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How Rap’s Civil War Was Shaped by AI

The recent “Rap Civil War” accelerated the use of AI in rap music and, as with digital sampling, creatives will use it regardless of the implications.

Am I battling ghosts or AI?

– Kendrick Lamar, “Euphoria”

Rap is a genre of music that has always been intimately tied to technology. From turntables and microphones to drum machines and samplers, rap relentlessly pursues the cutting edge. It is, therefore, no surprise that the AI revolution is, in part, unfolding amid an era-defining rap battle. However, AI in rap music is not as new as it might seem.

Since 2019, with virtual “artists” like rap robot FN Meka and Travis Bott (the Travis Scott “twin”), AI has been creeping into the North American rap scene. Initially, definitions of what constituted AI music were loose and often intentionally misleading. Compositions like “Jack Park Canny Dope Man” (Travis Bott) are AI only in the broadest sense. The nonsensical lyrics are AI-generated but performed by a human, Dallas rapper, So So Topic.

In August 2022, it appeared that a significant shift in the AI musical landscape was occurring when Capitol Records signed FN Meka, the self-proclaimed “first robot rapper,” several of whose compositions appeared to be AI-generated, though similarly voiced by a human; this time the Houston rapper, Kyle the Hooligan. But the deal quickly dissolved when Capital dropped FN Meka after outrage over its trafficking in racial stereotypes. These early releases gave insight into some pressing questions, though they had a heavy Mechanical Turk dimension. The technology was not advanced enough to have the sort of impact that the early adaptors desired. This would change in the Spring of 2023.

With the release of “Heart on My Sleeve” by the anonymous TikTok user and songwriter ghostwriter977, AI music’s deep fake capabilities and creative potential became unavoidable. “Heart on My Sleeve,” released in April 2023, is one of many songs that use AI-generated voice models to replicate well-known singers and rappers. What makes this song distinct is that it’s a hit. Though written and performed by a human through AI filters, it appeared to be a new Drake song featuring the Weeknd. It may sound more like Drake from 2009 than 2023. Still, it’s a reasonably convincing effort, and it garnered 600k Spotify streams, 15m TikTok views, and 275k YouTube views before being removed from streaming services following a copyright claim by Universal Music Group. Despite its relatively short span of virality, “Heart on My Sleeve” proves to be a turning point. 

In April 2024, a series of AI-generated diss songs emerged on the Internet as part of the zeitgeist surrounding the Drake vs. Kendrick Lamar feud, including “Hi, Whitney“, which premiered on a DJ Akademiks live stream, and “1 Shot 1 Kill“, a diss song aimed at Drake that had a moment of virality but inspired suspicion about its legitimacy. Shortly after its release on YouTube, the Los Angeles artist Sy the Rapper came out as the song’s creator on his TikTok.

This was not Sy the Rapper’s first use of AI voice models in his work. Inspired by ghostwriter977, he began experimenting with the technology and released “Alumni Vs. Freshmen“, a song featuring an AI-generated Ye FKA Kanye West, in May 2023. After coming out as the person behind “1 Shot 1 Kill”, he was approached by a representative from OVO (Drake’s record label). After he explained his process further and showed evidence of his work, the representative was laudatory towards him. Days later, Drake, whose voice has been used in innumerable AI-generated songs and thus – under his memeable celebrity – stands at the crossroads of this technology, released his song utilizing AI voice models.

Released on Drake’s Instagram, “Taylor Made Freestyle” is a diss song aimed at Kendrick Lamar featuring an AI Tupac and Snoop Dogg. Drake’s unaugmented vocals don’t appear until two minutes into the song. The AI voice clones of the two legendary West Coast rap figures is a tactic of psychological warfare aimed at Lamar. Lamar is vocal about his admiration for both of these artists, and he famously uses excerpts from a Swedish radio interview with Tupac on his critically acclaimed 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly. Additionally, in 2011 at the Music Box in Hollywood, Snoop Dogg proclaimed Kendrick “got the torch”, solidifying him as the pinnacle of West Coast rap. So, when Drake used these AI voice models, he threw gasoline on the fire, making Lamar question, “Am I battling ghosts of AI?” on his song “Euphoria“. Speaking directly to Drake on the song “Not Like Us” he asks, “You think the Bay gon’ let you disrespect Pac, nigga? (I think that Oakland show gon’ be your last stop, nigga.)”

