Hip-hop is inherently competitive. Throughout its history competition has played a major role in the development of the genre, so it comes with the territory that fans will pick who they think is the GOAT. But through listening to this age-old argument from friends and people on the internet, I’ve found there is a discrepancy between the definition of the greatest rapper of all time and who is the “best”.
Being “the greatest” takes into account more than just rap skill. There’s no rule saying that you can’t be the best if you’re the greatest, but it doesn’t often happen (I’ll address that later on). To decide who is the greatest, you need to take into account skill, longevity, consistency, and cultural impact. Essentially, the greatest refers to the total package. A common pick for the GOAT is 2Pac, which makes sense. He’s a household name amongst almost everyone who knows anything about hip-hop, he’s had a huge impact on the culture and has influenced many of the great artists we have today. But is he the most skilled lyricist? Definitely not. And this is where the separation happens.
Being “the best” has everything to do with your skill as a wordsmith. That means storytelling, vocabulary, rhyme schemes, flow, metaphors and everything else that makes up the art of rap. The thing is, the best lyricists usually don’t have commercial appeal. Their songs are extremely dense and can take 10’s of listens to unpack, and maybe a few visits to Genius or a dictionary. This means they don’t often reach a large audience, which means they can’t be the greatest. But that’s ok, because these guys are usually what’s called “your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper”. Think of these artists as the underside of an iceberg that you can’t see unless you look deeper, but they are essential to holding up what you can see. The tip of the iceberg would be the greats (maybe a Jay-Z or Kendrick Lamar), and everything else you can see is the artists who are big on the charts but don’t necessarily make boundary-pushing or highly creative music. Someone like Drake. Yeah, I said it.
I know this could be a dangerous game to play, but here are my picks. For the GOAT I take Jay-Z, but Kendrick Lamar is on trajectory to take this spot. Jay-Z has had a tremendous impact on hip-hop and pop culture as a whole. Through his long career, he’s delivered album after album with no flops and easily has three classics on his hands. He’s even created his own record label, not to mention his great skills as a lyricist. Although once Kendrick gets a little deeper into his career and we see what he’s got up his sleeve, I think he’ll snatch Jay-Z’s spot.
For the best, I take Black Thought of The Roots. You may know him as Tariq on The Tonight Show. Through his long career as the lead MC of The Roots, he’s shown us his massive vocabulary, intelligence, multi-syllable rhyme schemes, and unbelievable freestyle skills. He never seems to run out of historical and scientific references, new words to rhyme, and new ways to bend words to his liking. Listen to any single Black Thought verse and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Jay-Z: Moment Of Clarity
In this track off one of his classics, The Black Album, Jay-Z dives into some of what I talked about above, and how he changed his music in hopes to become “the greatest” during the 2nd verse.
The Roots (Black Thought): Respond/React
Take a listen to some high-quality, raw hip-hop bars. Black Thought’s got the 1st and 3rd verse.
So these are my picks and my reasons why. Who do you got?