In April, an anonymous music producer known only as Ghostwriter made headlines with a song called “Heart on my Sleeve.” Using AI-assisted tools, Ghostwriter was able to create glitchy facsimiles of Drake and the Weeknd’s vocals known as “deep fakes,” bringing the two artists together for a collaboration the pair had nothing to do with. Tens of millions of TikTok plays and a Universal Music Group takedown later, he’s ready for his close-up. In a recent Billboard cover story, Ghostwriter insisted that he’s simply using new technology to channel existing creative impulses. “There are so many talented songwriters that are able to chameleon themselves in the studio to fit the artist they are writing for. Even their vocal delivery, their timbre, where the artist is in their life story. That skill is what I get to showcase with Ghostwriter.”
These skills — and the tech he uses — have a long way to go to meet this lofty goal. As weak as Drake’s recent output has been (What’s the worst line on For All The Dogs? I still can’t get over “sliming you out for all the kid choices you made”), his recent lows are leagues ahead of “Heart on my Sleeve.” The song opens with a thin piano loop, a pirated Metro Boomin tag, and a pretty rudimentary 808 pattern. “I came in with my ex like Selena to flex,” crows not-Drake; later, not-the Weeknd will sing “I got my heart on my sleeve with the city on my back.” It feels more like a reference track than a finished product, like the artist and producer are only beginning to shape the ideas of what the final song might become.
But for Ghostwriter, the writer, producer, and vocalist behind it all, “Heart on My Sleeve” is “an incredible song,” as he said in the fairly uncritical Billboard story. The lyrics, beat, and performance are all him — the only AI element is the transformation of Ghostwriter into Aubrey Graham/Abel Tesfaye (the latest development in Vocaloid-type technology). Leaving aside for a moment the question of quality, the unauthorized release has been a runaway success: 15 million plays on TikTok parlayed into serious media attention (A flurry of culture/digital trend news reporting, then a second wave of reasonable handwringing over the implications) and even a nod from the Grammys — “Heart on My Sleeve” is eligible for an award, though only the human-created composition and not the AI-indebted performance. Despite Universal Music Group’s best efforts, the AI-voiced track still pops up on YouTube, though it was mostly scrubbed off of Spotify and Apple Music.
Ghostwriter recently released a new song “Whiplash” with AI-enhanced vocals in the style of Travis Scott and 21 Savage to a more muted response, though it won’t result in the same digital cat-and-mouse for labels. “We will not release a song on streaming platforms again without getting the artists on board,” Ghostwriter’s (also anonymous) manager explained to Billboard. “That last time was an experiment to prove the market was there, but we are not here to agitate or cause problems.”
To hear Ghostwriter and Manager tell it, they’re simply kickstarting an inevitable conversation a little sooner than musicians and labels had anticipated. To paraphrase Manager: the best way to get the ball rolling is to show what the technology can do. The industry didn’t know how to handle sampling at first, Manager insists, but now everybody wants to license their old songs for additional profits. He asserts that “Spotify wouldn’t exist without Napster,” which might be a true statement but ignores the long-term material cost to the music industry between Napster’s 1999 launch and when music streaming fully took hold in the 2010s.
To hear Ghostwriter tell it, the idea of making copycat music came after producing and songwriting for various artists and seeing little to no pay for his work. “It caused me to think: ‘What can I do as a songwriter who just loves creating to maybe create another revenue stream? How do I get my voice heard as a songwriter?’ That was the seed that later grew into becoming Ghostwriter.”
In fact, AI wasn’t initially part of the conversation at all. “The idea at first was to create music that feels like other artists and release it as Ghostwriter. Then when the AI tech came out, things just clicked. I realized, ‘Wait — people wouldn’t have to guess who this song was meant to sound like anymore,’ now that we have this.’”
