When the featured artist gets bigger. Also: an excuse for me to cringe at things
Pop culture is wilderness. Nothing makes sense out there. Most of the stuff we think is gonna top or flop end up betraying our expectations. Y’know that screenshot of a Vulture headline that says Marvel casted “no-names” for Thor? That happens a lot; more than most pop culture writers like to admit.
Take, for example, songs where the featured artist was smaller than the main artist at the time of release, then for one reason or another, got bigger. Looking at these songs can be a fun thought experiment, can open up a lot of interesting questions about how the landscape of pop culture can change and how unpredictable the career trajectory of an artist can be. Songs like these are like natural anomalies. They’re like glitches in the matrix. They’re barely logical in retrospect and make our younger selves look foolish and naive. That’s why I love them so much.
MIKA – Popular Song (feat. Ariana Grande, Jason Nevins)
We just let this happen, didn’t we? In society’s defense, it was a jam. MIKA was really riding a wave back in the day—the cartoonishly bubbly singles Grace Kelly and We Are Golden framed MIKA as a Brian May-type singer for the late 2000s. And when Popular Song came out in 2012, featured artist Ariana Grande had yet to release her Yours Truly record and was probably in the middle of painting over the Nickelodeon part of her résumé. Popular Song was a hit and for good reason—it was a stroke of genius to interpolate Wicked’s best song (FIGHT ME) to engineer a Billboard topper. Nowadays, though? MIKA’s still active but not on anybody’s radar. Ariana Grande got massive and, funnily enough, went full circle with the whole musical-sampling bit when she came out with 7 Rings. There’s a joke somewhere here about popularity contests that’s too easy to make. I hope MIKA’s doing okay.
Iggy Azalea – Fancy (feat. Charli XCX)
Oh, this was an explosion. A music video inspired by Clueless, a rap verse clean enough for kids’ birthday parties, tongue-in-cheek references to ridiculous wealth. That’s the formula right there. Run the Jewels, Schoolboy Q and Flying Lotus were all putting stuff out in 2014, and Fancy still managed to be the hip-hop song of the year. Ridiculous. And while Charli XCX was definitely earning her stripes when she released Sucker, she was a little harder to pin down as an artist. Her eclecticism would become more evident in Pop 2 and how i’m feeling now. Iggy Azalea though was, unjustly, pigeonholed as a white girl who could rap. So her career situation was something like, burn bright for one minute, fizzle out the next.
fun. – We Are Young (feat. Janelle Monáe)
I’m mad about this one, folks. Speaking as someone who was following Monáe’s career since Metropolis and The ArchAndroid, I was furious to see her underutilized in We Are Young, like her verse was tacked on as an afterthought. Why did we like fun. again? The fact that their name comes with a period should be a criminal offense. Y’know what, scratch that. I’m glad. I’m glad they’re as good as gone, a legacy consigned to oblivion. I care not for Jack Antonoff either, and you may quote me on that! Anybody can write a song about being young, and We Are Young doesn’t even make the top 100. Easily surpassed by that one line Pumbaa sings about life as a young warthog. Meanwhile, Monáe’s living her best life acting in actually good movies and being a pansexual icon.
Chance the Rapper – Lost (feat. Noname)
This single qualifies because 2019’s The Big Day sucked so much mondo ass that it practically put Chance’s career in a damn coma, and made him less big. Legit, I care not for his current shit. And while we’re at it, let’s take a closer look at Acid Rap. No doubt an iconic record, but all of Chance’s verses are totally outshined by his featured artists. Cocoa Butter Kisses? Twista and VIC MENSA stole. Favorite Song? Gambino stole. NaNa? Action Bronson stole. And Lost? Noname took no goddamn prisoners. It’s the best verse on the record. She’d go on to release Telefone and Room 25, both extremely underrated jams, and Song 33, the diss track of the century. Noname is better at rapping and activism than Chance is at rapping and being a Kanye stooge.
3OH!3 – LONELY MACHINES (feat. 100gecs)
Putting this collab on the list is kinda cheating, but I’ve been dying to talk about this magnificent abomination of a track with somebody, and you’re already here. 3OH!3 were like the fratty court jesters of emo, more ratchet than Cobra Starship and painfully electronic. They were the sonic equivalent of those ugly neon shirts from Topman. 100gecs, on the other hand, wouldn’t burst into the scene until much later, and we hail them now as hyperpop pioneers, master satirists of the kind of commercialism that allowed 3OH!3 to even exist. So when the two got together…what even was that, man? Like a collab between the setup and the punchline. Two different flavors of obnoxious mixed together. It’s like if you mixed Silverado Cabernet with a Sober Club shot. When we grow old, we’ll remember 100gecs as the musical “screw it all” wild card of the zeitgeist, and 3OH!3 as the teenage phase we cringe at remembering, but like, fondly.
You guys, if you find more songs where the featured artist hits it bigger, hit me up. We should make a whole playlist of these weird media artifacts. Let’s celebrate the unusual energy that these pieces of art give off, and acknowledge the possibility that songs like these walk among us today, in plain sight, making us think we know everything about what’s cool and uncool when really we don’t know jack.
Words Jam Pascual
Art Matthew Fetalver