Last week, when Atlanta rapper Meek Mill accused Toronto hip-hop heavyweight Drake of utilising ghostwriters in order to construct his lyrics, a decades old issue was reignited. Since the early ’90s, prominent rappers have been employing the talents of secretive ghostwriters to beef up their lyrical arsenal; famous rappers including Eminem, Nas, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, Kendrick Lamar, and Jay Z have - for a price - penned content for their peers. It’s a well-established trade secret in an industry that is all about words and increasingly about volume.
Sean "Jay Z" Carter famously bragged “S. Carter, ghost writer, and for the right price/ I can even make your shit tighter,” years before he would concede on Moment of Clarity that “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be/ Lyrically Talib Kweli/ Truthfully I wanted to rhyme like Common Sense/ But I did 5 mil’/ I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.” With two incisive sentiments, Carter sums up a lasting issue in rap; sharp rhymes sell records and can net some pocket money on the side, but they’re not enough in a world where hooks, beats, and branding matter so much. Often, young up-and-comers get their start by supplying lyrics to existing heavyweights whose lyrical skills are dried up. It’s no surprise, when you look at 32 year old Lil Wayne’s singles discography alone, for instance; the demand on every major label rapper to produce track after track, memorable line after memorable line, is huge.
The man Meek Mill accused of ghostwriting for Drake is Quentin Miller, a thoroughly un-famous Atlanta rapper and member of the group WDNG Crshrs. Miller is credited with co-songwriting duties on a number of recent Drake hits, including five of the best songs from Drake’s incredible 2015 mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. The single fact that Miller is credited for his work inherently means he is not a ghostwriter, however there is a bigger issue here; Drake’s credibility as a lyricist. Many have been left wondering whether this generation’s biggest rapper is actually as good as we thought he was.
Drake’s closest collaborator, producer Noah “40” Shebib, weighed in on the issue via Twitter. The acclaimed beatmaker began by declaring that if he had to put a number on the number of hours he and Drake had spent in the studio together, he could count at least 5000 of them, and that of that time Quentin Miller had joined them for maybe 30 minutes. He went on to state that Miller was duly credited for the bits of assistance he did bring to the table, and finished his Twitter rant by offering some perspective. “Rap has a stigma about writing your own lyrics and rightfully so… its [sic] a very personal art form and its [sic] rooted in speaking truthfully,” he wrote. Shebib pointed out that Drake himself has penned many songs for other artists, and called the entire Meek Mill-induced situation ironic because in his opinion Drake is “maybe the most personal rapper ever.”
Miller, for his part, responded to the allegations via Tumblr. Miller described the moment his “idol” called him in late 2014, while Miller was still working at a bakery, and told the young man he was “destined for greatness.” Throughout his entire post, Miller has nothing but praise for Drake and the creative process of “the best in the game.” “I am not and never will be a ‘ghostwriter’ for Drake,” he wrote at the end of his impassioned post. “I’m proud to say that we’ve collaborated, but I could never take credit for anything other than the few songs we worked on together.” Though following the allegations DJ Funkmaster Flex leaked the guide track for one of Drake and Miller's collaborations, 10 Bands, which shows that Miller contributed greatly to the lyrical content and rhythmic flow of the track, such guide tracks have been in use since The Notorious B.I.G. wrote for Lil' Kim. There is no reason to think that Drake and Miller ever operate off-the-books in the style of true ghostwriters and their employers.
There have been rumours of Drake employing ghostwriters in the past, writers who include Virginia rapper Nickelus F., who stated in 2010 that he helped Drake shape hooks and a couple of verses on the 2009 mixtape So Far Gone. Drake has made no attempt to hide such connections; he himself drew attention in interviews to the young female poet Kenza Samir who assisted him with his song Connect. “She’s a great girl and a phenomenal poetry writer. We just sit together and come up with the best way to say things,” Drake said of Samir at one point. “It’s cool to get another creative mind in there, just someone who’s thinking solely about the words and not the melodies and placement. It’s nice to read her poetry sometimes, I’ll take from that.”
