Imagine two different scenarios:
Scenario #1: Kanye West spends a year secluded in a tony Hawaii-based recording studio, alone with nothing but his thoughts and a blank document open on his iPad. He is stuck on one particular line in an unnamed song — he needs to find a word that rhymes with “cat.” He cozies up on the studio’s leather couch, sips ginger tea with honey and tries not to waste too much time thinking about how much he misses baby North and his wife’s ridiculous ass. If only he could come up with a word that rhymes with cat. Sigh. If only…
Scenario #2: Kanye West spends two months with a gang of friends doing drugs in a tony Hawaii-based recording studio, ideas are flowing and the engineer never takes his hand off the record button. “Can you come up with a word that rhymes with esophagus?” Kanye says out loud, to nobody in particular. “Sarcophagus!” someone yells, while snorting a line of cocaine off the recording console. He finishes writing his verse and runs into the booth. Kim Kardashian strolls in with Baby North (who isn’t really even born yet). “I just finished this song,” Kanye says, wiping his nose. “Check it out, Kim. I think I’m going to call it ‘Monster.’”
Which one do you pick?
Hip-hop has been around since the late-70s, and yet the topic of ghostwriting still plagues the genre, as if the first big rap hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” wasn’t partially written by someone else.
Recently, Kanye West, who has rarely been anything but open about using a laundry list of collaborators, was called out by his ex-girlfriend Amber Rose, for letting the rapper Travi$ Scott write his rhymes.
While at first glance it’s tough to swallow, Kanye has always had people in the background helping him ideate, pitching in with lyrics here and there, and just generally making his songs happen. That has been happening as far back as “Jesus Walks,” which fellow Chicago MC Rhymefest also took home a Grammy for (he also, oddly enough, won an Oscar for his work on the Common/John Legend duet “Glory”). There have been others: Consequence, CyHi the Prince, Kid Cudi. This is not a new thing.
But if I had to choose between a Kanye West who worked in a silo and made potentially mediocre songs or a Kanye West who worked with a gang of different people to come up with what is nominally known as Kanye West music, then I’m okay with the latter scenario. I would rather 15 people put their heads together to make something great, than one person make something not as good.
Kanye makes rap music at the highest level — he’s not freestyling in high school cafeteria.
In the 90s, when the idea of “the MC” became a thing — like, when fans really began obsessing over song lyrics — a popular way of discrediting a rapper was to say someone else wrote their rhymes. To wit, the easiest way for the rap boys club to discredit female rappers like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown was to insist that other people were writing their verses, even though in some cases that was actually true.
Back then, whether or not an MC wrote their own rhymes was a productive conversation to have, because everything was about authenticity
and keeping it real.
In a way, the genre was self-policing, doing away with acts who couldn’t really hack it on their own. But it was still a genre that hadn’t really gone mainstream, and commercial appeal had far less to do with whether a song was radio-ready than whether an artist was believable and accepted. You could pat yourself on the back for writing your own rhymes, because the stakes were far lower. Even then though, a lot of artists were using ghostwriters and collaborators.
Eventually, everything changed. Rap started moving millions of copies, and the conversation shifted from how dope an artist was to how many units they sold in the first week. We, as fans, started celebrating the success of the art and not exactly the art itself. And because of that, there was less emphasis placed on how a song was composed, just that it was composed well.
Nobody gave a shit that Jay Z wrote Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” It was banging and sold millions of copies. No one said it was any less good because Dre didn’t write it.
The list of rappers who have used ghostwriters, co-writers and collaborators is probably longer than the longest Wikipedia entry, and while hearing that a rapper has used a ghostwriter does mark their material with an asterisk somewhere, it’s not the worst thing in the world.
In hip-hop, like all genres of music, there will always be two sides to respectability. There will be the side that deals with raw talent, skill and technical proficiency and then there will be that side that deals with record-making, great artistry and performance.
Years ago, we placed so much emphasis on raw talent that guys who were particularly great at freestyling and rapping, couldn’t make good records to save their lives. Then there were commercial artists who made great, bankable music, but who couldn’t hold their own in a cipher for five minutes.
Hip-hop has grown a lot though, and now the best artists in the genre are expected to not only be great lyricists but also deliver big records. Anything less is a letdown. If Kanye were to write his own lyrics but his next album bricked, we wouldn’t be giving him any brownie points for composing his own songs. We’d just say, “Shit man, your album bricked!”
In a weird way, it doesn’t matter if Kanye, or anyone else in hip-hop, writes their own rhymes, as long as we, as fans, nominally know that they can somewhat get busy if they were called upon to do so. And we know Kanye can do that. Heck, even Dr. Dre, if he ever woke up from his Beats by Dre-induced coma, could probably still do that.
If a rapper has already proven they can spit — why does it matter who is writing the rhymes on their hits?