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It takes the tracklist from a new album from Game to resemble one from DJ Khaled to start thinking about just how much features matter in modern rap music. Whether it's an official LP or a free mixtape, additional voices always seek to introduce a new way of looking at things, typically with the biggest artist believing that the more, the better. It's a delicate balancing act; it is indeed always a nice way to hear how your favorite artist works with their peers, but too many disembodied vocals often make you question their artistic strength alone. Mostly, it's a good tactic to lean into the featured artists' fanbases for a few extra streams. But when artists decide not to enlist the help of their compadres, it becomes a talking point.
Sheck Wes' recently released debut album Mudboy brings on no one else except himself. J. Cole went platinum by himself with 2014 Forest Hills Drive. What should be a more regular occurrence has been delegated to the stuff of legend because of the artistic difficulties and weaknesses that come with tackling a project on your own. No features giveth, no features taketh away.
Artists record nearly every day. Rappers like Gucci Mane used to release music near daily, often times by himself. So what makes bundling ten to fifteen of those songs together and passing them off under one unified name so daunting? It's the implication that a project brings to the table—that of polish, a collective meaning, and honed aesthetic. Single songs also get judged differently when placed into the fold of a project; Kendrick Lamar's "Backstreet Freestyle" was criticized by press for being derivative with boilerplate lyrics before being contextualized with good kid, M.A.A.D City's enigmatic, movie-like sequencing.
Storytelling, often times, depends on making the kinds of artistic decisions that can't be made without additional input. GKMC is a perfect example; the addition of Jhene Aiko on "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" creates a heavenly contrast to Kendrick's own purposefully mumbled, muddled sermon. Elsewhere, Drake's guest feature on "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" allows the Toronto crooner to bring in a character with a bleaker input then Kendrick's love-struck Lothario. These kinds of guest plugins are integral to the project's structuring and creative end game. GKMC was Kendrick's second studio album; on his first, Section.80, only two true rap verses were featured from labelmates ScHoolboy Q and Ab Soul. Here, he was less keen on leasing out the artistic control for vocals he could master.
Mudboy shows that Sheck Wes either retains this same stinginess, or pedals enough confidence to make his voice the only thing you hear throughout the album's 14-track playlist. The world initially caught wind of Wes through his summer smash "Mo Bamba." Produced by 16yearold and Take A Daytrip, the fiery, blooming production was perfect for Wes to introduce us to his confidence. On the track, Wes holds his "O"'s to the point that you believe he'll start coughing and sputtering to regain his breath, and raps semi-seriously while yelling into the microphone. He retains this manner of unpredictability throughout the album as he wears a number of hats often delegated to the guest cast: the melodic harbinger of melodies, enigmatic angry rapper with something to prove, and relaxed swagger-centric sleazeball. Although it's of the best intentions, Mudboy ultimately falters. Wes just can't share the same amount of energy throughout each iteration of his self's musicality, and it shows. The focus on lyricism is largely absent, and what pines for episodic instances of artistry ultimately comes across as thinly veiled attempts to take care of everything himself to save an extra dollar. No features here feels like it's out of economic necessity, not artistic exploration.
Future's spent a career juggling many hats. In recent years, after stepping away from trap rap, he's used melody as a central base to expound upon his creative pursuits, becoming an R&B stalwart, purveyor of camaraderie raps about his hood, and drug connoisseur. On his 2017 self-titled album, Future explored these without any other voices to contribute to the project. Bolstered by nearly a decade of industry experience, his bout into "no features" territory contained all the necessary bells and whistles that came from testing his inventiveness in the mixtape circuit, most notably with Metro Boomin and Zaytoven's bombastic beats providing his backdrops. "Draco" contains the bubbly dynamism found on anything from Beast Mode, bereft with the kind of halfway-sung chorus that Future's known for, but if anyone else were to replicate, they'd find it hard without enlisting someone else. "Mask Off" strips the Auto-Tune for classic Future, bringing a seldom seen element back into Future's artistic repertoire. The difference in seasoning compared to Mudboy shows what having no features can do for an album; with the right mix of confidence and experience, extrapolating unique artistic tendencies is possible.
The differences between Cole's 2014 Forest Hill Drive and Future and Drake's What A Time to Be Alive also speak to the limits of including no one else and the latent creativity that exists within artistic creativity. J. Cole's most bragged about body of work is far from his best, but is perhaps the most daring because there's no one else around. "Wet Dreamz" is a cringe-worthy exercise in adolescence that, if it weren't for the heart-warming vocals and a clever interplay with words, lives and dies in its corniness. The album benefits from being J. Cole's third album, similarly working out the lion share of the kinks that ultimately contributes to the flexibility of his creativity. There's a whole lot of angry rap between "G.O.M.D." and "A Tale of 2 Citiez" that builds on the energetic whims of early Cole, while also introducing a new, larger character capable of entering into rap's dominating circle by way of forcing in instead of shaking hands. What was previously thought to be impossible by Cole was proven once he took off the training wheels.
Drake and Future are artists from two entirely different worlds – they need no features. Still, What A Time to Be Alive was claustrophobic. Boring even. The two rap stalwarts were expected to let the creative reigns off, getting freaky in the process. The production was planted firmly in the midst of Future's dark trap ambience and Drake's emotional hymns, which was the first indicator that things wouldn't be as weird as one could have hoped. The album was allegedly from a six-day recording session, and felt rushed. They were on a mission to check all the boxes—"Jumpman" being the obligatory party starter, "Digital Dash" the stereo bruiser for nighttime rides, everything felt telegraphed and perfectly placed. By doing this though, they removed any element of surprise. Two established artists with the star power to have some freedom largely eschewed it instead of embracing it. Since the music wasn't that great to begin with, the album left as quickly as it came.
What A Time to Be Alive and 2014 Forest Hills Drive similarly lacked features to allow the artists to play in their established creative playgrounds. J. Cole decided to be adventurous with his album and was rewarded with one of rap's highest, and rarest, accolades. Drake and Future made a project of the moment that achieved its purpose, elevating both into rap's S-tier. Sheck Wes' Mudboy ultimately isn't as strong because Wes' creative playground just isn't quite there yet. We can see where it's going though, and that's marvelous. Features or no features, the ability to make great music is what keeps the world invested in rappers' crafts. The additional distinction of being able to do it with no features separates the greats from the future legends.
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