Should ghostwriting be allowed and celebrated within hip-hop?
That question has been asked since the genre's inception, but it was highlighted in 2015 thanks to Drake and Meek Mill's beef. Back in July, Meek said Drizzy "don't write his own raps!" And with that, the ghostwriting question was reignited in rap circles.
See, while some of music's greatest artists, from Rihanna to Michael Jackson, haven't had to write their every lyric, hip-hop has always seemed [key word there] different.
The Unwritten Rule
"The law with MCing has always been that you gotta write your own content," A$AP Rocky told MTV News. "It’s gotta come directly from you. You’ve gotta articulate your own struggle or your own story."
Rocky's partly right. It's been an unwritten rule in rap, for sure. Many MCs like Kendrick Lamar and Ice Cube have knocked rappers for having ghostwriters (never mind that they've famously penned verses for others, too). Rakim once even compared biting and having a ghostwriter to a crime in a rhyme. Clearly, having a ghostwriter's been deemed wack for many years.
The Past Backlash
Rappers like Vanilla Ice have had careers damaged because they've had ghostwriters. Iggy Azalea's career took a hit and she was just rumored to have had help.
Because this has traditionally been such a sticking point in hip-hop, Nicki Minaj has had to reject ghostwriting rumors with this type of clarity:
“I’m not even a man and ni---as got my d-ck in they mouth. I slaughter these ni--as. Period. I’m undisputed because I’m the only female rapper that day one, I don’t need no mother-ckin’ ghostwriter."
But Rocky's only partly right because this "law" hasn't always been strictly enforced. Rap's first major hit, Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," for example, has long lived in the shadows of ghostwriting. Then, you have revered acts like Diddy, Kanye West and Dr. Dre who are famous for hiring lyricists. Their careers haven't really taken a dive as a result. Still, those names have been exceptions to some.
"People say, ‘Oh, Dr. Dre or Puffy have ghostwriters,’" Pusha said. "That’s not the thing. We’re talking about guys who step out with the rapper persona, not producers or super producers, not that level. I just think it’s different, man."
The Drake Effect
Apparently, Drake's an exception for some, too. Meek's allegations didn't seem to hurt him too much. Drizzy just dropped "Charged Up" and "Back To Back," which helped turn Meek into a running joke online. That's not a judgment call there. That's simply what happened. Sure, Mill replied with "Wanna Know," but that felt to many like it was too little, too late.
Drake's teflon effect was also seen when reference tracks leaked. The demo versions of songs by a lesser known MC named Quentin Miller seemed to confirm that Drake at least had some help crafting songs like "Know Yourself" and "10 Bands." Drizzy would later address this with Fader:
"I need, sometimes, individuals to spark an idea so that I can take off running. I don’t mind that. And those recordings—they are what they are. And you can use your own judgment on what they mean to you... It’s just, music at times can be a collaborative process, you know? Who came up with this, who came up with that—for me, it’s like, I know that it takes me to execute every single thing that I’ve done up until this point. And I’m not ashamed."
So, the accusations, the reference tracks, the interview quote...none of that seemed to matter. Instead of being panned, Drake went on to release a highly anticipated project with Future, What A Time To Be Alive. He also unleashed "Hotline Bling" and that became one of the year's most celebrated cuts. Those ghostwriting claims seemed to land on deaf ears. This was a clear departure from that unwritten rule thing.
Back in August, I asked Ice Cube about this because he could offer an experienced perspective. He's a veteran who's written songs for others, including Eazy-E, as depicted in this year's "Straight Outta Compton" film. He agreed with hip-hop's traditional shunning of the practice, but he acknowledged an important distinction.
“As far as a purist in hip-hop? I’m not a fan of it,” he said. “I respect rappers more when they write their own lyrics. But as far as making a song, anybody can put a song together. It don’t matter how it come together. All that matters is what’s coming out the speaker. So, as far as making music and making records, it don’t matter who write it. As far as MCing and being a rapper, you should write your own stuff."
Fans who didn't mind Drake's alleged ghostwriting seem to agree. Pusha says it's because the times are different.
"I feel like the principles of rap have changed," Push told us. "I feel like things that would’ve killed an artist 10 years ago, five years ago, people don’t care as much about. It’s not for me to put my principles on anybody else, but it’s not my thing. It’s definitely [a sign that] the times are changing."
A$AP Rocky, who says ghostwriting "ain't fair" because he writes all of his own lyrics, also sees the tides shifting.
"I think kids are fine with it," he added. "It’s an era thing. I think it’s all an age thing...I don’t think people give a f-ck."