The first vocal duets date to the dawn of recording, when vaudeville duos blared from gramophone horns, and they have remained a pop staple ever since, supplying a century’s worth of sparkling musical conversations, romantic pas de deux, sleazy pillow talk, and unlikely partnerships. But it wasn’t until 1991 that the vocal duet entered the realm of ontological conundrum. That year, Natalie Cole climbed the charts with “Unforgettable,” a “duet” with her father, Nat “King” Cole, who had been interred in a Los Angeles cemetery some 26 years earlier. This technological feat inspired another blockbuster record, the 1993 Duets album by Frank Sinatra—not technically dead like Nat Cole, but well on his way—in which Ol’ Blue Eyes was paired with all-star guests who literally phoned in their vocal contributions via fiber-optic lines. It was an unseemly exercise for Sinatra, who had performed wonderful duets throughout his career, always with a jazz singer’s sense of spontaneity and repartee. But as “Unforgettable” proved, record buyers didn’t require singers to be on the same plane of existence, let alone in the same room, and Duets went on to sell 3 million copies, making it the biggest hit album of Sinatra’s career.
In the years since, advances in technology have further complicated the question of what exactly a duet is, and there have been more exercises in musical necrophilia, among them an album pairing rappers and R&B artists with the quite dead Bob Marley, and a posthumous Notorious B.I.G. compilation, Duets: The Final Chapter(2005), featuring doubly morbid “collaborations” in which Biggie’s raps were stitched together with those of the late Tupac and Big Pun. But the lasting impact of “Unforgettable” and Sinatra’s Duets was to establish the duets collection as a reliable “event album” formula, especially for adult-contemporary artists. We’ve seen duets CDs by Elton John, Kenny G, Barbra Streisand, and Dionne Warwick. The biggest of all was Ray Charles’ multiplatinum, multi-Grammy-wining Genius Loves Company (2004), which arrived just in time to capitalize on the Charles-mania spurred by the biopic Ray.
Now we have a new hit duets album, Tony Bennett’s Duets: An American Classic—further proof that while these records are good business, they often defy musical reason. The illogic begins with the album title, which nonsensically smashes together three buzzwords, and extends to the songs themselves, featuring Bennett and an all-star team of younger singers: the Dixie Chicks, Bono, Paul McCartney, Sting, and a dozen-plus others. They’re all great musicians, but few have any idea how to sing the standards—sorry, “American classics”—that Bennett has been performing for 50 years. Those who do bring some interpretive panache (Stevie Wonder, Diana Krall) or match Bennett’s vocal timbre (Billy Joel) can’t approach the older man’s talent for seeming less like a singer than a wise, wry gentleman engaging in an easygoing chat with an old friend.
There is a big difference between a recording in which vocalists simply take turns singing lines and a good duet, which requires that some musical communication take place. Compare the strained songs on the Bennett album with “Who Says You Can’t Go Home“—a big, hokey country hit from earlier this year. That duet featured two large-lunged, like-minded singers, Jon Bon Jovi and Jennifer Nettles of the band Sugarland, and they have a radiantly warm (and very loud) musical conversation. Unfortunately, we’re likely to see more albums along the lines of An American Classic. The record is a hit (it reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200, Bennett’s highest charting album in his five-decades-long career), and at this very moment, record executives are doubtless planning duet albums for every graying singer on their rosters.
But it’s not just old-timers who are bringing duets to the pop charts. Take a look at last week’s Top 40: Fully one-quarter of the songs, and three of the Top 5, are duets. Of course, these are a stylistic universe away from Ella and Louis—or even Diana and Lionel. There’s Diddy and Nicole Scherzinger’s “Come to Me,” Ciara and Chamillionaire’s “Get Up,” and Lil Scrappy and Young Buck’s “Money in the Bank.” There’s Justin Timberlake and T.I.’s “My Love” (the No. 1 song in the country), Akon and Eminem’s “Smack That” (No. 2), and Ludacris and Pharrell’s “Money Maker” (No. 5). Rapper-singer and rapper-rapper collaborations are ubiquitous, and these songs overturn the long-standing verities about duets. They’re typically arranged marriages, orchestrated by record companies as a kind of pop music product placement. In most cases, the artists scarcely communicate—they quite literally perform different songs, with disparate musical texture and lyrical content. And yet, the songs often work.
