If you go onto any forum that discusses rap music, there will inevitably be several threads that ask the question, "Who Is The G.O.A.T.?" If you don't frequent forums or know what g.o.a.t. means don't trip. It's simply an acronym for Greatest Of All Time. I'm going to look at the discographies of 7 MC's who are generally considered the greatest in these forums. I'm sorry to those super underground heads who believe that Slug, GZA or Aesop Rock are the greatest MC's to ever walk the earth because they are dope but they haven't had the impact that these other dudes have had. Since breaking down all 7 into one post would be like a novel i don't want to write that up and i'm sure you guys would not want to read that all at once. I'll break it up into 7 different posts to make it a little easier on the both of us. So if you're wondering who the 7 are, i won't make you guys wait for each post. The first five are Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, and 2Pac. Now these guys might not necessarily be the 5 greatest but they are usually in some order considered the top 5 in these forums that i was talking about. Whether or not you think they're in the top 5, i don't care. If you were to take a poll of all rap fans in America these five would make up the list. So apologizes to guys like KRS-One, Kool G Rap, LL Cool J, Chuck D, Black Thought, and any other great i'm leaving out. Since i'm doing a greatest MC list it would only be right to take the opinions of rappers into consideration in addition to fanboys like myself and those who post on forums. So two other rappers who are generally considered a couple of the greatest by those in the profession are Scarface and Rakim. I'll be taking a look at their work as well and the impact they had on the hip hop community.
p.s. I'm going to throw Kanye West in there just because he has 4.5 critically acclaimed albums and another that changed hip-hop so I have to give him his due. That means this will be an 8 part series instead of 7 to determine the G.O.A.T.
So let's get it started with part 1 in this series. The first candidate I will be looking at is none other than Jay-Z aka Jay Z aka Sean Carter aka Hov aka Hova aka Jigga. Let me get this part out of the way...Jay is the most successful member of the Hip-Hop community ever. He's done so much for the culture and proved that a drug dealer from the Marcy projects could be shaking hands with the president in due time. Jay did not accomplish everything by becoming a shrewd businessman. He had to have some sort of talent when it came to spitting on the mic. There was a reason the Jigga man is considered one of the greats to ever do it. I'm not too interested in his blowy shirt phase with Jaz-O so the work of Jay's that I am going to focus on is from Reasonable Doubt on.
To me, all the great rappers have an amazing mic presence. Jay is no different. He has great flow and a great voice. He can tell stories, although he doesn't do it as much as I would like, and he knows how to pick beats. It seems like having an ear for beats should be a simple attribute to have, but to be honest not all rappers have that and that separates spitters who live in the underground to those rappers who can move a million records. Speaking of moving a million records, Jay-Z is the greatest successful commercial rapper to have walked the earth. Biggie and Pac probably could have been those dudes but we all know what happened and Jay gladly was the next man up and filled the void. I tend to stay away from record sales numbers when looking at hip-hop artists because they usually mean very little in terms of actual ability but when you sell 75 million record like Jay-Z has or have 11 number one albums like the Jigga man has had, those are numbers that even the biggest hip-hop elitist can't ignore. If you include the collaboration albums that he has done with R. Kelly and Kanye, each and every one of Jay's 15 albums have gone at least platinum. Everything he touches doesn't turn to gold, it turns to platinum (this is the corniest thing I have ever said). In this day and age with fans grabbing music for free, these are mind boggling numbers. How many rappers rappers go platinum? How many rappers release 15 albums? How many musicians in general release 15 albums? The crazy thing about this is that these 15 albums have come out in the last 17 years. The fact that he is releasing mulch-platinum albums on an almost per year basis is unheard of. I asked Questlove on twitter if there is any artist in any genre who has had the run that Jay has been on, but I'm still waiting for the answer. However, like I said earlier, I try not to put too much emphasis on album when looking at who is the greatest MC but when the numbers are as astronomical like that, Jay must be doing something right. That success in mainstream America is Jay-Z's biggest contribution to hip-hop.
