In what will be surprising news to many, Justin Vernon of the alt-folk outfit Bon Iver has announced a collaboration with the hip-hop superstar Kanye West. Following weeks of speculation, the Bon Iver frontman finally revealed to Pitchfork magazine that he had laid down vocals on "at least 10 songs" for West's latest album. How many will make the cut remains to be seen, but at least one track, entitled Lost in the World, looks set be on the finished record.
At first glance, this seems like an incongruous pairing. Vernon's only full album has been 2007's For Emma, Forever Ago, a collection of wistful tales of heartache written over three months while he was recovering from illness in a secluded Wisconsin cabin. Since the rapper-producer West's 2004 debut, he has become as famous for his outspokenness, fashion sense and entrepreneurial trend-spotting ways as for his platinum-selling records.
While Vernon's lo-fi sounds of richly harmonised vocals and dreamy guitars seem at odds with West's slick productions, this won't be the first time West has displayed his indie cred by collaborating with an alternative artist. Who can forget 2005's Heard 'Em Say with Maroon 5's funk-crooner Adam Levine? Or 2007's Homecoming, which featured Coldplay's Chris Martin singing a catchy chorus? In recent years, West has also publicly praised the Brooklyn folk-rockers Grizzly Bear, and even covered Peter Bjorn and John's Young Folks live.
In fact, rap and rock collaborations have been around since long before West was a College Dropout. It all started back in 1984, when Afrika Bambaataa's hip-hop group Time Zone released World Destruction, a single featuring the post-punk singer John Lydon from Public Image Ltd. The song's revolutionary mix of ferocious hip-hop vocals and rock riffs set the tone for duets to come. A few years later, the hip-hop outfit Run-DMC recorded its legendary cover of Aerosmith's Walk This Way, with Steve Tyler and Joe Perry joining them on vocals and lead guitar. The song and video became hugely successful, reaching number four on the Hot 100 of 1986. For the first time, the bankability of rap and rock's dual appeal became apparent.
Then, in 1991, Public Enemy fused their unique brand of political hip-hop with the metal band Anthrax's shredded guitars and frenetic drumming. After releasing the single Bring the Noise, Public Enemy and Anthrax embarked on a joint tour, uniting listeners of the two seemingly disparate genres as never before. Anthrax and Public Enemy are largely credited with turning the one-off hip-hop and rock collaboration into a movement known as rap-rock, proliferated by bands like Beastie Boys, Faith No More, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against The Machine back in the early 1990s, though it had fallen by the wayside by the end of the 20th century. So why, in 2010, are we awaiting new hip-hop and rock songs by way of Bon Iver and West?
In the past 10 years, rap and rock have once again joined forces. Perhaps the most memorable merging of the hip-hop and rock worlds came in 2004 with Linkin Park and Jay-Z's Collision Course. To the horror of purists, the MTV mash-up album was wildly successful, reaching number one on the Billboard 200 upon its release. Hits such as Numb/Encore combined Linkin Park's industrial nu-metal sounds with Jay-Z's swaggering rhymes to great effect, reviving the hip-hop and rock collaboration.
Recent records have continued the trend. Last year's release from the Black Keys fused their blues-rock sound with the rapping of Mos Def, Raekwon and Ludacris, among others. The album, entitled Blakroc, has received rave reviews from the music press and a follow-up is reportedly in the works. West and Vernon's collaboration is really just another date in the long courtship of rock and rap. Perhaps West's decision to fly a purveyor of quiet indie folk into his Hawaii recording studio should, in fact, come as no surprise. After all, Vernon did use a vocoder on last year's Blood Bank EP, putting him in the same realm of autotune love as West.
But will it be successful? Some alternative and hip-hop collaborations have resulted in a cacophonous mess, like the 2008 soundtrack for the Bond film Quantum of Solace by Alicia Keys and Jack White of the White Stripes. Bon Iver's Vernon concluded in his interview with Pitchfork: "Maybe asking me to play on his record was the worst idea he's ever had and it'll ruin both of us, but it was cool." And you can't argue with cool.