I took a day off yesterday and decided to do something I never, ever do. I lay on the couch for 3 hours. But I felt ok about it, you know why? I was watching Biggie Smalls, Notorious Big, AKA the greatest to have ever done it. Well, not really him, but some fat guy playing him, in the film Notorious. I have to admit this was pretty much a train wreck of a movie when it came to hip hop. It was mildly entertaining, but the way Pac is portrayed is ludicrious, the way Lil' Kim is marginalised and treated like a 2 bit hussler is laughable, and there are about 4.35 million things they could've done better. But this isn't a critique of the movie.
I want to finally settle this bullshit about who the best rapper of all time is. I want this shit done and dusted, sewn up; gold plated and sent to the engravers. Apart from Kenrdick Lamar, no new cats are coming for the throne. And Lamar has 1 classic behind him, and a bunch of hot guest spots. The rest of his output has been below GOAT standard. I will state right now I want to award the title to Eminem, and I want you to hear me out about it.
Let's attack the boring bits first. Let us define the term rapper. I'm not placating anyone when I distinguish between emcee and rapper, there is a a literal difference in the two terms. A rapper is who we deal with every day on the radio, someone who 90% of the hip-hop listening community would ask 'where the hell is that guy?' if he dropped off the map for more than a couple of years. An emcee is a whole different kettle of fish, reserved for another day. But a rapper, that is someone who blends all the qualities of an emcee (delivery, flow, lyricism, poetry, metaphors, similes, rhyming structures, all the technical jargon) and uses them in an entertaining fashion. A practical example would be Nas vs Rakim. Now Rakim started out as a rapper, so to speak, but he now focuses on the odd underground release which is absolute fire, but makes no blip on soundscan or whatever they use to measure sales nowadays. Nas on the other hand takes all the qualities that makes Rakim one of the GOATs, and lays it over the top of stylish production and cynical (read: intelligent) sounds that he KNOWS will shut Hot 97 down when he drops them. Summer On Smash, on his latest record, compared with Holy Are You from Rakims Seventh Seal record. Nas makes music with an eye on the registers. Rakim makes it with an eye on the Rap Genius forums.
You can look at me all you want with those murderous eyes Aesop Rock stans but the fact is no girl is gonna twerk to Flashflood.
Eminem, therefore, is a rapper.So, let's define his competition. Individuals who purvey hip hop in an entertaining way in order to make more than a reasonable earning from it. I think these are self-explanatory. Jay-Z, Nas, Notorious BIG, 2Pac, Andre 3000, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Lil Wayne, LL Cool J, E-40, Mos Def, Common, and Ice Cube.
Parameters are now required, and we can start knocking names off this list. I'm going to lay down some basic ground rules.
1. Sales. A successful rapper MUST sell well, or they are simply an emcee.
2. Technique. Not only does the GOAT have to possess a flawless lyrical step, they must have improved the genre in some way, brought something to the table that others haven't.They must be original, but be able to integrate influences in to their delivery. For example, Childish Gambino takes pieces of style from rappers like Drake and Lil Wayne, but doesn't cosign them. This impacts on his originality.
3. Lyrical content. GOATs must be diverse, they must be adaptable, they must show growth and retention throughout their career. It's no good going through 20 years of hip hop rapping about selling drugs on the corner every single day. They must show social awareness as well as consistency. Rick Ross rapping about dealing drugs when in truth he was a correctional officer. That is lack of consistency.
4. Flow. This is different to technique. Immortal Technique, for example, can shove so many syllables in to your ear you'll be extracting them with bits of brain after one of his records. But his flow is not adaptable, he can't slip in to a sultry west coast number and then in the blink of an eye throw hands over a boom bap Brooklyn classic, the way someone like Wayne or Jay-Z can. Notorious Big was the godfather of flow. He flipped his style so well that one minute he could be firing off dangerous internal rhymes on Gimme The Loot and the next almost crooning on Big Poppa.
