Ghostwriting, the unoriginal rap sin
Summer 2018 reignited a seven-year-old beef between Pusha T and Drake, one that never has nor will be merciful to Drake. “The Story of Adidon” is the obvious apex to this chapter, with the revelation of Drake’s decision to unveil his son’s existence only to promote his Adidas line coming as a low move. The publication and media attention understandably proved to overshadow other revelations of Drake’s sleazy character. But throughout the whole saga, Pusha T echoes the same information that set the rap community on fire in 2015: Drake makes extensive use of ghost writers. Perhaps it’s just not all that shocking anymore — we’ve all heard that joke about “The Weeknd writing half of Drake’s best album.” But it was a different story when Meek Mill first spilled the beans on Twitter four years ago.
This isn’t to say that Drake is the only person with a ghost writer. Some of the biggest artists in the industry, from Frank Ocean, to rap legend Jay-Z, got their start ghostwriting for other artists. The market’s full of them. But it only ever seems to be called out when a rapper — not a pop artist, not a country singer, not a rock star — is faking it. Why all the intense scrutiny?
The thing with rap is it’s nothing without its flows. Whereas the lyrical content of a pop song or country ballad can be overlooked for its production and musical stylings, rap’s all about the message it conveys. The production is important, certainly, but it follows the cues of the words and story of the rapper. Unlike other song lyrics, those of a rap song are generally more meticulously composed into bars with a lot of wit and creative conventions tying them together. It’s more about being smart than it is making people dance.
Take these lyrics by Pusha T for example (you know, while we’re on the topic of ghost writing and Drake): “The game’s fucked up / N***a’s beats is bangin’, n***a, ya hooks did it / The lyric pennin’ equal the Trumps winnin’ / The bigger question is how the Russians did it / It was written like Nas, but it came from Quentin.” The lyrics are deft, chock full of imagery, rhymes, metaphors and wordplay. Yet it’s still captivating and memorable, despite lacking the same catchy quotables you’d expect from a different genre’s chorus. There’s more at stake when you cheat in the rap game; you claim more than you’re capable of.
That being said, more importantly, the lyrics tell a story. Rap prides itself on the element of “realness,” the capacity to speak to specific experiences and people in extensive detail. Rap, more than any other genre, also faces unfair critique and judgement before it’s even listened to, many music listeners are quick to excuse it as meaningless by virtue of their superficial understanding of it — they can’t fathom rap beyond the “gangsta rap” trope.
And perhaps that’s why the urge to protect the genre is such a pivotal part of the rap community. It comes from a history where a large majority of the people who listened to it and took it seriously were the people who experienced the stories it told. Because rap started with the Black community, the majority white, middle-class American crowd did not consider it a serious music genre. The genre is often reduced to harmful and negative stereotypes of drug dealing, philandering and bravado without much consideration for how these topics might fit into a song with much deeper meaning to it. This considered, faking your art is blasphemous not only because you’re lying, but because you steal someone else’s experience and personality by doing so. You de-legitimize a genre that demands it be taken seriously despite the critique of a judgemental, racist world.
Kendrick Lamar puts it simply: “I called myself the best rapper. I cannot call myself the best rapper if I have a ghostwriter.” In a rap game where the true test comes in honing your skills and not falling victim to the expectations of other people, legitimacy is what gets you respect.