Pardison Fontaine and the Plight of the Ghostwriter

Pardison Fontaine and the Plight of the Ghostwriter


The rise of Cardi B so dramatically remapped what success could look like in music that it’s difficult to recall the landscape that preceded her. In her wake, the possibilities for social-media celebrity, for genre melding, and for multilingual pop hits are greater than ever. But she also helped reshape hip-hop in more subtle ways. For one, she shifted the fraught dynamic between rap’s stars and the people toiling in their shadow. When Cardi released her landmark début album, “Invasion of Privacy,” last year, she was frank about something that was usually verboten—the help that she’d received from songwriters, namely a slick-talking New York rapper named Pardison Fontaine (born Jordan Thorpe). In the lead-up to the album’s release, she did an interview with the veteran hip-hop radio host Ebro Darden, in which the two discussed “Be Careful,” a song that riffed on Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” and portrayed Cardi in a new, emotionally complex light. (Fontaine’s demo track of the song had already leaked online.) “My boy Pardison . . . I told him, ‘I really want this record. I want it for me,’ ” Cardi told Darden. Fontaine, she said, agreed. “Just make sure you kill it,” he told her.

It was unusual for a star rapper to admit that someone else had written one of her most notable songs. From one angle, Cardi was just being savvy—discussing a taboo subject on her own terms before others could use it as a cudgel. But her confession was also jarring, because the song in question was such a potent expression of female pain. The track seemed specific to Cardi B and the circumstances of her highly publicized relationship with her now husband, Offset, a member of the Atlanta rap trio Migos. Fontaine, whose name appears in the credits for twelve of the thirteen tracks on “Invasion of Privacy,” was clearly not just a sharp writer but someone who could, on a dime, inhabit the forces that define an artist’s persona. When Kanye West assembled a team of writers for his 2018 album, “Ye,” he specifically requested the presence of whoever had written a line that he especially loved on Cardi’s album: “I gotta stay out of Gucci / I’m finna run out of hangers,” from the song “Drip.” Fontaine flew to Wyoming, where the album was recorded, and gave West lyrics that he’d written about his daughter. The resulting song, “Violent Crimes,” told the story of a man newly attuned to women’s experiences after becoming a father. Given the scrutiny levelled at someone like Drake—and countless others before him—after allegations that he’d used a ghostwriter, the freedom with which ghostwriters can now be celebrated marks a somewhat shocking shift. It’s a sign not just of loosening attitudes but of rap’s newfound place at the core of the pop mainstream. If rap is now pop, it’s only fitting that its songwriting resembles that of conventional pop hits.

These days, Fontaine is moving out of the shadows and releasing material under his own name. If he was effective as a ghostwriter because he could verbalize complex, sometimes morbid dynamics between men and women, his new material is simpler. “I’m the new LL,” he announces on “Shea Butter,” a song from his new album, “UNDER8ED.” The line deftly captures the role that he plays in his own music: a tough, measured, sweet-talking Casanova whose main concern is women—scorning them, seducing them, hyping them up. It’s no wonder that Fontaine could so effectively inhabit the mindset of Cardi B, given that he seems to spend much of his time thinking about her female peers. Fontaine is foremost a writer; style and sound come second. “UNDER8ED” is a polished, competent, but not especially innovative blend of New York and Atlanta street rap, of hypnotic trap and boom-bappy beats. One moment, Fontaine is introspective and humble. The next, he’s bombastic and cartoonish—as on “Shea Butter,” an immensely fun riff on Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s club classic “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” Fontaine can find others’ voices with ease, but at times he struggles to locate his own point of view as a solo star. Perhaps the most bracing moments of “UNDER8ED” are those that harness the brooding, contemplative energy of songs like Cardi’s “Be Careful” or West’s “Violent Crimes.” These moments also feel the most revealing. The album’s opener, “Not There Yet,” is a forceful announcement not of an arrival but of the insecurity of navigating the early stages of notoriety. “It’s crazy how you gotta be eager and patient,” he says. “You can’t work a regular job, cause, locally, you famous.”

Looking at Fontaine’s list of songwriting credits, it would seem that he’s already experiencing the comforts of success. But achieving adulation at the back of the house when you desire the authority of the front leads to a complex bind. (It’s also one that ghostwriters have not often experienced, given the secrecy that historically surrounded their work.) After he released “Ye,” West admitted that he had not written “Violent Crimes” and credited Fontaine publicly, on Twitter. One imagines that West believed this nod of recognition would please Fontaine. Instead, Fontaine was exasperated—perhaps because he did not wish to be pigeonholed as a mere ghostwriter, or perhaps because of the confessional nature of the lyrics that he’d written about his daughter. “Nobody needed to know,” Fontaine told GQ last year. He wrote West, “That’s not what I do that for.” His response suggested that the tradition of shame around ghostwriting didn’t just help the stars who’d accepted assistance. It also gave ghostwriters a kind of mask, the freedom to voice their innermost feelings in private. That mask might have helped generate music that felt fresh, frank, and true. What will be revealed once it’s slipped is still being sorted out.