5. Artistry. This is a no-brainer. An artist is someone who creates something in their chosen medium, big deal. But it is such an overused word. Would you call Paul Wall an artist, or Juicy J? Don't get me wrong, if it's 3:30am and my shoes are sticking to a dancefloor I can't even see because I accidentally drank my entire months salary (3 Vodka Red Bulls, for future reference), I want to hear 'We trippy maaaaaaaaaane' blaring as loud as fucking possible. But not when I am waking up the next morning with a beautiful girl who isn't my partner, and not when I am then calling my partner and explaining the weird red rash I now have around my special area, and not when I am being kicked out of her house (Beyonce, to the left, please). Artistry makes us feel something. If a rapper can make us feel more than one emotion, they've already proven themselve in the upper echelon.
6. X-Factor. Fuck it, I know you will hate me for this one, but it's a quality that some possess and others do not. It's their personality on the mic, their music videos, their presence in the game. Common, for example, is one hell of a talented rapper, and he ticks almost all the previous boxes. But he doesn't have that special something. His music just tends to blend in on itself after a while. Be is one of the all time great hip hop records, but every other Common record follows a similar line of questioning. X-Factor is essential.
For arguments sake, I am going to thin the list real quick here. There are only a couple of rappers who can adhere to these 6 statements, and they are Eminem, Nas, 2Pac, Andre 3000 and Jay-Z.
HOLD UP!!!! Where the FUCK is Biggie Smalls in that list!? SHIT! Ok, calm down. Biggie Smalls is one of the greatest to have ever graced a mic. He turned the corner in to an artform. Whilst the Rakim's and NWA's and Raekwon's and Big Daddy Kane's were turning their street knowledge in to straight cash via rap music, Smalls took it to a whole different level. He was the godfather of flow, and was scarier than a personal call from your doctor. The way he could simply breathe on a mic and send chills through your skin.
50-shot clip if a nigga want test
The rocket launcher, Biggie stomped ya
High as a motherfucking helicopter
That's why I pack a Nina, fuck a misdeameanor
Beating motherfuckers like Ike beat Tina
Shit. But. He only had the opportunity to record two albums before he was tragically taken from us. Now in terms of technique, of flow, he spat life in to the game. Every single crack dealer turned semi decent rapper has a debt owed to Biggie. The way he flipped Juicy from a Puff Daddy panty dropper to a statement of intent and of hope for those languishing on the sidewalk was nothing short of genius. However he never had the chance to develop, to learn, to grieve, to grow and to change. It's impossible to say now where would Biggie Smalls be in 2014. He might've gone the Jay-Z route,
They only know what the single is, and singled that out
To be the meaning of what he is about
But no dummy, that's the shit I'm sprinklin'
The album width to keep the registers ringin'
He may have taken the Rakim route,
I spit my verse with technique, 'til they knowing their ledge
First it's too deep, then I'm over their head
He too lyrical, and too subliminal
He may have dropped off the map completely. I doubt it, but it's possible. For that reason, we will never know.
So why is Pac in there then? Tupac predates Biggie by a good 4 years of game time, and this is essential. Not only that, the diversity of his music throws him straight in to the woods with guys like LL Cool J and Mos Def. He wasn't just rapping about selling crack, Pac was on a completely different level. He was on some Che Guevara shit. Even from the very beginning he was focused on writing what he saw as injustices in the world. 2Pacalypse Now is a bold statement of intent, from the aggressive and brash Trapped to the soulful lament of Brenda's Got A Baby. Pac ticks all the boxes. He evolved throughout his short career from a little man yelling and pulling on the big man's cuffs, to an absolute stomping giant, with tracks like Hail Mary and 2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted thrashing charts and slaying enemies.
I ain't a killer, but don't push me
Revenge is like the sweetest joy next to getting pussy
Picture paragraphs unloaded, wise words being quoted
Peeped the weakness in the rap game and sewed it
Nuff said. Still, again, the problem is longevity, and it is a sick game we're playing here. Pac was a major player for 5 short years. It takes some artists that amount of time between records! He runs the absolute closest to Eminem in terms of the GOAT. He was a street poet who's legacy was so air tight that there have been few, if any, imitators.
