I can only imagine what the conversation between Kanye West and 19-year-old rapper Desiigner sounded like where Kanye told Desiigner he was sampling Desiigner’s viral hit, “Panda,” on The Life of Pablo. ’Ye also signed Desiigner to his record label GOOD Music — an impressive endorsement and a sign that Desiigner is here to stay, at least for a little while. However, before we throw Desiigner into the growing pool of innovative new-school rappers, it’s important to take a long look at his musical roots.
Probably the most quotable line in “Panda” is the first one. Desiigner raps, “I got broads in Atlanta / Twisting dope, lean, and the Fanta.” Desiigner references Atlanta in his lyric, but more palpable is the iconic Atlanta sound Desiigner emulates. He raps with timely Young Thug-esque adlibs sprinkled in and a low, almost apathetic, drawl that is so much more Future’s than it is Desiigner’s. (Desiigner’s sound is so similar to that of Future’s that when Desiigner’s chorus comes onto Kanye’s “Freestyle 4,” even after the hundredth listen I can’t help but think, “Are we sure that isn’t Future?”). The bitter irony, and maybe a microcosm of Desiigner’s problem, is that he has never been to Atlanta. The rapper so easily compared to Atlanta’s heaviest rap hitters has lived his entire life in Bed Stuy Brooklyn (A neighborhood graced with its own set of rap legacies).
Rap music has always tiptoed the fine line between inspiration and theft. (Just throw on Guerilla Black’s “Compton,” close your eyes and try to convince yourself you’re not listening to an unreleased Biggie track.) But Desiigner seems like an extreme example. “Panda” sounds like a focus group tested version of a Future mixtape track. “Future, mumble a little less, let’s make the snare clap a little harder, and while we're at it, MORE ADLIBS.” Regardless, “Panda” is a great song. It’s Future, subtly contorted and twisted for a more pleasing pop sound. It replaces the doldrums of codeine addiction and depression with simple lyrics about cars and money (and pandas). It's also plagiarism.
A few years ago Drake was forced to pay rapper Rappin’ 4 Tay $100,000 for stealing the Bay Area legend’s verse, tinkering with it slightly and putting it on YG’s “Who Do You Love.” Rappin’ 4 Tay rapped “I got a ho named Reel-to Reel. She got a buddy named SP 12, now you know the deal. We gets freaky in the studio late night, that’s why the beats that you hear coming real tight.” While a red-handed Drizzy rapped “I got a shorty name Texas Syn. She got a buddy named Young JB and now you know the deal. We turnt up in the studio late night. That’s why the songs that you hear are comin' real tight.” That is, and will always be, plagiarism.
How different is Rappin’ 4 Tay’s case compared to Future’s though? Sure, I can’t as plainly put in words the plagiarism of Desiigner’s work, but listen to any Future song and any Desiigner song and the similarities are undeniable. What makes a lyric any more integral to the song than the tone or the style? Why can anybody and their mother hop on a Metro Boomin’ beat and mumble like Future, but if they steal a lyric they’re a hack?
There’s probably no definitive answer for why Desiigner hasn’t caught too much flack for his subtle plagiarism. It might be because the GOOD Music moniker gives Desiigner temporary immunity from rap criticism. It might be that I have jumped the gun, and once “Panda” moves from “popular” to “overplayed” the criticism will come. My guess, though, is that people just don’t care about plagiarism in rap that doesn’t have to do with lyrics. Just look at Kanye, who’s made an entire career out of coordinated rap curation.
I love “Panda,” but I’m skeptical about how far Desiigner can go riding on the coattails of a city he’s never been to.