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Okay, we all know that the “GOAT” is one of the most cherished positions in music. In any hip-hop or rap forum, you can easily expect a plethora of threads devoted to who the best rapper of all time is, and it is guaranteed that there are a great amount of arguments going on in these threads. However, none of these arguments are even close to productive, and the hip-hop community will never come to a consensus on who is the greatest of all time.
Why? Because there are too many counterproductive arguments that people invariably use to support their arguments. Reasons we’ll never come to a conclusion on who is truly the best are the rabid supporters of certain artists deemed ‘stans’, the fact that everyone’s opinion is biased, the fact that there is no concrete way to measure how good an artist is, and the proofs people use to support their artists.
Throughout this blog, every single one of these positions will be described and critiqued, and if you stick though the whole thing, you will have a complete understanding of why there will NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER be a GOAT.
Find an artist. Any artist. Okay, you have one? Good. I can almost guarantee you that this same artist has rabid fans, who are ready to proclaim him as the greatest rapper of all time, no matter how outlandish the claim is.
The reason is, these people have been over-exposed to the music of a certain artist, and the majority of the time, they overestimate this artist’s skill because they have witnessed a lot of it.
These same people are usually underexposed to other artist’s music, because the mass of their musical listening is to the artist they most idolize. This causes even more of a discrepancy, as they grow to like this artist even more, while further neglecting other artists.
This gap causes EXTREME IRRATIONALITY when an argument comes around. The ‘stan’ will proclaim their personal favorite as being the best of all time, and because they so faithfully listen to that artist, are usually unwilling to concede ANY POINTS WHATSOEVER to a rivalling artist, especially one who they have never heard.
Because much more people have been overexposed to ‘popular’ musicians, and thus more people become devoted followers of these musicians, their fanbases are overrepresented in a fair argument over artist proficiency. For example, a very popular, but not technically or lyrical proficient MC may have a lot more people arguing for him than a relatively unknown legend. This causes the supporters of the popular MC to believe that their favorite is better, only due to popular support. However, it is very possible that the ‘underground’ artist is better in most, or all, facets of rap, and this leads to a giant PROBLEM when it comes time to make an ultimate decision on who is the GOAT.
The second reason that nobody will EVER agree on who is the greatest hip-hop artist of all time is the simple issue of disagreement in even miniscule areas. In hip-hop, proficiency in almost any area is vague and ambiguous. One person may think rapper A has an extremely good ‘flow’, while others may think that he is choppy and unpleasurable in that area. There are quite a few areas that are extremely subjective in rap, and even a few where there are NO CONCRETE CONCEPTS OF A TRUE DEFINITION.
Here it is, I can run down all the areas that make an artist good, and why they’re ambiguous and impossible to determine a winner in…
Flow is a rapper’s skill with riding over the beat. A rapper who is said to have a good flow is one who emphasises the right syllables at the right part of a beat, and emphasise the right words at the right speed.
However, flow is extremely ambiguous, because what one person may think sounds good could sound like trash, and vice versa. This makes flow essentially negligible in the argument over who is the best, because NOBODY AGREES.
Okay, everyone knows what good lyrics are, right? WRONG. Because EVERYONE sees the lyrical content of a song as being one of the intrinsic parts of their music, it is almost inevitable that an artist’s lyrical content comes up in a heated discussion on thir standing among rap’s all-time greats. However what’s good for the goose is NOT what’s good for the gander.
Some people perfer socio-political ranting, some prefer death threats and hood dreams, some perfer songs about weed and drugs, and some perfer boasting about rediculous monetary feats. The only thing these song subjects have in common is that NOBODY AGREES.
While some may see Jay-Z’s boasting as ‘regal’ and ‘eloquent’, others may see it as ‘arrogant’ and ‘ridiculous’.
Because nobody agrees on what makes a lyric ‘good’ vs. bad, it is COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS to use it on the grounds of an objective argument.
