Chart Watch

Chart Watch Extra: When Pop Meets Rap

Chart Watch

When the Recording Academy introduced a new Grammy category called Best Rap/Sung Collaboration in 2001, the name sounded so odd that Diane Theriot, the academy's awards chief at the time joked that it sounded like something you'd order in a Chinese restaurant. Nobody's focused on the odd-sounding name any more. Recordings that blend rapping and singing have dominated the music charts all year. Five of the 10 best-selling songs for the year-to-date are pop/rap pairings. "California Gurls" by Katy Perry featuring Snoop Dogg is #3 for the year-to-date, followed by "Airplanes" by B.o.B featuring Hayley Williams (#4), "Break Your Heart" by Taio Cruz featuring Ludacris (#5), "Nothin' On You" by B.o.B featuring Bruno Mars (#9) and "Baby" by Justin Bieber featuring Ludacris (#10).

Why has there been such a proliferation of collaborations that blend pop and rap? Most obviously, it broadens the potential audience for a record. Adding rap to a pop record gives it some edge. "Baby" has become Justin Bieber's best-selling song to date, with sales to date of 2,231,000 copies. Ludacris' rap gave the record an edge that expanded its appeal beyond Bieber's base of teen and pre-teen girls. It moved it from bubblegum closer to the center of pop.

Snoop Dogg's rap added some grit to Katy Perry's summer smash "California Gurls." It's still a Popsicle, to borrow an image from the record, but the flavor is now tangy lime instead of cool watermelon.

Coming at it from the other side, adding pop elements to a rap record makes it more palatable to a mass audience. That's why rapper B.o.B invited Hayley Williams, the lead singer for the rock band Paramore, and sweet-voiced crooner Bruno Mars to sing on his hits "Airplanes" and "Nothin' On You," respectively.

All three of the giant hits from rapper Jay-Z's latest album The Blueprint 3 are collabos. "Run This Town" with Rihanna and Kanye West; "Empire State Of Mind" with Alicia Keys and "Young Forever" with Mr. Hudson have sold a combined total of 8,379,000 copies. (Jay-Z signifies how important his collabo partners are by giving them equal billing, not just featured credit.)

Blending pop and rap is smart business. It's like blending elements of comedy and action in a movie to try to expand the potential audience. Or adding a love story to bring in a female audience. Or casting actors of different races to try to appeal to a wider range of fans.

The prevalence of so many rap/pop collabos shows how even boomer fans have become acclimated to the sound of rap. "Nothin' On You" is one of the prettiest records in years; a throwback to such classic Motown hits as Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour." But I'm not sure it would have been as big a hit in today's market without the rap element. That mix of pretty and harder-edged is the sound of popular music in 2010.

Collaborations most obviously benefit the lead artists. The songs are featured on their albums, after all.

But they also benefit the featured artists. "California Gurls," which was #1 on the Hot 100 for six weeks, is by far the biggest hit that Snoop Dogg has ever had. He hasn't had a #1 album since 1998 or a #1 single (as a lead artist) since 2004, but he's back on top with what may wind up as the year's biggest hit.

"Airplanes" introduced Hayley Williams to a much broader audience than knew her from her hits with Paramore (including "Misery Business" and "Decode"). This exposure and heightened awareness will almost certainly boost the sales of Paramore's next album.

Bruno Mars' appearances on B.o.B's "Nothin' On You" and Travie McCoy's "Billionaire" (which is #19 for the year-to-date) have built anticipation for Mars' debut album, which is due later this year.

Likewise, Nicki Minaj's appearances on Ludacris' "My Chick Bad," Usher's "Lil Freak" and Lil Wayne's "Knockout" have built anticipation for her debut album, also due this year.

Justin Timberlake's reunion with Timbaland on "Carry Out" (which is #20 for the year-to-date) has served to keep Timberlake's name out there during what has become a long hiatus between albums. (Timberlake's last album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, was released nearly four years ago.) The pop superstar and the hip-hop producer/artist have teamed on three previous top 15 hits: Timberlake's career defining "SexyBack," Timbaland's "Give It To Me" (which also featured Nelly Furtado) and 50 Cent's "Ayo Technology."

"Love The Way You Lie" by Eminem featuring Rihanna jumps to #1 on this week's Hot 100. It has been #1 on the Hot Digital Songs chart for four straight weeks. Most of Eminem's previous collaborations were with fellow rappers, though he sampled Dido's "Thankyou" on his 2000 hit "Stan" and he backed up R&B star Akon on a 2006 smash, "Smack That." For her part, Rihanna has collaborated with several rappers, including Jay-Z ("Umbrella" and "Run This Town"), T.I. ("Live Your Life") and Young Jeezy ("Hard").

Usher, one of the top-selling R&B stars of all time, has a long history of teaming with rappers to give his records an edge. As far back as 1995, he enlisted rapper Biz Markie to rap on his song "Think Of You." Usher's subsequent hits have featured such rappers as Lil Jon and Ludacris ("Yeah!"), Young Jeezy ("Love In This Club"), Lil Wayne ("Love In This Club Part II") and Plies ("Hey Daddy (Daddy's Home)").

Other hit collaborations from this year that combine rap with pop (or R&B) include "Bedrock" by Young Money featuring Lloyd; "Baby By Me" by 50 Cent featuring Ne-Yo; "Tie Me Down" by New Boyz featuring Ray J; "Spotlight" by Gucci Mane featuring Usher; and "Sex Room" by Ludacris featuring Trey Songz.

The Best Rap/Sung Collaboration category at the Grammys has been home to some of the biggest hits of the past decade. Seven of the first nine winners reached #1 or #2 on the Hot 100.

Jay-Z has shared in four of the first nine winners. He was featured on Beyonce's "Crazy In Love" (the winner for 2003) and Rihanna's "Umbrella" (2007). He was a co-lead artist with Linkin Park on "Numb/Encore" (2005) and with Rihanna and Kanye West on "Run This Town" (2009).

Here are the other previous winners in the category. 2001: "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" by Eve featuring Gwen Stefani; 2002: "Dilemma" by Nelly featuring Kelly Rowland; 2004: "Yeah!" by Usher featuring Lil Jon & Ludacris; 2006: "My Love" by Justin Timberlake featuring T.I.; and 2008: "American Boy" by Estelle featuring Kanye West.

So, what will win in this super-competitive year? "Empire State Of Mind," which was released at the start of the eligibility period, is still the record to beat, though such blockbuster hits as "California Gurls," "Airplanes," "Nothin' On You" and "Love The Way You Lie" will give it a run for its money.

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