Dan Adu-Gyamfi scored 1.1 on his SAT
The greatest debate amongst rap fans is who the greatest rapper of all time. Most of the time you’ll realize people mention their favorite artist instead of who they truly consider to be the G.O.A.T. Theatrics ensue as a faux cypher commences with participants doing their best impersonation of whom their defending. If a set of criteria was given, then the never-ending subject will have articulation and substance instead of passion and emotions.
Old school legend Kool Moe Dee was the first to attempt the standard by putting a rap report card on the inner sleeve of his 1987 album How Ya Like Me Now. The former Treacherous Three member judged 13 solo artists, himself included, and 12 groups using 10 subjects to proclaim who were the best at that era. The highest rated artists according to his evaluation were himself and Melle Mel with a 95, Grandmaster Caz with a 94 and Rakim with a 91. LL Cool J, T La Rock and KRS-One all received a 90. In 2003, the first rapper to perform at the Grammys was back to critique rappers this time in book form. There’s a God on the Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs ranked artists this time using 17 items to assess their value. They are; originality, concepts, versatility, vocabulary, substance, flow, flavor, freestyle, vocal presence, live performance, poetic value, body of work, industry impact, social impact, longevity, lyrics and battle skills. The “Wild Wild West” rapper seemed to add more to his evaluation chart to bump him and his old school contemporaries higher because the top five in order is Melle Mel, Rakim, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee. He even tries to further differentiate rappers by putting them in three categories; MC, rapper, and hip-hop artist. Even though the book seemed to receive no editing whatsoever, there are many jewels present and it’s a good read on learning the progression of rappers and history of the culture. The problem is that the report card was too extensive and could have been dwindled down to four items to get a better view of who is truly the best to ever do it.
The first is skills. This involves lyrics, flow, live performance, versatility and concepts.Performing live is critical. I’m sure plenty of us have been to a show or watched an artist performing with all his weed carriers on stage rapping over his own vocals. This isn’t the showmanship that legends like Run-DMC or Public Enemy displayed.
Versatility shows that a rapper isn’t afraid to try new styles, perform on different beats, and do things outside what we expect from them. The most versatile rapper ever by far is 2Pac due to his talent as a writer and challenging himself to speak from the perspectives of many people. Just on his debut album 2Pacalypse Now, the Thug Life leader distorted his voice to play his own big brother on “Soulja’s Story”, (a trick Biggie would use differently later on “Gimme the Loot”) described the plight of the black man in America on “Young Black Male” and “Trapped”, discussed the dysfunction of the black family in “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and “Part Time Mutha” and kicked consciousness with “Words of Wisdom” while telling a great visual story with “Violent.” When his career began he rapped on east coast style production eventually trended to G-Funk and by his last album, he contributed to a lot of the beats and performing on live instrumentation.
Concepts showcase the creativity of a rapper. Biggie, Nas, Ghostface, and Slick Rick’s storytelling is unparalleled due to their gift of painting pictures and giving life to their characters.
Body of work is the most valuable evidence of a rapper’s talent. In sports they have statistics to evaluate the importance of a player. Albums and mix-tapes serve a similar purpose since record sales and metacritic.com do not truly quantify a project’s value. Older acts suffer with this since the sound of rap has changed numerous times but it’s important to understand the innovations they brought to that specific era.
The third is a combination of legacy and relevance. The largest testament to Jay Z’s legacy is his ability to follow trends, collaborate with the hottest artists, and remain an important figure in the landscape of rap for almost 20 years. Longevity doesn’t mean anything if the music being released doesn’t impact the culture. LL Cool J was the first rapper to have at least a gold album in three different decades but his last good record was Mr. Smith in 1995. KRS-One has released over 25 projects in his career but there is no excitement to hear new material from the Blastmaster among the masses.
Impact is the last criterion. There are artists that set the trends and artists that follow, this appreciates the former. Kool Moe Dee brought an emphasis in lyricism when he defeated Busy Bee at Harlem World in 1981. Melle Mel made an importance out of consciousness when “The Message” and “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” were released. Eric B. & Rakim’s debut single “Eric B. Is President” came out in 1986 the God MC proved that rappers didn’t need to yell to be understood. Scarface and 2Pac birthed the emotional thug. Das-EFX had many artists copying their rapid-fire style. Outkast proved that the south wasn’t just booty-shaking music and gangsta rap. Kanye West continues to push the limits of what can be considered rap.
My five greatest rappers of all time list is based on the criteria above:
1. Jay Z
2. Kanye West
When breaking down how each rank, the Jiggaman has the crown as the G.O.A.T. due to an unprecedented streak of longevity/relevance, his impressive body of work that has countless hit singles and features, three certified classics in Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, and The Black Album plus his legendary S. Carter Collection mix-tape. Jay’s skills are elite when it comes to lyrics, flow, and versatility. The Brooklyn native’s live performances are vastly improved, and his MTV Unplugged album with The Roots displayed his talent to perform with a band. The Roc Nation leader’s impact is impeccable. Even though he’s fallen off rhyme wise in recent years, his craft at networking allows him to be around whoever is hot.
Surprisingly, the college dropout ranked second due to his immaculate body of work. The content he brought to the game when street rap dominated was never heard before on a full length major label release. Kanye singlehandedly erased the dominance of gangsta rap’s decade-long hold on the charts. He’s arguably the best live performer alive regardless of music genre. His direction changes every album while maintaining quality. His lyrics manage to be both profound and corny, catchy and original, lifted from old records while propelling new styles.
The holy ghosts of the game Biggie and Pac land at three and four. They will be forever linked together and ironically land next to each other based off the rankings. Their impact is eternal; current rappers still strive to be like them almost twenty years since their deaths. Pac gets shortchanged when discussing skills because he was a great songwriter and a good live performer; his gift for expressing raw emotion helped extensively. The Notorious B.I.G. is the ideal technical rapper based on his lyrics, flow, charisma, and storytelling. Even though they didn’t perform well in the longevity/relevance due to their untimely circumstances, their music and legacy still holds weight now and forever.
In a close race, Eminem defeated Nas to grab the fifth spot. Slim Shady has advantage in skills and the Queensbridge native in longevity/relevance. When the rappers’ discographies got compared then the competition got closer and the Detroit native wins that in a close one due to his 1999-2003 run of The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, D-12’s Devil’s Night, the 8 Mile soundtrack and The Eminem Show. Impact was another close. Both have added to the rap lexicon with “Stan” and “Ether” but due to worldwide appeal and being the highest-selling rapper of all time, Mr. Mathers wins.
Let me know who your top 5 is and how you judge rap greatness.