Hip-hop duets have been around for decades, of course. Rappers have been teaming up with each other from the beginning, and when it became clear, sometime around the early ‘90s, that hip-hop was here to stay, singers began drafting rappers to add a little gruffness and street credibility to their songs. (The deal worked both ways: MCs who might otherwise have been embarrassed to sing love songs felt free to explore their sweeter, softer sides when sharing a track with an R&B singer.)
Sometimes, these are duets on the classical model: love songs starring a female vocalist and male rapper, a genre that New York Times critic Kelefa Sanneh has termed the “thug love duet.” The benchmark is Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s 1995 hit, “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need To Get By,” a glorious and—despite Method Man’s demand to “never ever give my pussy away”—legitimately romantic update of the famous Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell song. Jay-Z and Beyoncé announced their love to the world on “Bonnie & Clyde ‘03.” (Jay-Z: “All I need in this life of sin is me and my girlfriend.” Beyoncé: “Down to ride ‘til the very end, it’s me and my boyfriend.”) The biggest hit of 2006 is “Promiscuous,” a duet between Nelly Furtado and Timbaland, in which come-ons and reproaches are rapped and sung over a buoyant beat. (“Promiscuous” is typical of the fluid musical roles in hip-hop duets: Furtado, a singer, spends most of the song rapping; rapper-producer Timbaland sings the chorus.)
But in most cases, hip-hop duets leave 20th-century ideas about thematic coherence far behind. The spirit of the music is captured by the industry terminology. Rappers and R&B singers refer not to duets but “collabos,” and the Billboard charts are full of songs “featuring” this or that performer. (“The Pussycat Girls featuring Snoop Dogg,” “Shakira featuring Wyclef Jean.”) And indeed, these songs aren’t traditional musical partnerships so much as cameo appearances—a singer croons a chorus to a rap track, an MC parachutes into the middle of an R&B song to do his thing for 16 or so bars. In the huge 2004 hit “Crazy in Love,” Beyoncé sings plaintively, desperately, about love; two verses in, Jay-Z turns up to boast about his rhyme flow, his cash flow, and his chinchilla coat. Timberlake’s “My Love” has an even more purplish love lyric—”This ring here represents my heart/ But there is just one thing I need from you/ Saying ‘I do’ “—and although T.I. nods to the theme obliquely by addressing his rap to a girl, the mood is different: “Shorty, cool as a fan/ On the new once again but/ Still has fans from Peru to Japan/ Listen baby, I don’t wanna ruin your plan/ But if you got a man, try to lose him if you can.”
Besides testifying to rappers’ boundless capacity for self-aggrandizement, no matter the occasion, duets like “My Love” (with Justin Timberlake and T.I.) reveal the fundamental ways that hip-hop has changed our ideas about what a song is. The collage aesthetic that hip-hop producers brought to the creation of musical tracks now extends to lyrics. Today’s pop audience has learned to relish cognitive dissonance, cacophonous voices crowding a single song, and the whiplash movement from a singer’s ardent love vow to an MC’s plug for a forthcoming record. It’s the opposite of the careful craft found in the American Songbook standards sung by Bennett, where a single mood is built and sustained. But in the best hip-hop duets, what’s been lost in thematic coherence is made up for in bounty—T.I.’s honeycombed rap flow doesn’t snap the spell of “My Love,” it extends it.
What makes perfect sense in one musical setting, however, sounds terrible in another. Put Tim McGraw and his big cowboy hat in a recording studio with Tony Bennett, a string orchestra, and a Hank Williams tune, and the results can be ghastly. It’s not surprising that the best song by far on Duets:An American Classic is the one that’s not a duet at all: a new Bennett solo recording of his signature tune, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” in which the old master’s virtuosity and lyricism flows out unimpeded by the presence of another singer trying to keep up. Sometimes, two’s a crowd.