Justin Timberlake took the unofficial title in 2003. John Mayer owned it in 2004. And in 2005, there's once again a clear victor. Mad props to Adam Levine for being hip-hop's new favorite white boy.
The Maroon 5 singer started out the year by performing impromptu with Mos Def at Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammy party and then went on to be a featured guest on albums from Kanye West, the Ying Yang Twins and Alicia Keys, all the while maintaining that certain soul in his voice and bravado in his step.
"His voice is just incredible and good music transcends all genres," West, who championed Mayer a year ago (see "Forget Cristal — John Mayer CDs Are The Latest Hip-Hop Must-Have"), said of Levine. "He's mad cool and he's talented. He's a singer/songwriter and that's what I really respect. I'm not really into it when people don't write their own music and they just sound good. It's like, 'OK, but you didn't really go through that.' "
"No matter who you are, no matter where you're from, [you can see] that Adam is a genuine person, and you meet him and you feel that he really loves music," added Keys, who collaborated with Levine on a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" for her Unplugged album (see "Alicia Keys Taps Mos Def, Common For 'Inspired' 'Unplugged' "). "He's a good guy and I think that there's a certain thing about his voice that is very ... special. It's different, it's unique and I think that's what people gravitate towards."
That a graduate from Brentwood High School in Southern California who launched his career in an alternative-pop band called Kara's Flowers is making music with the same crunksters behind "Wait (The Whisper Song)" might sound preposterous to many, but it's all poetry to Levine's ears.
"What we do is very inspired by a lot of that music, so it makes sense that people in that field, in that area, would gravitate towards us as we gravitate towards them," the singer explained, using "we" to refer to his Maroon 5 bandmates even though he's been collaborating without them. "We're not exclusive to only working with hip-hop and R&B artists, but a lot of music turns us on, that gets us going, happens to be hip-hop and R&B.
"But we've done things with white people too, we're not exclusive," he added with a smile.
What Levine means is that when Kara's Flowers were in the process of reinventing themselves as Maroon 5, he and the band were heavily influenced by hip-hop.
"We felt like what was happening in rock music, or just in music in general, was getting a bit stale, a little boring, and I remember at the time Missy Elliott, Timbaland and the Neptunes were starting to come up," Levine explained. "The thing that we loved about it was that it caught us off-guard, it was bizarre, the things that were happening were strange.
"We were like, 'We're white boys, but we love this sh--, so why not try to fit it into what we do,' " he continued. "It's not race-exclusive, so let's be honest with ourselves and do something that we love. We catch a little flack for it sometimes, because it is a little strange, the combination is a little weird, but hopefully we can keep trying to get people to understand us more and more."
Levine has actually been a Kanye West fan since the rapper's days as a burgeoning producer and met him when Maroon 5 enlisted West to remix "This Love." The two became friends and a few months later, after Maroon 5 beat West for the Best New Artist at the 2005 Grammys, they sat together on a flight to the MTV European Music Awards.
"He started playing me all this new material for his record and I was really excited about it, just in general," Levine recalled. "Then he played me this one song that was kind of what 'Heard 'Em Say' eventually became. It was just the track and he was kind of rhyming over it and I had just written a hook that was so perfect for it. It was one of those natural collaborations where you're so excited because it's all very pure."
Six months later Levine visited the studio where West was recording with Jon Brion and recorded his part in less than an hour.
"He added something to it," West said of the track, the latest single from Late Registration (see "Kanye, Kids Run Amok In Surreal Macy's For New Clip"). "It was just like the magic, the frosting on top. And that's one of those times where, you know, that God is working in the studio with you."
Levine never actually shared studio time with the Ying Yang Twins, but liked what he heard on "Live Again" so much that the first place he went after recovering from breaking his sternum was the studio to record that hook.
"That's kind of my criteria for whether I want to work with somebody or work on what they are doing is if I really appreciate and love it, then I'll be involved," Levine said. "And if I respect the artist. And Ying Yang's some serious sh--."
Levine fulfilled his dream collaboration in 2005 when he performed with Stevie Wonder at Live 8, but said there's still plenty of artists he wants to sing with once Maroon 5 finish their second studio album (see "Maroon 5 Won't Feature '800 Guest Stars' On Next LP").
"I haven't been doing it for any personal gain other than wanting to work with these people and I think that's how we wanna keep it," he said. "Tomorrow, if Andre 3000 calls me and says, 'Hey man, I want you to sing this hook on my record,' I'd be like, 'All right.' But it's not gonna be the kind of thing where I'm chasing after anything.
"It's pretty flattering just to hear that [hip-hop artists want to collaborate], sometimes that's enough," he added. "You hear it and like, 'Oh right, sweet! I gotta go make a record though, sorry.' "