BY DAN GARCIA
I am about to make the unpopular argument, that even Kanye himself will not say, as it would multiply his cocky arrogant reputation ten fold. In this piece, and The Early Registration’s first ‘Making The Case’ feature, I will make the argument that Kanye West is the greatest rapper of all time.
Defining “Greatest Rapper of All Time”
In order to make the case that Mr. West is indeed the greatest rapper of all time, it is first important to establish what I exactly mean, even if it appears obvious on the surface. The ‘all time’ part is easy. That simply means the rapper can be living or dead, nor do they need to be actively need to be doing music. The ‘greatest rapper’ half is the difficult part to define. However, for purposes of my thesis, by greatest rapper I mean, what I believe most people really mean when they use they argue who is a better rapper, which is the greatest artist who happens to be a rapper. Or also it could mean the artist or rapper who puts out the best rap music.
This definition of greatest rapper of all time is in contrast to those who are arguing simply about raw rapping ability, or flow and lyricism, if you will. In my opinion, while music is very objective in ways, flow and lyricism alone can be too subjective. Twista’s strict rapping abilities are very impressive, but is he the best rapper? So if you want to argue who strictly has the best ‘rapping ability’, this piece is not for you, as I am simply trying to prove who is the best artist/musician who happens to be a rapper and puts out the best rap music.
The task of deciding what does and does not matter is also difficult. So first I will present a list of things that many people cite when arguing who is the better rapper. There are sales (numbers), reviews (Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, etc.), awards (Grammys), reputation of being the best (“he’s the greatest because he just is”), and other intangibles (making a mark on music, live performances, etc.).
In my opinion a few of these things stand out as reputable and a few stand out as mattering very little. First I will address sales. Sorry Jay, but numbers DO lie. If you want to argue that sales are what matter the most, then fine, but I would argue against this for many reason. In my opinion, and the opinion of many, the song that gets the most radio plays and the album that gets the most sales is not directly correlated to quality. If we were to decide the best rap song out today, based off sales and radio hits, it would surely be Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy’. I think that says enough that numbers don’t correlate to quality. No offense Iggy. To further prove my point Will Smith’s ‘Big Willy Style’ is one of the Top 20 selling rap albums of all time, as is Nelly’s ‘Nellyville’. But great albums can certainly sell well also. Eminem is one of the best rappers to ever do it, and is the best selling rap artist of all time. Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below is an amazing and critically acclaimed album and also one of the best selling of all time.
So while great albums can sell well, I just don’t think that there is enough of a correlation. Not to mention, you buy an album before you listen to it. Album sales are a popularity contest driven by radio singles and marketing and not due to the quality of the album.
Next, I will argue why reputation of being the best does not hold great weight in this argument. If someone is the best rapper of all time, there should be more than enough reasons of why there are the best time. This may likely be the most controversial part of my piece, as I will use Tupac as my example. Until very recently, and still to some respects today, you were not allowed to suggest that anyone is better than Pac (except maybe Biggie). However, I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say “Pac is the greatest, just because he is” or “because he is Pac”. Rappers time and time again will tell you no one will ever be as good as Pac, but is it just due to nostalgia? Pac was one of the best of course, and was a rap pioneer, but was he the best? After all, his biggest song ‘Changes’ wasn’t even a real song, in that it was engineered into a song after his death. And if a rapper says any of this, they will be shunned, and likely so will I. All too often people are afraid to look into the now and see how music progresses. Why isn’t Jeter better than Babe Ruth? Wouldn’t Babe likely be a DH in the AAA if he were to play today and try to hit knuck curves against more than just white players? Is it possible since he died in his prime that people are afraid to say he wasn’t better than rappers today? Let’s check nostalgia at the door please.
At the end of the day, while Pac was great, much of the argument of him being the best is “just because”. He sells well to this day, but he never won a Grammy. While Grammy’s are not everything, his reviews were also not anything extraordinary, his classic songs were not numerous, and there isn’t really much to demonstrate why he is the best. So to me, it is not enough to say a rapper is the greatest, you have to actually prove it.