Don’t even get me started on this magical thing called ‘realness’. Every hip-hop head worth his salt has their own definition of ‘realness’, and it’s almost NEVER the same. Not only has rapgenius held Thread after Thread on the topic, arguing over the significance of realness and what it is, but the same ‘realness’ has came up in almost every argument over the skill of a rapper.
From this, it is obvious that realness is both completely subjective, often completely different between two listeners, and irrelevant to the skill of the rapper, it is a moot point in the discussion of a rapper’s proficiency.
Making it even more confusing is the concept of ‘real hip-hop. Many listeners claim to be 'real fans’ and call the music they listen to ‘real hip-hop’, although nobody seems to be able to define exactly what that is. People have offered different time periods, styles, and other concepts to define ‘realness’, but there is no concrete agreement on what is or isn’t real.
Between the fact that neither form of ‘realness’ is actually definable, the confusion between the two concepts, and the absolute vagueness of the term, it becomes impossible to use ‘realness’ as a measure of a rapper’s skill.
Oh no… The nemesis of a good argument. Almost EVERY SINGLE RAP SONG HAS A BEAT. Different producers make different kinds of beats, and they’re almost always unique in one way or another.
Beats tend to stick to certain forms, or genres, and they can be easily categorized as any of these, almost indefinitely, be it ‘electronic’, a ‘banger’, ‘sample-heavy’, ‘soul’, ‘old-school’, or a plethora of other classifications that always seem to be off-the-cuff and vague.
Although this system has its benefits, it is almost certainly flawed, and detrimental to the identification of a good rapper. Because some people automatically withhold judgement on a beat because of its style, they may be missing out on some of the best parts of a rapper, and anyone who is judgemental to a certain type of beat is judgemental to the rappers that use that kind of beat. Because people are so quick to judge a song, or even a rapper, it makes it extremely difficult to pick ONE rapper to be the best, especially when so many people disown the ‘greats’ for reasons such as their beats.
One of the things that make a rapper pleasurable to listen to is their voice. Certain rappers have certain voices, and that is one of the main things that identifies themselves from other rappers. Something so crucial to an artist’s music is almost certain to be a factor when it comes to deciding who is the best of all time.
Whether one likes to admit it or not, most of the all-time-greats have a significant voice attribute that sets them apart from others in the rap game, including but not limited to:
The Notorious B.I.G.’s husky and manly tone.
2Pac’s careful and poised storytelling.
Rakim’s frantic rapping.
KRS-ONE’s oft-obvious accent.
Eminem’s slightly white-voiced ramblings, sometimes punctuated with a fake accent.
The thing in common with all these vocal features is that THEY COULD BE PRECIEVED AS GOOD OR BAD. Because certain people may love or hate any one of these things, it is almost ridiculous to argue over how good an artist is over how good their voice sounds. However, this makes the argument almost trivial if one of the most important things to listen to is almost insignificant in an intelligent debate. This brings to question, ‘why bother?'
7. Technical Proficiency
In an argument over which rapper is better, technical proficiency is almost ALWAYS brought up. Technical proficiency is a combination of speed, internal rhymes, multi-syllables, alliteration, literary devices, skill of rhymes, wordplay, word usage, and general manipulation. Thankfully, this area is much more objective as any other of the previously discussed subjects, and many theorize it possible to mathematically calculate skill, using algorithms. This has been done previously with Rhyme Density.
However, there are a few intrinsic problems in judging this on a rapper-to-rapper basis.
Some rappers may be excellent in some areas, but horrid in others. While a rapper may be excellent at rhyming, he may be terrible at wordplay. Another rapper could have an extensive vocabulary and skill with the English language, but he may be a bad rhymer, or not very skilled at wordplay. This is a problem, because it makes it hard to identify using technical skill.
It is very difficult to compare rappers using technical skill objectively. Most fans of an artist tend to exaggerate their technical proficiency because of a small sample of songs and rhymes that may exhibit some of this proficiency. In addition, people almost ALWAYS see one part of technical proficiency as more important than another, and therefore one person’s opinion may completely differ from another, creating discrepancies in even this small, specific area.
