Which Rappers Can Compete for the Prized Seat?
A few weeks ago, approximately upon the release of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, I propose the question to a fellow writer about who is the best rapper right now, not counting Kanye and Jay Z? Like if those two were to stop rapping, who would we look to to say this is the best rapper around right now. Fellow staffer, Tariq Rashid, and I exchanged, long, lengthy Facebook conversations of our opinions on the matter. This was all done to share our opinions on the matter, and really lay down a pros and cons of the best out there. What you will read is our opinions on the matter, so feel free to comment with your thoughts on the matter. For brevity’s sake, I will be denoted with ED, and Tariq will be represented with TR.
DJ Riq Sperry and DJ Dowling
ED: Where do we look to for influence in hip hop/ rap? Are you more of a Tupac or Biggie guy? Or do you prefer a Tribe Called Quest? Basically who do you look at as your grandfather of rap. This is an opinion based question so don’t feel the need to say Sugar Hill Gang.
TR: Ahh probably have to say Big. And earlier than that – I think Rakim’s important.
ED: For me bands like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were so innovative. The entire Native Tongues movement is what I like in hip hop and rap. It’s more happy it’s not angry at the world. It’s aware. They are making music to make a statement they aren’t just saying “Fuck the police” because they don’t know any different. They are saying why “We need to be wary of cops.” But at the same time approaching it from a much lighter point of view. From 3 Feet High to Midnight Marauders both of the albums have a sense of levity to it that makes them just fun albums.
TR: I like Tribe. They were an amazing group who carried that organic bohemian vibe with them. Little Afrocentrism in their aesthetic. All very positive uplifting stuff. And they were fun as well. You can’t help but swing a little bit and smile listening to “Bonita Applebaum”. I like Rakim because of his lyrical dexterity. He was complex.. he bucked the simple rhyme pattern that a lot of his peers used during his run. Very skilled guy with amazing capacity.
ED: And I think Biggie defined what it means to be a New York rapper. He helped create a sound.
TR: Agreed on that. Style, bravado, subject matter, sonic-wise. The whole nine. -He was a part of the 90’s NY Wave
ED: Ok so let’s get into this; when you are listening to someone new, someone who has really just started making music in the last 7 years, what are you looking for? Are you looking for use of samples? Original beats. Or are lyrics more important to you? Do you want lyrics that make you laugh or make you think? If we look at someone like Mac Miller he started creating frat raps. And same with Gambino. Both were funny. But now they look deeper and look at something in different perspectives. So what are you looking for when you are thinking of someone snatching the throne?
TR: Ideally you have a combination of awesome lyrics and great beats. They’re in concert. But lyrics always catch my ear first. Say something with substance that pulls me in, challenges me to think, or even *and maybe most importantly.. enables me to relate to you. Funny rappers are cool.. and I’m all for festive songs about partying.. but guys who are able to go in about politics, relationships, family problems, or the “game”/competition are great in my book. That’s what grabs me.
ED: Ok cool I totally agree. For me I’m one of those people that don’t really hear lyrics until I listen to a song a few times. So for me the beat is a little bit more important. If I hear a fire beat I’m going to listen to a song more if I can just vibe to it. But that being said if I hear the lyrics and they don’t make sense I get angry cause it’s not complete. I kind of think of Riff Raff in this way. I like him to laugh at but I don’t take him seriously.
Ok so for you who was one of the first rappers you really got into? Like you discovered them. You have followed them. So like Jay and Kanye don’t count.
TR: Come for the beat, stay for the lyrics.
I remember listening to Wale when I was in middle school. He was the first rapper I really stumbled upon and was able to follow. It’s always cool being able to “claim” a rapper who you later try to get your friends hip to. I loved 100 Miles & Running as well as The Mixtape About Nothing. They were fun projects that engendered thought but also just sounded good. For me – Wale was “different”. He was freestyling over original songs by Justice, Gorillaz, Amy Winehouse and Lilly Allen. Doing concept mixtapes; his creativity made me gravitate towards him. Oh! And I loved his wordplay. Just waaay too good. So talented. And great subject matter range.
