What Makes for a Good Guest Verse?: Donna & Yoh In Conversation

Donna and Yoh discuss what separates a memorable, necessary guest verse from a friendly add-on.
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Sometimes, a guest verse can make or break a song. Features are a staple part of hip-hop music, and with that comes the question: what exactly makes for a good guest verse? What separates a memorable, necessary guest verse from a friendly add-on? 

We posed this question to our managing editor Donna-Claire Chesman and senior writer Yoh. Their conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

yoh [12:12 PM]

Hi, Donna. The GRAMMYs are a scam. How are you?

donnacwrites [12:12 PM]

Oh, yes, good afternoon to you, too. I am okay. It's Year of Mac day, and it's love song day, so I am jazzed.

yoh [12:13 PM]

It's a good day. Super stoked for your Year of Mac piece to be out in the world and to be read in all its glory.

donnacwrites [12:14 PM]

So I suppose we should just dive in today since you're clearly ready to discuss. I have but one question for you this afternoon: What makes for a good guest verse?

yoh [12:20 PM]

If you consider the lead artist as the host, and the song as their home, any additional featured act is an invited guest upon the record. Every guest arrives with the capacity to be remembered as wonderful company or an unpleasant acquaintance. A good guest verse is someone who enhances the record with their presence. They add and amplify to the foundation. As a listener, you can't imagine the song without them like you can't imagine a party without the guest who brought the good bottle of wine. 

What about you? How would you describe a good feature verse?

donnacwrites [12:23 PM]

A good guest verse is a necessary one. The song needs to feel incomplete without the verse. I always bring up 6LACK, but think of "Pretty Little Fears," and how vacant that song would feel if J. Cole did not bring his matured perspective on romance. 

A guest verse not only has to sound good, provide a nice sense of chemistry and excitement, but it has to bring a perspective we could not get from the lead artist. To follow your analogy, if the lead artist is the host but absolutely cannot bake, the good guest would bring a dessert to fill out the dinner party. The question, then, becomes how do we judge a verse as necessary? Perspective is one measure, but there are more.

yoh [12:38 PM]

I often think about songs as a game of Tetris but with the board half-full. How you maneuver the pieces can either put everything correctly in place or risk filling the board to the top. Kanye West's "Monster" is an interesting example. There's a Rick Ross verse that's absolutely unnecessary. He barely appears for longer than four bars. He feels like a piece that didn't have a natural place on the song. But Nicki Minaj, who soars at the end, she is thoughtfully coordinated to close out the record. It's a performance deserving of a high score. 

Not every verse is strategic, but often, the best features are decided because an artist fits the theme, or sound, or style. Knowing what you want and seeking a fellow artist who can deliver that vision shines through when the records are made. Can you recall a time where you heard an artist featured on a song and felt there was no synergy with them and the record?

donnacwrites [12:43 PM]

A good recent example for me would be the Joey Bada$$ feature on J.I.D's "Hot Box." His voice didn't feel like it could cut through the murk of the production, and as Joey isn't really lauded as a "weed rapper" he felt ever so out of place to me. The track itself felt out of place, to be fair. Whereas Method Man crushed his appearance and worked very well with J.I.D, Joey felt like a friendly add-on and not a necessary line piece, to fit your analogy. 

Another one is BlocBoy JB on Rico Nasty's "In The Air." He's so close to being on point, but their vocal tones just do not mesh well together, so while his verse is thematically close and his energy matches Rico's, it feels like he tried to spin into place and just clicked a block or two away. Perhaps the most offensive offering is not a bad feature verse which we can all spot, but one that we slowly realize just wasn't a fit to the song.

yoh [1:01 PM]

Yes! I see your point about Joey, even though I enjoy "Hot Box," and completely agree with the BlockboyJB critique. So true about spotting a feature that simply doesn't fit. Kendrick Lamar is great at features but can be an eclipse. Not in the sense of completely overshadowing the lead artist, but is so stylistically unbound that he arrives and changes a song's entire mood. He spazzes on Travis Scott's "goosebumps" but the song doesn't necessarily ask for such a performance. It's enthralling but becomes a completely different song while he's present. 

Should there be artistic courtesy? Or does a feature like "goosebumps" work for an artist like Kendrick who is bringing a certain creativity every time he raps.

donnacwrites [1:04 PM]

"goosebumps" works because of the implication that since it is Kendrick, we need an entire experience. That is his artistic license, after all. He takes Vince Staples' "Yeah Right" into another world. He is the crux of "God Is Fair, Sexy Nasty," but sounds nothing like Mac Miller as he brings this nasally drawl that is the furthest from the bars Mac is spitting on the matters of love and sex. 

What's interesting about a Kendrick verse is that he does not enhance the song, but rather expands the canvas upon which the lead artist is painting.

yoh [1:10 PM]

That's so interesting. It made me think about how different Dot approach features than, say, Drake. Drake is all about following the brushstrokes of the lead artist. He'll match their color palette with hues that blend, while Kendrick will color outside the lines with shades not in the crayon box. They both work, they both have a place. It's about finding what you offer, and how it works with the song you're appearing on.

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