All eyes are on Kendrick Lamar this week as he faces a $1 million lawsuit for plagiarism. The rapper and hip-hop artist purportedly lifted a jazz riff from a song called “The Thorn” for use in his 2011 hit, “Rigamortis,” without crediting the original artists. The alleged victims, Eric Reed and Willie Jones III, are not only seeking monetary reparation, but also wish to obtain all of the rights and profits for the popular track. You can compare the two songs below. The links are cued up to the phrases in question.
So do they have a case? As Murray says in Flight of the Conchords, “I suppose, if you squint your ears.” You can definitely hear a driving, jagged articulation in the brass parts, as well as a fairly similar progression between the two. They mainly resemble each other stylistically, but it gets pretty hazy when you start trying to claim the rights to a style.
The fact that it is a jazz riff also complicates the case, because of the spontaneous nature of that genre. Many jazz musicians inadvertently imitate pieces of other works when they are improvising on the spot. It may not be innovation, but you can call it inspiration without too many tomatoes hitting the stage. That being said, borrowing a bit in a live extemporization is very different from producing an entire song around a melody that belongs to another artist. The melody in “Rigamortis” wasn’t accidentally noodled out in a live show. It was a preconceived foundation for an entire song, backed by an A-level production team. The fact that the riff may sound like an improvisation is irrelevant if someone copied and pasted.
Reed and Jones claim exactly that, stating that Lamar took their music and simply added lyrics. “‘The Thorn’ isn’t merely part of ‘Rigamortis.’ It is ‘Rigamortis,’” the plaintiffs urge. They may have a case as the similarities are audible, and it’s hardly as David and Goliath as some of the plagiarism suits we’ve seen in the past few months – like when Led Zeppelin was accused of stealing the melody for “Stairway to Heaven” almost half a century after the song’s initial release.
If “Rigamortis” does turn out to be plagiarized, it will be a pretty disappointing move for Lamar. What do you think? Are “The Thorn” and “Rigamortis” one in the same?