Next I will address the role of reviews and awards in this argument. Sorry people, but music is not fully subjective. It is subjective in many ways, but not entirely. There is a reason people making a living reviewing music. There is a reason metacritic separates user reviews with professional reviews. There is a reason why an album may not do well in stores, but gets Pitchfork’s Best New Music and 4 out of 5 stars by Rolling Stone. These reviewers know what they are doing, analyse the music very carefully, and go much further than liking whatever song is catchy. And if there was a reviewer of most respected music reviews, the highest scores would likely go to Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.
If Rolling Stone or Pitchfork gives a perfect score, it will make headlines on other music publications and blogs. Their reviews themselves can be major music news. In the modern area, since the popular emergence of rap, only a few perfect scores have been given, and only a select few times to rap albums. It is my opinion that these reviewers, and compilations of reviews (like metacritic), mean much more than album sales.
Awards, mainly the Grammys, also matter a lot, as they better review music objectively over sales. The Grammys are the most reputable and respected awards in music, however they do still have their problems, especially in the context of rap music. It is still a big deal to win a Grammy, but when voting members who have no expertise in rap music, vote for a best rap album, the result can sometimes be unfavorable. A recent example of this is Macklemore, considered pop music by many, winning best rap album of Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Drake. Also the Grammys are known to be bias against rap. Very rarely does a rap album get nominated or win a best album award. However despite its problems and biases, the Grammys are the biggest award in music with a talented panel of voters who spend many hours choosing that years best albums, songs, and artists. At the very least these voting members know a little more than your average consumer at Best Buy.
Finally, there are other various things that matter to an extent. You don’t have to be the best live performer but it says a little something if you put on consistent great tours. You don’t have to be innovative to be a great rapper, but it also says something if you consistently change the genre. In total there are almost an infinite number of smaller factors that can play a part in what makes someone the greatest rapper of all time (including things I discredited for the most part, such as sales and reputation).
How Does Kanye Match Up?
Now if you accept all of the above, of what I mean by greatest rapper of all time and what matters in determining the greatest rapper of all time, Kanye is the clear cut winner. I will show this by seeing how he stacks up in the above categories.
Kanye has the more Grammys than any other rapper, which of course means he has more than the rappers who are often viewed as the greatest of all time who are still making music (Eminem, Jay-Z). Outside the scope of rap, Kanye also has the most Grammys of anyone that young. Currently Kanye has 21 Grammys, the 8th most in history with no signs at stopping. The closest rapper is Jay-Z with 19, who has been putting out rap albums since 1995 (almost a decade before Kanye’s debut album). Eminem, often considered the greatest of all time, has 13 Grammys. Tupac, Nas, and the Notorious BIG all have zero Grammy awards.
Not only has Kanye won more Grammys than any other rapper, he also has more nominations than any other rapper, which is a great achievement in itself. He also consistently wins the award for Best Rap Album. Kanye’s first 4 rap albums all won the award. In fact, the first time Kanye lost Best Rap Album was with Watch The Throne in 2012. Who did he lose to? Himself, as his solo album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy won the prestigious award. These is also the argument that Kanye has been noticeably snubbed by the Grammys many times, despite his large collection of awards, but I will not get into that as it is clear that Ye takes the cake when it comes to Grammys in rap.
Kanye is also one of the best reviewed artists in the history of music and I will start by analyzing his Metacritic scores. For those who do not know Metacritic is an online compilation of the most reputable reviewers in music, which creates a score that complies the other scores. In his over 200 reviews found on Metacritic, there is only one negative review and a small number of mixed reviews (the rest are positive). This is unheard of. While there is not a Metacritic profile for Tupac, a search of his reviews on the internet shows that he has more than one negative review, with a smaller sample of reviews. Jay-Z has 5 negative metacritic reviews and a large number of mixed reviews. Eminem has 4 negative reviews in Relapse alone. When it comes to metacritics all time highest scoring albums only Outkast’s ‘Stankonia’ ranks higher than Kanye’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, which scored a 94 and the rest of his albums don’t fall far behind.
