Yesterday, Kendrick Lamar — the extravagantly talented L.A. rapper pegged as the next great hope of West Coast hip-hop — dropped his first official single, “The Recipe.” It comes after a string of killer semi-official releases on which Kendrick flashed his potent blend of stripped-down candidness, even-keeled commentary, conflicted party proclivities, and undeniable rap chops. For right now, though, it’s just that last one that concerns us.
Kendrick’s quickly developed a signature flow. It’s hard to completely define — there’s the crisp enunciation, and his dips into double-time, and a sort of subtle sing-song cadence — but it’s immediately evident when you hear it. And on “The Recipe,” you definitely hear it — in part, coming through Dr. Dre’s vocal cords! Dre, who's been a Kendrick backer for a minute now, is featured on “The Recipe,” quite clearly reciting bars conveniently provided for him by his young pal. The end result sounds great: Dre handles his lines deftly, as if he’s been rhyming Kendrick-style for years. But it’s still amusing that no effort whatsoever was made to disguise the ghostwriting. Not that this kind of thing is anything new, really, either for Dre or hip-hop in general.
Ghostwriting, for the most part, is done by anonymous minions with no definitive style of their own, and then doled upward for cash-based appropriation without anyone being the wiser. But every once in a while, famous rappers with immediately recognizable flows and conventions do some ghostwriting and don’t bother, either because of laziness or stubbornness or saboteur-iness, to disguise those flows and conventions. The results are pretty amazing.
Dre, admittedly a producer first, has a long history of ghostwriter usage predating the Kendrick track. Notably, Jay-Z wrote “Still D.R.E.” for the Dr. But Jay did a pretty great job of shape-shifting into Dre’s persona — no, Shawn Carter does not still rock his khakis with a cuff and a crease — so that one doesn’t really count. More applicable is “The Watcher,” off 2001, where the internal rhymes (“I ain’t a thug / how much Tupac in you, you got?”) and casually detailed violence heavily suggests the authorship of in-house talent Eminem. In fact, Em’s all over 2001, most notably on “Forgot About Dre,” where he not only turns in one of his greatest-ever guest appearances, but makes sure to lace Dre (“Now you wanna run around talkin' bout guns like I ain't got none / What you think, I sold 'em all, cause I stay well off / Now all I get is hate mail all day saying Dre fell off”) as well.
Going even further back, there’s Dre’s old friend Ice Cube’s relationship with N.W.A’s drug-dealer booster/member Eazy E. The guy wasn’t really a rapper: If Cube hadn't crafted much of Eazy’s material, and lent him his general killer gangster persona, Eazy’s rap career wouldn’t have quite popped off the way it did. No, Eazy did not come up with “Then wrapped my 6-4 round the telephone poll / I looked at my car and I said, Oh brother / I throw it in the gutter and go buy another” by himself. And for some truly inconsequential rap arcania, how about the fact that Bow Wow’s 2003 single “Let’s Get Down” was partially written by T.I.? As Tip explained, “I wrote the third verse and the hook ... I can do whatever. I ain’t limited at all as far as style and lyrical ability is concerned. I been doing this since I was 8-years-old pimp, I don’t need nothing.” At the time T.I. was almost strictly a drug rapper. But go back to the Bow Wow track now, and it feels like a watered-down predecessor to T.I.’s later breezy party-rap hits. This part, at least, sounds like it’d fit right in on “Whatever You Like”: “I blew her mind, she was dazed momentarily / but luckily, she stayed for some therapy / I stay pimpin’ heavily, my game spittin’ thoroughly.”
But in this realm, Diddy is king. His 2006 album Press Play was practically a paean to the practice of obvious ghostwriting. There was “Everything I Love,” for which Diddy used the services of Nas. Early in the verse, it seems Nas forgets who he’s writing for altogether: There’s the line “Give streets the fever from the way I spit the ether,” a nod to his infamous Jay-Z diss, and then the line “Came on the scene at 19 a gritty fiend,” a nod to his own age when releasing his debut single, “Halftime.” (Also: Nas is forever using the word "fiend.") By the end of the verse Diddy-via-Nas is referencing Harlem and Biggie and stuff, but the damage is done. (Nas seemed to be more in his game when he ghostwrote “Getting Jiggy Wit’ It.” Does Will Smith pay better than Puff?!)
Later on the same album, there’s “We Gon’ Make It,” written by The Game. Guess how long proud Comptonite Game waited before referencing lowriders and ‘64s? Why, a whole half bar! The best example on Press Play though, is “The Future,” written by backpack rap hero Pharoahe Monch. The verses here are deliberately paced and crammed with pointed lines that are in turn politically minded, surreal, and funny (“This is the man who provided more jobs for blacks than armed services”). Pharoah didn’t bother dumbing down anything for Diddy, and the result is incongruously great.
By the way, thanks to an archaic legal mandate passed down centuries ago, every time one discusses ghostwriting in hip-hop, one must also reference the Diddy line from “Bad Boy for Life”: “Don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks.” OK, there, now we can go home.