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Strength in numbers

Snoop Dogg has a feat. fetish.

Fellow rap stars Eminem, Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes do, too. Same goes for R&B and dance-pop stars such as Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera, Usher and Justin Timberlake.

Feat. is liner-note shorthand for "feat-uring," as in a special guest being featured on another artist's song.

Musicians have always helped out their friends; think about Frank, Sammy and Dino using their Rat Pack power to boost album and concert sales. Hip-hop is especially big on guest shots. Puff Daddy (now known as Diddy) just about built his Bad Boy label on having his crew of talent strut on each other's discs.

But now more than ever, big stars are trying to gain an edge in a shaky music market by turning their albums into over-the-top jam-packed parties, asking bold-faced special guests from hip-hop and then some to dangle their feat. in chart-topping waters.

It's all about reaching new fans, says Harvey Mason Jr., one half of the Underdogs, the white-hot production team that has tinkered for Timberlake, Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige, and most recently worked on the soundtrack to Beyonce's upcoming film Dreamgirls.

Mason points to Timberlake and Stefani as pop stars who use hip-hop cameos to reach wider audiences and inspire different sounds.

"Some people take it to the extreme with 28 features on an album," Mason says. "But music is blending together so fast these days - rock, rap, R&B - that more creative things happen when you get different artists working together."

Many of today's bestselling albums are fat with feat. Snoop's Tha Blue Carpet Treatment lists 15 feats. and connects 25 special guests to 21 songs, including Stevie Wonder's feat. on Conversations.

The 56-year-old Wonder (who was making hits before Snoop was born and is clearly trying to reach the kids) is also featured on Busta Rhymes' The Big Bang, which has 13 special guests. Jay-Z has eight guests on Kingdom Come, which debuted as the No. 1 album in the country. Jay-Z's guests include Beyonce, Usher and Pharrell, the latter of whom is hands-down the King of Feat., primarily because his production crew the Neptunes are the most prolific knob-twiddlers in the game.

Dizzy yet? Hold on: The Neptunes and Pharrell are all over Gwen Stefani's latest, The Sweet Escape, which also features Senegalese hip-hopper Akon, who also appears on the new Snoop disc. Snoop, in turn, appears on Pharrell's solo album, as do Stefani and Jay-Z.

In a music industry driven by downloadable singles sales, hip-hop is huge. And in hip-hop, the hottest trend is helping out your pals.

"With 'features,' it's also a status thing now," says Lamar Young, an Atlanta producer-performer who works with R&B boy group B5, which has a song on the chart-topping Hannah Montana soundtrack. "You're trying to keep up with the Joneses. The more features, the hotter you are - or at least theoretically."

The buddy system

Young says a B5 album scheduled for spring is just about finished save for one thing: "We're looking for features now," he says. Rapper Yung Joc is reportedly on B5's wish list, a cameo that could cost upward of $50,000.

A potential bargain, given that rapper-actor Ludacris once bragged about making $80,000 for a cameo that lasted mere seconds.

Not all features are strictly cash-for-flash deals, however. Coldplay's Chris Martin, a Brit-popper who's about as hip-hop as David Niven, produces and sings on a new Jay-Z track. That odd coupling reportedly came about from mutual admiration. Sure, they both got paid, but money wasn't the catalyst - respect was.

"You have to remember that making records and making music is fun," the Underdogs' Mason says. "The most thrilling thing is to collaborate with someone you admire."

Detroit's Eminem essentially built his Shady Records label through his deft way with a feature. He'd frequently showcase Motor City rappers such as Obie Trice and the D12 crew on his multiplatinum albums. Then, when it was time for Obie Trice and D12 to release discs, they already had exposure. On the new Eminem Presents: The Re-Up more than 13 Shady-signed artists are featured.

Tampa rapper Acafool (real name: Kervans Joseph) is gaining national buzz for his underground hit Hata Blockas, a remix of which features friend and fellow rapper Tampa Tony plus other local talents. Yes, the song has features, but there was a point.

"I just asked them to be on it, because it was paying homage (to local talent)," Joseph says. "Features can hinder an artist trying to establish himself. But when you're as big as Snoop, it sure doesn't hurt."

To feat. or not to feat.

Part of the reason features are so prevalent is that they're so easy to record. Once upon a time, guest spots came about in much more romantic ways - two artists happened to be in the same studio at the same time. But now, music-making software such as Pro Tools allows a guest to record a track in a hotel room - on the other side of the world - and send it cross-globe to be spliced seamlessly and immediately into a song.

"Artists are barely ever in the same studio together anymore," says Lamar Young.

Rising neo-soul star Anthony David has always been suspicious of features: too gratuitous, too commercial-driven. "Too many features is definitely a weakness," he says. "Sometimes I'll be at the record store, pick up an album by someone and wonder, 'Is he even on this thing?' In rap, sometimes, to make things more interesting, you need to switch voices, especially if what you're saying isn't too interesting."

But after David wrote songs for bestselling R&B diva India.Arie, she heard his song Words and told him, "I feel like I have something to add to that." So Anthony traveled to Arie's house to record her feature spot, "which we had to shove in via Pro Tools."

The pairing showed the feat.-wary David that guests sometimes do a lot more for your record than just add star power.

"I realized I didn't really know what the song was about,'' he says with a laugh, "until she came on."

Sean Daly can be reached at or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at