Similar to the calculations in Metacritic, AcclaimedMusic.net measures the critical acclaim of an artist, song, and album by combining reviews, lists, awards, and other factors. How does Ye rank? As the 23rd most critically acclaimed artist in the history of music and the most critically acclaimed rapper (with Jay-Z being the next closest rapper at 39th; Eminem 75th; 2pac 379th). Kanye also has the highest ranking rap album according to the site, also the most acclaimed album of that decade in all genres (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy).
Also when it comes to the biggest reviewers in music today, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, Kanye also dominates. Only one rap album and rapper has ever received a perfect 10.0 on Pitchfork. That album and rapper was Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Rolling Store 5 star reviews are also very rare in the modern era, especially for rap, and the only rapper to received such a review (on a first release) is Kanye and he has done so twice (Late Registration and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasty). Not only is Kanye the only rapper to receive a perfect review from either Pitchfork or Rolling Stone, he is the only rapper and only musician ever to have an album score perfect scores by both (on a first release).
Kanye also dominates year end, decade end and all time lists with his albums. In Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Albums of the 2000s, while Jay-Z and Eminem both have an album ahead of Kanye (at 4 and 7 respectively), all of Kanye’s 4 Albums in that decade rank within the Top 70 (10, 40, 45, 63). Kanye’s 4 albums is more than any other rapper in that decade. Of course Kanye’s next album received a perfect Rolling Stone score and Kanye also has 3 albums on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time.
When Complex put out its list of Best Albums of the Complex Era in 2012 (10 years), all of Kanye’s albums released by that time were on the list, including his collaboration album with Jay-Z ‘Watch The Throne’. Ye held the number 1, 7, 13, 21, 38 and 93 spots on the list.
While I do not have the time to check out ever year end, decade end and all-time list. Take a look for yourself and see how Kanye holds up against your favorite rapper.
STAMP ON RAP
One intangible that speaks to Kanye’s status as the best rapper of all time is his stamp on rap music and how he has consistently changed the rap game. Try to tell me that Kanye’s use of sampling did not create a big mark on hip-hop production. Or that 808s & Hearbreak didn’t pave the way for artists like Drake. How many rapper/producers have we seen make successful careers for themselves after Ye? Just look how the subject matter has changed from gangster rap, as recent as 50 Cent, since the emergence of Kanye and his backpack. We have even already seen how production has changed since Yeezus. While we are assured the same old Kanye, his sound is consistently progressing and the rest of rap is changing and progressing with it.
Yeezus is also known for his amazing live performances. While the headlines may read, ‘Kanye Rants at Staples Center’, ask anyone who has ever been to a Kanye show, it is like nothing else. At the Yeezus Tour fans got 2-hours of Kanye hits, a mountain, ‘white Jesus’, snow complete with a yeti, dancers, costume changes, and much more. Even Jack White has said it is probably the best live show he has ever been to. All the things being said about the Yeezus Tour was being said about his game-changing Glow in the Dark Tour. Just when you think his performances can’t top themselves, they do. While you don’t need to be a great big live performer to be a rap legend (Andre 3000), it certainly does not hurt.
If you accept my definition of what ‘the best rapper of all time means’, and can check nostalgia at the door while realizing that some things (like reviews and acclaim) are better correlated to quality of music than album sales, Kanye West is already the greatest rapper of all time, and it really is not close. This does not mean anyone behind him sucks, of course. Eminem, Tupac, Jay-Z, and many others are cemented legends in the rap game. But sorry again Jay, your little brother surpassed you, and likely it was many years ago, because while he won’t say it, Mr. West is the best to ever rap.