Jay-Z and Nas. There is a case for calling these two the 'two that lived', although there is little to suggest that an arms escalation the likes of East Coast vs West Coast was ever going to occur in this particular beef. Jay-Z was a student of the great Biggie Smalls, whilst Nas came up under the wing of Q-Tip and DJ Premier. Illmatic was the closest in execution to Pac as any mainstream that has come after it. A true dose of street poetry, Nas possessed a unique gift of grissled, hard-edged delivery of ghetto truths that not only struck hard, but fused a stunning brand of poetic movement to each track. Jay-Z's debut was similar. Both artists have had the time for their lights to burn over almost 2 decades in the game, and both stay at the utmost upper edge of it. Jay-Z, the absolute king of flow. He plied his trade under Biggie and became the master. He turns tracks like Hovi Baby in to works of art, songs that other rappers would cower from. Nas continues to throw darts straight at the heart and soul of the ghetto from whatever situation he finds himself. Daughters off of Life Is Good is the consummate father song. Both have had their ups and downs, and there are a couple of places they fall on. Nas never achieved the sales he so sought, getting stuck between ghetto master and hitmaker. I Am.. contained the misstep Hate Me Now, and Streets Disciple was a bloated double discer that again highlighted his confusion.
Jay-Z is a tough nut to crack. After becoming a ghetto superstar he somehow managed to keep a foot in both states: he remained a ghetto darling yet sold records through the roof. Inadvisable collaborations with Puffy on his second album relegated that to almost classic status, and his waltz through the 90s was gold plated. Lyrically, we can see where both Nas and Jay fall behind Eminem. On Renegade, Eminem comes and absolutely MURDERS Jay-Z.
See I'm a poet to some, a regular modern-day Shakespeare
Jesus Christ, the King of these Latter-Day Saints here
To shatter the picture in which of that as they paint me as
As a monger of hate, satanist, scatter-brained atheist
Jay's 2 verses were hard, but Em flew off the handle. He crammed more rhymes in to those bars than any man should or could. For pure, unadulterated technique and delivery, Eminem takes the cake.
The other rappers mentioned only need cursory glances. LL Cool J was revolutionary in the late 80s and early 90s but fell dangerously by the wayside with realeases like last years Authentic. Lil Wayne was so hot he gave himself third degree burns in the mid 00s, but drugs have sadly turned his scatter brain in to one that is scarcely recognisable as human (and not in a good way). Andre 3000 has the greatest ability, but he is rarer than Halley's comet. Everytime he drops a verse it is mind bogglingly good, but we never see any more than that. Common just hasn't sold enough and lacks the lyrical dexterity, Mos Def never managed to truly break through in to the mainstream, Snoop Dogg lacks the technical and lyrical depth, Busta Rhymes is too one dimensional, E-40, again, the commercial issue, and Ice Cube is a hardened OG but is not on the same level as Eminem.
So Eminem. It floored me 3 days ago that he is the Greatest of All Time. I was on one of my daily walks, listening to the latest Ace Hood mixtape (it's good, cop it), when the playlist skipped over to Eminem's Curtain Call: The Hits. Now I honestly just bought this CD cause I had $6 left on a gift card, I already had all the tracks. Fack came on, and I smiled quietly to myself.
I never seen no chick like this
This bitch can twist like a damn contortionist
Condom on my dick of course it is
This bitch don't know what abortion is
No-one can clown like Eminem, drugs or not. Then The Way I Am brashly assaulted my ears. It's hard to describe the moment where you actually understand someone through their music, but I felt an intellectual connection. This wasn't just a rap song designed to sell records, this was a man, just like you, me and Joe Bloggs next to you, who has super human abilities and been thrust unceremoniously in to the harshest of spotlights.
'I'm so sick and tired of being admired that I wish that I would just die or get fired'
Can you imagine the amount of Cristal Paris Hilton spat on her Chiwawa when she heard that line? It's so far removed from what we think of these celebrities. But then Stan came on, and I, like just about everyone who has ever heard a hip hop song, know every single lyric. Yet I never sat with these lyrics, I never accessed them.
As an artist, I think the most difficult phase is transcending the urge to create for your audience rather than yourself. It's such a tough line to tread. Some, like Katy Perry or Britney Spears, must create for their audience. If they decide to make a song purely for themselves, to showcase their own technical ability, it won't work. They just aren't good enough at what they do. Eminem exists in a different bracket. He doesn't need the Shake That's and the Ass Like That's. He doesn't need to make Roar. On Stan, he steps outside of himself and does two things. Firstly, he enters the mind of one of his fans, a devoted follower. But rather than let the story end there and make a song that will appeal to that individual, he takes it a step further, he writes a story filled with drama and emotion yet so heartfelt that even after hearing it countless times in my life, I had to stop and sit down.
