Does having access to the best producers and writers in music hinder your originality
As of the start of January, Adele's 25 album has sold in excess of 15 million copies.
In it's first week, Rihanna's latest ANTI has sold 1.5 million copies.
Next week, Kanye's seventh album Waves is due to arrive, off the back of his hugely popular Yeezus album, so sales are expected to be huge.
What these three albums seem to have in common is a sense of complacency due to all three artists exposed to unique levels of popularity. To that end they are open to working with the world's best and brightest writers, producers and collaborators, but in the case of Adele and Rihanna - and what may also be the case with Kanye - the resulting albums are less than the sum of their parts.
With Adele's album, early word had her working with artists as varied as Pharrell Williams, Damon Albarn and Phil Collins. There were tracks written by Sia - "Alive" and "Bird Set Free" - that were scrapped and recycled. In it's place we got the usual suspects for an Adele album such as Greg Kurstin and Paul Epworth, with additions from the likes of Max Martin and Bruno Mars that stick out like a sore thumb.
The same goes with Rihanna's ANTI. Early singles "Bitch Better Have My Money", "American Oxygen" and "FourFiveSecond" are nowhere to be found. She turned down the mega-hit collaboration "Lean On" with Major Lazer, as well as Sia's track "Cheap Thrills", which, again was recycled by that artist for her own album. Instead, we've got another collaboration with Drake, another group of songs produced by the same Rihanna production crew - Timbaland, DJ Mustard, Hit-Boy - and nothing as good as the songs she discarded or opted against.
In both cases, the albums have been greeted with "Good, Not Great" reviews from critics, as all of the build up leading to their releases hinted at albums much more interesting than the finished products. There is a sense that in the world of Adele and Rihanna, with every talented music maker wanting to work with them, they can obviously afford to cherry pick who they want to work with and what songs they want on their album. Unfortunately, that scenario of literally being spoiled for choice can often result in making decisions that are far too safe. When the best writers and producers in the world are giving you their A-Game, the process of creativity can be left to wayside, replaced instead by a sense of pop-manufacturing. In short, you're not going to fail when you've got Max Martin and Timbaland on your team, but you're not going to be pushing any sonic envelopes, either.
In contrast, when Beyonce released her surprise, self-titled album in 2013, she enlisted a then mostly-unknown writer/producer known as Boots, who worked on eight of the album's fourteen tracks, and the end result is unarguably the best album of her career. The same goes for Kanye West with Yeezus album, getting the unlikely likes of Daft Punk and Hudson Mohawke involved in the production.
However, with his upcoming Waves album, things feel a little ... off. Everything from the title - previously SWISH, and before that So Help Me God, and recently Kim Kardashian put up a Twitter poll asking people to vote for their favourite of the three - to the latest additions to the collaborations list - Andre 3000, Kid Cudi and 2 Chainz were all involved in studio sessions with less than two weeks to the album's release date - that screams of an artist who doesn't know what he wants. The constantly shape-shifting goal is one that can only be set-up by and catered to an artist with the world at their feet - someone without the hunger of achievement and innovation because it's already been achieved.
Perhaps we'll be wrong and Waves (if that's the title he sticks with) will be the career defining highlight of West's work to date, but again we've got a deluge of tracks that were released - "All Day", "FourFiveSeconds", "Only One" - that aren't on the album. The early singles that have been released - "Wolves", "Fade", "Real Friends", "No More Parties In L.A." - fall into the category of "Good, Not Great." Let's hope the rest of the album is where Kanye rediscovers that hunger for creativity and originality.