I listen to a lot of rap music. Not as much as I used to, but still more than you, probably. Anyway, whenever some music critic from Spin or Rolling Stone or some other ignorant music rag comes up with one of their stupid lists or articles about the best rappers ever, the list usually looks like this (in no particular order):
- Biggie Smalls
It's a ridiculous list, first of all, because it only counts rappers non-connoisseurs have heard of. (I mean, would you come up with a list of greatest guitarists of all time and only include Nickelback and Linkin Park, etc?) Secondly, the only person on that list you could make a legitimate case for is Rakim, because he actually did something to revolutionize rapping, with a unusual-for-the-time flow and abstract, conceptual lyrics. The fact that the other four rappers listed have usurped the other four spots is ridiculous at best.
I mean, Jay-Z is fine, but he's only really been around since 1995 or so. And though he is a very skilled rapper, most of his beats are so lame that he hasn't really put out a really really good song since his first album. (Which is why The Grey Album by DJ Danger Mouse is so great, since it's Jigga's lyrics with superior production.)
Nas? Don't even get me started about Nas. Nas had a great first album, then a mediocre second album, then a bunch of really mediocre shit after that. One great album does not make you a legendary rapper; it makes you a one-hit wonder.
But the ones I'm offended by most are Biggie and Tupac. Because not only are they not two of the best five rappers ever, they weren't even really that good. First Tupac...
Tupac's first album was not good. Tupac was a dancer for Digital Underground. (You may remember them from the "Humpty Dance.") His original name was MC New York, which should give you a glimpse into his creativity. His first album had a bunch of lame-ass songs like "Brenda's Got a Baby," "If My Homie Calls" (and by the way, that word is spelled "h-o-m-e-y") and "Trapped." I remember when the videos were released that these were some boring-ass songs.
Then Tupac got a part in the movie Juice and got a higher profile, leading to his second album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., which was better than the first one, but still unremarkable. You may notice by the title of this album that Tupac was starting to try his hand at controversy to give himself some publicity, and the media ate it up.
Tupac really started getting famous from 1993 - 1995, when he got shot (the first time), went to jail for rape (including the embarrassing time he kept yelling "Thug Life" after an arrest to promote his proteges... named "Thug Life", who released "Volume 1" in 1994. Predictably, there was no Volume 2.) and started trading on his mother Afeni Shakur's name, being that she was a high-profile member of the Black Panthers.
This is the point where Tupac transcended mere gangster rapdom and became an icon. He was seen as a brash revolutionary who wasn't scared to break the law or say things that were controversial. (I remember reading an article in The Source or something where Tupac said if he was walking down the street and a woman pulled her purse close to her, he would snatch it from her just for clutching it. Now that's the enlightened thinking we need to uplift urban youth!) But don't confuse this notoriety for being a good rapper. Because Tupac was really not a good rapper. In fact he sucked.
A good modern parallel is Snoop Dogg. Snoop used to be a good rapper, for about 2 songs. Then he became famous for all sorts of other reasons (attempted murder, smoking pot, making adult movies, playing himself in several movies, doing versions of "Nuthin' But a G Thang" and "Gin N Juice" even 12 years after they were originally popular). But for the most part, no one would call Snoop a good rapper. In fact, the reason Snoop has to continue to perform old songs is that he hasn't put out anything of any significance whatsoever since 1993. That's the cold truth, brotha.
Tupac was the same way. He was famous, for sure. He was actually a solid actor, if you ever saw Juice or Gridlock'd. But as a rapper, he was (at worst) shit, or (at best) nothing special. And the reason was that his flow was so simplistic. Yes, Tupac yelled a lot, and he said things that were inflammatory, but his delivery was about as basic and simplistic as you could get. He rapped in the same 4/4 delivery that Run DMC did, and even the fact that his vocals were all doubled over (so it sounded like there were Two-Pac's rapping at the same time) could not hide this. He is a clear example of style over substance. I remember that some college in California several years ago started a class that would study Tupac's lyrics as poetry. I was really disgusted, not that they would study rap lyrics as poetry, but that they would not pick somebody better.
Now, there are a ton of Tupac disciples out there, but my guess is that there is something about his charisma and/or material that makes him so popular. In my opinion -- and in the mind of many non-biased people from the East Coast -- Tupac was never really a great rapper at face value.
Now Biggie took a different path. He was a nobody who worked his way up the ranks and earned his stripes selling crack and battling on street corners. Biggie was actually a ferocious battle-rhymer in his early days, and many underground recordings can attest to this fact.
But this is not the era that Biggie fans remember. Rather, they remember the era after his debut album came out. I remember when it first came out, it got 4 1/2 "Mics" in the Source, so I knew it must have been good, and I remember it being one of the most disappointing albums of my young life. Most critics consider this a masterpiece, but I am not one of them. Because for every excellent hip hop song like "Unbelievable" or "Machine Gun Funk", there are two lackluster sell-out pop tracks, like "Juicy" (which, by the way, is a blatant ripoff of a 1989 "Wrecks N Effect" song of the same name), "Big Poppa," "One More Chance." I mean, any album that can make a duet with Method Man ("The What") sound boring can't be good.
So what we get is a rapper who eschewed the rapping that made him an underground legend, only to make pop-rap songs that would make him a mainstream legend. When people think of Biggie, they do not think of the slightly fat kid in a t-shirt rapping in front of a post office somewhere in Brooklyn. They think of the far less-compelling B.I.G. (he had to change his name because some white boy had already taken the name Biggy Smallz), a really really really fat guy in a white suit sunglasses sitting on a yacht or in the corner of a fancy club drinking Cristal and surrounded by a troop of sluts. You can practically trace the rampant materialism of mainstream rap and rap lyrics to the "Big Poppa" video.
Biggie had been a good rapper, but once he became a mainstream celebrity, his voice was gone. Instead, he became the image he felt people wanted him to be: big, rich fat guy who got a lot of women. He was no longer an interesting figure in music, not to me anyway. He was playing the role of the smooth kingpin, but all I wanted was the kid with the chip on his shoulder ready to battle.
I guess my point is this (wasn't sure if I had one or not): we live in such a knee-jerk society, especially when it comes to white people talking about rap music. Whenever superlatives are mentioned, people who don't know better and shouldn't talk go back to the same stock examples. People always mention MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice when they talk about pop-rap, or always mention Dr. Dre and Easy-E when talking about "gangsta rap," or always Lauren Hill and Common when discussing "conscious" or "positive rap." And when it comes to "best of all time," the five listed above tend to fall on the list. But have people who created these categories really given a listen to the product? Or are they rattling off the usual suspects?
Great, now I'm not safe on either coast.
Oh, and by the way, the greatest rappers of all time are (off the top of my head and in no particular order):