The first weekend of August saw the coronation of a new King of Hip-Hop. Like all transitions of power, it had been years in the making and orchestrated by powers both seen and unseen.
For some, Aubrey Drake Graham, the Canadian former child actor circling around the hip-hop throne for years, had long been the King, and all that was left was the inauguration ceremony. For others, it was a moment of acquiescence — that after all of the hits, the sales, the hits, the record-breaking chart appearances, the hits, the ubiquity, the popularity and the hits, Drake had become undeniable by not only his sheer undeniability, but by the sheer undeniability of his swift and total dominance over friend-turned-rival Meek Mill, over the course of a week and a half, for no king is King with only power reserved; power must be actualized and demonstrated. For others still, it was moment of sad resolution, a hip-hop version of the 2000 or 2004 presidential election — something they'll forever believe was won under the most questionable of circumstances, but will not speak on in mixed company, for fear of being labeled a loon, a conspiracy theorist, a hater or simply out of touch with the times.
In late July, Meek Mill was reaching only dreamed-of heights — his sophomore album, Dreams Worth More Than Money, released at the end of June, had spent two weeks atop the Billboard 200 charts; he was in a relationship with Nicki Minaj, undoubtedly the most powerful and desired female artist in hip-hop and one of the most powerful contemporary pop icons on the planet. Yet, apparently apropos of nothing, Meek took to Twitter to launch accusations against Drake, who has a close, sometimes tense relationship with Minaj. (He's been publicly lusting after her for years; she's kept him in both the friend zone and the no flex zone.) But Meek's jabs against Drake were not, on their face, about jealousy. Instead he accused Drake, currently one of the most popular and adored artists in the music's commercial nucleus, of not writing all of his own raps. It's the kind of accusation that doesn't mean much to casual listeners on the outskirts of rap, but holds a lot of weight in the core.
Unlike other art forms, the idea of authorship is tied into hip-hop's DNA. At the birth of rapping, rappers didn't quite own the music, which was stitched and spliced together by a DJ from breaks. But they did own their lyrics, which were a form of currency. The four elements of hip-hop — MCing, DJing, dancing and graffiti — are all tied into things one can create for oneself. One doesn't have to follow a fundamentalist's or purist's line to accept that — despite the mutations of vocalization, production, movement and art in the genre — the idea of making something from nothing, of authenticity, of realness is tied into hip-hop in a way that is absent in other musical spheres. Pop stars who can't sing become career superstars and EDM DJs who don't mix records regularly make millions, but the ethos of hip-hop has always been against such bait-and-switches, even as it's grown into a billion-dollar industry.
Rappers who write their own material are seen as more serious and more worthy, much like an auteur or singer-songwriter, as opposed to a director or chanteuse. There are those who say these distinctions don't matter, yet, no rapper has ever come out as the mouthpiece for mouthpieces. P. Diddy once boasted on record, "Don't worry if I write rhymes, I write checks," but that's not a platform he's ever campaigned on. Kanye West admits to occasionally collaborating with stronger writers than himself — but is likely to spazz on anyone who accuses him of not writing his own rhymes. It's widely accepted that Dr. Dre employs writers, same with Snoop Dogg — and hip-hop allows both because their contributions to the form in terms of music and voice outweigh any allegiance to ideals. It's basically a dynamic of selective scrutiny and denial.
Labels, publications and radio platforms all know that ghostwriting exists. Rappers like Jay Z hint at providing the service for others; artists like Skillz have made careers of it, presumably making more money from ghostwriting than their own records. The major rappers who have come out as proudly employing ghostwriters can be counted on no hands. Even Minaj, who is many ways selling her body as much as her music, takes the time to regularly stress that she writes her own rhymes — the unsaid being that most other female rappers rely on outside penmanship. Why? Because everyone knows it's antithetical to be a "real" rapper who relies on ghostwriters. Rappers who don't write their own material aren't held to the same standards as those who do.
There are (and should be) continuing arguments in hip-hop over stylistic leanings such as lyrics vs. melody and debates about message. But all sides acknowledge that cadences and melodies are important, which is why instrumentals do not a rap song make. Delivery matters. And, delivery — or "flow" — is perhaps the most difficult aspect of songwriting. Whether the song be a television jingle, a pop ditty or a rap tune, melody is ultimate, and the rest, for some artists, may as well be the product of monkeys with typewriters. Still the idea of authorship remains a basic given in hip-hop: It may have been written by a monkey with a typewriter, but I'm the monkey and it's my typewriter.
