From Beyoncé to James Blake: why collaboration is the new hit of pop music
Musical connectors are bringing together musicians and producers to blend methods and styles, and radically changing the way pop music is being made
The credits for Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ album include a dazzling number of A-list and rising stars. It took a lot of hands to squeeze those lemons
Collaborations are go: Grimes, Hudson Mohawke, Frank Orange and James Vincent McMorrow. Middle row: Mark Ronson, Kanye West, FKA Twigs and Blood Orange. Bottom row: James Blake, Beyoncé, Santigold, and Christine and the Queens
Collaborating can be intimidating because you’re surrounded by strangers. “But you have to go for it if you want to find new musical kin,” says Santigold.
Last week Dev Hynes released his new album, Freetown Sound. It’s his third album as Blood Orange and his first since Cupid Deluxe, in 2013. The album is a magnificent piece of work, but it’s not the only thing Hynes has done in the past few years. He’s also written and produced with Jessie Ware, FKA Twigs, Kylie Minogue, Solange, Kindness, Le1f, Carly Rae Jepsen and Sky Ferreira. Hynes is the dude you call when you want slow-motion funk, next-generation atmospherics and a wonky groove in the heart.
The other month James Blake released his new album, The Colour in Anything. Like Hynes’s, it’s his third album and the first since one from 2013, Overgrown. And, like Hynes, Blake has been busy between albums, working with Frank Ocean on his forthcoming album, Beyoncé on Lemonade, Drake, Chance the Rapper, Justin “Bon Iver” Vernon and others who want his voice and the evocative, wistful, soulful melancholy that comes with it.
Last year Hudson Mohawke released his second album, Lantern. When he wasn’t working on that the Scottish producer, born Ross Birchard, was part of TNGHT with Lunice, turned up on the last two Kanye West albums, The Life of Pablo and Yeezus, and was to the fore in providing the spooky electronica on Anohni’s startling new album, Hopelessness. If you want innovative electronica with idiosyncratic insights you call Birchard.
They’re not alone, either. Artists such as Frank Ocean, Santigold, Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, Jessy Lanza, Grimes, Tobias Jesso jnr (who worked with Adele on 25), Anderson .Paak, Flying Lotus and Chance the Rapper are also in the cross-pollination business.
There have always been collaborations in pop, but a new class of artist has emerged in recent times who flits easily between scenes. You could call them influencers, if that term hadn’t been debased by social-media chancers, but they’re probably more akin to connectors. They’re the ones bringing scenes together and blending genres because they’re the acts other musicians and superstars want to work with.
There have always been artists, such as David Byrne, who take it to the bridge in terms of the people they work with. The recent growth of connectors is down to several factors. One is the change in the way artists work and, especially, the way big albums are now recorded. In the past an artist would be ensconced in a studio for a long time with a producer and engineer or multiples thereof. A songwriter or two might also have been in the mix, but the process was relatively straightforward.
It’s different today. The credits for Beyoncé’s Lemonade album, for example, include a dazzling number of A-list and rising stars. It took a lot of hands to squeeze those lemons. Aside from such established names as Blake, the Weeknd, Diplo, Mike Will Made It and Jack White, there are also contributions from Boots, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, Kevin Garrett, Wynter Gordon, Joshua Tillman (Father John Misty), Malik Yusef and many more.
Kanye West also likes to work with as many people as possible to get the creative juices flowing. The cast list for The Life of Pablo contains many familiar names – your Oceans, Weeknds, Chances, Rihannas, Andre 3000s – as well as try-outs with newcomers.
One of these is DJDS, the US duo Sam Griesemer and Jerome Potter, who appear on five tracks. How West operated “wasn’t a really systematic way”, says Griesemer. “Everything was being worked on at the same time. Everything was being added to and worked on by everyone there every single day. We were working on everything at once.”
Ross Birchard, a frequent West collaborator who describes working with the rapper as a case of “anything goes within the four walls of the studio”, says collaborations have changed how he himself works.
“My ability to collaborate means not thinking, It has to be done this way, my way, and that there are no alternatives. That takes a long time to accept. What I really like is that there’s no ego involved when you’re in the studio. There’s no one going, ‘I’m not doing this.’ ”
“You have to will yourself to have a good time,” she says. “I’ve worked with all these people I hadn’t worked with before, and that could often be intimidating and a cause for anxiety, because you’re surrounded by strangers. But you have to go for it if you want to find new musical kin.”
While acts such as West and Beyoncé are happy to work with both established names and talented newcomers, collaborators often lean on the contributions of Blake, Birchard and Hynes for credibility as much as for what they can contribute to the creative process.
Acts know that the presence of an A-list connector on their new album will ensure plenty of advance interest in the release. It may not be overt, but plugging the contribution of a well-known connector is definitely part of the plan when it comes to selling a new album.
To Pimp a Butterfly
You also get situations where an entire scene of connectors gets a boost in profile because of one album. That was the case with last year’s spectacular, era-defining To Pimp a Butterfly, by Kendrick Lamar. There was a production credit on the album for Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, but there were also appearances by artists from his Brainfeeder label, with players such as Thundercat and Kamasi Washington taking starring roles.
Ellison finds that the people he wants to work with are those who come naturally into his orbit. “All those collaborations happened because the universe makes sense of things at the right time. There’s some kind of magic about being in the right place at the right time with people.
“I wanted to work with Kendrick, but it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been working on something that he was doing. I was working on a visual thing for his shows, and that turned into a musical thing, but it took the visual thing for us to connect in the first place.”
Then you have situations where it seems as if a connector has carefully planned a series of collaborations to bolster his or her profile. Anderson .Paak released his acclaimed second album, Malibu, in January, but it seems as if he’s had something new out every week since. His collaborations with acts such as Snakehips (on Money on Me), Kaytranada (a real meeting of the new-school minds on Glowed Up), Schoolboy Q and Domo Genesis may make him appear to have been working morning, noon and night all year, but it’s probably more down to some great timing.
You can also see potential future connectors lining up and getting ready to show what they can do. Recent TV appearances on Later with Jools Holland and The Graham Norton Show have done wonders for the mainstream appeal of Christine and the Queens. You can imagine Christine, aka Héloïse Letissier, turning up on a lot of new projects in the future, and some canny pop watchers have already seen her appeal – she has toured with Marina and the Diamonds, for example. (You can catch her here on Sunday night at Longitude.)
James Vincent McMorrow is another who could slot easily into that world. For his forthcoming album, We Move, the Irishman worked with the Canadian producer Nineteen85, who is closely aligned with Drake’s OVO set-up (McMorrow got a vocal credit on Champagne Papi’s Views), and Frank Dukes. He also turned up on Kygo’s track I’m in Love, from earlier this year.
The only problem for potential connectors is lack of time. Between the need to write and record their own albums and then tour and promote them, there’s little spare time to devote to those requests from other artists.
But it’s clear the connectors are getting more than just a credit and potential royalties and fees for their work. All those collaborations add to an artist’s appeal and increase their profile, so you can see why they make the time to do the work. When Frank Ocean’s long- awaited new album arrives, for example, it will mean that James Blake will have featured on three of the year’s most prominent releases: those by Ocean, Beyoncé and, lest we forget, and thanks to those other collaborations, Blake’s own record. That’s quite a pay-off.