisconsin boy Bon Iver hanging out with Pusha T. As a whole, the mix of guests on the album are strange but it works. I guess if you splash enough colour onto the canvas you’ll get something unique (at least that’s what art students tell themselves, anyway, in between huffing Nos balloons and binge-watching YouTube).
Almost a decade on and artists are collaborating in a similar, if slightly less grandiose way. As well as featuring on Testing and Swimming, Dev Hynes released his own album in a similar fashion. In the credits for Negro Swan you’ll find the likes of Puff Daddy, Steve Lacy and narrations from Janet Mock. Then there’s Travis Scott’s Astroworld, which featured every teenage psychedelic fans fav, Kevin Parker of Tame Impala. Somewhere on YouTube you’ll find a video of him shredding beside Scott on Saturday Night Live. How about Frank Ocean’s Blonde too, another catalyst perhaps, with its spots from Yung Lean, Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend and Andre 3000.
However unlike those previous albums, which in some way might be inspired by MBDTF, if not simply a product of the internet, Astroworld feels like it might purely be the latter. In fact, parts of it feel like a playlist, similar to Drake’s More Life, from 2017. Throughout much of its 17 songs the listener is pummelled, with beat switches so frequent it can often feel as if you’ve listened to three songs in the space of one. That idea, of the beat switching halfway through a song, is a lineage that stretches back from Kendrick Lamar’s “m.A.A.d city” and further, into the annals of rap history (read: somewhere deep on Genius.com).
Still, it’s hard not to feel an album like Astroworld is appealing to a playlist generation; one that wants a quick fix, has a short attention span. But by putting so many so-called tracks onto one album and dividing them up, the listener never clicks away or skips a tune, thus granting Scott a high play count. Or hell, maybe that’s too galaxy brain about it and the guy simply loves a beat switch. In either case it worked and Astroworld got 31 entries in the Billboard Top 100 in 2018, awarding Scott with the second highest amount of charting songs of any artist of that year.
Collaboration is cool, it makes the world go round – without it we wouldn’t have food, or airplanes or that one record you like to bump when riding the train. I’m pretty sure no great person has ever done anything great simply by themselves, except maybe God, who may or may not be real, and still even he tasked Adam and Eve with making the first children. So in 2019, let’s keep those cross genre partnerships rolling. Slap some death metal artists on an album with a popstar. But please, for the love of god – Astroworld aside – keep the length of the albums under 12 songs. Or somewhere close. Our brains are dying, and this year they will erode even more, I’m sure of it.
You can find Ryan on Twitter.