The Spotlight Makes You Nervous: Why It Matters That Drake Isn’t Writing His Own Songs

When life gives you lemons, sell lemon and lime soda.
By    August 3, 2015


Doc Zeus is charged up

“If you could make God bleed, people would cease to believe in Him.
There will be blood in the water and the sharks will come.”
Ivan Vanko, Iron Man II

“Keep it real, get your own shit man and be original.”
Ghostface Killah, “Shark N****s (Biters)”

        The rap world spent the last week clowning Meek Mill for the sin of questioning the legitimacy of another rapper’s art. It didn’t matter that several reference tracks ostensibly credited to OVO associate Quentin Miller had surfaced and at least partially validated Meek’s claim that Drake* wasn’t writing his own shit. The iron grip of Drake* on popular culture proved too much for Meek Mill–who looked unprepared and over his head against the calculated energies of the Kings in the North from nearly the start–as the upstart rapper was punished for his insolence with an endless stream of mean-spirited memes. His girlfriend might have even broke up with him over it.

        To his credit, Drake* responded swiftly to the allegations of ghostwriting. First, his minions at OVO Sound closed ranks as Drake’s* primary producer Noah “40” Shebib took to Twitter to assure Drake’s* writerly bona fides were legitimate. Shortly thereafter, Drake* dropped two mostly underwhelming but nonetheless effective diss tracks aimed at Meek “back-to-back” before he was able to properly respond–nine days after tweeting his allegations about Drake*–with a mostly underwhelming diss track of his own. Drake* was successfully able to protect his corner and by proxy secure the notion that his artistry was legit.

What’s interesting to me isn’t who won the beef but that Drake* even bothered to respond in the first place. Modern rap beef 101 suggests that you never respond with a diss track to an artist that is less successful than you. Forget winning or losing–why even give shine to an upstart when a response track, no matter how well-barbed and vicious, is an implicit validation that the opponent is worth your time? A loss to a smaller artist can be potentially catastrophic when you can just ignore the fruit flies. “Diss me and you’ll never hear a reply for it.” It’s an ethos that Drake* has followed for his entire career. When confronted with other artists throwing shots his way (Kendrick Lamar and Pusha T), Drizzy* offered little response on wax beyond the odd subliminal or snarky interview.

It’s fairly telling that Drake* chose to respond to Meek Mill of all people while ignoring others that have tested his battle skills. Meek’s accusations that Drake* doesn’t write his own material by himself, along with the corroborating reference track leaks, call into question not only the authorship but the fundamental nature of Drake’s* art. These charges places Drake* as less than the artist he presents himself as and more as a fraudulent, shark-biting dullard that that his harshest critics have always presumed he secretly was–charges that could be potentially devastating for rapper who prides himself on the “emotional honesty” of his music.

More than most other popular rappers, Drake’s* brand has been about openly courting artistic legitimacy. Whether it’s preemptively declaring himself a legend upon death or the many chest-thumping interviews declaring the bonafides of his pen game, Drake* wants to be taken just as seriously as the greatest rappers ever. His lyrics are on Sprite cans juxtapose Rakim, Nas, and The Notorious B.I.G. — as if Drake* can simply incept the minds of the masses into believing he’s as great as they are.

Meanwhile, the existence of the reference tracks credited to Quentin Miller directly call the primary authorship of Drake’s* art into question. Drake’s* music is inherently confessional, relying heavily on the truthful expression of his real life experiences as an artistic signature. A song like “From Time” or “Marvin’s Room”–two “confessional” tracks that perilously skate the edge of entitled misogyny even on their best days (heads up)–directly derive their artistic credibility because of Drake’s* presumed honesty. The personal nature of these songs makes the use of other writers particularly damaging to his own authorship. Listeners frequently cite the powerful emotional connection with Drake’s* music as a core part of their fandom. His willingness to share the messier parts of his life as tacit proof that he struggles with trust issues and relationship problems just like they do. If Drake* is using co-writers to pen parts of his songs, how much can we trust this connection is real? Does Courtney from Hooters on Peachtree actually exist? Who keeps leaving all those voicemails? Authorship is everything.