Jay didn't sell 75 million records out of thin air. The dude had to have had some talent. To me, Jay's best quality was his flow and his voice. He could rap in double time, he could rap slow, he knew how to enunciate his words so they came out clearly...Jay had the oral part of rapping down. As for the other qualities that make a great MC (storytelling, subject matter, and technical lyricism), Jay was great at those qualities, but he wasn't the greatest at any of them, although he was damn near the top (if not the best) when it came to puns, or entendres. If I could use a modern day sports reference, Jay is like LeBron James. People have probably made this comparison before but the similarities are closer when you dig into it. What makes LeBron so great is that he is amazing at so many things that you need to be good at in order to be a successful basketball player. He isn't necessarily the greatest at any of them though, with the exception of one. Although I haven't been watching basketball to the point where I can use the eye test on past greats, LeBron appears to be the greatest finisher at the rim in history and that is a very underrated skill. That is why his shooting percentages are so darn high every year because he takes a volume of shots close to the basket and he converts on many of them. Other skill areas like jump shooting, 3 point shooting, passing, dribbling, basketball intelligence, rebounding, and defense are things that LeBron is great at but not necessarily the best. What makes him so lethal is that he is 6'8 and 250 pounds and can combine those skills with his body to create a force never seen before in the history of the game. You can equate that to Jay-Z. He may not be the greatest rapper at packing syllables into bars or what have you, but the fact he is so good at the things that backpack/underground rap fans love yet appeals to the commercial rap audience and pop music fans, that creates a deadly combination. That is why he is considered one of the all time greats.
Now on to his actual body of work. The only three albums I was messing with out of Jay's discography were the three obvious ones: Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, and The Black Album. To me, I would rank them 1) The Black Album 2) Reasonable Doubt and 3) The Blueprint.
The Blueprint and Reasonable Doubt had a more cohesive sound front to back than The Black Album (from here on out I'm abbreviating the albums), but every single track on TBA was a banger. And that's the way it should have been. At the time it was his "retirement" album, and it made sense for Jay to go out with a bang. TBA also showed me why I'm mad that Jay doesn't do more storytelling tracks. That verse in 99 Problems with the cop pulling him over taught me more about search warrants than school ever has...and they say rap is a bunch of loud nonsense. Jay also gave one of the best lines of his career in Moment of Clarity when he gave Talib Kweli and Common their props.
|The Black Album|
As for RD, that was a great debut. Jay was not a trend setter in terms of making music but when he did jump on trends he made sure people remembered him. In terms of mafioso rap, I still have Raekwon's Only Built For Cuban Linx as my favorite but Big's Ready To Die and RD are always jostling for that number 2 spot. The thing I like about RD is that it is the best display of Jay's technical lyricism. He was a rapper's rapper on his debut. When you listen to this album, you never would have expected this guy would be collaborating with a dude from N'Sync or rapping about going to art galleries with his wife. He was an animal on his debut, but knew he couldn't sell 75 million records by rapping like that.
As for the rest of his discography, I don't feel like Jay made another album like that holy trinity. He had great tracks on pretty much every album like Big Pimpin, the intro on Dynasty, plus I really like A Star Is Born (more so for J. Cole's verse) among his vast material. People will argue for American Gangster but I really wasn't feeling that one. People say it was a return to the RD Jay, but I just thought it was ehhhh. Jay honestly could have just had that Holy Trinity as his entire discography and been considered one of the all time greats. How many rappers have three of the greatest albums in the genre?
So in conclusion, is Jay one of the all time greats? God damn right he is. He didn't bring hip-hop into the mainstream but his success no doubt bridged the gap from hip-hop to mainstream America. Everybody knows who Jay-Z is. I don't know if I would carve out a spot on Mount Rushmore for him at the moment but I will just have to wait and see. The only knocks that I have about Jay-Z is that he really didn't introduce anything new to the rap game and that I can't relate to any of his music at all. I will never disagree with the assessment that Jigga is one of the best to ever do it but the reason I have never been into him is because his music doesn't touch my soul in any way...pause. Before people jump on me saying "What do you mean Jay didn't bring anything to the rap game, he gave us Kanye aka the greatest thing to ever walk the earth aka the second coming aka the man who loves gold diggers and strippers," being a mogul/head of a record label and a rapper are two completely entirely different things and because of such, I can't see one thing Jay brought to the table other than being dope as hell. If I am being ignorant and am completely wrong on this point then by all means correct me on it, because that would vault Jay damn near to the top for me.
Part 2 coming soon...Rakim
Jay-Z feat UGK (RIP Pimp C)- Big Pimpin
Jay-Z and Big L freestyle