Meek's accusations against Drake — which were later backed by reference tracks made by little-known Atlanta rapper Quentin Miller that were played on air by Hot 97 DJ Funkmaster Flex — mark the first time a generation is dealing with the question of ownership of lyrical composition in rap. A few years ago, similar allegations were made against Nas, but, with twenty years behind him as a professional rapper, Nas belongs to another era — to many of Drake's fans, he's actually dad rap. Drake, on the other hand, is of the now. His incredibly self-referential blend of emotional narcissism and confessional pornography resonates with a generation in which oversharing of mundane observations has become performance art. His ability to present middle class ennui in thug verbiage has a universal adapter quality to it. The words that have come out of his mouth are mantras, memes and retorts fit for just about any and all occasion — there's even an app for that.
Following Meek Mill's allegations, Drake's producer Noah "40" Shebib came out in defense of Drake, ignoring the existence of the reference tracks. Likewise, Quentin Miller denied ever being a ghostwriter for Drake — which counts for nothing as it's what he would be contractually obligated to say, were he actually a ghostwriter. Pro-Drake forces and Miller have downplayed Miller's involvement in Drake's recording, noting that he's listed in the credits for multiple songs on If You're Reading This It's Too Late — which could mean that he simply suggested a word or two to Drake. (It should be noted that Miller is not credited on "R.I.C.O.," a Drake-assisted song that appears on Meek's Dreams Worth More Than Money, but also has a Miller reference track.) But much of Drake's allure is the idea that he is personally penning his deepest thoughts; he's not supposed to be a committee of feelings. The reality that Drake may be getting whole songs' worth of help from outside sources takes away from some of the magic and fantasy that makes him such a profitable entity. If it didn't, Drake's camp would have owned up to the level of assistance he's gotten — which is almost certainly more than they've admitted to — and simply turned Drake into a reality TV version of a rapper, where people watch knowing that it's fake, but get a perverse joy from trying to figure out where the line between authenticity and script is crossed. The obviously staged dramatizations of Love & Hip Hop are commercially viable, but using ghostwriters is as much about ego as it is about money. Drake isn't trying to be a reunion show fight highlight reel. He hasn't explicitly claimed to write his rhymes in years, but he obviously aspires to be categorized with Jay Z, Nas and 2Pac — not Dr. Dre or P. Diddy. If he didn't, he would not have taken such huge offense to Meek's accusations.
In many ways, the conflict between Drake and Meek Mill is a class struggle. Unlike Drake, Meek is a ravenous MC who's been battle-tested and approved. He speaks for the downtrodden, the forgotten and is viciously socially aware, while not being above the ills of fiscal irresponsibility, crime, violence and misogyny. He once remixed Drake's "The Ride," a song about the mo' money mo problems trappings of fame, into "Faded Too Long," a musical middle finger to a personal rebuke from his district attorney. On "Lord Knows," the opening number of his most recent album, Dreams Worth More Than Money, he proudly raps, "Difference between me and most of these rappers — I'm talking about work that I really put in."
Meek is also known to feel all the feels all at the same time. He's sensitive, but not Drake-sensitive. Sensitive in the ways that growing with little to nothing and seeing systemic inequality at play raises the importance of loyalty and words as bonds. Meek once beefed with his labelmate Wale over not promoting his album, which is something he also mentioned as one of his gripes against Drake. It seems silly, but to Mill, not tweeting his album is akin to not showing up to his baby shower, and providing him a verse written by someone else is like having a third party pick out his birthday present.
What ultimately set Meek Mill off is a mystery that may never be solved. It's likely something acutely related to the dirty laundry he aired online, but it would take more than a personal slight for him to risk f****** up the money and bringng down the whole house of cards. When Funkmaster Flex promised to not only premiere Mill's response to Drake, but to also play more incriminating material on the radio, it felt like the threat of a man ready to burn everything, consequences be damned. But none of it happened as advertised. And Flex's weird silence and the station's defensive and omissive response in the aftermath reek of a corporate shutdown. Drake is, after all, worth a lot of money to a lot of people. It's not insane to imagine some of the shareholders in Drake, Inc., worrying about the health of their investment's reputation.
And the lack of interest in the truth of the story spreads to — conspiracy alert — the media and other artists, who have remained largely silent on the subject in specific, opting to talk about ghostwriting as a whole, get in on the memes while they can, or ignore the story altogether. A story involving the biggest commercial rapper of the moment that has spiraled to include the beef between rival N.Y. radio stations Hot 97 and Power 105 and involved a Toronto Councillor Norm Kelley, is being largely dictated by Drake's internet minions, the #DrizzyHive. To date there's been no published investigative journalism into the origin, presence or authenticity of the purported reference tracks by any outlets of note.