The leaked reference tracks suggest that Drake* is paying for assistance on everything from stray lyrics, flows, hooks, verses and even entire songs–the building blocks of a rap song while still taking credit as the primary author of the song. On “Used To,” Quentin Miller provides Drake* with the song’s hook and signature melody. “R.I.C.O.” finds Miller sketching the basic structure of Drake’s* guest verse. “10 Bands” provides everything from the flow, to the hook and first verse of that particular song.

Most surprisingly of all, Miller originally performed iconic “running through the six with my woes” catchphrase from Drake’s* Toronto anthem “Know Yourself,” curious for a rapper who hails from Atlanta. It’s important to note that none of Miller’s tracks are one-to-one carbon facsimiles of Drake’s* finished product–lyrics gets changed, re-arranged and edited out as part of the process–but these tracks seem to be the bones of those songs. If your co-writer is creating the framework for your art, at what point does your co-writer become the primary writer of your own material and not you?

It’s not a surprise either that Drake* would decide this is the moment to step in the ring with another rapper when the genuineness of Drake’s* music has faced side-eyed skepticism from nearly the start. Aubrey Graham is a Canadian teen soap opera actor who talks tough in interviews, and catches bodies in his raps while simultaneously marketing himself as the “The Sensitive One” in your favorite boy band–the perfect cross-platform specimen for the biggest music conglomerate in the world to mass market.

Only a decade ago, a rapper with such overtly manufactured origins couldn’t have gotten past hip-hop’s gatekeepers without snickering contempt. In Drake’s* defense, it’s wildly speculative and frankly more than a little unfair to suggest that Drake* has nothing to do with the artistic credibility of his own product or that the stories in his rhymes aren’t real, based on the existence of a few out-of-context reference tracks. A credited co-writer like Quentin Miller and several other OVO associates on Drake’s* albums can be a valuable and legitimate tool in a medium as inherently collaborative as music, even in a genre that greatly prizes individual genius as hip-hop. A suggestion for a new lyric or an idea for a hook can greatly improve the work of an artist without impugning their creativity.

What ghostwriting agnostics get right is that music does not exist in a vacuum. A great rap song is still a great rap song regardless of whether or not the rapper wrote said song. Moreover, there can be potentially thousands of little ways that Drake* can place a true creative stamp and claim ownership of his material without explicitly writing a single, damn lyric. Quentin Miller’s reference tracks are more than just a little comparatively weak when placed next to Drizzy’s*. None of Miller’s vocal performances match the technique and skill of Drake’s*, suggesting that Drizzy’s* voice and delivery brings a distinctive swagger that make the song his own.

However, one assumes that Drake* has aspirations for his legacy that go beyond being a mere great “performer” and this is exactly where Drake’s* explicit use of co-writer’s matter the most. Drake* wants to be the best but you can’t claim you’re as great a lyricist as Biggie was when Lil Cease is penning your hits. What Drake* is doing is dishonest and he’s moving the goalposts to boot. Drake* is a hit-maker but he’s also an artist that habitually hops on the waves of fledgling artists, absorbs their energy and leaves before the receipt arrives. Drake* sharked Migos’ flow for close to two years but did you know that the group finally dropped their new album last week? No wonder Meek Mill was pissed when Drake* couldn’t be bothered to lazily tweet a link to his album after paying for a feature that Drake* didn’t write.

If there is any consolation, Meek Mill might have lost the battle in the court of public opinion but he might have took something far more valuable away from Drake*. By airing Drake’s* co-writers out, Meek caused Drake’s* manicured authenticity to bleed just–not enough to kill him but enough that nobody might ever truly believe that Drake* is writing his rap’s ever, again. There’s blood in the water in Drake’s* career from now on. Let’s see how he does with sharks.

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