Collaborations are always a fun aspect in any genre, but I think ’90s/’00s R&B had some particularly great examples of artists coming together and creating some one-off wonders. There are a whole host of excellent tracks which highlight this idea, but I’d say that some of the best of these efforts were between male hip-hop artists and female R&B artists. This set-up of one male, one female allowed for sometimes sugary, romantic numbers, but just as easily lent themselves to some all-out sleazy vibes. The male hip-hop star and female R&B/pop singer collaboration is one that lives on into the 2010s, and it tends to go down very well – however, I firmly maintain the glory days are those of Ja Rule doing collaborations with pretty much every female artist going, living it large.
I don’t think there’s any point in denying that there is a whole lot of misogyny and over-sexualisation of women in ’90s/’00s R&B and hip-hop (B2K, I love you, but these lyrics are a wee bit questionable), but if Robin Thicke has taught us anything this year, it’s that pop music in general has a tendency to be pretty sexist. Luckily for this era of R&B, ladies like Destiny’s Child and TLC kept the girl power going – but that’s a topic for another post. For now, here are seven (sometimes a little bit sexist) classics of male-female duets, rooted in ’90s/’00s R&B:
1) Busta Rhymes ft. Mariah Kelly – ‘I Know What You Want’
High-pitched, rich and breezy vocals from Mariah and heartfelt emotion with a healthy dollop of sleaze via some uncharacteristic crooning from Busta, all over some dissonant, smooth keyboards and light-as-a-feather beats. Frothy and seductively urban, it’s a great little tune.
2) Blu Cantrell ft. Sean Paul – ‘Breathe’
That hypnotic brass and siren sound, the nonchalant chill rhymes of ever-sublime Sean Paul and the boisterous vocals of Blu Cantrell as they play the ever-arguing couple. This is a brilliantly realised pop song.
3) Fat Joe ft. Ashanti – ‘What’s Luv’
Probably the best song Fat Joe has released. His gritty flow is a bit reminiscent of Tupac in this, and is complemented perfectly by the juxtaposition of Ashanti’s characteristic sweet soprano. I particularly enjoy the lyrical reference to Tina Turner and the great sampling of that jerky, charismatic piano from ‘Niggaz Nature’.
4) Ja Rule ft. Ashanti – ‘Always on Time’
Ja Rule dominates this era as far as collaborations go. His oeuvre boasts a whole host of collaborative tracks with the likes of J-Lo, Christina Milian and even Mary J. Blige. Pushed to pick one number, however, I’d plump for this – one of his many tracks with the delightful Ashanti. We have established already that the girl has sugary sweet vocals which complement the grittiness of a male rapper very well, and this song perhaps showcases the greatness of their combined talents best.
5) Beyoncé ft. Jay-Z – ‘Crazy in Love’
This song is so perfect and glorious and I am aware that most people wouldn’t consider it a “collaboration” per se, as it is that moment where everyone realised Beyoncé was going to be a solo queen. I recently took the quiz, “Which Beyoncé are you?” and was delighted to get Crazy in Love era. Jay’s verse is joyous, Beyoncé is bright and brazen, that brass sample is incredible and brilliantly uplifting and yeah. This is amazing.
6) J-Lo ft. LL Cool J – ‘All I Have’
A mystical, wintery jam which twinkles and sparkles as the couple negotiate their relationship, J-Lo and LL have this down. J-Lo is jaded yet still in love, LL is the player who is realising the error of his ways, but will they reconcile or will J-Lo be confident enough to step out alone? It’s a great story, which I think is always fun for these collaborations, but also it is just so incredibly catchy. “All my pride is all I have / Pride is what you had baby girl, I’m what you have”. Excellent.
7) Nelly ft. Kelly – ‘Dilemma’
This song is probably the best example of a male-female collaboration in this era of music. A dazzling tale of poorly-timed love, it’s sweet, it’s endearing, it’s captivating. Nelly is gentle but displays candid, wonderful flow while Kelly proves her strong vocal prowess as the girl in the state of dilemma. The references and samples of Patti Labelle give the song a magical sense of timelessness. This is so lovely, evocative and, well, perfect.