Earlier this week, one tweet and one blog post alleging that Nas had used ghostwriters—specifically, Jay Electronica and stic of Dead Prez—on his 2007 album Untitled. The tweet, by Jay-Z biographer dream hampton, came first; after that, former Hot 97 art director Frank William Miller Jr. (a.k.a. FWMJ) detailed a 2007 phone conversation in which Jay Electronica informed him that he was indeed writing for Nas’ controversial Untitled album.
Hardcore rap fans expressed disbelief, weeping, and fury, aiming hundreds of pitchforks at FWMJ’s twitter account. How could one of rap’s great lyricists relegate himself to using a ghostwriter—the performance-enhancing drug of hip-hop? This is a cardinal sin!
Or is it?
First, let’s apply a few caveats to this revelation. hampton’s tweet came in response to someone questioning Jay-Z’s reluctance to make a scathing political album on the level of Nas’ Untitled. (Although Watch The Throne‘s “hey I’m rich and black and America probably doesn’t like that” was a good start.) Hampton is Jay-Z’s biographer, so she has a dog in the race. While she’s one of the pioneers of hip-hop journalism, she isn’t exactly an unbiased defender of Jay in the unending Jay-Z vs. Nas debate. Meanwhile, FWMJ was one of the first guys to mention Jay Electronica and follow his music. So he has a clear desire to support his former pet project.
But these biases are only secondary compared to the biggest red light in the whole story: Jay Electronica. While I have no doubt Jay Electronica made the call, the validity of his claim has to come into question. He’s known for making promises and declarations about upcoming projects that never see the light of day, so the phrase “I got a call from Jay Electronica” entering any story calls it into question. In his defense, though, Jay sent out a semi-non-committal tweet about the whole situation, saying “Nas is one of the Greatest Ever. never has and never will need a ghostwriter. that man’s pen and legacy is without question.” Nas himself, last week , denied ever using a ghostwriter.
And if the denials aren’t true… so what?
Nas denies using a ghostwriter, August 2012
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using a ghostwriter, although rappers are judged more harshly for using ghostwriters than musicians in other genres. It is seen as such a sin because of the idea that a rapper’s core talents involve writing lyrics and reciting them into a microphone. By this measure, if he doesn’t write his lyrics, he doesn’t possess any talent. But that argument just doesn’t hold water—charisma, delivery and cadence are just as important as the lyrics written on paper. Just listen to someone like the late Pimp C, who was never known for multisyllabic rhyme schmes or poetic verses but whose charisma made him legendary. On the flipside, listen to Diddy stumble his way through Press Play, on which he butchered Pharoahe Monch’s written lyrics.
Ghostwriting has and always will be a part of hip-hop. The first rap song, “Rapper’s Delight,” wasn’t actually written by the guys that ended up performing it; Ice Cube wrote all of NWA’s lyrics; Nas himself penned Will Smith’s comeback album.
Sure, Jay Electronica and stic.man probably helped Nas out with Untitled and probably collaborated on the lyrics, but at what point does a “collaborator” turn into a ghostwriter? Complex‘s chronicle of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sessions in Hawaii mentioned him running his bars by fellow rappers and looking for insight. Did those guys that helped suddenly become ghostwriters? When my editor reworks one of my sentences that lacks subject/verb agreement, is she now my ghostwriter? (Holy crap, did I just disgrace myself?)
So, Nas fans, worry not. Put your pints of Ben & Jerry’s to the side. Stop cutting your hair and crying yourselves to sleep. God’s son may have needed some assistance with one of his more mediocre albums. But you want to know the good news? It’s time to bury hip-hop’s scarlet letter.