Hip-hop has always had to live up to a standard of artistic authenticity that no other genre must.
Written by Brad Wete (@BradWete)
It’s been more than 10 years since Sean Combs (then P. Diddy) first rapped one of his boldest, most discussed, and most notorious lines ever. “Don’t worry if I write rhymes,” he stated on his 2001 single “Bad Boy for Life,” “I write checks.” At the time, his words came as a huge revelation and also a confirmation of the sort of remarks that were usually just whispered about. In a moment of candor that was rare within rap—a genre that holds artists to a serious standard of realness—the man behind the Bad Boy empire, and a hip-hop star in his own right, was openly confessing that he didn’t care whether fans knew his raps weren’t of his own making.
More than any other genre of music, hip-hop artists are expected to walk it like they talk it. A rapper revealing that they didn’t write their own lyrics has never been cool. Some might call it a double standard. R&B singers like Beyoncé, Usher, Mariah Carey, and even dearly departed legends like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston haveall performed songs partially or entirely penned by other writers. Why should hip-hop be any different? It’s not like the aforementioned artists’ vocal talents can’t be appreciated regardless of whose lyrics they are performing. As the late great MC Guru once said, “It’s mostly the voice.” Vocal tone and flow are all part of the thrill that a great hip-hop song delivers. For some reason, rap carries an extra burden. The unspoken promise that what the artist said really happened to them is what separates the genre from any other.
The unspoken promise that what the artist said really happened to them is what separates the genre from any other.
Which is why the acclaimed writer and hip-hop historian Dream Hampton inadvertently caused such an uproar on Monday night when she asserted during a Twitter conversation that Jay Electronica and stic.man of the rap duo dead prez wrote much of Nas’s 2008 album Untitled. The reaction of shock and disbelief that her tweet sparked across the Internet was analogous to a child finding out mom and pop laid presents under the Christmas tree—and not jolly old Saint Nick.
Hampton’s not-so private discussion began with a fan tweeting to her about activist Harry Belafonte’s recent charge that if Jay-Z wouldn’t support African-American causes and charities (which, by the way, he does) he should at least represent the culture in the light Nas did in his 2008 album Untitled (formerly titled Nigger). “I think Jay writes what he believes,” Hampton responded in the tweet heard 'round the world. “Nas' Nigger album was largely written by stic of dead prez and Jay Electronica.”
As the retweets multiplied, hurt fans and Stans sounded off. The allegation couldn’t have come at a worse time for Nas, who’s currently riding high off the release of one of his best albums, Life is Good. Several singles from the effort, deeply personal compositions about his divorce from ex-wife Kelis (“Bye Baby”) and his firstborn child (“Daughters”), are in constant radio rotation alongside the works of Drake, Rick Ross, and 2 Chainz. Nas has gotten hot again by telling his stories. Are listeners to question whether he needed assistance to put those thoughts together, too?
Nashas yet to speak on these recent claims. But last week, during a visit to Big Boy's Neighborhood on KPWR 105.9 FM, the artist was asked if he’s ever employed a ghostwriter. “No,” he answered coolly. “You know who my ghostwriters are? My friends, people I meet on the street. Things I read… Somebody will say something that sparks something in me.”
Nas has gotten hot again by telling his stories. Are listeners to question whether he needed assistance to put those thoughts together, too?
In the last two days both of the alleged Untitled writers have seemingly denied doing any heavy lyrical lifting for God’s Son. On his Facebook page stic.man wrote, “As far as the rumors about myself and Jay Electronica ghostwriting for Nas, let me say this: Nas is one of, if not the most prolific original lyricists to EVER do it. My contributions to his album were collaboration and an honor and under his direction of what he wanted to convey and say. Haters can’t discredit that man's genius. Nas is the Don.”
Electronica followed up on Twitter, saying, “Nas is one of the Greatest Ever. Never has and never will need a ghostwriter. That man’s pen and legacy is without question.”
Both of their comments require exercises in reading between the lines. Neither said flatly that they never wrote lyrics for Nas. Instead, they opted to praise him.