Technical skill is often seen as a black and white area. Rappers are almost never seen as being in the middle of technical or not, they are almost invariably one or the other. This causes a problem, as rappers in the middle of the spectrum are unfairly grouped, and there is no real line dividing the two sides.
Technical skill almost always gets grouped with lyricism. Although a rapper may be good in the areas of language, they may be lacking in subject matter, which goes both ways. These rappers will both be classified as ‘lyrical and technical’, even though it’s not completely accurate. Because there is no clear understood division between lyrical and technical, it is almost idiotic to use technical skill or lyricism in an argument.
Now that it has been established that almost every facet on what makes rap good is a completely opinionated and biased judgement, it becomes obvious that there is no point in arguing over any of these areas. Because every hip-hop fan has a different view on these subjects, it becomes almost impossible to agree on a GOAT, whether people like it or not.
Okay, let’s get something straight. Every GOAT argument you’ve ever heard has involved somebody’s claims that a popular artist, such as Eminem or Lil' Wayne. Lots of people see this as dismissable and ridiculous, and there aren’t many hip-hop heads who would agree with such a claim, but there is an objective, yet flimsy, basis.
The reason that people may call two of the most commercially successful rappers as ‘great’ is that People seem to associate popularity with skill.
People see commercial success as mainstream acceptance, and because a certain rapper has sold 88 million records, or a million in the first week, people see this as being above success, sometimes interpreting the same success as a symbol of greatness.
However, this is not the case.
An acceptable definition of ‘greatness’ is as follows:
Greatness is something that stands the test of time, and holds itself as superior when compared to other forms of work.
This is almost the complete antithesis of ‘popular music’, and holds NOTHING in stock to the links between popularity and greatness. On the contrary, it is the EXACT OPPOSITE. Although popularity is an accurate measure of what people are listening to right now, it is not even close to an adequate measure of how significant music is, or how it effects other music.
Because most popular music stays on the radio for month-long stints, never to be heard again, it is an unreliable snapshot of how ‘great’ music is. People mistake an artist’s propensity to make repeated popular hits with their true greatness. On the contrary, a ‘great’ artist is an artist who makes music that will be appreciated as a work of art for years to come.
Wayne is OBVIOUSLY the most popular of the two artists, selling over a million copies of Tha Carter III in only the first week of sales. However, Wayne’s music from TCIII is most likely to fade into oblivion, never to be seen in future culture and most likely insignificant to the state of rap.
On the other hand, we have Nas. Nas is seen as one of the greatest musicians of all time in hip-hop, and many of his works have stood the test of time. His DEBUT album, Illmatic is seen to many as hip-hop’s most legendary album, and one of the greatest pieces of musical art ever to grace shelves. However, Illmatic didn’t even come close to selling a million copies. In fact, it didn’t reach Platinum status until 2001, 7 years later. Although this may seem derogatory to the performance of Illmatic, it does show that it is significant to culture, with people buying it to this day, almost 20 years since the release.
This may seem insignificant to the argument about who is the GOAT, but it is, in fact, necessary. Because an artist who many see as the greatest of all time has less ‘popular recognition’ than one who is seen by many hip-hop insiders as being sub-par, it questions the benchmarks many use to recognize significance.
If more people see Lil' Wayne as being better, who’s to say that he isn’t? Because there are no CONCRETE standards to prove this ‘greatness’, many will try to use popularity, and this is one of the most flawed bases of an argument, making it near-impossible to come to a reasonable conclusion of greatness.
Last but not least, the proof. There are many ways people try to ‘prove’ that their favorite is the greatest of all time, but every single one of these proofs are flawed in one way or another. Two of the most common proofs have already been highlighted previously, including proclaimed attributes of an artist, and the artist’s popularity. However, there are a few other arguments that hip-hop fans use to defend their ‘greatest’, and almost all of them are just as flawed.
