HotNewHipHop delves into a common hip-hop debate: writing down lyrics versus not writing them down before hitting the booth to record. Some of the greatest MCs of our time, including Jay Z, Kanye West and the late Notorious B.I.G are advocates of the latter. While other greats, like Tech N9ne and Eminem, champion the former method.
Rappers are storytellers of the modern age. The media often misunderstands these narrators of society, but future generations will recognize them as windows into the past. Truly talented rappers have the ability to connect with people through their words, which may or may not be written down prior to the stage of recording. Some argue that the work of rappers who do not scribble down words beforehand is better than those that do. A few rappers who share or have previously shared this belief are Jay Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and the great Notorious B.I.G.
Serving as an inspiration for most of the current rappers on the scene, Biggie has always been known for his tendency of spitting his words straight into the mic without writing them down beforehand. This practice has since rubbed off on other rappers, who claim this is the only real way to make authentic rap music. The Brooklyn native’s lyrics were regularly autobiographical, some of them extremely dark, which gave his audience an insight to his life. A lot of his fans found they could relate to him because they had similar experiences in their own lives. Some credit his unique method of recording as the reason for his lyrics being so personal and relatable.
One of Biggie’s former managers, Mark Pitts, spoke with BET in 2012 about one of his favorite times watching the rapper slay in the studio.
“The first time I seen him go in without writing [down his lyrics], when I personally noticed it, was when he did the [DJ] Premier joint, ‘Unbelievable.’ I remember being at D&D Studios and the beat was on, and you know, Big had rolled up and he was smoking and then he sat back — I almost thought he was falling asleep. He laid back for a minute like he was passing out, but then all of a sudden he was like, ‘Ight, let’s go.’ And he went in the booth and killed it. I was like, ‘Get the fuck outta here.’ I’ll never forget that moment.”
This particular procedure of composing a rap is perceived as much more respective since it’s transmitted from one’s head and directly recorded. When paper gets involved the rap becomes vulnerable to changes. It then has the potential to be edited, modified, lost or mulled over by an artist. This is when the truth and meaning of a rap gets tainted and the original thought in the rapper’s mind can be altered into something different.
Jay Z is another advocate of throwing away the pen and paper. He believes in giving yourself up fully to the mic. Being from Brooklyn, Hov has regularly cited Biggie as an inspiration for his rap style and has even given him shout outs on tracks, such as “The City is Mine” from his second album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. released in 1997. So its safe to say, Biggie may be the main reason why he chose to stop writing lyrics down. That’s one way to get good at anything; emulate the greats who came before you. Nevertheless, there was a time when Jay benefited from scrawling his lyrics down and this was when he first started rapping. Back in 2007 he encouraged his nephew, Mel Carter, who is also an aspiring rapper, to keep writing, at least until he had it down solid enough to remember the words in his head, and to execute them flawlessly.
“Why I tell him to write every day is because it’s like anything else: [You have to] practice,” Jay said in a 2007 interview with MTV. “Basketball players play basketball their whole life, they practice every day. It only makes sense. You can only get better. The repetition. The more you do it, the better you do.”
The last song he reportedly wrote lyrics down for was “Can I Live,” which appeared on his 1996 debut album, Reasonable Doubt. Originally the track was supposed to be a collaboration between Jay and a member from the rap group Original Flavor, according to Irv Gotti. When the Original Flavor member dropped out, Jay was put in charge of finishing the song.
“From what I remember, he actually didn’t write the full verse,” Gotti wrote in an e-mail to MTV News. “But since the verse was so long, he wrote a few words down, and that made him remember the whole verse.”
The majority of Hov’s latest album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, which was released in July 2013, was recorded in about three weeks. His ability to work fast, but efficiently, to produce an album that reached number one on the Billboard 200 is partially because of his perfected style of rapping in the studio. He’s got it down to a science, so to speak. And although Jay has often made the joke, saying he’s “inspired a generation of bad writers,” it’s safe to say those “bad writers,” may end up being the best rappers.
