Nas (May) Have Had a Ghost Writer on a Few Songs. Who Gives a Shit?
The American music-listening public has built up this idea of truly great musicians as auteurs, lone geniuses holed up in the studio, translating these beautiful symphonies in their heads to tape through some sort of ineffible process. Beethoven. Prince. Kanye (sort of). This somehow makes music more pure, personal. Additionally, there is something very specific about hip-hop that demands authenticity. As fans, we crave it—we have to know we're hearing real shit, stuff that actually happened to the rapper we're listening to. Since hip-hop is acknowledged as a largely collaborative process, our ideal of the auteur gets translated to purely the performative process: did the rapper actually write their own material?
Yesterday, an allegation was made that sent people reeling. Following a post by Frank Miller on a site called Rappers I Know claiming to have heard firsthand that the rapper Jay Electronica had ghostwritten for Nas on his Untitled album, the prominent hip-hop writer Dream Hampton alleged that Nas, one of the greatest—if not the greatest, if we're counting technical ability, intelligence and writing acumen over actually being able to make good songs—rappers of all time, used ghostwriters on at least six of the tracks on his Untitled album. She claims to have heard reference tracks featuring the rapper Jay Electronica—who produced the opening cut on the album—spitting lyrics, word-for-word, that would later show up on Untitled. Because the internet runs faster than the speed of thought, many reached an uproar. To some, Nas suddenly became Rap Game Shoeless Joe Jackson, the great icon who transmogrified to a fraud at the drop of a hat. stic-man of dead prez—another Untitled producer—was named another potential ghostwriter, and magically, the idea of Nas as one of the greatest became a farce.
In some ways, the idea of Nas not writing his own lyrics would be an actual tragedy. Even though he's only made one great album and three half-great ones (Illmatic and the sporadically brilliant It Was Written, Stillmatic, and the recent Life Is Good), Nas has been held up throughout all these years as a potential hip-hop G.O.A.T. for one thing and one thing only: his writing ability. Nobody had more gears than him—the gangster, the dispeller of street wisdom, the politician, the introvert, the bottles-in-the-club-popper. It was Nas observations on life as he saw it, however, that makes him truly great. Illmatic was full of material like this, simply his reflections on the ugly, hardscrabble world around him. Yeah, it was kinda weird when he opened up Untitled talking about Illuminati and wizards and Pi and shit, but I figured it was just part of some mission statement meant to let you know he was going to spend the album talking about The Truth, aka a bunch of crackpot theories about the media, and not evidence of his artistic direction being steered by some sort of outside forces.
Jay Electronica, meanwhile, is a weird, weird guy to be in the equation. A rapper with prodigious talent, armed with perhaps more potential than even Illmatic-era Nas, Electronica has largely remained a shadowy force. He refuses to put out an album even though he's signed to Jay-Z's Roc Nation label. Somehow, he's been romantically involved with both Erykah Badu (this is kind of a prerequisite for rappers if they want to be well-respected in the critical community), as well as someone connected the Illuminati (seriously). Nothing about him is normal, so somehow him making an album for Nas instead of making an album for himself makes total sense.
To his credit, in an interview last week Nas categorically stated that he had never used ghostwriters, claiming that he draws inspiration from his friends, family and the streets. stic-man, it turns out, wrote a hook for Untitled on the song he himself produced, so that one's debunked. Electronica's involvement in the album remains shady, but fuck it, let's assume Nas hasn't written every single lyric he's ever spat. Does that make him a bad rapper, or even an inauthentic one? Not at all. Rappers have been using ghostwriters since the dawn of rap. Think Dr. Dre, who hasn't written a lyric in his life, or Snoop Lion (neé Dogg), whose Ego Trip album was written solely by ghostwriters. Hell, Nas has ghostwritten himself, most prominently for Will Smith, who tapped Nasty Nas himself to pen his "Big Willie Style." Authenticity in any genre of music is bullshit, except when it's not. And with Nas, it's not.
Nas not writing his own lyrics would be devastating, because he is a Serious Artist Who Makes Music From His Soul. He's dead serious, so the authenticity with which he generates these serious thoughts is the key to his success. Nobody gives a shit if Snoop Dogg or Riff Raff writing their own lyrics, because their music is based around the idea that they're ridiculous people. Nobody shits on Dr. Dre for using ghostwriters, because Dr. Dre's inherent skill is his ability to both produce and curate talent. His raps have sounded like the product of whoever he's sharing the track with since his days in N.W.A., but nobody gives a shit because they're not positioning him as some sort of great rap author. But with Nas, the sincerity is important, and we derive sincerity from the assumption that his words coming solely from him. It remains to be definitively seen whether or not Nas has ever used a ghostwriter, but if he has, to many, the power of his words will have been lessened. It would be like finding out Santa Claus wasn't real, all over again. And if does indeed turn out that Nas has been kinda full of shit for all these years, it'll be important to remember that we still celebrate Christmas, even though we know Santa isn't real. As long as we remember this, it's going to be okay.