The utility of AI vocals as a tool for songwriters is self-evident — instead of getting to the studio session and realizing the lyrics don’t quite work for someone’s voice, writers can get a better sense for how a track might sound in its final iteration. This would require a pretty high degree of fidelity in copying an artist’s voice. Still, you can imagine that a record label — with access to master recordings and looking to expedite the writing process — could train a proprietary algorithm to a higher quality than the services available to Ghostwriter. Not as good as getting the artist in a room, but at a fraction of the cost, it’s probably a tradeoff most labels would be willing to make.
Hovering over discussions of art and artificial intelligence is the spectre of totally AI-generated work, that by feeding a computer enough songs it will be able to spit out a facsimile near-indistinguishable from originals. We are still pretty far from that horizon — anyone who has ever toyed with ChatGPT knows that poetry and lyricism are not its strong suits (in fact, the climate change that ChatGPT is helping to usher in might destroy the planet before it becomes the next Shakespeare). Human intervention and creativity is still needed, key to Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr.’s argument for why “Heart on My Sleeve” is Grammy-eligible: While the AI-augmented performance is barred from nomination, the composition, made by a human, is valid for consideration. In the Billboard digital cover, Ghostwriter and Manager assert that they will be on the Grammy ballot thanks to a streaming re-release of “Heart on My Sleeve” with no AI filter, just Ghostwriter’s voice, in order to meet commercial availability requirements for the awards mere days before the eligibility cutoff.
While Ghostwriter may come off as self-interested and self-aggrandizing, the music industry doesn’t seem totally opposed to his ideas.
A buzzer-beating loophole exploit is a ruthless-if-logical way to capitalize on a viral moment. But it’s also an egregious mistake that truly highlights the nonsensical nature of the entire Ghostwriter project. Let’s rewind to the November 4, 2022, release of Her Loss by Drake and 21 Savage. Drake was never exactly a feminist, but on that album he reached surprising new lows in chauvinism, rapping about unsubstantiated rumors that Megan Thee Stallion had lied about being shot by Tory Lanez. Lyrics like “Bitch lied ‘bout getting shots but she still a Stallion” were part of an ongoing feedback/fanservice loop of toxic masculinity between the artist and his fans, but his raps too, were pretty lackluster, approaching a Travis Scott-esque mediocrity fueled by the knowledge that his fans broadly don’t care — all they really need from an album is a handful of Instagram captions and some tabloid fodder.
Released five months later on April 4, 2023, “Heart on My Sleeve” offers a couple weak stabs at the former (“She think that I need her, kick her to the curb” would make a crazy breakup announcement), but largely trades on the value of the latter: the illicit rush of the Weeknd-shit talking his ex Selena Gomez, the Canadian solidarity of Drake name dropping Justin Bieber (another of Gomez’s former beaus), and the thrill of a new collaboration between Graham and Tesfaye, whose fruitful “on again, off again” working relationship now stretches back more than a decade.
Stripped of the AI filter, “Heart on My Sleeve” loses its rubbernecking allure. It is another among many forgettable rap songs operating in the Drake-ian vein, with simple production that wouldn’t stand out in a crowd of direct-to-YouTube beats. Ghostwriter’s glottal delivery might be a concession to the AI-alteration process, contorting his voice into phonemes that more readily translate to the voices of Drake and the Weeknd, but he frankly sounds more like Lil Mabu than Aubrey Graham on the first verse; when he begins to sing as “The Weeknd,” his lower register is laughable, lacking the clarity and basic melodic prowess Tesfaye has honed over the past decade.
Despite the lyrical fumbles Drake has committed to wax over his career, “Heart on my Sleeve” doesn’t pass muster. In a way, it’s almost too nice — Drake wouldn’t say a diva is “getting on [his] nerves,” he would say she’s a disappointment to her parents and honestly, it’s his fault for getting involved with her in the first place. If Ghostwriter’s point, as he told Billboard, is to highlight the “many incredible songs [...] sitting on songwriters and producers’ desktops that will never be heard by the world,” he might want to start with a song that’s at least sort-of good?
Of course, that’s not really the point; even Ghostwriter admits it. “I think there’s a way for artists to help provide that beauty to the world without having to put in work themselves. They just have to license their voices.”
