There Is No “Best” Rapper Alive
With all due respect to Kung Fu Kenny
Kendrick Lamar graces the cover of Rolling Stone’s latest issue, offering his take on ghostwriting and being the best rapper. According to K-Dot, the two are mutually exclusive.
“I cannot call myself the best rapper if I have a ghostwriter,” he says. “If you’re saying you’re a different type of artist and you don’t really care about the art form of being the best rapper, then so be it. Make great music. But the title, it won’t be there.”
The comments seem to be a subliminal slight at Drake, whose penmanship has been in question since 2015, when Meek Mill revealed his use of writing assistance. Drizzy and Kendrick have been quibbling over rightful claim of hip hop’s top spot for the past few years, yet the parameters are still loosely defined. It can’t be entirely based on authenticity, can it? To quote Nelly, “What does it take to be No. 1?”
There are so many elements that make for a great rapper—often times they’re contradictory or based on preference. You’ve got to be able to tell engaging and/or sobering stories, but also craft enjoyable songs. Kick dizzying rhyme flows while delivering a digestible, resonant message. Drop punchlines, similes, double and triple entendres. Have an interesting or powerful voice. Pick good beats. Make music that fans want to hear while sitting in traffic or dancing in a crowded party. Craft cohesive albums. You definitely have to win a high-profile battle. Be ubiquitous, but don’t overexpose yourself. Go pop—crossover!—but don’t sell out. Do trap records. Get a Jay-Z feature. Chop-and-screw your voice. Auto-Tune your voice. Be provocative. Be charismatic. Sing. And most importantly, be real, whatever that means.
Certainly, there’s an honor code amongst rap’s lyricists that supersedes all of the above: you’ve gotta write your own shit. All of it. But it seems like a rigid disqualifier considering that collaboration often makes for a stronger final product. Sure Drake got a hand from non-ghost Quentin Miller, who is credited several times on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. But we know Drake is a skilled writer himself—his mixtape catalog goes back more than 10 years, when he was still scribbling rhymes on Lil Wayne’s tour bus (never forget when they went head-to-head on 2008’s “Ransom”). If occasionally teaming up with an unseen songwriter makes for fresher music and helps Drake better express himself, why shouldn’t he—or anyone else—employ help?
Furthermore, there are artists who write 100 percent of their rhymes and can go verse for verse with either Kendrick or Drake. Consider a guy like Lupe Fiasco, whose pen work has produced some of the hottest verses rap has ever heard (his 2015 song “Mural” still contains some of the most complex wordplay set to music). He’s often omitted from these best rapper alive convos—presumably because his profile has diminished in the years leading up to his departure from Atlantic Records to go independent, and he’s never been a regular chart-topper, only reaching the Top 10 twice in his career. And of course there are other variables at play considering Lupe’s career trajectory, but there are lots of similar cases, like hip hop outcast Joe Budden, who repeatedly called out Drake last year, showing and proving how lethal his bars he can be with a trilogy of diss tracks. Or his Slaughterhouse rhyme partner Royce Da 5’9”, who ripped apart just about every popular industry beat on June’s Bar Exam 4. Don’t even bring up living legends like Nas, Eminem or Jay-Z; their respective outputs may have slowed since their prime years, but they remain murderers on the mic, with long track records to show for it.
Speaking of Jay-Z, he once presented a best-case scenario for being rap’s head honcho. On 2003’s “Moment Of Clarity,” he famously admitted to envying the lyrical content of backpack rappers: “If skills sold / Truth be told / I’d probably be / Lyrically, Talib Kweli / Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense / But I did five mil’, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.” It seems Kendrick can relate. Elsewhere in his Rolling Stone interview, the Compton rapper took another jab at Drake while speaking about topping the Billboard Hot 100 with “Humble.”
“It gets tricky because you can have that one big record, but you can still have that integrity at the same time. Not many can do it … wink-wink,” Kendrick said with a laugh. “Still have them raps going crazy on that album and have a No. 1 record, wink-wink. Call it whatever you want to call it. As long as the artist remains true to the craft of hip hop and the culture of it, it is what it is.”
Even that, though, is murky criterion, especially as hip hop (including R&B) has overtaken rock as America’s most consumed genre of music, according to a Nielsen Music report released last month. As rap continues to grow more popular than pop, we’ll very likely see all different variations of artists attain chart success—Rae Sremmurd and Migos have each scored No. 1 songs within the past year. While Drake’s sole No. 1 record as a lead artist is the sung “One Dance,” he’s recently hit No. 6 with his barred-up Travis Scott and Quavo-featured “Portland.”
Make no mistake, Kendrick Lamar is one of the most amazing all-around artists of his generation—in any genre. But the Best Rapper Alive distinction is dubious because its parameters are so vast and prone to shift based on what best suits an argument. Like who you like, and by all means champion your favorite MCs. They should all believe they’re the best and constantly work to prove as much, even if it is a futile battle.