The New Rules of Authenticity in Hip-Hop

Are Ghostwriters Really as Bad as People Say?

Drake rapping


Roger Kisby / Getty Images 

What is authenticity? Can an artist's whole be truly put into his or her art? If you collaborate at every level of your art, is it still authentic?

Why aren't rappers brave enough to embrace ghostwriting, decades after the practice has been entrenched in hip-hop's fabric? Why don't they embrace ghostwriting the way, say pop and R&B singers do?

Why the Stigma?

The answer dates back to the original form of hip-hop. Rap was built on authenticity. It was about telling your story, not letting other people tell it for you.

While pop singers have a more diverse range of tools with which to engage (theatrical performances, for example), rappers solely rely on their flow. From the consumer's perspective, a rapper primarily has one job. People expect you to do it yourself. And do it right.

Ghostwriting Defined

There's still some confusion around what is and what isn't ghostwriting. One rapper's collaborator is another's ghostwriter. So let's establish some ground rules around the concept of ghostwriting.

  • Saying a line or two in the studio: Not Ghostwriting
  • Selling a beat with a hook attached to it: Not Ghostwriting
  • Writing the first draft of a song, which an artist goes on to rework with considerable changes leading to a new product: Not Ghostwriting
  • Writing an entire verse or song: Ghostwriting

It's common to hear observers gripe about the attention given to ghostwriting debates. This is typically an outsider's view. To understand why ghostwriting matters is to travel back to hip-hop's origins.

In the early days of hip-hop, authenticity was everything. Rappers were expected to tell their authentic stories. If you rapped about slugging a rival, the assumption was that you might have done it or were capable of following through. Those perceived as inauthentic were labeled "Faking Jacks."

That was then. Today, hip-hop storytelling is much more evolved. Rappers aren't simply telling their own story. Today's rappers are telling their stories and those of others. (See: Kendrick Lamar). Rappers use the voices and platforms to advance their narratives.

And the key differentiator is this: platform. Effective storytelling that resonates with a wide audience requires that you have a platform people pay attention to. This is why the Drake ghostwriting accusation never had legs.

Is Ghostwriting a Skill?

Is ghostwriting a skill? Of course it is. Ghostwriting requires that you step into another person's shoes. 

There's a much less discussed aspect of ghostwriting. Cyhi tha Prynce, a member of Kanye West's writing team, once explained the competitive advantage ghostwriting/co-writing offers to artists like Kanye West and Drake.

Ghostwriting calls for empathy. Actors have to inhabit their characters for movie roles. Similarly, ghostwriters have to embody their clients' mental space and environment to be truly convincing. If a rapper from Atlanta can write a Toronto anthem, that man should be applauded.

"It’s so many genres and they have 20 people working on their songs," says Cyhi. "So you’re in the studio trying to write this song by yourself but Whitney Houston in the studio or Adele in the studio with 20 people and she wins the Grammy or Sam Smith wins the Grammy because they have 30 people working on their project when you as a rapper feel like you can only work with yourself. So that’s what I think Meek didn’t understand in the cases of your Drake’s and your Kendrick’s. … Justin Bieber ain’t in the studio by himself, how can you compete?.”

It takes skill to transform yourself into another person — to suspend your own headspace and inhabit the issues, problems, and morals of another person. It's time we embraced the new rules of authenticity in rap.​