No longer will artists have to do the boring, humdrum work of creating to reap the benefits of producing creative content. All they have to do is outsource the writing to someone like Ghostwriter and cut him a percentage of the publishing. While Ghostwriter may come off as self-interested and self-aggrandizing, the music industry doesn’t seem totally opposed to his ideas. The "Big Three" labels of Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and Sony Music Entertainment are currently collaborating with YouTube on an AI service that would copy the voices of their artists, perhaps the next step up from the celebrity-AI chatbots debuted by Facebook last month.
It’s true that Drake and Travis Scott are hypercommercial rappers who utilize writers’ rooms to generate and sharpen ideas. But “Heart on My Sleeve” or “Whiplash” would never even make it to a listening session with the artist. These aren’t even the seeds of good songs, just uninspired ideas like “it would be so sick if Travis Scott and 21 Savage had a song together and it had a beat switch.” And it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that the relative non-success of “Whiplash” is likely due to Travis Scott’s UTOPIA being released just one month prior; Ghostwriter can succeed off the strength of demand for new music from these artists, but he can’t compete with the original product.
When the Grammys' added new rules around the use of AI and award eligibility in June, they were likely thinking of more mundane use cases, such as Paul McCartney using AI to clean up John Lennon’s vocals on a low-quality demo tape. In a July clarification to Variety, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. explained, “Material using AI can be submitted, but [only] the human portion of the composition [or performance] can be awarded… if a human writes a track and AI is used to voice-model, or create a new voice, or use somebody else’s voice, the performance would not be eligible, but the writing of the track and the lyric or top line would be absolutely eligible for an award.”
Despite the Grammys general lack of insight, inclusivity, or appreciation for hip-hop, it seems highly unlikely that the “Heart on My Sleeve” will find much traction among voters — it’s underwhelmingly basic, and not in the way that the Grammys usually rewards. But Ghostwriter has already gotten what he wants: his composition is eligible and in the conversation about the awards. The door has cracked open, even if just a little. If Timbaland got permission from Biggie’s estate, could we see a song with post-mortem AI-generated vocals eligible for Music’s Biggest Night?
The comment that has stuck with me the most from Ghostwriter’s fluff interview isn’t a high-minded statement about the value of songwriting or a blase throwaway comment showing he doesn’t really respect the artists whose voices he steals. Rather, it’s when he says, “Up until this point, all of the AI voice stuff was jokes. Like, what if SpongeBob [SquarePants] sang this? I think it was exciting for me to try using this as a tool for actual songwriters.”
The most successful SpongeBob joke song this year has to be “Krusty Krew Anthem,” an anthemic rap song that topped the US Spotify Viral 100 chart this summer and primarily features Mr. Krabs and Squidward (SpongeBob does contribute an adlib). Except that song doesn’t actually feature AI — Oddwin and Qulan are doing vocal impressions.
“You can tell the difference,” Oddwin explained to Rolling Stone. “With A.I., people put it through a program that’ll almost be like text-to-speech software and try to make it rap like Mr. Krabs. Or they’ll use their actual voice and then put it through a filter like the TikTok voice filters but through a DAW.”
Oddwin’s Mr. Krabs impression on “Krusty Krew Anthem” reminds me of Young Thug’s delightfully gruff first verse on “Cartier Gucci Scarf.” When “SpongeBob” pops up for a single, wordless moment, he wouldn’t sound out of place on a SahBabii album. Here’s a great video of Oddwin breaking down the beat, co-produced with AYE SHARK!, who provided the central horn melody. It’s a joke, yes, but one put together with care and intent.
I can’t see a similar level of thought in Ghostwriter’s work, which seems derivative not out of admiration or appreciation for the artists it apes, but rather out of contempt for their music, as if rap is just so easy to make. Combined with his personal limitations as a songwriter, these blind spots expose the emptiness of the future Ghostwriter is trying to build. Chameleons can blend in for a while, but they inevitably reveal their true colors. And when they do, the difference between a fake and the real deal becomes strikingly clear.
Rap Column is a column about rap music by Vivian Medithi and Nadine Smith for The FADER.