Let’s talk about writing in Hip Hop.
It’s 2018 and all convention from the last era got thrown out the window. One of the most charged debates in Hip Hop right now has to do with artists writing their own music. It’s far from a new concept. The Dr. Dre’s, Diddy’s, and Kanye’s of the world more or less got their passes for not being producers, executives, or visionaries and rap not being their main feature. In 2008 Snoop Dogg revealed he brought in ghostwriters for his album Ego Trippin’. Bay Area rapper Ray Luv spoke about writing and at the very least contributing to songs on Tupac’s first album. Nas talked about how Large Professor would edit some of his rhymes in the early years. Every decade of Hip Hop featured a prominent artist at the very least receiving help. So my question is where do we draw the line? Who gets the pass, who doesn’t, and why?
Nicki Minaj came into prominence at the beginning of this decade. In her fight for legitimacy within the genre, time and time again she’s made it known that she is the one behind her pen. Many attribute her scene stealing verse on the Kanye, Jay-Z, and Rick Ross assisted song “Monster” as the moment that catapulted her into the inner circles of rap. Being a female MC in a still male dominated genre, I don’t doubt a point of pride of hers is that she’s been able to hang with the fellas since day 1 and it’s all on her own merit. You can’t take that away from her. Hip Hop is a competitive sport and a constant dialogue of who’s the greatest right now and of all time. And when that conversation comes up, one rarely hears a rapper with a writer get brought up. It makes sense for someone to puff out their chest and make it a point to say that all of their bars, all of their hits are all attributed to them and them only. But does that point of pride delegitimize artists who create differently?
I like Cardi B. Outside of the long list of likable qualities of hers, I see her brand as an example of where Hip Hop, music as a whole, and media as a whole might be headed. In 2018 the world of music, movies, television, and anything radiating from our smartphone screens is undergoing revolution. All old conventions, labels, and borders are dissolving to the point where a young woman in the Bronx could go from saying funny shit on Instagram to a Rolling Stone cover and Grammy nominations all within just a few years. That’s an occurrence specific to this time period and is something to pay attention to moving forward. The Cardi B brand is one of the most cutting edge in media right now. And I say that to say, in her feud with Nicki Minaj, accusations of her having ghostwriters might be some of the final gasps of an old world. Or at the very least it is the mark of a separate entity from traditional rap starting to form. We already see it at different corners of the game. Some rappers don’t freestyle anymore. Some rappers kind of sing. Some rappers are mostly adlib. Some rappers are part visual artists. Some rappers are part fashion designers. And some rappers, like some artists outside of rap, are simply entertainers: like Cardi.
Media moves quicker now. Demand is at an all time high and attention spans are at an all time low. With this, the music industry continues to adjust and Hip Hop continues to be at the forefront of that adjustment; hence all of the different forms it’s started to take. Artists still put out major label albums, but might be inclined to drop multiple albums in a year, mixtapes in between albums, loose singles, remixes, freestyles, guest features, clothing, or short films. We’re seeing artists like Chance the Rapper put out albums very few and far between, but perform regularly on SNL, tour regularly, put out a movie, feature on a wide range of songs, and release recordings from their cutting room floors. Someone like Childish Gambino puts out albums every now and then, has a TV show every now and then, shows up in movies every now and then, and tours every now and then. Then there’s an artist like Drake who manages to put out an album virtually every year if not some form of musical body of work. And of course the big controversy surrounding him pertains to ghostwriting. Media moves quicker now and the artistry is taking a different shape as a result.
And is that a bad thing? Or is it just different than what we are used to?
Entities like Motown were built off of a team effort and an assembly line-style operation. There were writers, producers, musicians, performers, and whatever it took to craft a great finished product. Is that where Hip Hop is headed? Though again, the genre isn’t particularly new to this concept. Diddy had his production team The Hitmen and writers such as Biggie, Mase, and The Lox at the height of his music career. Dr. Dre had folks such as Mel Man, Scott Storch, Hi Tek, and others assisting in production as well as the likes of DOC, Tha Dogg Pound, Snoop, and Eminem as just a few of his writing staff. Kanye taps into a staff of producers that include Mike Dean, Plain Pat, or Hudson Mohawke among others as folks like Rhymefest, Consequence, or CyHi The Prynce contributed writing. Hell, we revere N.W.A. as a culture almost unanimously and that group was structured the same way that some get criticised for today: staffed with a producer, a DJ, and a couple of performers who also write for them. So when a modern artist is revealed to follow a similar model, is that a detriment to the culture, or do the ends justify the means? Is the music what matters or how it’s made? And if it’s the latter, who decides who gets a pass? When Nicki brings up Cardi B getting assistance, is that a valid reason to tear her down or is Cardi a growing media entity taking a shape different from the rules we may try to confine her to?
Personally, I think Hip Hop is in one of it’s most shapeless, creative and exciting periods: to where it can’t properly be defined, contained, or controlled and I see beauty in that.
I write. I take pride in writing. I take pride in my original thoughts. I feel like a Nicki in that I want you to know this was all me and I have a point to prove. But I also see how an extreme criticism of times changing according to the conditions can actually stunt the growth of a genre. And Hip Hop, with its lasting relevance, was always about evolution. Should we be mad music isn’t getting made the way we like it or is music just supposed to be enjoyed? Are we denying valid and talented voices from being heard by setting up invisible barricades? Would setting up too many rules in a genre built off of breaking rules stunt its growth?
Just some food for thought.