It is increasingly prevalent argument in rap culture to use one song as an example for one artist’s ‘greatness’ compared to another’s. The quote; “Song X is better than song Y. so Artist X is better than Artist Y” is a very common mention in our forum, as well as others, and it is usually horribly off-base in factuality.
People seem to think that in an argument, just mentioning a song or two should be enough to prove their point. The problem is, one song is not enough of a sample to fairly judge either artist. Furthermore, anyone juxtaposing 2 songs, trying to make a point that one artist is better, will deliberately pick a BAD song from the artist they are trying to bring down, and a GOOD song from the one they are promoting. This leads to a bias, and an altogether unfair argument, and it can be easily concluded that the prospect of comparing SONGS to compare ARTISTS is ridiculous.
However, this method is one of the very basics of argument, and it is hard to argue the benefits of one artist against another without bringing up music. Not only is it too small of a sample size, and too biased, to bring up music on a song-by-song basis, but it is difficult to use a broader sample size, because it makes the argument too vague. This makes arguing in this form almost pointless, and it brings into question how a proof could be made in an argument about music.
Making it even worse, in some situations, people seem to think that ONE LINE is enough to completely dismiss an artist. For example, on this very site, a heated discussion about the intellectual, fairly skilled trap rapper Gucci Mane came into discussion. One member of the site argued about Gucci’s cultural significance, the meaning of his lyrics, and the fact that his lyrics make a lot of sense compared to other club rap. A contesting member replied by bringing into question of of Gucci’s lines, from Lemonade;
The member argued that this line was pointless and non-intellectual, and pointless to the overall theme of the song. However, the user could not be more off-base. Although this is a shining example of a BAD Gucci line, you could post a bad line from any artist, including some of the best of all time. Since you can do this for any artist, it becomes ridiculous to try to argue using one bad line as an example. Furthermore, this one bad line speaks nothing about the other gems that Gucci could very well have in his songs, and is altogether a completely inadequate representation of his skill. If we judged every artist on their worst lines, we’d have nobody left to like!
For fun, here’s a few lines from iconic artists, even iconic songs…
Okay, this line makes no grammatical sense, just a sloppy effort to fill a song.
Not only does this line seem to be talking about incest, he also references a fairly brutal Rob Schneider movie, and in an unbearably unfunny way.
A stupid line altogether. Not only is he saying he’s the only person to care about poor girls, he’s being ‘soft’ and emotional, even though he’s obviously looking for sympathy, though it’s out of place as a thug rapper.
This line violates a few principles that should never be crossed in music. Not only is he talking about violence and rape, it’s towards children, and from an otherwise respected artist. It’s almost shameful that he BRAGS about this sort of thing.
An iconic hip hop song, but with a whole verse about how bad one of the rapper’s mother’s food is. Completely irrelevant to the song, and an altogether stupid thing to put in music.
By the standards of someone who classifies artists by their worst lines, all these rappers would be terrible, right? In fact, these rappers are Rakim, Jay-Z, 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G. and Sugar Hill Gang. If some of the most respected rappers in popular culture can drop such terrible lines, why would a bad line from anyone be representitive of their skill?
Altogether, it is ridiculous to assume that we will ever find a ‘GOAT’. Because of the vagueness of the arguments made, the ridiculousness of some debate methods, and the bias of almost every hip-hop fan, it is counter-productive to even ATTEMPT to start a discussion on who is the best artist of all time.
The bases of every argument will always be corrupted by ‘Stans’, false proofs, ambiguity, and bias, and it is preposterous to think otherwise.
There is little doubt in my mind that this debate will ever be settled, and it is quite possible that, if you stuck with me the whole time, you see it the same way. All in all, the concept of ‘greatness’ is just to vague, and ‘skill’ in rap is too ambiguous.
That been said, thank you so much for reading this monster of a blog post, and I look forward to everyone’s feedback.
If you read the whole thing, you’re a true Rap Genius!