People often ask me if I record music personally. The answer is no. I'm purely a writer. I was thinking about this question today and it got me thinking about the different skill sets rapping and ghostwriting require.
Rappers must be performers. Their instrument is their vocal cords. Intonation, breath control, pitch, annunciation and rhythm must all be finely honed. And of the intangible quality of "mic presence" must be there as well. The best rappers change their voice to match their content or the audience they want to reach. Rappers must also embody a persona. Whether they want to be or not, they embody a brand that has certain consistencies (even if those consistencies include contradiction). The best rappers are in touch with what drives them and can clearly articulate it on a record. For mainstream rappers there's also the public persona which involves media personality, fashion, and choice of music videos. Rappers who write for themselves must also be lyricists, though this is not always a necessity.
Ghostwriters are lyricists first and foremost. They must be masters of the written word. Rhythm is a necessity too because what they write ultimately has to fit a beat. A ghostwriter must also be a passable vocalist because many clients require reference tracks. There are two less mentioned skills ghostwriters must possess as well. Those are empathy and versatility. Unlike a rapper, a ghostwriter must be able to deeply understand the artistic intent of their client. They must be sensitive to that person's experiences, style and world view. They must then be able to take that information and embody it. Versatility is required if a writer wants to work for a variety of clients and customize their lyrics in a personal way.
Of course many ghostwriters rap and many rappers ghostwrite. The line between the two often blur. Artists like Rhymefest, Skillz and Kel Spencer have been able to do both because their unique mixture of rapping and ghostwriting skills. The same is true of more mainstream acts like Nas, Jay-Z, J. Cole, and T.I. Regardless the distinction is still there.
"Now I take a trip around the world twice - from knowledge born back to knowledge precise" - Rakim
In the mid 90s hip hop was lyrically dense. Verses were layered, internal rhyme schemes ruled, and "that buck that bought a bottle could've struck the lotto." Rappers like Nasty Nas made the grimy world of intercity living an appealing landscape of multisyllabic double entendres. The listening experience was a complex journey for the verbally visual mind. On songs like Camp Lo's "Luchini" the active listener was rewarded with deeper meanings the casual passerby missed. I'm still catching new things. 90s hip hop was a mentally stimulating experience that, contrary to public opinion, made you smarter as you listened.
Today it's more hit or miss. Underground artists like Fashawn, J. Cole, and Jay Electronica proudly wave the lyricist's flag. Aboveground rappers (who I'll leave unnamed) make emotionally compelling music but lack that complex 90s punch. I equate it to a delicious four course gourmet meal with low nutritional value. You love it while you're eating it. It taste great. But when you finish you find yourself hungry for more.
A lot of people will say this decline is due to commercialism. Once hip hop became a billion dollar industry it was only natural it would lose it's intricate lyrical nuance. I disagree. I think music fans are intelligent enough to appreciate complex lyricism. Look at Eminem's album "Recovery". It's as technically complex as anything that dropped in the 90s and is, so far, this year's best selling album. Look at a song like Big Pun's "Not a Player". His wordplay and flow are incredible and the song was a career defining hit. I think at some point rappers stopped caring. They got lazy. Good enough replaced above and beyond. It became a race to the bottom of lyrical standards.
At the same time the production quality of hip hop has improved. You have breathtaking, high budget beats from artists like Justice League, Kanye West, and Dr Dre. Don't get me wrong, I love 90s production, but today it's on a whole other level. Songs like Rick Ross' "Maybach Music III" sound amazing and set the perfect mood. Kanye's and Jon Brion's work on "Late Registration" was awe-inspiring. Live orchestration is no longer a novelty, it's becoming the norm.
With this in mind, I'd like to paint an alternate reality of hip hop. Imagine a musical world where artists with the lyrical sophistication of Rakim flow over Justice League beats. I think ghostwriters are the key to creating this kind of music. There's a generation of amazing writers who grew up listening to 90s hip hop. They're an untapped resource for rappers today. Their talent could be utilized in a crowd-sourced way to create the best lyrics for the most popular rappers (who may not have the time, talent or desire to improve their lyrics themselves).