ED: For me it was Das Racist. I really don’t even know how I heard about them. I think it was through Rolling Stone. But I just remember their music being free and that was the best thing ever. I listened to them and thought they were joke rappers. But after going back their references were so deep and I loved that so much. For my I always appreciate a good reference, which is why I love pop art. But I felt like I was in on an inside joke. I couldn’t get enough of them. To this day I am still learning what some of their references mean. And these guys are smart as hell. They basically went to Ivy League school and they are all some sort of a minority so they are talking about those issues “You couldn’t see me like a Cuban playing hockey” this was also where I heard true samples from Billy Joel to a Tribe Called Quest they were doing things I couldn’t get my head around. Whereas when you listen to Kanye you can barely tell he is sampling. It all sounds so organic to his songs. But Das Racist made it obvious they were sampling.
TR: Very nice. First project you heard of theirs? Or single song?
ED: Song. I’m pretty sure it was “Rainbow in the Dark” the beat of it was sick and I heard some things in it that made me stop and be like they didn’t just make that reference.
Enough beating around the bush. If Kanye and Jay Z were to call it quits today. Who would be the one to take their spot, as the best in the game? Only one rapper.
TR: Very tough! But everything considered I’d have to say Drake takes the title as best in the game right now. I think we judge from each rapper’s total discography, but increasingly I tend to shift to an artist’s latest project. If You’re Reading This, which was essentially a collection of leftovers, was epic. Who puts out album quality mixtapes? It was sonically challenging with the different samples his engineers used (Genuwine, Three Six Mafia). The club bangers and soft ballads, competitive, revealing at times, and overall very comprehensive. I felt like Drake was in control with each flow and switched at will. You know when you watch Steph Curry pull up from way downtown and sink a three pointer that should count for 4 points? I feel like that’s what Drake does. *insert lyric lol* There’s something effortless about Drake’s approach now. His blend of lyricism, bravado, and creative license all make for a skilled precise rapper. He knows he’s got it and acts as such. It’s hard because I know Kendrick has a project on the way. But if we’re going with what’s right now.. gotta give it to Drake
ED: Funny you mention Kendrick… For me. I would say Kendrick Lamar. Even though his catalogue isn’t as vast as Drake’s his albums and what he has released by himself (mostly looking at individual things limiting tracks where he is a feature) is just breathe taking. I don’t think Drake has had that moment where he has stopped me. I love how thoughtful [Kendrick] is and Drake learned something from Wayne. But Kendrick’s mentor was Dre. Dr. Freaking Dre! What better mentor than that? Lil Wayne never convinced me that what he was doing was important. And Wayne was a huge reason why I hated rap for a long time. But when I heard “Lose Yourself” something clicked inside me. And I think Dre brought that out with Kendrick, like he did for Eminem. Hearing “ADHD” for the first time, you hear the pain in his voice about being from one of the worst places to grow up in. And I think this is something most rappers get pigeonholed into but Kendrick Lamar had his moment where he looked at where he came from and made a modern classic with good Kid. With Kendrick Lamar he is talking about things in such a poetic way and even though Drake helped to change the topics rap songs are about it was Kendrick who made it personal. With Lamar you take what you hear and then break it down and that’s when things get real. With “i” he is doing something we don’t see in modern black rap. Loving yourself. Who cares what anyone things. “I love myself” and that is so powerful. Even now with “Blacker the Berry” he is challenging what is popular in black culture and taking blame for what happened with Michael Brown and Eric Gardner. It’s revolutionary. And I truly think that “Started from the Bottom” is a stupid song and so not Drake that that song is what he is known for. Kendrick isn’t making radio hits. He is trying to make history. Following what NWA did. He is making music for him. And if it is successful then that is just a plus.
TR: “i” sounded like a Kia commercial. Cool Isley brother’s sample and good message but it felt pop-y to me. Great breath of fresh air considered the sex and drugs we’re hit with in music across genres. Not to mention the violence in hip hop and a couple other genres whether it be gang or against women. So claps to Kendrick with that for sure. And good central message, respect and love yourself. It picked up a Grammy because of that but also because it was warm and kumbaya-ish. I don’t know if something as honest and abrasive as “Blacker the Berry” would have gotten a Grammy. If we switch the songs I don’t know if “Blacker” gets greeted like “i” does. And it’s not a testament to Kendrick Lamar… it’s more revealing of the people who sit on their high horse and do Grammy voting. Love love “Blacker”.. it’s a hard line sobering piece about systemic racism that examines police brutality, economic exploitation within urban areas, the relegation of black culture and harmful stereotypes. It also champions blackness and black culture. In the same token; Kendrick calls himself out and pivots by the song’s conclusion to ask about violence and destruction of the African American community by black hands. That’s honesty. He repeats that he’s a hypocrite at the beginning of each verse; that kind of self-criticism and transparency is valuable. I think its a hard comparison because Kendrick and Drake are rapping on two different levels.. two different platforms. I get socio-political speech with one and personal relationships/rap game fodder with another. It feels like comparing apples to oranges with subject matter.
