With Special Guest [Fill in the Blank]
Feature culture, for those not so familiar with contemporary music criticism, refers to a somewhat recent trend in popular music in which the biggest albums around bring in as many other artists as possible to feature on different tracks.
A feature on a song usually involves a guest artist contributing a verse to a particular song, and often, part of that verse compliments the artist behind the song as a whole.
Sometimes feature artists are far more popular than the main artist, and sometimes they’re less popular, just getting their start in a vicious, overcrowded industry.
Now, the concept of song features has expanded to the point where the artist creating the album sometimes doesn’t even have to be a musician themselves.
DJ Khaled is a convenient example. This DJ and super-producer has found success by gathering actual musicians and hip-hop artists to feature on tracks that he oversees.
His critically panned album ‘Father of Asahd’ has been seen as the epitome of feature culture in music today. The album is thoroughly peppered with features from much more interesting artists such as Cardi B, Lil Wayne, SZA, Travis Scott, Post Malone, Nas, and John Legend.
Incidentally, all of their performances feel phoned-in, at best.
How has pop music changed over time? Is feature culture good? Is it bad? And more importantly, how did changes in pop music bring us here?
To help find some answers, we’re going to take a detached look at the last 20 years in pop music. By the end, we might even have a guess as to where pop music is headed next.
The Evolution of the Pop Star
Back in 2001, pop music was defined largely by modern iterations of the pop star, which at the time included figures like Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera, and Usher.
On the whole, these artists were sometimes writing their own music, sometimes not. But each of them represented their own distinct brand. None were going to veer off into new musical directions because fans don’t typically like change, and labels don’t typically like when a fanbase disappears thanks to the whims of the artist.
This approach to producing pop music wasn’t new, of course. According to many sources, even Elvis Presley went his whole career without actually writing any songs.
From a business perspective, this strategy isn’t terribly shocking. Giving an artist money to make an album is an investment, and the investment is less risky if the artist is likable, attractive, and a talented performer.
This model still persists, of course, in the form of any number of more modern pop acts: Beyonce, Wiz Khalifa, Jason Derulo, Avicii, etc.
But in just the last few years, we’ve started to see an interesting change. Producers and DJs can now be just as big, if not bigger, than more traditional pop stars.
And yet it doesn’t seem enough anymore to have a single artist/performer as the draw behind a new album. Now, the investments are made even safer (presumably) by stacking a project with as many big-name musicians (read: big-name brands) as possible.
The movie equivalent of this approach would be a star-studded blockbuster like ‘Sausage Party’ or ‘Movie 43’. These were disappointing movies at heart, but you can bet the studios were banking on the long list of A-listers cast in each would be enough to spark audience interest.
In the contemporary music industry, it isn’t enough to be a big star, you also need to surround yourself and your work with other big stars. And in the process, artistic intent and message get muddled. Fortunately for these projects, audiences don’t seem to care that much.
Collaboration is the New Normal
To be clear here, collaboration has always been a big part of music as a whole. Songs have been written by groups of people for thousands of years.
The reason so many pop stars have been presented as singular artists is the human tendency for hero worship. It’s easier, less confusing, and more fun to think that the person on stage is a creative powerhouse who did it all themselves.
Another quick film industry equivalent here is to praise a director or actor above all others, giving them total credit for work that required hundreds, if not thousands, of talented professionals.
So no, collaboration is nothing new to music, especially pop music, so why is it now a very visible aspect of modern-day chart-toppers?
Hip-Hop and the PR Machine
Song features, as we understand them today, started out in the world of hip-hop. Adding a different artist to a track can give a song a new flavor and break up the monotony of an album.
Also, there have just always been artists who enjoyed working together.
When the featured artist was more popular than the album artist, it served as a kind of endorsement from that very popular artist. In not so many words, they were saying, ‘Hey, I like this person’s stuff, which is why I’m on one of their songs.’ You can imagine how much this could boost the career of a young musician.
And it works just as well from the other direction: a big-name artist allowing a less popular artist to feature on a song can help boost that artist’s career.
For years, this was a very organic way to promote other talented artists without spending money on advertising.
Years later, as hip-hop, or some version of it, cemented itself as near-synonymous with pop music in general, labels recognized the inherent power of features as a marketing tool.
Features are the new normal, and unfortunately, they’re often artificial. Here’s how it works:
1) An artist or producer wants to make a new album, or is told to make a new album by their label.
2) The artist or producer sketches out some tracks with the help of a huge team of songwriters, musicians, and recording engineers.
3) The label hires the biggest pop artists of the day to come feature on a track, in exchange for a whole bunch of money.
4) The popular artists, feeling no artistic investment in the work, read or rap or sing pre-written lines as quickly and indifferently as possible and spend the earnings on whatever you buy when there’s nothing left to buy.
5) The more sheeplike fans buy the music based on which tracks include artists they care about, while music snobs and critics cringe at the forced camaraderie. All involved forget about the album a few weeks later, after which the songs will be relegated to sad outdated night clubs and, eventually, retail stores.
Feature culture today is a symbiotic back-scratching deal, one that generates a continuous feedback loop of PR and hype for as long as a pop album can be expected to stay relevant.
But here’s the twist: it’s not inherently negative. In fact, it might speak more to trends in culture and technology than the state of the music industry.
Let’s take a short trip down that rabbit hole.
The Economy of Attention
Your attention is valuable, so valuable in fact that every content creator out there wants it. Content creators with money have teams dedicated to gaining that attention and keeping it for as long as possible.
They want you to consume their content often, and when you’re not consuming it, they want you to be thinking about it, about them.
Song features allow an artist to be in many places at once, on many albums at once, sometimes several in the same year, thus expanding their presence in the lives of listeners.
Then there are the albums themselves, which we can liken to concerts. Would you rather go to a small solo show where you’ll see just one artist with a few dozen other people or a huge festival where you’re going to see dozens of your favorite artists, even if only briefly?
Depending on your personal preferences, you may choose the small solo show, but mainstream American audiences have made it clear that they love festivals, they love bloated albums that cram as many trendy artists in as they can.
We’ll move away from ragging on DJ Khaled here to look at Ed Sheeran’s ‘No. 6 Collaboration’, released in 2019.
It’s a record that wants you to know right away that there will be other artists on the tracklist. There are 22 featured artists across 15 songs. Even more interesting is the fact that the artists come from vastly different genres, appealing to very different age groups.
Young Thug is contrasted by Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars by A Boogie with da Hoodie.
Why? Because the label wanted everyone to buy this album, so they stuffed it with diverse, contrived songs that are pretty transparent about their target demographic (critics have already thoroughly mocked the Latin-infused track ‘South of the Border’ so we won’t even bother with that one.
It’s hard to say whether this pandering album assembly style will continue much longer, but we can safely say that it’s the dominant method here at the tail end of the 2010s.
It’s hard not to look at feature culture without a healthy dose of cynicism, but despite the more skeezy examples of this trend, song features, and feature albums, aren’t always bad.
Songwriters like Kendrick Lamar and Tyler, the Creator have used guest features their whole careers and have still managed to make interesting records, ones where the guest artists only contribute to the overall message, rather than blurring it.
Like any other artistic trend, there will always be people looking for ways to exploit it, ways to use those trends to make money. It’s not inherently evil, but it is important for us, the audience, to stay wary of the ways in which we can be manipulated.
Based on the reaction to ‘No. 6 Collaboration’ and ‘Father of Asahd’, it seems we still have that ability.