There's no such thing as sharing the spotlight with Kanye West. If you're on the same stage as the polarizing rapper, chances are you were relegated to second fiddle before any notes were even played.
An exception is Charlie Wilson, the 60-year-old R&B singer and frequent West collaborator who performs Sunday at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. When West and Wilson performed their recent "Yeezus" collaboration "Bound 2" on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" and "Later ... with Jools Holland," it was Wilson's impassioned baritone — and not the brooding Yeezus himself — that stole the show.
Since joining the Gap Band, an influential funk act from the '70s, and throughout his solo career, Wilson and his pure voice have had little trouble connecting with an audience.
"I try really, really hard to put the passion into, and to understand, the song that I'm delivering," Wilson said by phone Monday. "I think it has to come from your heart, and you have to deliver the record full of passion and love for the song and the vibe itself."
This all-in approach has made the Tulsa, Okla.-born singer a frequently requested collaborator in top-tier rap circles. Besides West, Wilson has appeared on tracks by Pharrell, Snoop Dogg and U.G.K in recent years. When asked why his voice is so effective on hip-hop records, Wilson was unable to pinpoint an answer.
"I could lie or just boast like most of these youngsters do — like 'I'm the best there is!' — but I really don't know what it is," Wilson said. "I'm just having a good time with hip-hop, rock genres, all kinds, man."
Wilson has clearly found a fan in West. The two have worked together on some of West's most acclaimed songs, including the 2010 single "All of the Lights." Wilson said he was originally the only featured singer on the song, but bringing his wife, Mahin Wilson, to the studio session quickly changed that.
Out of the blue, as West wrote lyrics on a laptop, Mahin surprised the rapper with a suggestion: She imagined Rihanna's voice on the song.
"He said, 'Hmm, OK.' Then Rihanna gets on it and I get [demoted] from 'featuring Charlie Wilson' to background [vocals]," Wilson said with a laugh. "I was like, 'Would you be quiet!'"
Wilson said he has remained selective over the years in his collaborations to avoid spreading himself thin.
"I didn't want to be known as 'The Hook Guy.' I turn people down all the time, even to write today," Wilson said. "You'll burn out fast like that."
As a writer and singer, Wilson has more to offer than a catchy chorus. He proved it most recently in January, when he released his sixth solo album, "Love, Charlie." The goal, he said, was for the album to embody the transcendent feeling of falling in love.
"We were definitely going after love, like I was proposing to the world," he said. "Being loved, giving love, sharing love — I was trying to put all that in a song."
Songs such as the first single "My Love Is All I Have" and the uplifting standout "I Think I'm in Love" capture Wilson's appeal best. When he approaches crescendos, his voice — filled with conviction and confidence, a timelessly winning combination for R&B — often swells to a height that separates him from his peers.
This year has been good to Wilson. Besides the new album and high-profile work on "Yeezus," he received a BET Lifetime Achievement Award in July. He relished the recognition but admits the all-star tribute medley had a moment Wilson will never forget.
"I was a Stevie Wonder fan growing up, and to see Stevie Wonder sing to me — that was one of the best moments of my life, period," Wilson said.
After his tour ends this winter, Wilson said, he plans to write a book about his life and career. He'll look back, but future music won't be far from his mind — perhaps because his collaborators won't allow it.
"Of course, Kanye is already demanding that we go to the studio this month, next month," Wilson said, alluding to songs West has already worked on for Wilson's next solo album. "It's like a family thing now. He trusts me and I trust him the same way."