Putting together this list of the best rap/R&B collaborations of all time was easier than expected, surprisingly. There are a couple reasons why.
First off, the golden age for these jams sits roughly between 1995 and 2005. Much earlier than ’95 and rap was still coming into its own. Much later than 2005 and the lines between rap and R&B become so fluid that labeling songs as rap and R&B collaborations can feel outdated and pointless. It’s all hip hop.
So we narrowed our scope down to a decade’s worth of music from 1995-2005. To make the parameters even tighter, we realized that from ’95 to ’05 there’s a very short list of great artists that have created the bulk of the most iconic and timeless rap/R&B collaborations – think rappers Jay Z, Nas, and Biggie and singers Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, and Lauryn Hill. (There’s a much longer list of catchy rap/R&B songs from the era that were a hell of a lot of fun when they came out, but they don’t really hold up today).
The list of top 25 songs here is essentially a cross-pollination of these prolific rappers and singers mentioned above. There really aren’t any songs from one-hit wonder artists that made our list. Maybe we just missed them? Let us know in the comments. Anyways – here’s the list, in very loose order, with write-ups for the top 5. Make sure to follow the playlist on Spotify, where we’ve got the top 25 and a lot more. 🍑
Crazy In Love – Jay Z & Beyoncé
This is a bona fide classic beyond the confines of this category. It’s literally the first song on Beyoncé’s first solo album. It’s an emphatic introduction to the music icon’s voice and world. Crazy In Love remains a contagion 18 years after its debut, infecting the ears of everyone across the world who has heard it. Beyoncé’s energy and swagger on the song essentially set the standard for pop music of the 2000’s. And we can’t short-change Jay Z here. His pre-Black Album verse is both vintage and smooth, and fits perfectly on Beyoncé’s breakout anthem.
You Got Me – The Roots (ft. Erykah Badu,Tariq Trotter, & Eve)
We called out You Got Me on a post from last summer called The Top 5 Songs from High Fidelity. We explicitly stated it’s a top 5 song in the rap/R&B collaborations category, so we’d be hypocrites if we left it out here. It’s one of the best songs from The Roots, which is probably all we need to say to justify the praise. Erykah Badu sings about unconditional devotion in the chorus, while Black Thought raps about how life as an artist strains his relationship. The song is a raw portrayal of the human capacity to love and trust. And also how fragile both of those things can be.
I’ll Be There For You / You’re All I Need to Get By – Method Man & Mary J. Blige
Like You Got Me, this classic from Method Man and Mary J. Blige is about expressing love and devotion to a partner. Released back in 1995, it’s based on a reimagining of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s original song You’re All I Need. In Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s version, which is produced by Trackmasters, RZA, and Diddy, they’ve kept the same sentiment but transformed it from pop standard to rugged love song, complete with a Biggie Smalls sample on the chorus. Method Man’s raps, forever entertaining, detail his own unique vision of a romantic future: “I’m your mister, you my misses with hugs and kisses, Valentine cards and birthday wishes, please, we on another level of planning, of understanding, the bond between man and woman, and child, the highest elevation ’cause we above, all that romance crap, just show your love.” It’s sentimental and unsentimental at the same time, and that’s what makes it feel authentic.
If I Ruled The World (Imagine That) – Nas & Lauryn Hill
If I Ruled The World was the first single off of Nas’s sophomore album It Was Written, and was a bit of a curveball at the time. His debut album Illmatic became the definitive New York (and East coast) rap album, with its vivid and poetic storytelling about life on the streets of Queens, New York. The slick raw lyrics layered on top of classic soul & jazz-inspired beats from a legendary cast of producers (DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Q-Tip, Large Professor) proved to be a perfect formula. Then Nas switched gears, changed tone, and released If I Ruled The World featuring Lauryn Hill to set the stage for his Illmatic follow up. In the song, Nas shares his vision of a perfect world free of injustices, which Hill echoes on the chorus: “If I ruled the world (imagine that), I’d free all my sons.” The rest of the song makes clear the ‘freeing’ refers to the literal physical freeing of African Americans in prison, as well as freeing minorities from the shackles of racism and systemic inequities. This is one of the few songs on the list that’s not a ‘love song’, but its vision of utopia carries a romanticism much more beautiful than any love song ever could.
’03 Bonnie & Clyde – Jay Z & Beyonce
Spoiler alert: this is the last Jay Z and Beyoncé duet on our list. But individually, it’s not the last appearance for either one. ’03 Bonnie & Clyde was the couple’s first song together – the pre-game to Crazy in Love. It’s a remake of Tupac’s original Me and My Girlfriend, which was the late great’s ode to his gun – not his actual girlfriend. Jay Z and Beyonce keep some of the original’s grit though, using the title to compare themselves to the murderous gang leaders that wreaked havoc across the country during the Great Depression. It’s their PSA about how unstoppable they are, and their message comes through loud and clear. But Kanye West‘s involvement in the song might be x-factor. After producing hits for Jay Z’s classic album The Blueprint the year before, Kanye came up big again; he was the one who originally pitched the beat and concept for ’03 Bonnie & Clyde to Jay Z. The song is a pure gem from three of the most enduring stars music has ever seen.
No Diggity – Blackstreet & Dr. Dre
Only You – 112 (ft. Biggie Smalls & Mase)
Can’t Knock the Hustle – Jay Z & Mary J. Blige
Dilemma – Nelly & Kelly Rowland
What They Do – The Roots & Raphael Saadiq
Fantasy (Remix) – Mariah Carey & Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Excuse Me Miss – Jay Z & Pharrell
Luv U Better – LL Cool J & Marc Dorsey
How Do U Want It – Tupac (ft. KC & JoJo)
Mo Money Mo Problems – Biggie Smalls (ft. Diddy, Mase, & Kelly Price)
Ready Or Not – The Fugees
Got ‘Til It’s Gone – Janet Jackson (ft. Q-Tip & Joni Mitchell)
Beautiful – Snoop Dogg & Pharrell
I’ll Be Missing You – Diddy & Faith Evans
Still Not a Player – Big Pun & Joe
Soldier – Destiny’s Child (ft. Lil Wayne & T.I.)
21 Questions – 50 Cent & Nate Dogg
Run Tha Streetz (ft. Storm, Mutah, & Michel’le)
Come Close – Common & Mary J. Blige
Into You – Fabolous & Tamia
Full Spotify Playlist:
*Photo credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times