Before Miley & Mike WiLL, there was Britney & the Neptunes and Nelly & Timbaland. We explore the pop-rap history.
As big a single as the recently released "We Can't Stop" looks to be for Miley Cyrus -- debuting at No. 11 on this week's Hot 100 chart, an excellent showing for a pop star who has been off the radar for the better part of three years and completely re-invented her image in the interim -- it's just as significant of an accomplishment for its producer: Michael Williams, better known as Mike WiLL Made It. Over the past two years, Mike WiLL has become the biggest hit-maker in hip-hop, his swirling synths and spacious soundscapes (along with the "Eardrummers!" and "Mike WiLL Made It" vocal samples that sign each of his singles) becoming unavoidable on rap radio. Lil Wayne's "Love Me," Juicy J's "Bandz a Make Her Dance," 2 Chainz' "No Lie"... you name a big song from the last two years in club-ready hip-hop, and chances are that it bore Mike WiLL's signature.
However, "We Can't Stop" marks somewhat new territory for Mike WiLL. Despite containing many of his musical signatures -- including, of course, those two self-IDing samples -- the song is his first high-profile collaboration with an artist totally outside of the hip-hop realm, one just four years removed from being a squeaky-clean Disney princess at that. If it didn't work, it could have been disastrous for both artists, with Miley risking accusations of musical tourism and Mike WiLL risking a sell-out tag. But because the song appears to be a success, it has the potential to work wonders for both artists, breaking the mold for Miley Cyrus, Adult Pop Star and diversifying Mike WiLL's portfolio to an impressive degree.
It's a gamble that many female pop stars and hip-hop producers have taken before Miley and Mike WiLL. Here are some of the more notable examples in recent pop history, and the varying degrees of musical and commercial success reached by each.
MARIAH CAREY, "HONEY" (PROD. DIDDY, STEVIE J & Q-TIP)
In the mid-'90s, the closest Mariah Carey had come to hip-hop on her singles was getting rappers like Ol' Dirty Bastard and Da Brat to show up on remixes of her pop megahits -- on her own, she was still mostly a conduit for sugary-sweet dance songs and show-stopping ballads. That changed in 1997, though, with "Honey," her first hit with a distinctly hip-hop flavor, even before Mase and the LOX showed up for the remix. The song's beat, largely consisting of hooks sampled from the old-school rap classics "The Body Rock" (Treacherous Three) and "Hey DJ" (The World's Famous Supreme Team), was a joint effort of Mariah's with A Tribe Called Quest rapper/producer Q-Tip, Notorious B.I.G. producer and future reality TV star Stevie J, and of course, Bad Boy head honcho Puff Daddy, who had his fingerprints on just about every song not done by Hanson or the Spice Girls to hit big in 1997.
Carey would dip back into the hip-hop well many times throughout the next 15 years of her career, working with the likes of DJ Clue ("Heartbreaker"), Clark Kent ("Loverboy") and, of course, Jermaine Dupri, who helped get Carey's career back on track in the mid-'00s with his work on "The Emancipation of Mimi." Of all the big female pop artists who have repeatedly attempted to integrate a hip-hop sound into their hits, Carey's have arguably been the most seamless, likely because she never lets herself get too far away from the big pop hooks and sweet-sounding melodies that she originally built her career upon.
BRITNEY SPEARS, "I'M A SLAVE 4 U" (PROD. THE NEPTUNES)
Like Miley, Britney Spears once held a public image as the consummate good girl; and like Miley, Britney has gone through great lengths to explicitly shed that public image. One of the biggest steps in that reinvention was 2001's "I'm a Slave 4 U," the first single off her third album Britney, and her first real break from the Max Martin pop machine that engineered her first two albums. For the sexy, slithering (somewhat literally so in her infamous VMA performance) track, Brit enlisted burgeoning behind-the-decks superstars the Neptunes, then mostly known for their work on hits by rappers like Jay-Z and Mystikal. The song underperformed on the pop charts by her standards, peaking at No. 27 on the Hot 100, but caught the attention of many who would've previously disdained Britney as a teeny bopper, allowing her to transition past the "TRL" era into a longer-lasting career as a pop icon. (It also gave her a rare cameo on the R&B charts, peaking at #85.) Britney may have been an influence on Miley's recent career re-invention, but it's Miley who is now setting the precedent for Britney, as Ms. Spears has reportedly enlisted Mike WiLL Made It for a song on her upcoming album.
CHRISTINA AGUILERA, "CAN'T HOLD US DOWN" (PROD. SCOTT STORCH)
Not far behind Britney was her pop peer Christina Aguilera, who also shed her pop image for 2002's Stripped. In addition to lead single "Dirrty," which featured rapper Redman and was produced by Red's longtime collaborator Rockwilder, Christina also nabbed Scott Storch, producer for the likes of the Roots and Snoop Dogg, who had recently blown up with his work co-producing Eve's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" and Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River," for a handful of songs on the album. Two of those songs were pulled as singles --"Fighter" and "Can't Hold Us Down," the latter of which is far more in line with Storch's usual hip-hop production sound than the rock-based "Fighter," and which even featured rapper Lil Kim on a guest verse.
Like "Slave," neither song was a major pop hit for Aguilera -- "Fighter" and "Hold Us" peaked at No. 20 and No. 12 on the Hot 100, respectively, after three singles on her first album went to No. 1 -- but helped to expand audience expectations of her image and sound, and ensured she would never be doing a song as bubblegum as "Come on Over Baby (All I Want Is You)" again.
GWEN STEFANI, "HOLLABACK GIRL" (PROD. THE NEPTUNES) & "RICH GIRL" (PROD. DR DRE)
Having already busted out of the alt-rock mold with her band No Doubt's 2002 album "Rock Steady," Gwen Stefani completely threw out the playbook with her 2004 solo debut "Love. Angel. Music. Baby.," which ranged from electro-funk to new wave balladry to, of course, hip-hop. The Dre-produced (and Eve-featuring) "Rich Girl" was released as the second single, coming a few years removed from the previous Dre/Eve megahit collab "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" and feeling like a logical extension of the ragga sound explored on "Rock Steady." But "Hollaback Girl" was the real eye-opener, a reuniting of Stefani with "Hella Good" producers the Neptunes that sounded like nothing else either artist had done before, a rap song that was just as much Toni Basil as J.J. Fad.
Both songs were huge hits for Stefani, with "Hollaback" not only giving her the first number-one Hot 100 hit of her career (solo or with No Doubt), but also getting her to the Top 10 of the R&B charts -- a feat few could have seen coming back in Stefani's "Tragic Kingdom" days of the mid-'90s. Meanwhile, it was another step for the Neptunes to proving that, more than any other producer, they had the Midas touch for '00s pop music.