Due to its high-profile nature, “Taylor Made Freestyle” has attracted unprecedented attention to using AI in popular music. Almost exactly a year after ghostwriter977 faced backlash for and showed the potential of AI voice models to create competitively compelling work with his song, “Heart on My Sleeve”, Drake, whose AI voice was used on this pivotal piece of work, was issued a Cease and Desist order from Tupac’s estate demanding that he remove his AI generated effort, “Taylor Made Freestyle”, from his Instagram.

“Taylor Made Freestyle” would also make waves in the American political system. In late April, North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis played “Taylor Made Freestyle” for Congress for “The NO FAKES Act: Protecting Americans from Unauthorized Digital Replicas” hearing in an attempt to begin regulating this powerful technology. Drake’s use of AI has moved this novelty phenomenon from the fringe to the mainstream. This is a sentiment echoed by comedian Willonius Hatcher.

Hatcher, who goes by the stage name King Willinous, has been experimenting with AI music as an extension of his comedy work for some time. When rapper and record executive Rick Ross accused Drake of getting cosmetic surgery, specifically a Brazilian butt lift, and gave Drake the disparaging nickname BBL Drizzy on his song “Champagne Moments“, Hatcher thought it would be an excellent concept for a parody song. He wrote the lyrics and created several tracks, and in mid-April, released the ’70s soul-sounding “BBL Drizzy“. The song does not further demean Drake but rather is a playful celebration of sorts.

The catchy and clever tune went viral, providing a degree of relief from the vitriol at the heart of the raging rap feud. But it would enter new levels of the pop-culture stratosphere when it was sampled by the super producer Leland Tyler Wayne, known professionally as Metro Boomin. Metro Boomin, a key figure in what many have called the rap Civil War, seems to have long harbored animosity towards Drake, and when Drake calls him out by name on his song “Push Ups“, it brought their mutual antagonism to the forefront. As part of his #bbldrizzybeatgiveaway, Metro Boomin offered a free beat to the person who did the best verse over his version of “BBL Drizzy”. The Internet proliferated with “BBL Drizzy” songs, and like Drake’s use of AI on “Taylor Made Freestyle”, Metro Boomin’s use of an AI sample set a new precedent.

The consensus is that Drake has lost the battle. While many rappers, from ASAP Rocky to Rick Ross, have fired lyrical shots back and forth with Drake, the main event has been between Drake and Kendrick Lamar. Drake released the last song of the feud to date, “The Heart Part 6“, but instead of taking an aggressive stance as he had in the past, we find him playing defense and appearing tired and more than a little bored. Regarding chart success, where popularity matters more than craft, Kendrick Lamar’s “Not Like Us” beat out Drake’s efforts and took the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 upon its release. 

Still, out of the rubble and debris, Drake continues, and so do the shifting dynamics of AI in rap. On May 24th, the St. Louis rapper Sexyy Red released her third album, In Sexyy We Trust. Sexyy Red appeared on Drake’s 2023 album For All the Dogs, and he returns the favor on “U My Everything“. The beat is by Memphis producer Tay Keith, but halfway through Drake’s verse, there is a beat switch, and in an attempt to shift the narrative, Drake continues rapping over Metro Boomin’s “BBL Drizzy”.

In September 2023, on his follow-up to “Heart on My Sleeve”, ghostwriter977 created a reasonably compelling composition entitled “Whiplash“, an AI Travis Scott featuring an AI 21 Savage song that didn’t get the same level of attention as his initial foray. But at the end of the video, the text on the screen reads, “The future of music is here. Artists now have the ability to let their voice work for them without lifting a finger.” He then issued a statement to Travis Scott and 21 Savage saying that if they allow him to release the song, he would “clearly label it as ai, and [will] direct royalties to [them].”