What we have gotten is a pair of diss tracks from Drake — "Charged Up" which champions perception over facts, goes for dignified low blows and plays to the crowd like a good politician; and "Back 2 Back," featuring all sorts of subtle references as well as pointed barbs. By contrast, Meek's response song, "Wanna Know," fell flat on many levels — he took too long to join a fight he started, and moreover, he tried to act as his own lawyer in the court of public opinion without taking the jury's make up into account. Meek attempted to reframe the argument, but the discussion had moved past what it was once about — the notion of authorship — and onto memes and jokes, which is what Drake's early-August assault capitalized on. It's been widely considered a loss for Meek Mill and the most devastating, almost surgical, dismantling of a viable contender that hip-hop has ever seen. Any response made by Meek at this point is about cauterizing a wound and figuring out how to move forward.
But Meek may not be the biggest loser here. Even before Drake's coronation at his annual OVO Fest, the hard questions had been avoided and ignored. Drake has never contradicted (or even addressed) the evidence head on and Funkmaster Flex seems to have been silenced on the matter more than once, while the existence of Drake reference tracks has become an open secret in the music industry. The existence of those tracks and the purported assistance doesn't make Drake disposable — saying Drake isn't a talented musician is akin to saying Alex Rodriquez isn't a formidable athlete. But, as Rodriguez's legacy has been called into question by many due to his admission of steroid use, Drake's catalog would carry an asterisk that is not in line with the legacy he's been building for the past 10 years. It seems as if that asterisk won't matter, and that efforts are being made to ensure the font that explains it is so small as to be illegible. At the OVO Fest, Drake was joined by Kanye West and Will Smith, two artists who have received help with writing their songs. Together the three laughed backstage at Meek's expense.
For many, this moment is an education in the mechanics of the music business and the politics of industry. The old values just do not matter, nor do inquiry or veracity in the coverage of music. It's no secret that the music industry has been watching its sphere of influence and revenue streams shrink and dry up since the early 2000s. It's also widely known that corporate interests have been underwriting music ventures to a never-before-seen degree — rap is not immune from the corporatocracy that has infected sports and television and film. In this climate, Drake is the most logical and bankable heir to the hip-hop throne, too valuable to lose. The former occupants of the top spot — Jay Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne — are too preoccupied with ventures outside of the music industry to assert any sort of continued dominance. The other hopefuls — Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole — appear utterly disinterested in playing the game the way it needs to be played in order to become King. Drake was not officially crowned during his performance, but that's just a formality. The excitement around his show, and the breathless coverage that followed, was a propaganda coup worthy of Edward Bernays. With the notion of authorship dispatched as silly and inconsequential, the way has been paved for even greater corporate influence over hip-hop.
The question of authorship in hip-hop is not about some return to Eden — mainly because rap's first commercial single, "Rapper's Delight" contained Big Bank Hank reciting Grandmaster Caz's rhymes. Yet there is the notion of growth and evolution — as the core of hip-hop expands and moves closer to the center of mainstream ideas, it's natural that many of its original ideals, even previously fundamental ones, will be jettisoned. This conversation regarding authorship is one that spreads beyond the players at hand, or primal notions of competition. There's a strong degree of cognitive dissonance at play here for many of Drake's fans — many are calling it a non-issue, which would only make sense if they were't busy quoting Drake's songs as proof of his lyrical superiority, his worth, the very reason why he is being so staunchly and emotionally defended and protected. But in doing so, they're making it easier for their allegiance to be transferred to and controlled by moneyed interests than ever before. There's an enormous amount of energy being spent on a conversation by the vast majority of industry players — mainly because it's entertaining and full of juicy gossip behind the scenes. But many of these same players will simultaneously say that the inciting accusations aren't worthy of discussion. It's a troubling and disconcerting state of affairs — where self interests and an eroding market share birth a lack of adherence to foundational principles.
There are two conversations that should be kept going. The conversation of authorship needs to continue because it is not only about authorship, but about truth telling — it's a conversation about what hip-hop is and what rap means, and having it centered about the genre's biggest star is a way to ignite and involve all sectors of game. And, more importantly, the acute conversation about these reference tracks — their existence, their journey to the public — remains important because the ways we talk about the small things determine how we'll talk about the big things. If the discussion around the veracity of evidence isn't followed here, the logical muscles that are needed to tackle the huge, meaningful issues of the day are not being worked. And the conversation around Drake's worthiness as King should not be silenced by voices screaming "Long live the King." A national election cycle is underway. Paying attention is necessary. Following the money is vital. Drake uses ghostwriters. And more people of note need to say that the emperor has no pants, while you can still speak your mind without being called an enemy of the state.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Over the last few weeks, there's been a war over words between rappers Drake and Meek Mill. Drake is one of the top-selling artists in hip-hop in part because of his confessional style, but the art that evokes that emotion is being questioned by his one-time friend Meek Mill.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "R.I.C.O.")