Even if the allegations of unofficial ghostwriting playing a large part in Drake’s career trajectory are actually unfounded, there have been more than a few instances over the years that are more concrete. After all, as a 2014 study found after analysing the first 35,000 words used in the music of a wide array of 105 rappers, the pressure on a hip-hop star to pen original, interesting content is huge; 22 of the rhymers included in the study had used more unique words than Shakespeare. Aesop Rock topped that list, with a whopping 7,392 words used, as opposed to the Bard’s 5,170. Eminem was also one of the highest ranking lyricists in that study; the Detroit native’s song Rap God features a section that speeds through 97 words in 15 seconds, an average of 6.5 words per second. Even The Game has made songs that run over 400 Bars.
On Kendrick Lamar’s incredible To Pimp a Butterfly cut King Kunta, the Compton trailblazer announces “I can dig rappin'/But a rapper with a ghost writer?/ What the fuck happened?/Oh no! I swore I wouldn’t tell/But most of y’all sharing bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two man cell.” Yet Lamar himself is widely believed to have written mentor Dr. Dre’s guest verse on Lamar’s 2012 single The Recipe, where Dre’s rhymes and their delivery are suspiciously close to the inimitable style of Lamar.
Dre is perhaps the most prominent hip-hop entity to be known for widely utilising ghostwriters. He is, regardless, one of the most succesful and innovative producers of his time, and not particularly known for or focused on his lyrical prowess or vocal acrobatics. Throughout his long career, Dre has called on everyone from Eminem to Jay Z to assist him; he even goes so far as to borrow the rhythm, cadence, and phrasing of the original authors whose words he spits.
On the 1999 single Forgot About Dre featuring Eminem, it is eminently obvious that the young Detroit MC penned not only his guest verses but Dre’s too. “Now you wanna run around talkin’ bout guns like I ain’t got none/ What you think I sold ‘em all?/ ‘Cause I stay well off?/ Now all I get is hate mail all day saying Dre fell off/ What, 'cause I've been in the lab with a pen and a pad/ Tryin’ to get this damn label off?/ I ain’t havin’ that/ This is the millennium of Aftermath/ And it ain’t gonna be nothin’ after that/ So give me one more platinum plaque, then fuck rap, you can have it back,” Dre raps, and from the backed-into-a-corner aggression, the internal rhyme patterns, and the multi-syllabic rhythmic signatures, it is clear we are hearing Eminem’s distinctive words through Dre’s voice. Similarly, the Jay Z-penned hit single Still D.R.E. from the same album carries the writer's distinct delivery throughout, despite the fact that Jay respectfully tries to embody Dre’s mindset through his lyrical content.
Going back to Dre’s early days, Ice Cube is widely believed to have penned the lyrics for all the other members of Dre’s influential Compton supergroup N.W.A., with the exception of MC Ren’s verses. It seems shocking, but nowadays it is well understood that Eazy-E’s entire early career was made by spitting Cube’s bars; Eazy could flow as well as anyone and he had all the attitude in the world, but he just couldn’t write like Cube could.
“Don’t worry if I write rhymes,” Puff Daddy rapped on his 2001 single Bad Boy for Life, “I write cheques.” The hip-hop magnate otherwise known as Sean “Diddy” Combs is known to have employed ghostwriters for most all of his rhymes. Like Dre, Combs’ strengths lie unashamedly elsewhere, in being a businessman first, producer second, and rapper a distant third. The man who brought us The Notorious B.I.G. has written scarcely a word of his own throughout his career, but unlike Biggie, he never intended to be a lyricist and - to his credit - hasn’t really ever tried to hide the fact that he needs a little help on that front.
There are online businesses who offer their services to write your next clever bars, and the vast majority of well-known rappers have at some point either utilised ghostwriters or have ghostwritten for others - usually both. The question is whether the fact that a song has been ghostwritten is enough to invalidate the message of the music. Nobody cares that Will Smith’s Gettin’ Jiggy With It was - bizarrely - written by Nas, but it would be truly shocking and deeply upsetting to learn that any of the intensely personal lyrics on Nas’ untouchable debut record Illmatic were ghostwritten.
In the end, it is all about context. Singers may go their entire career without ever singing a song they wrote themselves, and nobody bats an eyelid. Some of the most highly praised artists of modern times have almost exclusively performed other’s songs or other's lyrics. The reason that in hip-hop music such a charade is still controversial is that rap has always been about the rapper’s message. Sure, beats are handed around, traded, borrowed, sampled, and remixed all the time, and indeed this sharing of musical backdrop is one of the most rewarding traditions in rap music. But lyrically, certain tracks and albums are so intrinsically about an artist’s life experience that to fake their relationship to the material by employing somebody else to write the song would be a weak falsehood that would forever injure that rapper’s credibility as a storyteller. Other rap songs are less about a particular message and more about a few witty punchlines, some clever wordplay, a banging beat, and a catchy hook.
