AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Over the last few weeks, there's been a war over words between rappers Drake and Meek Mill. Drake is one of the top-selling artists in hip-hop in part because of his confessional style, but the art that evokes that emotion is being questioned by his one-time friend Meek Mill.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "R.I.C.O.")
DRAKE: (Singing) We might just get hit with the R.I.C.O.
MEEK MILL: (Singing) Meek Mill - 'cause we in the field with them birds like we play for the Eagles.
CORNISH: Now, the two worked together on this song, "R.I.C.O." but Mill has accused Drake of using a ghostwriter for his verses on the song. And what followed was a flurry of distracts as the pair took their feud public.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK TO BACK")
DRAKE: (Singing) This for y'all to think that I don't write enough. They just mad 'cause I got the Midas touch.
CORNISH: Now, to understand what's going on here, we turn to music writer Kris Ex. He writes about this today, actually, for NPR Music. Welcome to the program, Kris.
KRIS EX, BYLINE: Thank you.
CORNISH: So people have been trying to ferret out the identity of the so-called ghostwriter, and they landed on an Atlanta rapper named Quentin Miller. Why do they think it's him?
EX: Because there are these reference tracks that are floating around that actually have Quentin Miller doing Drake's verses apparently before these songs were released. So that's why people believe it's Quentin Miller.
CORNISH: And I think we have an example of one of those what you call reference tracks. Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "R.I.C.O.")
DRAKE: (Singing) Old ways, new women - got to keep a balance. The girl of your dreams to me is probably not a challenge.
CORNISH: So that's Drake.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNOW YOURSELF")
QUENTIN MILLER: (Singing) Old money, new women - got to keep a balance. The girl of your dreams to me is probably not a challenge.
CORNISH: And that second voice, that's Quentin Miller. And explain reference tracks to us. I mean, it sounds like ghostwriting's not uncommon.
EX: It's not at all, and perhaps one of the most common misconceptions about ghostwriting is that it's about the actual writing when the most important and the hardest part of making rap music is going to be coming up with the cadence, the flow, the melody. The ghostwriter actually lays it out for the rapper and how it should sound, and then the rapper basically re-records the demo version that the ghostwriter has made already.
CORNISH: So did this actually answer the question? I mean, is Quentin Miller a ghostwriter (laughter)? Does he claim to be? Does Drake disavow him?
EX: His people, his producer has said, and kind of dancing around legal terms, not quite on the money, not saying it - the only person who has come out clearly and said that it is not ghostwriting is Quentin Miller. And Quentin Miller would be required to say that if he were a ghostwriter because that's the nature of being a ghostwriter.
EX: And it's very interesting. It's almost telling that he's the one that's come out and said that in no uncertain terms because that's sort of your job as your ghostwriter. In order for you to clear that check and to keep that money, you have to disavow that you are a ghostwriter.
CORNISH: So what's the history here? I mean, rapper Lupe Fiasco once said some of the greatest verses in hip-hop were written by ghostwriters.
EX: Yes, he has. And you know, one of the first commercially available hip-hop songs was ghostwritten, and P. Diddy very famously says it, don't ask me if I write rhymes; I write checks. So it's not really a crazy, big deal when people use ghostwriters, but it does become a different deal when you are saying that, I don't use a ghostwriter, and I am someone who is making my own lyrics and telling my own story, especially for someone like Drake who - a lot of his appeal is tied into this idea that these emotions that he's sharing are his. And at the same time that he's sharing these deep emotions, he also has this ability to make these kind of universal party rhymes and these great big hooks at the same time.
CORNISH: You're saying that this is not uncommon, that the fans aren't really going to punish you if you own up to it. Why do you think this matters?
EX: This matters to the type of artist that people are trying to be. If you are trying to be a producer, a composer, arranger in the moat of a Diddy or a Dr. Dre or even a Kanye West, it's OK to not write your own lyrics. But when you are trying to become a wordsmith and be exalted with the grace as a Jay-Z or Nas, a Biggie Smalls or Tupac Shakur, that requires that you do write your own rhymes because part of what makes those people important is not that they were necessarily figureheads or spokespeople for ideas, but that these were actually their ideas that they embodied and that they were putting forth.
CORNISH: Music writer Kris Ex, thanks for getting us up to speed.
EX: Thank you very much for having me.
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