Weighing the obvious benefits of co-signs from Kanye West and Drake against the negative impact they can have on artists' careers.
About five months ago, just after the long-rumored Drake remix of Fetty Wap's already-buzzing "My Way" had surfaced, the Paterson, New Jersey crooner explained how it all came about. "He sent me a DM, and I sent him my number," Fetty said, "He was like, 'Yo, I want to cut the [remix] tonight.' Next thing I know, I checked my email and it was there." This wasn't the first time Drake put his approval stamp on a hot track by way of a quick 16, but Fetty was the first to share the origin story. It was startling, if only for how routine and everyday the rappers' interaction was, but Fetty's response to Drake's request was predictable. Virtually unknown just six months prior to the conversation, he observed, "I'm just a nobody compared to Drake," and seemed honored that the most successful rapper of the 2010s would even give him the time of day, let alone hop on a track he made at home with limited studio equipment. "The thing I respect about Drake the most," Fetty continued, "is that he's not one of them artists that take his status and just do what he want with it. He has the status to just do anybody's track, if he really wants to."
Drake really does have that kind of weight in the game, and although "My Way" didn't really need his help to dominate the charts (his remix wasn't even the most successful version), Migos' "Versace" and iLoveMakonnen's "Tuesday" definitely benefitted from that 6 God push. For these "remixes," the original artists don't even have to expend extra energy-- they just give the "OK" and a few hours later, radio gold lands in the inbox. Saying "no" probably never even entered Fetty, Makonnen or Migos' heads.
Differing in execution and aim but not in power and impact, Kanye West's post-Watch the Throne pattern of ravenous collaboration is something like an artier version of Drake's co-sign habit. The goal here isn't pop domination, but rather the expansion of Ye's sonic breadth, contributing to the spongelike inhalation of styles we've seen since Graduation. It started with a 'roided-out version of Chief Keef's "I Don't Like," but has come to be more defined by his tracks' production and writing credits, where Ye sits like Danny Ocean atop an ever-growing list of hired hands.
Yesterday, Chicago producer Young Chop (the architect of "I Don't Like") spoke out against West's work with up-and-coming Chicago artists such as himself, warning his contemporaries that West's aim is to "use you, try to soak up everything niggas know, get you to write songs for him, you know, and then don't call you after that." It's similar to the accusations levied against Drake in the months that have passed since "Tuesday" blew up and Makonnen signed with OVO-- the two haven't worked together since, and to date, Makonnen's reissued EP is the only thing he's put out on the label. Drake's treatment of Migos (who he seems to have ignored since "Versace"), Future (who he stiffed on the "Tony Montana" video shoot in 2011 but re-friended in time to ride the coattails of his 2015 hot streak) and Sauce Twinz (whose accusation of Drake's unfair use of Houston's culture was met by snoozing emojis from Drizzy) all point to someone who uses co-signs as a self-serving apparatus, and nothing more.
I briefly touched on this issue earlier this year when I examined five artists' careers who had stalled under Kanye's guidance on G.O.O.D. Music, writing that, for those artists in question, "getting involved with the label marked the start of a long waiting game." To date, the younger OVO Sound has less of a track record of neglected talent, but Makonnen's situation seems to have made Drake reevaluate his signing process, with the only new addition to the roster this year being Roy Woods, a rapper/singer who's undeniably cut from the same cloth as Drizzy and PartyNextDoor.
In most cases, it'd seem like you were a fool if you didn't accept a prominent artist's co-sign, whether you're Fetty with a few singles in the top 5, or Joe Fox with a guitar case filled with a few crumpled bills laid out on the London sidewalk. Even Drake, in his younger days, hungered for recognition from established greats. "Bet I get a co-sign somethin' like no time," he rapped on Comeback Season's "Easy To Please," with his young-gun confidence barely concealing the uncertainty and fear that usually lurks under such unsubstantiated boasts. On the other hand, there are rappers that place utmost importance in the achievements they've made without outside help-- and I'm not talking about "independent as fuck"-ers like El-P or Talib Kweli here. Mac Miller, months away from getting an eight-figure deal, reveled in the fact that he "Did it all without a Drake feature"; Skepta turned down a chance to make "SHUTDOWN" even bigger in the states with Drake's help; Father takes every opportunity he can to mock the collaboration-heavy nature of modern rap. You have to be in a somewhat privileged position to make that call, but that makes the logic of "I got here myself, why do I need anyone else's help now?" even stronger.
In fact, Drake and Kanye's outsourcing of creativity and trend-seeking seem to be born out of the flipside of that coin: "Oh shit, I've gone as far as I can with my sound. Where can I go now?" These are the two men who have arguably done more to revolutionize and redefine hip hop in the past decade than anyone else, but perhaps that's the most precarious position of all. If they aren't moving forward from their last work, they're going to face criticism, not only from others, but from their own creative minds. Kanye looked to T-Pain and Cudi to help him disengage 808s & Heartbreak from the rest of his catalog, to drill, experimental electronic and Death Grips for Yeezus' confrontational clamor. Drake is more subtle and trend-conscious in his digestion of styles, but you can hear a careful curation of regions, flows and sounds in his evolution from Take Care to If You're Reading This It's Too Late.
Stagnation faces every rapper at the top of their game, and the ones who make it to the other side without falling off have usually leaned on others to do so. There are, however, ways of doing this that don't involve leapfrogging or leaving former collaborators out in the cold. Look at Dr. Dre, who's always been more measured and methodical than Ye or Drake in his solo releases, but made the hugely successful jump from The Chronic to 2001 while simultaneously jump-starting the careers of several of the 2000s' most successful rappers. Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game all have Dre to thank for their rapid ascents, and although not all of them continue to collaborate with him, he guided them along to a point where they were self-sufficient and had more than a few hits to their name. Eminem followed a similar path with Shady Records; Tech N9ne went even further with his locally-focused haven for weirdos, Strange Music; T.I. may have faced some criticism for signing Iggy Azalea to Grand Hustle, but if that's what funded the new album by his longtime beneficiary Young Dro, who cares?
Artistic cross-pollination isn't just what keeps hip hop interesting, it's what keeps it alive. At its best, it can serve as a mutually beneficial bridge between regions, age gaps or even genres, but at its worst, it reeks of predatory self-servitude and hypebeasting. It's now easier than ever to hit someone up for a remix, collaboration or guest verse, only to ignore all future contact if you don't think it'll benefit your own career, and there's really no contractual or legal way to prevent that from happening, as long as everyone gets the money they're due. We'll probably only see more of this as trends come and go faster than ever, the barriers between regional flows and sounds get murkier, and artists become more omnivorous in their taste as the result of fast-paced online music culture, but it really would be nice to see more investment placed in collaboration. Artists like Drake and Kanye have been around long enough to know which artists and tracks have staying power-- you don't see either of them pursuing Silento collabs-- but they should recognize that it takes more than one interaction to give a lesser artist a career boost. What's more, a one-and-done collab can turn an artist into "that guy on the Kanye song" for the rest of their career, and no one wants that.
Kanye's career began with a struggle to become more than Jay Z's producer, and we wouldn't know who Drake, the rapper, was were it not for Lil Wayne grinding hard to get him signed. These guys, like most musicians, didn't just materialize with fully-formed sounds, skills and connections. They had to get noticed first, and beyond that, have someone believe that they had more than a hot track in them. Maybe Drake sits at home listening to Makonnen loosies, and maybe Kanye loves Allan Kingdom's last mixtape, but if they're not doing anything public or long-lasting to help those guys out, Makonnen and Kingdom may have been better off without "Tuesday" or "All Day."