ED: And I don’t disagree with who we are comparing. It’s hard with Kendrick because Drake is making things that are more commercially popular with listeners and Kendrick is making music. I know that’s hard to compare. But with Drake his music is so diverse and all over the place which is definitely something to take note of. But Kendrick is holding something back. Section 80 and good Kid are so different.
TR: I think they both make what they want to make. And are great in their lanes. But it’s definitely worth a comparison.. just not AS easy as other head to heads I guess. I will say at this point they both do what they want. You mentioned “Started from the Bottom” which got Drake a lot of flack but even that I liked. Yes it got played out but everyone is allowed to describe their narrative, everyone gets to explain their trajectory to stardom. From child actor to amazing rapper, that’s impressive. I think people automatically think socio-economic when they hear bottom but I felt like that song was more about career things and work ethic.
ED: I agree completely I would just like to know if Drake was completely serious about that path. Cause I would say that even Kanye didn’t start from nothing. But Jay did. Drake had a fairly nice childhood compared to people like Jay Z and Danny Brown.
TR: Ya figure he did have a solid middle class upbringing with some changing here and there cause he was the product of a single mom household basically, but child actor supporting *in part a mother who is sick and chasing your dreams (that sounds so corny lol) is a feat. I’m very interested to see what Kendrick comes with… I could see myself possibly saying.. “Well shit” in the next few months.
ED: Yeah me too cause really Kendrick only has one album and I love good Kid better than Take Care cause I think if we compare I think those are two good albums to compare. And Drake is just finally starting to break away from Lil Wayne and be himself cause his first album was too much in Young Money’s image of what they wanted and I think Nicki Minaj hasn’t found her voice yet and Drake found his with Take Care.
TR: I look at Drake and I really think his OVO imprint is a great reflection, NWTS is a great project. And all those loosies he puts on Soundcloud are great. Along with the artists he nurtures in some way shape or form on OVO.
ED: I cannot agree more. If he was still on Young Money I don’t think we would be having this conversation.
TR: Oh agreeeed. [Young Money is] a cesspool.
-Plus that short film – lol you’re the resident film major so I’m sure you have an opinion, but I liked it! Thought it was very cool. Also, wildcard.. ready to throw Big Sean in. Because Dark Sky Paradise could be great. This could be *his* album.
ED: Oh [the short film is] awesome. Drake is an artist and Kendrick is a poet. Drake is voice and vision. But Kendrick is just a voice, for now. But Drake is the whole package and Kendrick is a poet. But when Kendrick tries, he does cool things too. But Drake gets it.
Ok. But until [Big] Sean does things where I don’t pause cause of another artist’s verse (*cough cough “Control”) he doesn’t have my respect. But I think J Cole and Earl deserve honorable mention. And to a very lesser extent Tyler.
TR: Yeah, that’s why I said wildcard bc he got way outshined on “Control” and Hall of Fame was good but not great. Buuuut “Blessing”, “4th quarter”, and “Paradise” are all so good. I love how dark they are.. love that direction he’s going in. I think he’s definitely cooking up something different. I’d be willing to hedge my bet that Dark Sky will carve out a space for him. And definitely yes to Cole. I don’t listen to enough Earl but he’s got it. Umm.. if The Album About Nothing is flawless I’d say Wale made up for signing with MMG maybe maybe. Then we could put Wale back in jockeying position, at least back in the discussion. He came in with Drake, Cudi, Sean, etc. He’s another rapper who like Kendrick is socially conscious. Doesn’t hide that. Has great lyrical capability. Solid marriage of rhymes and beats. He’s just been stifled by lack of commercial success and the MMG umbrella putting a perceived squeeze on his artistry. Festivus was an awesome tape. Forest Hills was great. Good content wise.. from the cuts about his adolescence to the rap game ones and the dreamy songs too. Very solid piece of work. Loved his songs about inequality too that he kinda released as loosies
ED: I know you did, and it was good, on a track by track basis, but as a whole album I still kind of forget about it.