It’s unknown whether Travis Scott or 21 Savage have expressed interest in this proposition. Still, one could imagine a future where voices are treated like licensable instruments, not tied to personhood. However, the truth is that we can not say how this technology will be used in the coming year, months, weeks, or days. At present, it may be little more than a powerful novelty. But at one point, drum machines, synthesizers, and autotune were seen as novelties. Moreover, hip-hop and rock’ n’ roll were at one point viewed by many as fads. 

Treating AI in music as a black-and-white issue is tempting, but complex nuances are already arising. King Willinous, who uses the technology much differently than ghostwriter977 or Sy the Rapper, speaks about how AI “unlocked all [his] creativity”, and how he has developed a songwriting process using AI. AI is undoubtedly distinct from digital sampling. Still, it raises many of the same questions and concerns. However, instead of sampling individuals or ensembles, large data sets obscure the individual and create homogenous sounds based on historically and culturally specific music. In the case of voice models, individual voices, which also come out of historical and cultural specificities, are extracted and further abstracted.

Despite the growing ubiquity of technology, there is no legal agreement about how we are to deal with either approach, let alone the application of AI in music, which we have yet to see realized. While this technology’s legal, political, and financial future is pressing, just like digital sampling, it will be utilized by creatives regardless of the implications. Since the late ’80s, when we began to get maximalist masterpieces of digital sampling like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and The Beastie Boys’ Pauls Boutique, our collective understanding and appreciation of sample-based music has evolved considerably. What happens in the big tech boardrooms and the halls of Congress will certainly impact how AI continues to develop, but how we understand, engage with, and appreciate AI-generated music and art may turn out to be the stickiest ontological question of all.

North American Rap Music and AI Timeline 

21 October 2016
“Not Easy”, a collaboration between Alex Da Kid, X Ambassadors, Elle King, and Wiz Khalifa, and IBM’s Watson, is released.

20 November 2019
“Internet” by FN Meka, the self-proclaimed “first robot rapper” is released by Factory New.

27 November 2019
“Jack Park Canny Dope Man” by Travis Bott, an “AI” approximation of Travis Scott, is released by the digital agency space150.

14 August 2022 
Capitol Records announces that it has signed virtual rapper FN Meka.

23 August 2022
Capital issues an apology and drops FN Meka after protests against what is seen as FN Meka’s racial stereotyping.

4 April 2023
“Heart on My Sleeve”, an AI-generated song by ghostwriter977 featuring the AI voices of Drake and The Weeknd, is released. It would garner 600,000 Spotify streams, 15m TikTok views, and 275,000 YouTube views.

7 April 2023
“Heart on My Sleeve” is removed from streaming sites after ghostwriter977 was served with a Cease and Desist by UMG.

14 April 2024
Comedian Willonius Hatcher, AKA King Willonius, releases his AI-generated parody song “BBL Drizzy” on X.

15 April 2024
Inspired by ghostwriter977, Sy The Rapper anonymously releases “1 Shot 1 Kill”, a Kendrick Lamar AI voice model diss track aimed at Drake and J. Cole.

19 April 2024
“Taylor Made Freestyle” by Drake is released on his Instagram featuring AI Tupac and Snoop Dogg.

26 April 2024
“Taylor Made Freestyle” is removed from Drake’s Instagram following a Cease and Desist from Tupac’s estate.

30 April 2024
The United States Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Intellectual Property holds “The NO FAKES Act: Protecting Americans from Unauthorized Digital Replicas” hearing. Sen. Thom Tillis plays “Taylor Made Freestyle” by Drake for Congress. 

5 May 2024
Sampling the King Willonius AI-generated composition of the same name, Metro Boomin releases “BBL Drizzy” on Soundcloud and announces the #bbldrizzybeatgiveaway.

24 May 2024
Sexy Redd releases “U My Everything” (feat. Drake), where Drake raps over Metro Boomin’s “BBL Drizzy” beat.