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.
In later tweets, Hampton claimed to have heard “like, 6 songs” that they contributed as vocal references for Nas, adding that she “shed thug tears” because of the disappointment she felt. Hampton says she will stick by her claims, “even if everyone involved denies it.” But she also insists that “Nas'll always be top 10 for me. I remember being hurt about it back then. But I don't care now.” In a later series of tweets she added “I wish rappers had the space to say 'I was blocked, plus, I don't really know that revolutionary shit like that, so I passed the pen... Y’all should give them that space.”
Another critically acclaimed hip-hop artist, Talib Kweli, offered some surprising comments via Twitter in regards to ghostwriting and hip-hop. “Nas could let Rebecca Black write his next album for all I care,” he began. “He's given us too many classics. No fronting on that man. And if stic and Jay Elec wanna contribute to my project, I'll send a car to they cribs right now, son.” His progressive mindset was a moment of real talk, emphasizing that the final product is all that matters. Or at the very least, it doesn’t hurt to have peers in the studio to help edit and brainstorm. Still, few of his peers seem anxious to join him in taking that position publicly.
The fact is that anybody involved in the music industry knows that rappers use ghostwriters all the time.
Two acclaimed rhymers that have featured on tracks with Nas throughout his career declined to comment on whether or not Nas had ever used a ghostwriter or even the politics of having one all together. “I actually wish the story would die,” one said. A prominent journalist of Hampton’s era refused to comment on the record, but he privately questioned her personal motivation. “If and when Jay [Electronica] told her he was writing for Nas, I’m pretty sure he was telling her as a friend and not for her to reveal to anyone else that day or years later. And what does she really know? She doesn’t know if he just had writer’s block and used them for inspiration, if he used one bar from him or entire songs. And it doesn’t help that she’s so close to Jay-Z.” Hampton penned Jay-Z shelved biography, The Black Book, as well as his 2010 lyrical analysis book Decoded. “Now even it what she says is true, it seems like she’s siding with Jay because of a personal relationship.”
Although Hampton has done her best to downplay her Nas allegations as no big deal, others have obviously taken it as such. But the fact is that anybody involved in the music industry knows that rappers use ghostwriters all the time. Although having a writer clearly isn’t anything to brag about, there are some exceptions to the rule. Sauce Money and Smitty are better known as ghostwriters than as rappers. Biggie was widely assumed to have written for Lil Kim, and Jay-Z for Foxy Brown. And there are other examples.
In a recent Complex interview Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man explained that Ol’ Dirty Barstard’s Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version album was largely written by fellow members RZA and GZA. “The majority of the verses on that album are old RZA rhymes and GZA rhymes,” Meth said. “I remember GZA and ODB got in an argument one night. And GZA was like, ‘Nigga, most of that shit on your fucking album is mines anyway!’”
Ice Cube reportedly wrote for Eazy-E when they were part of N.W.A. Jay-Z reportedly ghost wrote for Dr. Dre on 1999’s "Still D.R.E." and Royce Da 5’9” “The Message” from that same album. It seems safe to assume that Kendrick Lamar wrote Dre’s verse on their “The Recipe,” and who’s to say who penned the verses from “3 Kings,” his recent collab with Rick Ross and Jay-Z.
Even the accused Nas has reportedly written for others. It’s said that he wrote Will Smith’s huge club cut “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” as well as Diddy’s verse on Press Play’s“Everything I Love.”
Even the accused Nas has reportedly written for others. It’s said that he wrote Will Smith’s huge club cut “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” as well as Diddy’s verse on Press Play’s “Everything I Love.”
In a 2010 interview with New York Magazine, Diddy explained that he’d do anything for the sake of a good song and that he wasn’t above enlisting writers for help. “I guess I’m blessed with the opportunity, like a singer, that can work with other songwriters,” he said. “In rap it hasn’t necessarily been cool, but I think that's my own allegiance to the song. If somebody could help me make the song better, I don’t really care what other people think. I know I co-wrote more than half of my album, which is the most I’ve ever written in my life.”
That may be fine for Puffy, who’s famous as a producer and businessman, as well as an artist. But no matter how much Hampton tries to downplay it, claiming that an iconic MC—widely considered a great poet of his era—didn’t create all of his art is a huge deal. Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones just isn’t any rapper. He’s one of hip-hop’s most renowned lyricists, easily ranking on any critic’s All-Time Top 5. If it were Flo Rida or LMFAO being accused of enlisting lyricists for hire, the outcry wouldn’t be anywhere near as loud.
Imagine if John Lennon or Bob Dylan confessed that their classics had been penned by ghostwriters or if someone of note claimed that Maya Angelou or Gil-Scott Heron didn’t write their own verses. Their fans would be as livid as Nas’ were this week. In a roundabout way, the amount of attention these allegations have received proves how great of an artist Nas is and what he means to hip-hop. All rappers have is their words, but some carry more weight than others. That’s just how it is.