About halfway through The Weeknd’s new album, Starboy, the Toronto R&B star fades at the conclusion of “True Colors,” a slow song that comes as close as a song can come in 2016 to being a power ballad. When the next track queues up, it’s not Abel Tesfaye—the man known as The Weeknd—that you hear, but it is another familiar voice: Lana Del Rey, a guest star and previous collaborator. That song, titled “Stargirl Interlude” is only a hair under two minutes long, and it showcases Del Rey’s brooding voice, putting The Weeknd on the sideline for just a smidge under two minutes (outside of some backing vocals near the end). This may seem somewhat insignificant, but it’s just the latest in what’s become a more significant trend on major hip-hop and R&B releases this year: taking the attention away from the star, and handing it off to a special guest for a hot minute.
Kanye West grabbed the bull by the horns earlier this year, employing this a couple of times on The Life of Pablo. The obvious corollary is with “Frank’s Track,” which initially was a tacked-on ending to the much-tinkered with “Wolves,” but later—and, thus, permanently—was set free to stand alone forever. Opening with the sound of literal wolves howling, this was the first anyone’s heard from Frank Ocean in years, and it set his voice apart. It’s not like anyone is hankering for a break from Kanye’s voice on his own album, but the constant features and the diversity in voices is part of what makes Yeezy such a master curator; he picks and chooses the voices heard on his albums to perfection, unlike someone like J.Cole, who perhaps prides in his own voice to a fault. In “Frank’s Track,” a heartbreaking and chilling reintroduction to a generational artist, the short piece set the stage for where this strategy would be employed once again in the late summer.
Ocean himself used this to its fullest effect, bringing a fellow evasive artist in Andre 3000 out and handing him a spotlight of his own. Ocean’s album Blond was immersive and expansive for a variety of reasons, but handing it off to Andre for just a quick but jam-packed verse at the back end of the album was a stroke of genius. Frank took a break while a post-Outkast Andre shared his musings on the state of hip-hop in 2016 on “Solo (Reprise).” The verse is remarkably similar to “Frank’s Track” in that it’s completely devoid of any backing track or instrumentation—just artist and microphone—raw, unprovoked, and completely and inherently of the must-listen nature.
That’s not the only way that this happens though. Back on The Life Of Pablo, the opening track, “Ultralight Beam” has a number of collaborators, even including Kirk Franklin. The backing is rich and the music is constant. But the track, again, centers on a guest verse: this time, from Chance the Rapper. It’s one of the very best songs of the year, and possibly the greatest opening track of Kanye’s illustrious career, and that’s because it truly plays, again, to one of Mr. West’s greatest skills: curation. “Ultralight Beam” exists not only as a welcoming entry point to the world that Kanye constructs for us in The Life Of Pablo, but also purely as a showcase for Chance. Kanye sees himself in the young rapper who shares his home city of Chicago, and in “Ultralight Beam,” he hands the track off to Chance, who grabbed the bull by the horns in what was his biggest moment in the spotlight yet.
Chance, in turn, followed suit on his own record. Coloring Book has a track titled “D.R.A.M. Sings Special,” which sees the rapidly-rising MC take a backseat to a slightly-pre “Broccoli” D.R.A.M., who croons his way into the spotlight. “Broccoli” would become one of the biggest hits of the year in the weeks and months following Coloring Book’s release.
So, the question arises: is this a trend that will continue? Certainly, it’s an interesting use of the guest star as a resource. Why intertwine a powerhouse voice in its own right with another sound that might not sync up? Rather, let that voice have time to do what everyone knows it can do. Everyone wants to hear Frank Ocean sing his heart out. It’s not that he doesn’t work as a straight feature—”No Church In The Wild,” for one, is an all-timer—but this twist is a valid option, a smart play, and, because it plays so well, only surprising that it hasn’t happened earlier.