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Drake’s ghostwriter: does it really matter?

Does it matter if Drake wrote his own lyrics?

Let’s face it: he probably doesn’t write them. Despite some impressive ether aimed at Meek Mill over the last week culminating in a brutal, meme-laden OVO Fest, and an almost unanimous reaction in the hip-hop community that he has been winning this beef so far, he has yet to deny the claims the Philly rapper laid at his door. Drake’s producer 40 spoke out but didn’t outright deny them. What’s more, supposed true lyricist Quentin Miller is uncredited on Meek’s “RICO”, the track that started the whole beef, so his supposed title of “co-writer” seems not to carry much weight.

Assuming, on the balance of probability, that Drake doesn’t write his lyrics, we’re forced to address the question of the extent to which we can take an artist and their art separately. If we admire a painting by someone, or enjoy the music or writing of an individual, then find out that they didn’t create their work then does it lessen our enjoyment?

In art, the same sort of dilemma has applied when it emerged that many of the most prominent names in Abstract Expressionism, including such titans as Rothko and Pollock, were sponsored by the CIA to promote their art and its inherently capitalist nature as the Cold War got underway. Like hip-hop, Expressionist art relies on the premise that only one person could have made a work – that it is an extension of them, and their character, and of the truth. What, then, to do when this is thrown into question?

There are two ways of dealing with the murky relationship between an artist and their creations.

One is a matter of extremity, in either direction. An attitude can be taken that it doesn’t matter – we can still imagine the imagery Drake evokes in his lyrics, still admire his flow and delivery, still enjoy 40’s production and still sing or dance (or do whatever else people like to do) to his music. Or we can reject him as fake, make comparisons to Milli Vanilli, claim we always thought he was soft and not “real” hip-hop.

The other option is more nuanced. Why not accept that Drake uses a ghostwriter, but that his music still has an intensely personal edge? The possibility that some, but not all his songs are ghostwritten leaves more space for him to remain a credible artist in the eyes of purists. After all, Michelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel – he had a team of helpers and did the important bits himself. Kanye uses ghostwriters and doesn’t give a shit. So did Dre. It’s a tactic that increases output and ultimately allows us to enjoy more art created by these inspired people.

It’s probably obvious that I subscribe to this line of thought. For an artist as successful as Drake to be as prolific as he is, it would be disingenuous to kid oneself into believing there was no-one else behind him. Drake’s doing bigger numbers than the Beatles in the USA – of course he didn’t sit there for an hour writing the lyrics to that B-side about sexing women and body lotion and late-night self-doubt.

But. There are some songs that I can’t believe he didn’t write himself. Namely, the ones that are so closely linked to his past and his life before fame that no-one could know about the subject matter except him. In “You and the Six”, Drake recounts talking to his mother, worrying about what she thinks of his lifestyle and mulling her separation from his father. He refers to visiting his dad in Memphis as a kid. In “Club Paradise”, Drake name drops specific figures from the past from whom he had grown apart, regretting the passage of time and his gradual alienation from his old circles in Toronto.

All that needs to be said about these lines is that it would be indescribably cynical if someone else wrote them, not to mention the fact it’d be almost impossible to do so. Would a ghostwriter really write about “Rosemary” or “Leanne Sealy”? Did Drake simply tell Quentin Miller to name-drop these women? Does he really not know them at all? Again, I can’t bring myself to believe that they are anything other than real people from Drake’s past, about whom he is writing honestly.

So no, even if some of Drake’s songs are ghostwritten, if it means we get to experience more music from a hugely prolific artist of great talent and even greater influence, then long may it continue. Just so long as that core element of truth remains.

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