Was It (Ghost) Written?

(Editor's note: This week, rumors broke that Nas' album Untitled was ghostwritten by rappers Jay Electronica and Stic.man of Dead Prez. It rocked hip hop, as ghostwriting is one the music/culture's chief taboos. Stic.man has denied the rumors, Jay Elec, too. In their denial statements, they both lauded Nas as an icon, an immortal; characterizing the rumors as treasonous cultural-blasphemy. And with both rappers credited in the album's liner notes, it points to their contribution being that of collaboration, as opposed to ghostwriting. Still, the allegations are meritorious and not unbelievable. It has sent Nas zealots and hip hop's lyrics-enthusiasts into a tailspin of confusion. TSL asked one of Nas' most ardent and thoughtful fans to weigh in.)


About a year ago, I was made aware of some damning allegations.  One of my good friends hit me on Gchat requesting some assistance with an argument/conversation she was having with a guy.  The guy was accusing Nas of using ghostwriters.  I immediately dismissed the allegations with chastising remarks about arguing with fools. 

“He knows folks who have written for him,” she responded. “He said Electronica wrote a bunch of songs on Untitled. It's killing me. Say it ain't so.” 

My heart dropped. 

For one, I know this female well and, furthermore, she knows me well – well enough to know not to come to me with some off the wall slander about one of my most idolized champions.  So the fact that she was at least halfway drinking the Kool-Aid was unsettling.  Even more troubling was the fact that I myself previously had some of the same suspicions, specifically concerning Untitled.  

The first time I heard, “Queens Get the Money,” I remember thinking, “Damn. This sounds like Jay Electronica.”  The approach, the flow, the content – it all sounded straight out of the Jay Elec manual.  “You ain't as high as I is/all of these false prophets is not messiahs/you don’t know how high the sky is/the square millage of earth or what pi is.”   I pushed the idea to the background though, chalking it up to Nas being influenced by Jay Elec.  I mean, Jay did produce the track, so it stands to reason that the song would have a feeling of collaboration.  As long as Nas penned the majority of the writing, I had no problems with him flipping Jay Elec’s style…and, actually, the end result was dope. 

Nonetheless, getting introduced to the Nas-ghostwriting rumor back then literally made me want to vomit.  I mean, was I being told that Nas was doing the Puff Daddy?  Would he respond to the allegations with an unapologetic “Don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks?” 

What was really unsettling was that these claims begged the question of how long this had been going on.   I remember feeling simultaneously enraged, hurt, and disillusioned.  I was being presented with a case that, if true, would turn my idol into a lie. 

Ghostwriting, particularly when speaking within the confines of hip hop, is viewed more as a form of legal plagiarism than artistic collaboration.  Nas’ biggest appeal stems from his writing.  The songs that he makes are secondary to the words that he writes.  He is arguably hip hop’s greatest writer.  Consequently, the greatest writer cannot have a ghostwriter.  He can work in conjunction with other artists who may provide inspiration and instruction.  In some cases, in fact, he can even take what others have written, expound on it, and create something different – as in the case of sampling.  But he can’t have another artist write something, spit it back to an audience verbatim, all while leading the audience to believe that he is the author. 

This guy that brought the Untitled ghostwriting rumor to my friend was not condemning Nas for allowing contributions from other artists. He was accusing him of recruiting artists to write his album, a charge that is taboo for most emcees/rappers and utterly unacceptable for the greatest writer.

Still engaging the chat, I maintained my game face and responded, “I have 100% confidence that Nas has written everything. You can humor these clowns if you want, but we know the real.”   

She agreed, but ended our exchange admonishing, “Dude was breakin' some cat's heart via Gchat by dropping names of writers that the other couldn't contest and the person being broken down was like ‘Say what you want today, but tomorrow, when I wake up, I will only remember that Nas writes his own sh*t.’” 

I’m thinking to myself, “You and me both homeboy…you and me both.”    

For some time after that conversation, I found entertaining the possibility of the best emcee not writing his rhymes to be unbearable.  My overall mood was actually affected for a good week or two.  But time passed and, for the most part, I was able to rationalize the dismissal of the accusation as common internet conspiracy-theory rhetoric.  Like, come on, Nas is the guy who once explained his position in the rap game by rhyming a metaphoric narrative of his life as a gun, through the mind and eyes of the gun.  If anyone can flip Jay Elec’s style, he can.      

Such is the context in which I recently received the news of journalist Dream Hampton confirming a report that both Jay Electronica and Stic.man of Dead Prez were ghostwriters on four of the songs on Untitled.  None of the three in question have confirmed the indictment, but the topic is a trending conversation nonetheless.  The overall response seems to be that of shock and disbelief.  One blogger equated her response to, “finding out you were adopted as a child, and the premise of your whole life has been a lie.”

However, after having almost a full year of deliberating and discussing the issue with other Nas enthusiasts, my exacerbation has softened.  I’ve concluded that if Nas didn’t start using ghostwriters until Untitled then fine.  I have no real problem with that. 

For starters, Untitled ranks so low within his catalog that it is basically irrelevant.  I seed that album as second worst, surpassing only Nastradamus.  To find out that he cheated on what may be his worst effort may not be fully excusable or even forgivable, but it is forgettable.  More significantly, no one formulates their opinion of Nas off that album. 

Nas’ greatness is based on an assessment of his pre-Def Jam material.  Nas’ Streets Disciple is his equivalent to Jay Z’s The Black Album.  Both albums mark the ends of their respective careers, at least the career on which the artist is judged.  Jay Z’s American Gangster is a post-retirement effort and one of his best to boot.  But it’s not like anyone says, “I didn’t consider Jay to be great, but, after hearing American Gangster, I do now.”  That album does not sway a critical calculation of Jay-Z’s career as a whole.  The same holds true with a potentially ghostwritten Untitled.   At worst it would be like finding out Michael Jordan was using steroids when he played for the Wizards.  MJ cemented his legacy during his Chicago years.  What he did in D.C. automatically gets an asterisk even without the hypothetical steroid use.  Likewise, until any conclusive evidence is revealed to the contrary, I will assume that all of Nas’ work pre Untitled is self-written, therefore maintaining my overall opinion of him as an artist. 

Full disclosure, I do believe the rumor.  I am listening to Untitled as I write this and I hear Jay Elec or Stic on over half of these songs.  If they aren’t ghostwriters, then somehow Nas crafted an album written primarily in their voices, which would be asinine.  In light of this acknowledgement I can’t help but question every verse that he has dropped post-UntitledLife Is Good has thus far reaped mostly positive reviews, but this recent cloud of controversy does taint my valuation.  For instance, I’m assuming that Nas wrote his own verses on “Accident Murderers” but I do hear a little Ross/Meek Mills in those lines.  “Can’t play with these lil niggas, gangsta lil niggas, can’t hang with these lil niggas, they kill and they reckless.”  I can almost hear the Philly twang and all.  It’s a shame, but such is the scrutiny that the best rapper of all time will now face from here on out.          

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