Back in 2007, Sir Paul McCartney released “222,” a bonus cut off his Memory Almost Full album. Written as a tribute to his young daughter Beatrice, the song registers that special kind of paternal amazement that fathers are prone to feeling. So, clearly, the former Beatle knew exactly the sort of emotional magnitude that Kanye West required for his “Only One,” a collaborative and unapologetically sincere track overtly dedicated to the rapper’s own toddler, North. Side by side, the songs present a shared context for the seemingly unlikely pairing of two of the biggest figures in the history of popular music.
Released less than a month later, the Rihanna-infused “FourFiveSeconds” raised some considerable questions about the intergenerational McCartney-West partnership, particularly among hip-hop fans. Had it not been for the more characteristic “All Day,” those concerns would’ve assuredly turned into declarations that West had fallen off, gone too far down some rock ’n’ roll rabbit hole.
So it was especially surprising when A$AP Rocky dropped a track with none other than Rod Stewart while announcing the release date for At.Long.Last.A$AP, his highly anticipated Danger Mouse-hemled follow-up to Long.Live.A$AP. Sampling the storied rock singer’s appearance on Python Lee Jackson’s largely forgotten gold nugget “In a Broken Dream,” “Everyday” also featured contributions from Miguel and Mark Ronson, the latter incidentally the stepson of Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones. A.L.L.A. followed not long thereafter, and multiple critics were quick to cite its psychedelic rock qualities. In press surrounding the release, Rocky even teased a joint mixtape with Stewart—described by Flacko as a “panty-dropper”—though he subsequently revealed that to have been a joke.
All kidding aside though, this season's most essential rap accessory became a rock ’n’ roll geezer. And if we’re willing to speculate on this as an emerging trend, it’s probably just a matter of time before a second wave of copycats come through. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young Thug? Aloe Blacc Sabbath? James Taylor Gang? While these scenarios sound like semi-clever responses to a jokey Twitter hashtag, all suddenly seem possible now in this burgeoning rap rock redux.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young Thug? Aloe Blacc Sabbath? James Taylor Gang? While these scenarios sound like semi-clever responses to a jokey Twitter hashtag, all suddenly seem possible now in this burgeoning rap rock redux.
Indeed, risk-taking in rap music is on the rise at the moment. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly helped reposition the role of jazz in hip-hop, taking it from something you sample to something you play. And while he wasn’t the first to do so, Lamar was certainly the highest-profile rapper to take that chance in a major way. Tyler, the Creator followed close behind with Cherry Bomb, another celebration of creative freedom that challenged perceptions not only of his music but of rap itself. Their respective records’ credits featured tremendous names: Roy Ayers, George Clinton, Ronald Isley, Leon Ware, Charlie Wilson. For those still not seeing a connection, it’s important to remember that Funkadelic, the Gap Band, the Isley Brothers, and other such groups had their foundations in rock music. Contemporary talents like West and Rocky were bound to seek out and find willing collaborators in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame greats.
Though it hasn’t played much of a role in the genre’s recent years, historically speaking rock and rap music share a checkered past. Ever since guitarist Eddie Martinez laid down some killer riffage on Run-DMC’s 1984 self-titled debut, rappers began to borrow heavily from rock records. Brought to the studio by Rick Rubin, Kerry King of thrash metal godfathers Slayer played on the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” the anthemic single off their hard-rock-indebted License to Ill. The mutual admiration continued through the 1980s but ramped up in the early 1990s when Public Enemy teamed up with Anthrax to remake “Bring the Noise.” Ice-T even went so far as to start his own heavy metal act, Body Count, whose 1992 album sparked national attention for the controversial track “Cop Killer.” That same year, Brooklyn’s own Biohazard released their influential rap metal hybrid Urban Discipline.
Yet as rap’s popularity surged, hard rock’s had waned. Grunge and the wider category of alternative rock replaced the glam and hair contingents of metal, sending the even more extreme adherents of the heavy metal aesthetic further underground. Attempts were made at further collaboration, including 1993’s ill-advised Judgment Night. The soundtrack to a B-movie thriller counting House of Pain’s Everlast as a cast member, its songs made strange bedfellows of Teenage Fanclub and De La Soul, Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill, and other seemingly randomized pairings.
Hardcore rap artists like Onyx had little need for rock guitarists to achieve heaviness and darkness in their music. More importantly, rap grew distant from rock’s aesthetics, as artists like 2Pac, Nas, and the Notorious B.I.G. reigned during the mid-’90s, popularizing new divergent styles. Then, of course, came the rap metallers at the turn of the century. Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, P.O.D., and countless other also-rans inadvertently created greater rifts between the genres.
Even still, the current reconciliation of rock and rap as evidenced by West and Rocky represents something different and even hopeful. Apart from some one-offs such as the Fat Boys with Chubby Checker, Puff Daddy with Jimmy Page, or Eminem with Elton John, the majority of cross-genre collaborations have been between contemporaries. Hip-hop producers and beatmakers have freely plundered classic records for loops and hooks for decades, but putting someone like Kanye West in a studio with someone like Paul McCartney is a huge move, with implications for the future of rap music.
Classic rockers have long benefited from the ability to reach beyond their given genre. Popularity, prestige, and all the money that comes with it allowed these artists to explore new sounds and add them to their repertoires. Eric Clapton went from making burners like “White Room” and “Layla” to covering Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” and later becoming one of the most prodigious keepers of the American blues tradition. Formerly of prog rockers Genesis, Peter Gabriel made solo records with the input of Senegalese artists Doudou N'Diaye Rose and Youssou N'Dour, Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy. (Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin” actually sampled Ramzy’s “Khusara Khusara” for its hypnotic beat.) McCartney’s former bandmate George Harrison worked extensively with sitarist and Hindustani classist Ravi Shankar. The time has come for rappers to build on the global power of their music and further integrate.
As with so many trends in rap music, there’s no guarantee that any of this will last. The first steps have already been taken by West and Rocky, but it requires other artists with means and ambition to continue it. Migos vs. Beatles memes aside, rap and rock aren’t meant to be at odds with one another, needlessly battling for chart supremacy and radio space. The two ought not only to coexist, but intermingle and benefit from one another. There doesn’t have to be another Jay Z meets Linkin Park Collision Course. Hip-hop has matured now and is ready for further greatness. Let’s just try and keep Tyga away from Ringo, okay?
Gary Suarez is a writer living in New York. Follow him @noyokono.