TR: I’m sure MOTM3 will be solid. I like Tyler. Enjoyed Wolf. but sometimes he just feels like a sideshow.
ED: I hope so, Satellite Flight has me hoping for a lot, but here is another problem that artists have when they get popular.
TR: I can get with the weirdness. his criticism of the mainstream is very funny and accurate. he tweets what he feels, but then he’ll do certain things that are just too whacky for me
ED: Let’s look at Kendrick Lamar right now, how many people are talking about his album and how great its going to be? A lot, and the problem is that the hype will almost always never be met. This is a huge problem with Hollywood too. We have these movies that we follow literally every step of the production, and basically have the whole thing made in our mind, and when they don’t come out how we envisioned, we immediately say “That sucked” and don’t look at the artistry behind it. Yeezus and Beyoncé (s/t) are fantastic examples of having the album create the hype for you. Make no announcement, and people can only be surprised. To be honest, I am super skeptical of Surf, I love literally everything that Chance and SOX has put out, but when you take in consideration how much we are talking about it and how much we are looking forward to it, what happens when it isn’t as good as we hoped?
TR: I think it’s a cool strategy; the surprise drop. And I’d agree. Living up to the hype is so dangerous for artists. They set the bar high, or worse… and to your point their product isn’t what we “wanted” or envisioned. I think that Kendrick has done well so far with these surprise drops. And an appearance on the Colbert Show for a song he *reportedly* wrote the day before is very cool. I think Kendrick lives above the hype because it seems like he’s very guarded when he creates. Guarded in the sense that he’s not polling popular opinion. But agreed, the hype beast threat is dangerouuuuus. I like Chance’s trajectory. It would have been cool to see a major album drop that’s solo but the Social Experiment stuff has been cool so far. I can get behind that. Chance’s sound is rich and I think that relationship works. His last song “Lady Friend” was alright, not amazing, but I think he’s getting the kinks out maybe.
ED: Yes, and Frank Ocean might be the J.J. Abrams equivalent of the music world. We know that he is making music, but other than that, nothing.
TR: Working with a little of this, a little of that. I’d rather an artist have a misstep than give me formulaic.
ED: But back to the whole argument. I think it is really a battle between Drake and Kendrick Lamar right now. But the thing that Drake has over Kendrick is that he has FOUR albums as opposed to one. Has Kendrick burned too bright? It is so hard to tell, without a second real album out. For arguments sake I am counting Section.80 as a mixtape and Drake’s stuff before Thank Me Later doesn’t count.
TR: Yes, clear cut Drake v Kendrick. Same discussion that loomed over everyone’s heads last year (if I have my years right). We compare basketball players with rings. It’s quantitative. I think the same tends to go for rappers. How many solid projects have you put out? Drake has Kendrick beat. Right now. As we speak. But I think that an incredible third offering from Kendrick livens the debate and definitely sets up a bunch of brain trust discussions. It’ll be great. And not to just throw people out because of numbers. Again, we’re highlighting quality projects that are impactful.
ED: It will be an incredible discussion. Because Drake has Thank Me Later, Take Care, Nothing Was the Same and If You Are Reading This… But here comes the million dollar question; how do we asses mixtapes? If we continue this sports analogy, are mixtapes the preseason? And the album the Season? Or is the mixtape the season and the album the playoffs? Cause does one hone your skills before the long ride, or does one determine the success of the other (preseason vs. Playoffs respectively).
TR: Honestly, on the whole, Mixtapes blow right now in rap. They’re either great or trash. Either album-ish quality or terrible. With Drake this mixtape which was album quality by many peoples’ standards is his regular season. Views from the 6 is that playoff stretch with which leads to a ring. In other cases though mixtapes are great pre-season approaches. A lot of other rappers use them as tuneups. i follow what you’re saying
With that very lengthy discussion, we have taken you on a rap journey. You have heard our opinions on Rap, the history of Rap, and even taken a look into our Rap Mt. Rushmore. But most importantly this is supposed to open your mind, for those who only follow one rapper, or only see the bad in a rapper or musician, this is a way to look inward and see the merits in everyone. This is a piece that shows how we all look at music in such a personal way, and that music really is apart of the building blocks of life. We want to know your thoughts on who is “Poised to Take the Throne”