What Makes Hidden Features On Hip-Hop Albums So Exciting?

Collaborations are part and parcel of our modern pop culture landscape – be it vocal or production contributions. A key feature sometimes might be the difference between a simple marketing push and an absolute hype-inducing strategy.

Last week, Dreamville head honcho J Cole dropped his much anticipated KOD follow-up The Off-Season. Within its 2 week promo cycle, he unleashed “i n t e r l u d e” as the lead single, gave fans another documentary of the album’s recording process, and a look at the tracklist a day before release.

Like his previous records, listeners were expecting him to carry the project on his lonesome – staying true to his “N****s ain’t worthy to be on my shit” mentality. So imagine how much fans’ worlds were rocked when Jermaine “double platinum with no features” Cole enlisted the help of trap heavyweights 21 Savage and Lil Baby on The Off-Season.

“m y . l i f e”, with 21 Savage is currently one of the most popular songs off the album so far, with a number of reasons for why that’s so. He serves as the first big name guest feature on a Cole project since 2014, so that alone is surprising enough. Paired with the fact that the duo’s previous collaboration “a lot” was one of the best rap songs of the past 5 years, it stirred up a recipe for success as it raised listener expectations and attempted to surpass them. Furthermore, the inclusion of trap’s current brightest star – Lil Baby, feels like a groundbreaking co-sign from Cole on the Atlanta artist’s brilliance.

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With the use of hidden features, The Off-Season went from an album that was simply meant to tide fans over till his next project, to a body of work that startled listeners with Cole’s willingness to collaborate with other voices – acting like an artistic progression of sorts (or should I say repetition since he used to have features a long while ago).

In any case, it gave listeners something to talk about. Regardless if the discourse born out of this was positive or negative, it’s impossible to deny that the hidden features gave The Off-Season‘s initial streaming numbers a huge initial boost.

[Note: The album now lists out all its features on streaming services since the hype has died down a bit]

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For Now, It’s A Hip-Hop Thing

To my knowledge, hidden features are a marketing tactic that’s still only largely used by rap artists – with the most notable examples being Travis Scott’s ASTROWORLD, 21 Savage’s I Am > I Was and Childish Gambino’s 3.15.20. This makes sense given how inseparable collaborations are within the history of hip-hop. It’s impressive enough to hear a rapper spaz out over their own solo material, but it’s another to see them hold their own against another artist that listeners would think of as their equal or superior.

With listed features, they spur on the competitive nature of hip-hop. Regardless of whether every artist involved decided to challenge and bring out the best in one another, listeners are automatically led to believe that to be the case since they would compare the highs of each artist and prematurely decide on who would deliver a better performance.

Already on social media are people debating on whether J Cole or 21 Savage had a better showing on Off-Season. It’s discussion that extends the shelf life of an artist’s music.

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With hidden features, the element of surprise is reminiscent to the Undertaker music’s blaring in the middle of a match during Monday Night Raw. The sudden whiplash of a foreign voice that dramatically alters everything listeners have come to expect on the track.

The effect becomes doubly potent when the feature artist has always been closely associated with the track’s owner (Post Malone on 21 Savage’s “All My Friends”), or when it’s so left field that the song immediately gets brought into a higher plane of existence (Drake on “SICKO MODE”).

The rap game (and music industry) in general thrives off these interconnections between artists. The Billboard charts rank their commercial strength each week, igniting a sense of friendly competition between artists while acting as a source of debate for fans and stans alike. Adding to the fact that many rappers and artists seemingly occupy the same lane, be it in sound or theme, unexpected crossovers (or otherwise) generate a mutually beneficial buzz for all careers in the short-term and long run.

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What Sort Of Artist Gets To Do Hidden Features?

I’m not trying to gatekeep a legitimate marketing strategy but you have to admit that its a stunt reserved for only the biggest artists (well…in most cases, at least). Let’s take the 3 aforementioned albums as examples.

ASTROWORLD was an album years in the making, generating obscene amounts of hype even before its predecessor record Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight dropped. Over the years, Travis Scott had built up a distinguishable reputation as one of hip-hop’s best maestros, behind only mentor Kanye West. So it’s no surprise that ASTROWORLD would have at least a couple of big name features.

So when the album dropped with nary a name in sight on its tracklist, fans were…alright with it. They knew there was going to be outside voices on the album, but they just didn’t know when and who might pop up. Playing into the theme park aesthetic of the album, the unexpected surprises that were just lying in wait just like the best kinds of rollercoasters, which was very on-brand for Travis. The hidden features became an essential part of the initial listening experience.

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Whereas on I Am > I Was and 3.15.20, the hidden features were more of a gimmick than anything. Just like Off-Season they were meant to catch listeners off-guard, but unlike that album, the features didn’t do much in pushing a ‘narrative’ around each artist’s career. Cole’s was that he finally opened up to collaborating again, while 21 Savage and Childish Gambino just had features on there because they could.

This doesn’t mean that the features were used badly, though. On both records, the presence of the hidden features serve as a testament to the popularity of 21 and Gambino’s careers. Ariana Grande’s contribution to 3.15.20 is nothing to scoff at when she’s literally the world’s biggest pop star at the moment, while 21 Savage was able to bring Gambino himself out of his rap hiatus on “monster”.

The surprise here is that these artists are able to enlist the help of said guests and having the audacity to actually hide them. It’s a flex and a half that serves more as a statement on the strength of their careers so far.


What If A Smaller Artist Were To Hide Their Features?

It’s not anyone’s place to say what you can or can’t do with your art, and personally, I think that hiding features remains a very viable strategy for indie artists too…but only under certain conditions.

However, you can’t expect hidden features to work if no one is going to listen to your music in the first place. A significant amount of hype has to be built up before even attempting it, plus the hidden feature would have to be an artist WAY above your stature. It’s almost like climbing Mount Everest and whipping out a jetpack 10 minutes before you reach the summit.

Of course, this isn’t a foolproof strategy and it’s only something I thought of while writing this article. It’s hard to guess how much of a trend hidden features will end up being in hip-hop, but if recent albums are anything to go by, it’s a strategy that hasn’t outworn its welcome just yet.

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Based in Melbourne and Malaysia. Jensen is a part-time journalist and full-time music fan.

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