Kanye West has been inventive in his recent approach to making records, different as it is from when he began. Transitioning from a young man with a sampler, some vinyls, and a microphone, West now tends to fill his studio spaces with dozens of top-class rappers, songwriters, and producers, who proceed to bounce ideas off one another. West’s latest single All Day was credited to over 20 musicians, including Sean Combs, Kendrick Lamar, and Paul McCartney. There are even similar “24/7, 365 days,” lines in Lamar’s King Kunta and All Day, raising the possibility that Lamar contributed lyrically to West’s track. In such an intensely collaborative environment, West functions mostly as a curator, as artists like Damien Hirst employ others to help flesh out their conceptual ideas.
Rap music is one of modern time’s most interesting catalysts for change. Hundreds of now-common slang words, terms, and phrases were coined by rappers; feuds that have cost lives and fuelled coast-to-coast gang wars have been ignited by the words chosen in rap songs; rappers have caused social and political change, re-evaluation, and debate; crowds of fans know every word to every one of the hundreds of songs by artists like Eminem and Jay Z. Language, music, and culture all collide in an amazing amalgam, and the results can be spectacular.
In light of Meek Mill’s recent accusations and the ensuing hubbub, Chicago-born conscious rapper Lupe Fiasco chimed in with perhaps the most insightful comments that have been made on the topic. Published in a two part open letter via Instagram, Fiasco states:
“Ghostwriting, or borrowing lines, or taking suggestions from the room has always been in rap and will always be in rap. It is nothing to go crazy over or be offended about unless you are someone who postures him or herself on the importance of authenticity and tries to portray that quality to your fans or the public at large.”
This gets to the crux of the matter; some of the most talented lyricists of all time have occasionally sought help for their rhymes, and in today’s world where mixtapes with dozens of songs, a solo album every year, hundreds of guest verses on other artist’s tracks, and plenty of hit singles are demanded of popular rappers, some outside help is to be expected. Even Bugs Bunny had Jay Z write his raps.
Fiasco continues with his illuminating post in order to discuss his take on the current state of rap music. It is fascinating to hear the honest, erudite opinion of one of rap’s most exciting lyricists. Fiasco - it must be remembered - hilariously tweeted last year, offering to write a verse for anyone willing to pay $500, written to a beat and on a subject of the client’s choosing. His standout track Mural - one of this year's best songs - from the January album Tetsuo & Youth also contained 1,374 words alone.
“Modern Radio and the commercial realm of music has injured rap. It set up ambiguous rules and systems for success that don’t take into consideration the quality and skill of the rappers craft. It redefined rap as just being a beat driven hook with some words in between and an entire generation has surrendered to chasing the format instead of chasing the art form. While mastering any format should be the pursuit of any self-respecting rapper including the commercial format it must be kept clear that it is just one of many formats and that you should strive to master all of them. The art form is kept alive and progressive in the activities of the tens of thousands of rappers around the world who are everyday trying to think of that next witty bar. Trying to put that crazy verse together while at work. Trying to find that word that rhymes with catapult so they can finish off that vivid story rap about their childhood. Meek Mill struck a nerve accusing Drake of having a ghostwriter and the entire rap world reacted on all sides of the fence because rap is alive. It’s active and it feels. Its rules and traditions are vibrant and responsive. I enjoy both these brothers [sic] music and find inspiration and appreciation from both of them.”
Though Fiasco’s entire letter should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest in modern hip-hop and the preservation of lyrical and musical integrity, I am struck by the power of one particular section, in which Fiasco emphasises the importance of respecting the storied tradition of rapping, developed over decades in modern America and descended from the griots of West Africa, who centuries ago were delivering stories rhythmically, backed only by drums and sparse instrumentation.
“The vast majority of rappers will never sell 100 records in their lifetimes let alone millions. But that’s not the point, the point is that what pursuing the craft gives us in terms of the intangibles is something that record sales or fame could never represent. We achieve a mastery of language and poetics that competes on the highest levels of discourse across the entirety of human history. We express ourselves creatively and attain a sense of liberation and self-esteem via this sacred mode of creation and communication.”
Well said, indeed.
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