Fans of Lil Wayne. Fans of Jay-Z. Fans of Nas. Fans of Drake. Fans of all of four. Fans of None.
This is for you.
There was a time, before I was a sentient Hip Hop listener, when an emcee could not simply claim to be the Best Rapper Alive. Certainly, any rapper had the right to this claim, but once it was made, the rapper subjected himself (and never herself, because, precious few female rappers that there are, none of them have ever claimed to be the best alive) to tremendous scrutiny.
First, the fans had to approve. If this gauntlet of superficial hatred gave way to blind love, the rapper then faced the Tribunal.
His songs would be brought before the floating heads of Afrikaa Baambaata, KRS-One, and Kool Moe Dee (picture, if you will, the Wizard of Oz, except with Afrikaa Baambaata, KRS-One, and Kool Moe Dee). If they approved, the rapper stepped into the pantheon of greats. If they disapproved, the rapper was immediately transformed into 10,000 copies of his cassette single (or CD single, if the iPod set cannot envision such a thing) and forced to rot for eternity in dollar bins across America.
Perhaps this tribunal never existed, but for a time, what rappers thought of their peers mattered. Now, nothing matters. Everyone wants to work with everyone else. Kanye loves Drake. Drake loves Jay. Jay loves Wayne. And so on and so on. Beefs have been exposed as vacuous publicity stunts, devoid of the venom (and there was venom) that marked some of Hip Hop’s most exciting, dangerous, and defining moments throughout its first twenty years. Today, very few rappers are willing to express their distaste for the quality of the music of their contemporaries.
I don’t want beef, damn it, I want honesty.
After his classic debut, Nas has spent his career releasing albums of dubious quality. When Jay-Z dissed Nas on “Takeover,” he was very quick to point out Nas’s spotty discography. Jay-Z disapproved, and I’d be lying if I said his “one hot album every ten year average” summation of Nas’s career hasn’t affected my views on Nas. Jay-Z was a great rapper, so his opinion of what Nas was doing mattered.
And the fans have always mattered. But MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em has sold 18 million copies to date. Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme has sold 11 million copies.
Reflect on this for a moment.
Have you ever heard anyone make the claim that either Hammer or Vanilla Ice was the Best Rapper Alive? No, of course not. If you heard such a preposterous claim you’d laugh from now until Dr. Dre releases Detox. The fact is, however, that the public gave both of these men (for a brief time though it may have been) a tremendous stamp of approval. Both of their major hits are still ubiquitous. So why don’t they have a claim to Rap’s throne when their commercial dominance is largely unparalleled?
1) They were largely hated by their peers, laughed at and frowned upon as clowns who were unrepresentative of real Hip Hop.
2) They couldn’t rap particularly well.
I am concerned more with the second matter than the first. The opinions of stodgy and perhaps jealous rappers are important to a point, but they should not be the final arbiters of who the greatest rappers are.
People often seem to forget that rapping is a technical ability. It requires practice and time. It’s not shocking that Lil Wayne developed into a truly unique voice. He had about ten years to grow up and learn how to rap. And he did.
Recently, and I’m not sure through which forum, Kid CuDi expressed tremendous displeasure with the fact that his debut album missed the cut off date for this year’s Grammy Awards. Earlier in the year he also discussed “retiring” from rap. Jay-Z has earned the right to do either of these things whenever he likes. He’s released numerous hit albums and several that are widely considered classics. Kid CuDi has released nothing of consequence–a mixtape and a handful of songs very few outside of the internet Hip Hop community have heard. His ire and disgust are laughable, because CuDi isn’t a particularly good rapper, as much as he can even be called a rapper (I mean this not derogatorily, but rather to signify that his style exists in a strange post-808’s and Heartbreak limbo of half-rapping and half-singing).
While there is no real rubric that can be created to objectively judge one rapper’s ability in comparison to another, the average listener can tell that Wayne’s flow is more dextrous and versatile than Soulja Boy’s.
My hopes are largely outlandish. I don’t want rap to return to its glory days. Revivalist nostalgia is generally fruitless, and while it’s still wonderful to listen to the countless classic albums that litter Hip Hop’s landscape, it is a futile and almost impossible task to try and recapture what made them magical. We simply need good rappers again. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine lamented that no one kills tracks anymore. I’m inclined to disagree–Andre 3000 blazes every beat he touches, Black Thought continues to murder the tracks ?uestlove and company serve up for him, and Pharoahe Monch is always murderous–but his point is well taken. There was a time when 10-15 rappers could have made a claim to be the best alive and it would have been entirely justified. Now everyone claims it and it means nothing.
Perhaps this is pointless and no one really cares. Perhaps this is a set of ideal circumstances no rapper could realistically reach. For whatever it’s worth, I present my mini-manifesto, a series of steps to be taken before claiming to be the best rapper alive:
1. Don’t bite anyone’s style. Be original.
2. Be versatile. Have many styles at your disposal.
3. Command the mic. Command attention. Be larger than life when you’re rhyming.
4. Release at least 2 truly spectacular albums (I realize this a tall order in the current climate, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold artists to high standards).
5. Release consistently dope material, whether mixtapes, albums, or singles.
6. Record songs that are important to your generation, but also stands the test of time.
7. Jump on other peoples tracks and kill their tracks.
8. Have enough great songs that your fans can’t agree on which are the best.
9. Win a beef (only applies if you have beef).
10. Be able to battle. Live.
11. Be respected by your fans as a good rapper.
12. Be respected by your peers as a good rapper.
13. Tour until your flow is as sharp as a razor.
14. Survive in rap for 10+ years.
15. Be of consequence in rap for 10+ years.