You Wanted It, You Got It: Who’s the Best Rapper of All-Time?
Any version of "who's the best rapper of all-time?" is a debate I've purposefully avoided because it's one of those debates I've literally had a hundred times, and never come close to anything even resembling a consensus. Still, RefinedHypeNation has been asking for it, and I've come to realize that not having a best rapper debate on this site is like not having Rosa Acosta in our Girls section.
So fuck it, let's do this thing. Crucially, we're not talking about the best rapper alive, which really usually means the best rapper at this exact moment, but the best rapper of all-time. Ever. Starting at Kool Herc's first DJ session and stretching until whenever the fuck you're reading this.
First and foremost, the central problem with the Best Rapper debate is that no one agrees on the judging criteria. If we're all weighing rappers with a different scale, no wonder we're getting different results. It's going to be messy, but here are the factors it seems like we have to include:
Lyricism: Probably the easiest category to judge since it can be boiled down to words on a page. Do you find yourself reading lyrics in fascination, without any music? That's a dope lyricist. You've got to think of Rakim here, who essentially invented what we consider "lyricism" today, and Nas (nope, the ghostwriting rumors aren't a factor).
Flow: How do they wrap (pun intended) those lyrics around the beat? For example, for my money Freddie Gibbs has one of the best flows in the game right now. His lyrics are rarely groundbreaking, but he can find these hidden pockets in the beat seemingly no one else can. On the flip side, it can often feel like Talib Kweli wrote some really dope lyrics and then is so committed to getting every word out he just starts ignoring the beat.
Personality/Delivery: 100 rappers could say the same line in the same cadence, but some emcees just bring some extra style that makes you listen just a little bit closer. (Anyone under 20 might be tempted to call this "swag".) On the extreme end of this spectrum is ODB, a man who could read parking signs and you wouldn't be able to turn away. On the other end, Snoop Dogg just sounds so motherfucking cool on the mic.
Note: There's obviously a lot of overlap between flow, lyricism and delivery.
Cultural Impact: What affect did the rapper have not only on the larger hip-hop culture, but on American culture and global culture? Interesting side note, as powerful as he is, I think you could argue that Kanye's had a greater cultural impact than Jay-Z. Ye's really changed how music sounds, while Hova's career has largely been about expansion and acculturation, not necessarily change .
Sales/Commercial Success/Finances: I could be pretty easily convinced to take or leave this criteria. Hip-hop cares about album sales more than any other musical genre, so it feel natural to factor in #1 hits and platinum albums. Still, this has the least to do with a rapper's actual rap skills: Diddy's sold more solo albums that Rakim, but if Mr Combs is on your best rapper alive list, I'll find out where you live, break into your house, and poop on your kitchen floor.
As if that wasn't complicated enough, how much should each category count? If Sales is your primary criteria than Jay-Z (50 million albums) is essentially an automatic number one, while someone like Scarface doesn't have a prayer of cracking the top ten.
Furthermore, it's hard to judge dead rappers vs. living rappers. Biggie would have obviously sold more albums and/or produced more classic albums if he had lived, so he gets penalized for getting shot? At the same time, we can't penalize other rappers for not dying.
And I know this sounds like heresy, but if Tupac had lived there's a decent chance he would have made at least a mediocre album by now. You just can't make music for two decades and not at least occasionally slip. But since he died young we remember only the best of his catalog, while Jay gets "Kingdom Come" throw in his face.
Hidden Subjectivity Factor: This one almost never gets talked about, but of course it plays a huge part in your personal rankings. For example, I grew up in Boston, and as stereotypical as it sounds, I just heard a lot more Biggie than Tupac during my formative years. Remember, this was pre-internet (yeah, I'm old), so if local radio and local DJs weren't playing it, you really didn't hear it. Because of that I'll always prefer Biggie to Pac, mostly because so many of my memories involve Biggie tracks playing in the background. That doesn't make Biggie necessarily better than Pac, if I had grown up in California I might feel the opposite, but that's just the way it is.
Obviously there are no firm answers here, but at the very least these are the questions you need to be asking.
Now that we've laid down a foundation (it's a shaky foundation, but it's a foundation), we can really get down to the business at hand. It'll take some serious debate to even begin to come up with an actual ranking, but here are the rappers I think we have to talk about in any "Best Rapper" debate:
The Must Haves:
The Notorious B.I.G.
You Could Make a Case For....
At Least Deserve to be Mentioned:
Kool G Rap
Big Daddy Kane
Nathan's Possibly Crazy Dark Horse Pick:
I've had the best rapper of all-time debate in my head more times than I can count (yep, that's the kind of shit rap nerds do), and based on the factors that I laid out, even I'd have a hard time putting Ghostface Killah in the top ten, even considering his Wu-Tang credentials. BUT....just on some personal, when it really comes down to it, whose music am I putting on when I'm kicking it around the house type shit....I go with Ghostface more often than anyone else. I've literally listened to "Shakey Dog" alone over a thousand times. On a broader level I can't call call him the greatest of all-time, but if this was a "Nathan's Favorite Rappers" list, yeah, Tony Starks woul be number one.
So there, if it seems like I've given a lot more questions than answers, that's because there just are a lot more questions than answers. That doesn't mean it's all relative and anything goes, if you think Soulja Boy is a better rapper than Eminem you're just wrong, but once we start getting into the best-of-the-best, we're really just splitting hairs.
There's nothing left to do now but launch into what I'm sure will be a sprawling, clusterfucky and ultimately pretty goddamn enjoyable debate in the comments section below. Let's do the damn thing RefinedHypeNation. You asked for it, you got it.
See Also: It’s Official: Lil B is the Worst Rapper Alive
This article originally appeared on RefinedHype.com, which has now merged with The DJBooth. For more info, click here.
Written by Nathan S. on 08/21/12
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