Interviews

Partners in rhyme: The five best and five worst US hip-hop collaborations of all time



From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Mulder and Scully, the roll call of famous dynamic duos reads long and proud; their exploits ranging from the bank-robbing anti-heroics of Bonnie and Clyde to the super-sleuthing of Sherlock and Watson. These couples work in tandem to brilliant effect, cliquing up in remarkable ways that suggest inspiration favours the ensemble to the one-man band.

With its ciphers and features, rap, at its heart, is a highly collaborative art-form. Whether flexing their muscles on posse cuts or trading bars on remixes, rappers often link up, bumping heads to ensure we, as listeners, get to bop ours in appreciation.

Following the release the Future and Drake project, What a Time to be Alive, we raise our glasses and toast to rap’s famous twosomes, celebrating some of the very best collaborative records ever made.

In no particular order, five classics:


Black Star – Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Mos Def and Talib Kweli share such a brotherly rapport on the mic you’d be forgiven for thinking their camaraderie owes more to biology than mere chemistry. The two rhyme like family – brothers reminiscing over hot plates of lovingly prepared home-cooked dinners.

As members of the storied Native Tongues and Soulquarians collectives, Mos (not yet going by Yasiin Bey) and Talib were part of a core group of influential rappers that defined an era; crafting the underground aesthetics of “alternative”, “conscious” and “backpack” rap. Black Star is a classic of this ilk, painting stirring portraits of black pride that’ll strike fans today as precursors to Kendrick’s vignettes of mad cities and pimped butterflies.

With Mos providing the boom to Kweli’s bap, the duo wax lyrical over the signature New York drum and snare-laden sound of 90s era hip-hop; recalling the poetry of Toni Morrison to make music magic and inspire with moving anthems like Definition and Respiration – the latter an all-time favourite and classic described by Teju Cole as the sound of the American Dream. That is precisely what this collaboration is – the stuff of dreams.

 


Method Man & Redman – Blackout!
Meth and Red are living proof that seriously good rappers can be funny. They are arguably hip-hop’s most beloved comedy double-act, winning fans and fellow rappers over with their self-effacing sense of humour and first-class penmanship.

Their partnership proved so fruitful, they finally decided to release their first album as Method Man & Redman in 1999, the result being Blackout! – an adrenaline-fuelled record featuring guest appearances and production from the likes of RZA, Erick Sermon and Keith Murray.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPUCZ-2Sk-o
Jaylib – Champion Sound
Going toe to toe in a highly anticipated sound clash for the ages, J Dilla and Madlib battled it out on Champion Sound, with half of the songs recorded for the album produced by Dilla for Madlib to spit over, and the other half produced by the latter for the former to wreck shop on.

Although the debate still rages as to which legend came out on top, we – as listeners – are the real victors. The grand prize being a classic record to vibe to.

 


Madvillain – Madvillainy
Madlib makes his second appearance on the list, this time linking up with the inimitable MF DOOM. Many found the prospect of two enigmatic artists with such compelling styles pairing up to break bread and meld minds in the studio tantalising, to say the least, whetting fans’ appetites for a treat of an album.

The possibilities were mind blowing, leading to a fever pitch of anticipation. To our relief and infinite joy, Madvillainy delivered; serving up a unique, stunning and wholly entertaining album, replete with DOOM’s esoteric lyricism and Madlib’s unrivalled production.

 


Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne
Looking to replicate their previous successes with a full-length album, these two kings held court to create a royally good album in the shape of Watch the Throne. Whilst not on par with some of the other records listed here, this is still one epic piece of work.

WTT is as showy as it is subversive; indulgent as it is intellectual, portraying what it is to be young, black and gifted, as well as young, black and minted. This is an album about black opulence, social mobility, the politics of wealth and the trappings of fame. This is the hip-hop soundtrack to Game of Thrones.

 

Bonus – a few words on some of the worst collabos:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DH133HB42y8
Jay-Z & R Kelly – Best of Both Worlds
Although more of a mesh of genres than a rap collaboration, this album certainly caught the eye, generating the type of buzz that sells out tours. Unfortunately, it was a massive disappointment. The record was also mired in controversy, following Kelly’s under-age sex scandal and his ensuing legal troubles, leading to a bitter dispute between Jay and the R&B star.

 


Jay-Z & R Kelly – Unfinished Business
See the above. Someone thought a follow-up would be a good idea. It wasn’t.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4NWMU6bKfI
The Firm – The Album
While The Firm were more of a trio than a duo (perhaps even a quin- or quartet), this one still hurts. Their one and only record, The Album, fell so far below expectations it was and remains widely critiqued as a major misstep for all parties concerned. A supergroup comprising of Nas, AZ and Foxy Brown? Such wasted potential.

 


Gucci Mane & V-Nasty – BAYTL
Enough said.

 


Bow Wow & Omarion – Face Off
While these two certainly have their fan-bases, this record did nothing to garner them new admirers. They might have even lost some. Not one for the purists.

Words: Leke Sanusi

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