Ghostwriting lyrics has always been an interesting issue. It’s not viewed the same in all genres of music. Rock or Pop ghostwriting isn’t the same as rap ghostwriting. In R&B for example artists often say they didn’t write all of a particular song and no one really cares. Then in Hip Hop, you have these pretty recent rumors about Nas having a ghostwriter and it’s all anyone talks about.
SONGS ARE GROUP EFFORTS
Ghostwriting in Hip Hop is definitely not a simple topic. There’s a lot of nuance and grey area to recognize. First it's important to note that a song isn’t an individuals work. It’s a group effort. It’s very rare to find an artist who wrote all the lyrics and produced all the beats and mixed all the tracks themselves. In the mainstream, it’s practically unheard of.
Every artist works with producers. That might not sound like a revelation but when you think about it, every album you hear is at the very most, 50% of that individual artist's work. The other 50% is the producers and engineers who created and mixed the instrumentals. However, you never hear accusations of artists having ghostwriters for their instrumentals, do you?
This is important because once you recognize that songs are more like group projects, rather than strictly the artists individual work, it puts lyrical ghostwriting into better perspective. It lets you see how you're already being exposed to ghostwriting all the time, it’s just this particular kind of ghostwriting is so prevalent and accepted that you’ve become numb to it (the ghostwriting of instrumentals). Who ever said artists shouldn't have to make their own beats? This same phenomenon has happened in other art forms, such as acting.
GHOSTWRITING IN OTHER ART FORMS
Hollywood didn’t always operate how it does today. Actors didn’t always have a script someone else wrote, telling them exactly what, when and how to say their lines. In the beginning, actors were the script writers and vise versa. This went on for a little while until they figured out not all great actors were great script writers and great script writers, great actors. So what happened?
The roles were split up into two separate parts. The actor only acts. The script writer only writes. The result was better movies. Now you have the best actors reading from the best scripts to make the best possible movies. Note how this split hasn’t caused anybody to condemn actors who don’t write their own scripts.
The same is true with Hip Hop. It already happened with half of the art form: not all great artists were great producers and not all great producers were great artists. So what happened? The roles were split up just like they were with movies and the result was better music. Now you have the best artists over the best beats making the best music. Again, note how no one condemns an artist for using a beat they didn't make themselves. This is a much more practical and accurate way to look at ghostwriting.
SPLITTING UP ROLES
Think about why work was split up in the two examples (actor’s scripts and artist’s instrumentals). What were the causes? Clearly, constructing a better product was the cause. They realized that if you split up certain work to more than one person, who happens to specialize in that specific area, the end result is much better. How do we make better movies? Take the best actors and the best script writers. How do we make better music? Take the best artists and the best instrumentals. Creating a better product was the root for both of these examples. This is important because it gives you a sense of what might happen in the future. In other words, the roles that can be further split up to produce a better product, will be. So then what roles can be further split up with regards to music production?
MAKE THE BEST MUSIC POSSIBLE
This is where the ghostwriting of the lyrics comes in. You can divide a song into four very general parts: (1) Artist vocals (2) Lyrics (3) Instrumental (4) Mix. How would you get the very best music? Well, you would have to have the best vocals over the best instrumentals with the best lyrics, all mixed by the best engineer. If splitting up the “artist” and the “lyrics” into two separate roles, would make better music then it might be a good idea to go down that road. Why? Because you know someone is going to do it and you won’t be able to compete with them once they do. It’s too much of an advantage. It’s exactly like how artists who make their own beats can’t compete with artists who have their beats made for them. It takes too much time and they can’t put out music as frequently as the artists who have their beats made for them. The same holds true for the lyrics. Also, it really just comes down to putting out the highest level of music for the fans, right? That is what being an artist is all about. The fans are at the head of everything. Here we go into more detail about how to make the best music.
Going back to the movies analogy, some point out how actors are just playing a role. That’s why they’re always using different names in every movie. Morgan Freeman doesn’t star as Morgan Freeman, but rather whatever character he’s playing for that film. You could make the argument that with Hip Hop, it’s known that the artist is playing himself. This is a good point, but it still has some large holes in it. In an interview with Hard Knocks TV, Immortal Technique draws this distinction between rappers and actors.
RAP GHOSTWRITING AND PERSONAS
Exaggerating the truth has just been part of Hip Hop. This is why you see rap personas. 50 Cent isn’t Curtis James Jackson when he’s on the mic, he’s 50 Cent. Now is there a difference between the two? It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say if there’s a difference and also if the differences are intentional or known by his listeners. Rap personas in a lot of ways resemble playing a character in a movie. In Eminems interview with 60 Minutes, Em touched a little on this concept.
RAPPER VS. ACTOR VS. PERSONA
Keep in mind, not every song is about the artist themselves. Some songs tell a story, just like a movie. The story itself isn’t always true and the artist doesn’t need to play a part in any of it. In this sense, rappers are exactly like actors, or at least narrators. Songs can just be about a specific topic, such as war or poverty, like a documentary can. Artists can purposefully express views they don’t hold, to later explain why those views are wrong or switch up the point of view they’re rapping from. Metaphors and meanings of lyrics can change dramatically with their context and cultural relevance too. There doesn’t seem to be a right or wrong answer to this problem. Hip Hop’s range as an art form is simply too wide for someone to be able to accurately put it’s artists into one category.