Artificial intelligence is slowly permeating the music world, and the prospects are perilous. Over the past year, songs have been released emulating the voices of Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and pop icons. Still, it feels like the most sparks are flying within hip-hop, where AI enthusiasts are involved in full-fledged digital projects. A viral Drake and The Weeknd AI cover titled “Heart on My Sleeve” amassed 8.5 million views over the weekend before being taken down this week.
Made by a creator named Ghostwriter — though it is unclear to what extent AI was involved in the actual songwriting — the track uses Drake and Weeknd’s vocals for a generic party track, including a bar referencing The Weeknd’s ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez. The song went viral on TikTok and YouTube, where its creator stood before a computer screen draped in white cloth like a cartoon ghost wearing black sunglasses as the song played. The user’s social media accounts linked back to a page where you could stream the song on all major platforms, though the track was swiftly removed by UMG, who deemed it “infringing content created with generative AI.” Representatives for the label told Billboard that the song’s viral rise “demonstrate why platforms have a fundamental legal and ethical responsibility to prevent the use of their services in ways that harm artists.” But even if UMG is unhappy with the song, some fans appear excited about the possibilities.
One YouTube commenter raved, “Ghost Writer’s AI truly captured the essence of Drake and The Weeknd! As impressive as it is, it makes you wonder if we’re on the cusp of an AI-inspired legal revolution.” But that so-called “revolution” would spark many questions: What are the legal permutations if a song like “Heart on My Sleeve” amasses millions of views on a monetized YouTube channel? What does an AI royalty look like? Will labels copyright artists’ voices to prevent “infringed content?” What kind of ownership precedent will that set? We’re still in the infancy of navigating how to police AI-generated art in a way that’s fair to the artists whose voices are being used. But seeking answers is all the more headache-inducing when the musical output isn’t even good enough for the delirium it’s engendering.
Over the past several months, people have utilized AI tools to make fake songs with their favorite artists. There have been several Kanye versions of Drake tracks and vice versa. French hip-hop act AllttA released “Savages,” a “Jay-Z collaboration” that utilizes the rap legend’s vocals to an alarming degree. The people most excited about the advent of AI rap say it represents new possibilities for the music industry. At the same time, detractors see the trend as another chance to explore Black art without paying Black people.
Last year, hysteria arose around FN Meka, a fictional artist who signed with Capitol Records. The FN Meka project was created by Brandon Le of Factory New, Anthony Martini, and other creators, including rapper Kyle The Hooligan, the voice of Meka. Meka gathered a following on TikTok, and their Instagram sparked outrage with posts depicting the character being assailed by cops, which many viewed as trivializing the reality of police brutality. Fans were also upset that the Avatar used the n-word in songs when white and Asian creators were at the forefront of the project. In a statement, Industry Blackout said that “While we applaud innovation in tech that connects listeners to music and enhances the experience, we find fault in the lack of awareness in how offensive this caricature is. It is a direct insult to the Black community and our culture.”
Kyle, who is Black, complained that he wasn’t compensated for his labor and was “ghosted” when Meka caught viral fame, exemplifying the exploitative possibilities of digital art projects. Ultimately, Capitol apologetically dropped Meka, while Martini left the project, noting that it was “deeply at odds with his core values.” The Meka debacle demonstrated how AI could allow bad actors with limited musical talent to capitalize off the genre. It would be a shame if AI rap builds an actual foothold in the industry because the world’s most beloved artists have unique hallmarks that AI’s soulless replications can never capture.
With AI-generated “covers” such as Drake rapping Ice Spice’s “Munch” — which Drake jokingly responded to by noting, “this is the final straw” — AI-generated rap has since taken a somewhat lighter tone. But even these humorous moments speak to serious dynamics. Some listeners are raving about “Heart on Your Sleeve” as if it’s on par with an actual Drake and The Weeknd collaboration; it’s not. The song does a decent job of capturing Drake’s voice and a weaker job of The Weeknd’s, but it doesn’t come close to capturing the full essence of either artist. Their deliveries feel as stiff and automated as the program that created them. Ghostwriter does a rudimentary job emulating some of Drake’s trademark cadences, but “Heart on My Sleeve” sounds at best like a phoned-in reference track — which humans then come back in and do over to make it sound special.
No matter how impressive the NBA 2K video game depicts a player’s hair, tattoos, or facial distinctions, their eyes will always be dead. Their mouths will move weirdly because it’s nothing but a digital rendering. No one would watch an NBA telecast of a video game in lieu of the actual game, yet rap fans are somehow foreseeing a world where AI songs do chart-worthy numbers and can compellingly emulate their favorite acts. Considering how many of these songs are created by non-Black creators, it’s a disrespectful, anti-Black notion.
Rap has historically been demeaned as a simple genre. Even the Black musicians that producers sampled claimed it wasn’t music. In 1997, Rick James rued that rappers “winning Grammys that sample me and everybody else, and they’re not even making real music.” Now, so-called rap fans are demonstrating that they haven’t been listening all that closely if these soulless songs emulate the real thing. To continue the 2K analogy, even the professional gamer who’s mastered the digital version of LeBron knows that some moves aren’t in the game. AI creators and rap fans should understand the same.
It’s in the way we’re used to Jay-Z and Kanye’s accents inflecting on certain words for emphasis. The way Young Thug or Drake’s delivery will sometimes be just behind the snare enough to reflect them being in the throes of a creative experience that an algorithm could never re-capture. Roddy Ricch’s viral adlibs at the start of “The Box” partly drove the track’s success. Whatever Ghostwriter used to create “Heart on My Sleeve” can’t do that. Can these programs even convincingly sigh, laugh, hum or capture any of the small vocal elements that make a song feel whole?
It’s bad enough that rap, a Black artform, is reckoning with appropriative rappers marketed to non-Black audiences, conservative rappers using the genre to spew hate, and other dynamics pushing Black creators to the back burner. Now we’re contending with people who think they can emulate some of the greatest artists of our time from a computer chair. As simple as rap sounds, rhyming words over a beat, the blandness of these AI records show that it’s much more nuanced than that.