Some may raise concerns of artist integrity. If a rapper's using someone else's lyrics then doesn't that make them less genuine? My answer is no, it makes them more resourceful. Rappers can still be the driving creative force behind a song or album. They can set the artistic vision and define specific parameters for writers to fill in. The easiest way to think about this is to compare it to film making. Martin Scorsese doesn't write the scripts for his movies but no one would deny that they're his artistic creations. He sets forth a larger idea and directs people under him who specialize in areas where they have more competence. If more rappers use ghostwriters as tools to reach more complex and interesting levels of expression then it's a win for hip hop fans the world over.
Feeling this 100%
1. Rick Ross - Teflon Don - An almost flawless album. Great beats, lots of Rozay swagger and excellent guests. No skip tracks. Perfect summer album.
2. Nas & Damian Marley - Distant Relatives - Nas brings his usual lyrical genius and Damian Marley pulls off a nice hybrid of rap and reggae.
3. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - The production on this album contends with the great classics of all time. Musically it's a true masterpiece.
4. Lloyd Banks - The Hunger for More 2 - The G-Unit underdog makes a great album with that dark, dense Queens, NY sound.
5. Fashawn - Ode to Illmatic - Fashawn pays tribute to Nas' Illmatic with multis, internal rhymes, and that mid-90s hunger.
6. J Cole - Friday Night Lights - Understated piano on the production and excellent songwriting make a classic J Cole mixtape.
7. Statik Selektah & Termanology - 1982 - Brings back that mid-90s sound. Term is a master lyricist, reminds me of Big L. Statik's beats remind me of DJ Premier.
8. Drake - Thank Me Later - This album grew on me. Drake's producer 40 has a nice smoothed out sound. Drake may not be Ice Cube, but he's true to who he is.
9. Eminem - Recovery - Surprise comeback. Production is a little uneven but Em makes up for it with rapid flow, strong delivery and good lyrics.
10. Lil Wayne - I Am Not a Human Being - Solid album throughout. Good production and Wayne brings his usual wittiness. Nice prelude to Carter IV.
in the style of Nas rapping as a first gen iPod jealous of iPod Touch
Uh... lord lord Jah... what I'm gonna do...
Uh... shhh... lord lord Jah... hook me up to iTunes...
Hmm, I gave you music, hymns, I'm bout to lose it
Cause my click wheel, grey screen, nah, you never use it
I stay collecting dust, metal plate collecting rust
Headphone jack bust, got that water damage musk
Heard you got new lover, drape her in a plastic cover
Massage her smooth skin like Whoopi and Danny Glover
Old enough to be her mother, but I'm jealous of my own seed
Sexing with boss Jobs now I'm just a plate for weed
Remember my debut in 02, it was beautiful
Camera's flashin, oh the passion, high fashion suitable
For any event, I had to repent, the fame had me buggin
I was losin all my data, my revisions in the dozens
Now you got full color, full motion, spread emotion
Of envy, can't ever be - half of your commotion
An ocean of innovation separate me from you
But I'm the OG, original, and you just version two
There's something very special about Jay Electronica. He's that rare one of a kind musician that only comes along once in a decade. What I love about Jay's music is how unique it is. He mixes complex lyricism with pantheistic spirituality and puts it over breathtaking beats. There's also a little social commentary and some classic hip hop bravado. It's the kind of talent that instantly grabs your attention and makes you ask "who the hell is this guy and why haven't I heard about him before." Well you might have heard his latest classic "Exhibit C" (currently getting modest radio play in New York, props to DJ Enuff for that), or maybe you heard his production last year on Nas' song "Queens Get the Money". Check out "The Pledge" where he raps over Jon Brian's score from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it's outstanding...
Not many people know Will Smith's 90s standard, "Getting Jiggy With It", was written by Nas. At the time both artists were on Columbia records and were encouraged by their label to work together. Their first collaboration was a song Nas did for the Men in Black Soundtrack called "Escobar 97'". Later that year Will Smith approached Nas about writing a hit for his upcoming album "Big Willie Style." Nas agreed (for an undisclosed sum), sat down, wrote the song and the rest is history.