Dear Slim, I wrote you but you still ain't callin'
I left my cell, my pager and my home phone at the bottom
I sent two letters back in autumn, you must not've got em
There probably was a problem at the post office or something
How desperate Stan is, for recognition and love in his life. How trapped Eminem then becomes, if he responds to this man he will be saving a life yet will inevitably be sucked in to the destructive force that is Stan's personality. He is almost saved by his stardom in that he doesn't meet the man
I'm sorry I didn't see you at the show, I musta missed you
Don't think I did that shit intentionally just to diss you
Yet now Em has this man's death on his conscience..
I read an article where someone tried to defend Jay-Z's 2 verses on Renegade, saying that Em and Jay are two different rappers. Eminem, he claimed, was a straight up technical genius, but his metaphorical sense was non existent. He could turn a phrase on its ear, and his similes were top drawer, but with Eminem what you saw was what you got and that was a limiting factor. This is true, but I think it distinguishes them as individuals rather than limits Eminem. Jay-Z bases his style on double entendre's, internal metaphors and god-like flow. Eminem's flow is on par with Jay's (just look at the difference between something like Rap God and then My Name Is), he manages to throw hands with double entendre's and metaphors on MMLP2
(Hope it ain't, "Here we go, yo," cause my head already goes to worst case Scenario, though in the first place
But you confirmed my low end theory though
Should've known when I made it all the way to third base
And that was only the first date, could've made it to home plate
But you slid straight for the dome and dove face)
and his internal metaphors on MMLP2 are just insanity. Jay-Z wrote a book called Decoded and it went through his more complex lyrics from his entire career. Em could have one double in size for the first side of MMLP2 alone.
We have to look also at the trajectory that his career has taken and compare this with Tupac's major limitation. Pac was a god in the game, but the question has to be asked would he have survived as a free man in to his 40s? He died at the age of 25, and he'd already been shot brutally once before. He also had a number of legal issues pertaining mainly to assaults. We've seen what prison can do to careers. Shyne has been locked up for what feels like forever, DMX's career never regained momentum after his prison stints, and Ja Rule is literally starting from scratch as a performer since his incarceration.
Eminem provides the dirtiest hard luck story ever imagined. We love to hate, and it's so easy to hate the multi-millionare who had absolutely EVERYTHING going for him, only to fall in to a bigger hole than Lindsay Lohan, resulting in near death experiences more than once. Tupac was shot and killed, Eminem almost killed himself. Those two scenarios are worlds apart. But Em came back and recorded Relapse, which went double platinum despite lukewarm reviews, and then one of the all time great recovery records, fittingly entitled Recovery. Though slated by some, it was a literal representation of how a man can grow in to his own life and responsibilities, even if it takes serious time. When I was first discovering Eminem and hiding my copy of The Eminem Show from my parents (mum found it and promptly snapped it in half), I would never once have envisaged an artist so contrite that he could write
I'm just so fucking depressed I just can't seem to get out this slump
If I could just get over this hump
But I need something to pull me out this dump
For one of the hardest emcee's to lay that down on wax, he must've been at his rock bottom, finally. Yet he comes back with MMLP2, the most technically breath-taking hip hop record in the mainstream realm of all time. This is why Eminem beats Pac. We can't make judgements based on what-ifs. Pac, had he survived, would have changed the hip hop landscape forever. A whole generation of young rappers never got the chance to see him live, to sit down and chat with him, to just exist in his presence and drink in his aura. Pac would've been the Greatest of All Time. But Eminem is, because he is everything Pac was (if you'd like political try White America, We As Americans, and Mosh on for size) and more. Technically, for pure ability on the mic, Em shades it. For pure fun, Pac had those California Love vibes, but Eminem is more satirical, much more comedic when turning a phrase. Em is 41 years old and he just released the best record of his career. That is a comeback worthy of Websters.