I can dig rappin'!
But a rapper with a ghostwriter? What the fuck happened?
—Kendrick Lamar, "King Kunta"
Let's just not even discuss it, man.
—Drake, "10 Bands"
Quentin Miller isn't Drake's ghostwriter. Not quite. Miller is credited on all the songs he's co-written with Drake, including six tracks from If You're Reading This It's Too Late as well as Drake's verse on "R.I.C.O." from Meek Mill's Dreams Worth More Than Money. If Miller were a ghostwriter in the truest sense, he'd be a rumored contributor with no public record of his involvement with these songs. Instead, Quentin Miller has bylines and headlines to his credit.
Since Hot 97 host Funkmaster Flex leaked Miller's reference track for Drake's "10 Bands," the dramatic value of this controversy has taken on new undertones, and a new life. As a matter of art, however, the reference track isn't a game-changing revelation. It never is. As I've noted in earlier discussions, the very first hit rap single, the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," features uncredited lyrics that Big Bank Hank stole from Grandmaster Caz. More than a quarter century after Biz Markie dropped "Vapors" and "Just a Friend," Big Daddy Kane spoke at length to Combat Jack about ghostwriting many of the Biz's rhymes. Even lyrical titans Nas and Ghostface have confronted rumors of ghostwritten verses and otherwise uncredited influences.
Rappers have employed ghostwriters since 1979. The real creative shift is in rappers' willingness to extensively credit their co-writers in liner notes, and in public.
The successful rappers that are most famously supported by ghostwriters are, ironically, producers. Since 1987, Dr. Dre has workshopped songs with Ice Cube, the D.O.C., MC Ren, Eminem, Royce da 5'9", Kendrick Lamar, and even Jay Z. The Notorious B.I.G., Ma$e, Sauce Money, Loon, Rick Ross, and others have written for Puffy. From College Dropout through Yeezus, Kanye West has worked with Malik Yusef, Consequence, CyHi da Prynce, Lupe Fiasco, Pusha-T, and most recently Travis Scott. Not only do Dre, Puffy, and Kanye employ a rotating cast of ghostwriters; they employ ghost-producers, too. There's a couple decades worth of ghost-producer controversies as well.
When the Quentin Miller story exploded Wednesday morning, my colleague Angel Diaz pulled up the liner notes from Jaÿ-Z's debut album, Reasonable Doubt, and noted that most of the songs are listed with only three or four credited songwriters: the rapper, the producer, and the artist(s) sampled. Contrast this simple billing with the liner notes from, say, Kanye's Yeezus or Drake's If You're Reading This It's Too Late—two albums that credit as many as six writers and three producers per track, with bits of vagueness as to the extent of any one collaborator's involvement.
Kanye's recording sessions for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy were a famously star-studded and collaborative affair. RZA, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Mike Dean, Justin Vernon, and Amber Rose variously contributed to the songwriting, production, and overall inspiration of Kanye's most critically acclaimed album.MBDTF features some of the very best rapping of Kanye's career, and those songs aren't diminished by my knowing that not just one, but several geniuses work-shopped them into being. According to RZA, the album was very much a group effort. "They get up every morning and eat breakfast together—his whole crew. They talk about yesterday, the next day, and the present," he said during an interview at the Red Bull Music Academy. "They plan. They sit there and they talk what they’re going to do, what they did, and how to make the music better.
Arguably, Kanye's latest reliance on co-writers is a worrisome sign that the man and his talents are stretched thin. But back at the start, Kanye wasn't just a budding superproducer who, like Dre and Puffy, rapped as a sort of sideshow. Kanye's origin story and debut raps underscore the ambition of someone who, in his earliest stages, was eager to be the best rapper alive. His drafting songs with so many co-writers throughout the years isn't a contradiction of that ambition, it's a grand revision of what it even means to be a dope rapper. And now a generation of rappers that have matured in Kanye's shadow have internalized his example.
This so-called "Kanye model" of songwriting—gathering 20 musicians in a studio to hash out a solo track—is a resurgence of the Motown model, in which doo-wop quintets and R&B soloists sang arrangements written by songwriters behind the glass. Many of Kanye's collaborators are on-record (and off-) describing Kanye's studio dynamic. "I’m just there to vibe," CyHi told HipHopDX in discussing his involvement with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne. "I’m just there for whatever they may need me for. There are a lot of creative minds in the room."
Soul singers employ ghostwriters.
Pop singers employ ghostwriters.
"Don't compare rapping to singing," warns one observer via Twitter.
Hip-hop is exceptional. It welcomes musicians who are otherwise underrepresented in popular culture. It values their stories, and even their embellishments, as unique truth. And so authenticity in perspective is crucial to the genre. To some extent, ghostwriting dilutes and confuses hip-hop's premium on marginalized perspectives. Street rappers' loud, proud, persistent obsession with authenticity, while occasionally tiresome, is a credible rebuttal of pop music's outsized influence on hip-hop, or at least on the most globalized strains of hip-hop that can still thrive in the Hot 100.
When OVO producer Noah "40" Shebib says that Drake "isn't just a rapper" but "also a musician and a producer and a creator," he's begrudging that obsession with singular authority and organic truth. It feels cynical to say that he's right; but he's right. When you're hearing songs as grand as Dr. Dre's "Let Me Ride," Puffy's "Victory," or Kanye's "Black Skinhead," the small print of their respective liner notes is an afterthought, if not entirely moot.
Justin Charity is a staff writer for Complex. Follow him @BrotherNumpsa.