Kanye West, one of Jay Z’s protégé’s, may be one such MC. Like most artists, Kanye has evolved tremendously since the start of his career. Early on, Hov supported the rapper as he displayed his stellar production talents on Jay’s 2001 album, The Blueprint, while working for Roc-A-Fella Records. After Kanye released his own albums, finally spending some time in the spotlight, he too swore by the method of entering the booth and rapping off the cuff. And that’s what he did for his first four albums. However, for some reason he decided to go against this technique on his fifth album, the extremely perfected My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The “Stronger” rapper explains in an outtake of the 2012 Ice-T doc Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, his reasoning behind writing down lyrics for MBDTF, saying, "But on this last album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I wrote it because I really put myself in the zone that my life was dependent on the success of this album. With that being the case, I said, 'You know what? No matter what anybody says about me, I can write something that can make someone that hates me the most have to really respect or love the song.'”
Being an artist who constantly is changing it up for his audience (and occasionally acting out controversially), Kanye may have justified this move by looking at it as taking a risk. All successful artists have taken leaps of faith during their careers hoping to surprise themselves and at the same time prove what they're capable of. Besides, artists who fail to take risks usually become washed up and never transcend into something greater. Kanye wanted to show his audience and the world he wasn’t only a rapper, but a poet, a perfectionist. That there was more to him than just rapping and he could take the game to the next level. By doing this he was perceived as more impressive to his fellow rappers and critics alike, thanks to him trusting his gut and following a different formula.
Lil Wayne, on the other hand, realized writing down lyrics and recording them in the booth just isn’t as genuine as reciting them on the spot. For his first few albums the rapper scribbled down his rhymes before recording, but then after his sophomore album didn’t get the response he hoped for, he decided to try a different approach to making music. With this in mind he vowed to never write down another lyric again, except for one last mixtape entitled 10,000 Bars. The 35-minute long rap contained everything he had every written up to that point. Once he released this he was free of any words he had written down and could start fresh. This foray into ditching his notebooks led him to be appreciated and respected more as an artist.
“But you could read what’s on the paper, right? So basically anybody that could read could recite it,” said Wayne in a 2009 interview with RealTalkNY. “That takes something away from it. But if I walk up to a guy and say “Rap for me,” he’s going to say something. His characteristics or whatever. I’m going to get what I love about him, just from his presence.”
There is one rapper who is calling bullshit on all these other rappers who insist they don’t write before they rap. Kansas City emcee Tech N9ne believes these guys may just be keeping their writing under wraps.
“I don’t believe Jay or Wayne,” said the rapper in a 2013 interview with DBL CIN. “My niggas is tight. But I believe they write it down somewhere and memorize that shit.”
Another extremely talented and lyrical MC, Eminem, is well-known for the opposite method as well: he writes everything down, and he's outspoken about it.
"Yeah I’m not as good as those guys when I do that," Eminem said in an interview with XXL in 2009, referring to rappers like T.I. and Lil Wayne not writing down their words. "Like I can’t…I gotta actually sit down. For me, I want to actually write a whole song, because if I start, if I get to the second verse and I get stuck, I don’t want to record it just for nothing you know? So I kinda gotta write a whole song out and know if it’s gonna be a song and then record it. But I watched T.I. do that and was like, “How the fuck is he doing this?” Because it was intricate still you know what I mean like as he was going along like line by line. But when he actually got that time to write, you could definitely tell and I told him many times over the phone the way that he did this record was just, you know… you could tell, you could tell that he actually sat down and he crafted his rhymes. Like he’s got rhymes, he’s got lines that rhyme inside of rhymes and shit like that, which somebody like me can appreciate so much just because you know I do it. I try to do that. So like when you hear someone else do that, it’s like, you know how much time it takes to do it yourself so you can appreciate it, you know what I mean?"
It's interesting because both Tech and Em are applauded for their highly skilled and intricate rhymes and wordplay, but would their results be as amazing if they were to use the off-the-top method? And if that's the case, would Jay, Ye and Weezy astound us with their rhymes if they attempted to go back to their old ways?
It’s comparable to a best man at a wedding giving his speech to the groom. Some people believe it’s better to prepare it in your head and speak from the heart. Others can only make a speech if they collect their thoughts beforehand and write them down on paper. It really all comes down to having the confidence to express what’s really on your mind. One common attribute most seasoned rappers have is confidence. It’s all about using your charisma and tenacity to show that you deserve to be rapping amongst the best. In the end, either method could potentially work for an artist and make them buckets of cash, but it seems that most fans respond to and respect artists who have adopted the practice of rapping without writing.