DRAKE: (Singing) We might just get hit with the R.I.C.O.
MEEK MILL: (Singing) Meek Mill - 'cause we in the field with them birds like we play for the Eagles.
CORNISH: Now, the two worked together on this song, "R.I.C.O." but Mill has accused Drake of using a ghostwriter for his verses on the song. And what followed was a flurry of distracts as the pair took their feud public.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK TO BACK")
DRAKE: (Singing) This for y'all to think that I don't write enough. They just mad 'cause I got the Midas touch.
CORNISH: Now, to understand what's going on here, we turn to music writer Kris Ex. He writes about this today, actually, for NPR Music. Welcome to the program, Kris.
KRIS EX, BYLINE: Thank you.
CORNISH: So people have been trying to ferret out the identity of the so-called ghostwriter, and they landed on an Atlanta rapper named Quentin Miller. Why do they think it's him?
EX: Because there are these reference tracks that are floating around that actually have Quentin Miller doing Drake's verses apparently before these songs were released. So that's why people believe it's Quentin Miller.
CORNISH: And I think we have an example of one of those what you call reference tracks. Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "R.I.C.O.")
DRAKE: (Singing) Old ways, new women - got to keep a balance. The girl of your dreams to me is probably not a challenge.
CORNISH: So that's Drake.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNOW YOURSELF")
QUENTIN MILLER: (Singing) Old money, new women - got to keep a balance. The girl of your dreams to me is probably not a challenge.
CORNISH: And that second voice, that's Quentin Miller. And explain reference tracks to us. I mean, it sounds like ghostwriting's not uncommon.
EX: It's not at all, and perhaps one of the most common misconceptions about ghostwriting is that it's about the actual writing when the most important and the hardest part of making rap music is going to be coming up with the cadence, the flow, the melody. The ghostwriter actually lays it out for the rapper and how it should sound, and then the rapper basically re-records the demo version that the ghostwriter has made already.
CORNISH: So did this actually answer the question? I mean, is Quentin Miller a ghostwriter (laughter)? Does he claim to be? Does Drake disavow him?
EX: His people, his producer has said, and kind of dancing around legal terms, not quite on the money, not saying it - the only person who has come out clearly and said that it is not ghostwriting is Quentin Miller. And Quentin Miller would be required to say that if he were a ghostwriter because that's the nature of being a ghostwriter.
EX: And it's very interesting. It's almost telling that he's the one that's come out and said that in no uncertain terms because that's sort of your job as your ghostwriter. In order for you to clear that check and to keep that money, you have to disavow that you are a ghostwriter.
CORNISH: So what's the history here? I mean, rapper Lupe Fiasco once said some of the greatest verses in hip-hop were written by ghostwriters.
EX: Yes, he has. And you know, one of the first commercially available hip-hop songs was ghostwritten, and P. Diddy very famously says it, don't ask me if I write rhymes; I write checks. So it's not really a crazy, big deal when people use ghostwriters, but it does become a different deal when you are saying that, I don't use a ghostwriter, and I am someone who is making my own lyrics and telling my own story, especially for someone like Drake who - a lot of his appeal is tied into this idea that these emotions that he's sharing are his. And at the same time that he's sharing these deep emotions, he also has this ability to make these kind of universal party rhymes and these great big hooks at the same time.
CORNISH: You're saying that this is not uncommon, that the fans aren't really going to punish you if you own up to it. Why do you think this matters?
EX: This matters to the type of artist that people are trying to be. If you are trying to be a producer, a composer, arranger in the moat of a Diddy or a Dr. Dre or even a Kanye West, it's OK to not write your own lyrics. But when you are trying to become a wordsmith and be exalted with the grace as a Jay-Z or Nas, a Biggie Smalls or Tupac Shakur, that requires that you do write your own rhymes because part of what makes those people important is not that they were necessarily figureheads or spokespeople for ideas, but that these were actually their ideas that they embodied and that they were putting forth.
CORNISH: Music writer Kris Ex, thanks for getting us up to speed.
EX: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.