Nas’ Ghostwriting Controversy and Why It Doesn’t Matter

Nas/ Photo by Getty Images

Right up there with the endless search for the gay rapper, the biggest waste-of-time hip-hop controversy involves whether an MC has or hasn’t used a ghostwriter. And apparently, even one of hip-hop culture’s finest chroniclers couldn’t resist the chance to throw someone under the bus. On Twitter yesterday, in response to a follower who asked, “Is Jay[-Z] really that concerned with losing [money] that he can’t just say “Fuck my image” and make an Untitled (Nigger Album) like Nas?,” writer Dream Hampton dropped this bomb on the rap Internet. “I think Jay writes what he believes,” Hampton diplomatically explained, and then apropos of nothing, really, added: “Nas’ “Nigger” album was largely written by Stic of dead prez and Jay Electronica.” According to Hampton, Nas, the best bar-for-bar rapper maybe ever, has committed hip-hop’s greatest sin.

Fueled by Hampton’s tweet, Frank William Miller Junior of Rappers I Know, wrote about his knowledge of Nas and ghostwriting, in a post titled, “Nas Lost (Ghostwriters)”. In the piece, FWMJ, as he’s better known, recounted a phone call with his friend Jay Electronica, who told him that “Queens Get the Money,” which Electronica produced, was also ghostwritten by the then-buzzing cult MC. Then, Hampton tweeted that while FWMJ “only got a phone call,” she “heard reference tapes for like, 6 songs.”

Earlier today, Hampton clarified that she “wasn’t coming for [Nas’] “legacy,” but “was responding to [someone] who said hip-hop needed more radical albums like Nigger.” That seems disingenuous. Whether Nas wrote that album or not has little to do with the question posed, which was about mainstream artists with a lot of power and therefore less to lose, releasing radical, controversial works of art. Nas most certainly released Untitled with his name on it. He had to answer for it. The result of Hampton’s tweet has been an Internet-level explosion of betrayal, best summarized by this histrionic question from FWMJ: “When it’s public knowledge that the ‘greatest lyricist’ of our era, has ghost writers, what does that mean?” The answer is clear, though, right? This is a travesty, an innocence-murdering moment in which a hip-hop hero is exposed and will never be the same again.

Nas hasn’t commented, though about a week ago, he appeared on Los Angeles radio station Power 106 and when asked about ghostwriters, he said he never used them. Opportunistic websites like Global Grind are framing video of this interview as a response to the controversy, but it is dated August 8, 2012. Strangely, no one has mentioned this April piece on the Complex website, which quoted a 2002 interview with Nas, to note that Illmatic producer and rapper Large Professor had a significant hand in helping Nas craft his career-making rhymes.

The number of hip-hop hits penned by someone other than the person rapping them doesn’t even need to be mentioned at this point. And we’re all well aware that rappers are not so much diarists as storytellers, bigger-than-life characters, and ciphers for their neighborhood or region, all at once. Fact, fiction, and fantasy are merged together, as they are in every art form. So, outrage over ghostwriting is a regressive way of approaching rap music. Trumping lyrics over all else sends the genre back even further than the already problematic celebration of “skills” that dominated during the golden era and still lingers. The betrayal fans muster up about ghostwriting turns rap music into nothing more than words on paper. Back in 2007, Ghostface was accused of using ghostwriters on Supreme Clientele, but does it matter? He most certainly owns every insane utterance on that album.

One more time: The question that spurred this controversy had nothing to do with ghostwriting. It was the actually far more compelling, “Is Jay[-Z] really that concerned with losing [money] that he can’t just say “Fuck my image” and make an Untitled (Nigger) album like Nas?” Dream Hampton’s canny answer (“I think Jay writes what he believes”) is what should be discussed here. Watch The Throne, a cogent, sweeping expression of being rich and black in America and being caught between those two worlds — an album-length version of Jay’s “I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them” from The Black Album‘s “Moment of Clarity” — is, indeed, Jay-Z’s version of Untitled. Challenging the simple-minded idea that a rapper is only doing “important” work when he or she plays a revolutionary firebrand, is much more interesting than holding onto to never-existent ideals about an MC’s lyrical purity.


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