Not too long ago, I watched an interview with Pharrell Williams where he made statements regarding featured artists on songs and how they’re presented in this day and age. More specifically, his gripe was with the fact that featured guests today must be clearly labelled along side the song title they appear on (speaking specifically about album track lists), whereas in the 70’s & 80’s, for example, you had to read the credits in the sleeve of the record to discover who else was a part of the song. This lead me to thinking about the significance of the featured guest, and how the role has developed and changed from the time that Pharrell was referring to.
Across all genres of music, collaborations between different artists have been common for decades, but there was a change in the dynamic of the featured guest during the 90’s, around the same time Hip Hop was developing into a super power. This was when it first became popular to list the featured artist(s) on a particular record, alongside the title of the song, something that caught on quickly throughout Hip Hop and eventually other genres.
The role of the featured artist can take many forms, depending on the circumstances in relation to who the song’s artist(s) is/are and who the featured artist(s) is/are. For example, if you have a well-established artist who makes a song featuring a new, up and coming artist, the aforementioned new artist is brought to the attention of the established artist’s fan base. This can be a vital step toward increasing the new artist’s own following, allowing them to progress further. An example of how effective this can be was shown in the relationship and resulting success of Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg, with Dre introducing a 20 year old Snoop Dogg to the world stage on various tracks from his classic solo debut, The Chronic. Dr. Dre then went on to produce all tracks on Snoop Dogg’s debut album the following year, which catapulted Snoop into stardom.
This can be equally as affective the other way round – now making the established artist a featured guest on a new artist’s song – with fans of the established artist interested to see who they have collaborated with and why. Another method of using featured artists is having a song from an established artist, with multiple established artists (e.g. T.I. – Swagger Like Us [Featuring Kanye West, Jay-Z & Lil’ Wayne], 2008). Due to the huge following that each person on the song has, just seeing the track title and features will create a massive buzz for each set of fans. Similarly, a new artist can create the same excitement if they have a song that features other new artists emerging at the same time, a good example being A$AP Rocky’s 2013 track ‘1 Train’, which features; Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T.
Across other genres, specifically electronic music, the trend of publicising featured guests has also developed. Whereas in the past the identity of a vocal guest weren’t as easily accessible or even publicly noted, today it seems to be a key promotional tool in order to expand your following. There are many vocalists who have been featured on electronic producers songs and used it as a platform to propel their own careers, a significant example is Craig David, who appeared on two tracks from Artful Dodger’s album, All About The Stragglers, in 2000, before releasing his very successful debut album the same year, which debuted at number one, and contained two number one singles. A more recent, and similarly successful example is Sam Smith, who rose to fame off the back of his vocal performance on Disclosure’s ‘Latch’, and was subsequently also featured on Naughty Boy’s ‘La La La’, which went to number one in 2013. Smith then released his popular debut album in 2014, which spawned two number one singles, as well as taking the number one album spot. This proven formula is likely to be upheld and found across many genres in the future.
Whether it’s a reputable artist giving a new artist the opportunity to shine, or a new artist performing the vocals on a producer’s song, the importance of the featured artist should not be understated and therefore should remain at the forefront of listener’s thoughts, despite the calls of discontent from Pharrell.