The Grammys created the awkwardly named Best Rap/Sung Collaboration category ten years ago, around the time Ja Rule’s various “thug love” duets were dominating the airwaves. The award recognized a growing sector of popular music that didn’t quite fit into the preexisting rap, R&B or pop song awards, and its creation was a prescient move. In 2001, 13% of Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 Songs featured at least one rapper and one singer; in 2011 that number had doubled to 26% (after peaking at 33% in 2010). The category’s a little more unpredictable this year, as NARAS snubbed the biggest dancefloor-friendly rapped-and-sung hits of the year (“Give Me Everything,” “Party Rock Anthem,” “On The Floor,” “E.T.”) in favor of more urban radio fare.
Beyoncé featuring André 3000, “Party”
WHO: R&B’s biggest diva and the more reclusive half of Southern rap’s biggest group.
PROS: The Grammys have missed André 3000 since his retreat from the spotlight following Outkast’s 2004 Album of the Year winner Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. He’s sporadically popped up on a song big enough to be recognized by the Grammys since then, and the Academy usually gives those tracks a nod; he’s shown up in this category for John Legend’s “Green Light,” and in Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for UGK’s “Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You)” and OutKast partner Big Boi’s “Royal Flush”.
CONS: “Party” is one of the many underperforming singles from Beyonce’s underperforming 4 album, hitting heavy rotation on urban radio but missing the Top 40.
HOW’S THE RAPPING?: André’s verse is fine, if not one of the better efforts from his relatively busy 2011. but the track deserves demerits for the brief, uncredited intro/outro by producer Kanye West that introduced the world to the term “swagu.”
HOW’S THE SINGING?: B’s elated vocal performance is easily the best thing about this flaccid track, but it sounds better on the song’s many dancehall remixes.
DJ Khaled featuring Drake, Rick Ross & Lil Wayne, “I’m On One”
WHO: The Miami-based DJ renowned for his ability to get hit records out of rappers who make hits in their sleep.
PROS: Drake is only the second artist to earn Rap/Sung nominations on both sides of the backslash; four years ago T-Pain, was nominated as a rapper on Chris Brown’s “Kiss Kiss” and as a singer on Kanye West’s “Good Life.”
CONS: As the most rugged hip-hop anthem in the category, it might not be enough of an R&B fusion to win.
HOW’S THE RAPPING?: Drake and Rozay are about as good as they get (though your mileage may vary on whether that means much), while Wayne turns in one of the sleepiest, most incompetent verses of his career.
HOW’S THE SINGING?: Drake’s limited vocal range and melodic imagination are hurtling him toward that “all his hooks sound the same” wall 50 Cent hit around 2005.
Dr. Dre featuring Eminem & Skylar Grey, “I Need a Doctor”
WHO: Two hip-hop legends and the lady who wrote last year’s nominee “Love The Way You Lie.”
PROS: The revered superproducer linked up with his most successful protégé to help launch his long-awaited album Detox, and it’s rare that those guys can get together without winning a Grammy or two.
CONS: After the song’s brief stay in the top 10, it was quickly forgotten, and Dre, like a groundhog seeing his shadow, decided to delay Detox at least one more year.
HOW’S THE RAPPING?: Em’s histrionic paean to to his mentor dominates the first two verses of the song and Dre pops up for one unmemorable verse at the end, making it feel more like a tribute than a comeback.
HOW’S THE SINGING?: Skylar Grey, who first popped into the consciousness as Holly Brook when she sang the hook for on Fort Minor’s “Where’d You Go,” remains anonymous no matter what name she goes by.
Rihanna featuring Drake, “What’s My Name?”
WHO: A superstar from Barbados, another from Canada, and a production team from Norway come together for the category’s first nominee without a single American in the mix.
PROS: The biggest hit (and only Hot 100 chart-topper) in this year’s field.
CONS: Both artists appear on a competing song with better odds.
HOW’S THE RAPPING?: Drizzy’s drizzly wordplay reaches an all-time low with clunkers like “I heard you good with them soft lips… Yeah, you know, word of mouth.”
HOW’S THE SINGING?: Rihanna may not be a powerhouse singer, but there’s an undeniable appeal to her voice, especially when she lets a Caribbean lilt creep into her delivery.
Kelly Rowland featuring Lil Wayne, “Motivation”
WHO: The beta female of Destiny’s Child and the alpha male of Young Money.
PROS: Kelly has already won the award once, for Nelly’s “Dilemma.”
CONS: You know that anytime Kelly is in competition with Beyoncé she’s already given up any hopes of winning in her mind.
HOW’S THE RAPPING?: Weezy’s verse here isn’t “I’m On One”-level lazy, but it still adds little to the song; “Motivation” was on my Pazz & Jop ballot, but for most of the year I pretended it was a Rowland solo track.
HOW’S THE SINGING?: She belts, she coos, she whispers, she screams. It’s probably the most technically accomplished vocal performance in the category, but it’s also sexy as hell.
Kanye West featuring Rihanna, Fergie & Kid Cudi (with Drake, Alvin Fields, Elly Jackson, Elton John, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Ryan Leslie, Ken Lewis, The-Dream, Charlie Wilson & Tony Williams), “All of the Lights”
WHO: Rap’s reigning auteur and about half the singers in his Rolodex.
PROS: West is the most dominant artist in the short history of the Rap/Sung Collaboration category: this is his ninth nomination, and could easily be his third win.
CONS: “All of the Lights” is far less of a crossover hit than Jay-Z’s “Run This Town,” which also featured West and Rihanna and won two years ago.
HOW’S THE RAPPING?: A rare occasion when Kanye isn’t rapping exclusively about Kanye’s life, here he inhabits the tortured mindset of an estranged and abusive husband and father. But his actual lyrics are cringe-inducingly bad, as he crams the narrative into a blocky, simplistic rhyme scheme. What does it say about a rap song when the hottest bars are delivered by Fergie?
HOW’S THE SINGING?: Rihanna’s million-dollar voice dominates the proceedings, but the muddy mix of over a dozen billed guest singers is an exercise in touting starpower over actually utilizing the assembled talent.
FINAL PREDICTION: Kanye. Although anyone who says they can identify half the voices on the song, or that they enjoy every moment of the distended outro, is probably lying.