Stereo Williams has said that in hip hop there ain’t no G.O.A.T. The debate, he says, is “cliché and unending.” And frankly, I agree.
But we don’t have this debate because we think we are going to finally answer the question. We have this debate because it’s fun. So let’s feed the fire a little.
Who’s the greatest hip hop artist of all time?
To start off you have to really break the topic down. What defines the greatest rapper of all time? You can measure it in sheer rap ability, sales, versatility, influence and so forth. I say we go over all of it.
Arguably the most influential rapper of all time is Lil Wayne. Mumble Rap, lean culture and SoundCloud were based off of Wayne’s 17 mixtapes between 2002-2009. Any old head can hate and say that his music and impact could never compare to “Old School,” but love it or hate it, he’s left his mark in the rap game.
Chief Keef is another honourable mention if we’re talking straight impact on rap music. Keef’s drill movement in 2012 sparked the UK, New York, Australia and Ireland to give this drill stuff a shot. For all we know, Lil Durk, Central Cee and Sheff G would still be “flipping packs” if it wasn’t for Chief Keef’s breakthrough singles “Love Sosa” and “Don’t Like.”
But perhaps no group was as influential as Hip Hop’s greatest group to ever exist, NWA. The group glorified the gangster lifestyle and spoke against the American legal system throughout their harsh album, Straight Outta Compton. Most notably, their violent song, “Fuck Tha Police,” was full of references to the struggle a Black man had to cope with on a daily basis. Their constant battle with the systemic racism in America throughout the 80s and 90s as some “Young niggas got it bad ’cause [they] brown”, was a true inspiration. They had certainly left their mark for the following wave of rappers.
If the GOAT meant who’s the best rapper, only one name comes to mind. I’m talking about pure rapping ability, who’s the fastest and most talented rap artist to ever live? Eminem, and it’s not even close. Although he’s often criticized for his lack of versatility, there’s no denying the fact that “Lose Yourself” is one of the most legendary rap songs of all time. Clocking in at 6.5 words per second and 1,560 total words on “Rap God,” he’d set multiple world records such as most words rapped in a hit single. You thought that was impressive? Em shocked the world with his verse on his 2020 release Godzilla, where he’d clobbered his personal record by rapping 7.23 words per second. There’s no doubt that the real Slim Shady owns this category, receiving praise from almost every big rapper in the game. Rakim, who’s widely considered as one of the most talented MC’s of all time, has said that “if Eminem was black, he’d be the Muhammed Ali of rap”.
Now don’t think I’ve forgotten about other MC’s and rappers who are extremely talented. Busta Rhymes was an extremely gifted rapper, Nas created one of the greatest rap albums of all time with Illmatic and no, I haven’t forgotten about LL Cool J, Andre 3000 or Jay Z. They’re all fantastic rappers who’ve all put their own twists on rap as we know it, but do they even touch Eminem’s rap ability? Hell no.
Now versatility is often a tricky topic because if a rapper can do one thing so well, it’s a risk to switch it up. Taking that risk and successfully switching up your style is what separates the boys from the men. There’s no doubt that this could make or break a career but in my opinion, you can’t be the GOAT with only one flow. Billboard’s recent artist of the decade is no stranger to versatility. Drake is undeniably the greatest artist of the 2010s, and he’s normalized switching his flow. Kicking it off in 2009 with his hit song “Best I Ever Had,” Drake played the role of a pretty boy and was known as an R&B artist. He followed up with his 2011 album, Take Care, which got him on the charts with big name features such as Rihanna. In 2013, Drake had shocked the world with his single “Started From The Bottom,” he’d made it clear that he could do it all by releasing a song which was extremely explicit and showed a side of Drake we’d never seen, an ego. It was clear by then that this Canadian pretty boy was truly something special. Drake continues to surprise fans with new flows as he did in 2020 with his single “Only You Freestyle,” which features UK drill rapper, Headie One. Fans went ballistic when they’d heard Drake on a drill beat and rapping in that style. Drake keeps it fresh and has always topped billboards and sold out stadiums, he even holds the record for most top 10s on Billboard’s Hot 100 ever. 45 top 10s in his career which has only been about ten years would make him an excellent G.O.A.T. candidate. However, he ain’t my G.O.A.T.
Who’s the G.O.A.T.?
After some serious thought between several legendary rappers the time has finally come. Tupac Shakur is the greatest rapper of all time. Honourable mention goes to The Notorious B.I.G. Biggie had a flow like no other and ultimately was the face of Brooklyn in the 90s. He created Ready to Die, which is undeniably a top 5 rap album ever, but the decision came to a few categories where Biggie didn’t necessarily lack, but Tupac was simply better.
Pac was a generational, unmatched type of rapper, there will never be anyone who could replicate him. The Picasso of Hip Hop, Pac would have easily been someone to mention in every single category mentioned above. You want versatility? Go listen to “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” followed by listening to “Dear Mama” and tell me that ain’t versatility at its finest. Rap ability? Tupac was one of the most clever, educated and well-rounded rappers ever. He studied theatre as a teenager at Baltimore’s School of Performing Arts and began his career with poetry. Pac had written his poetry collection The Rose That Grew from Concrete throughout his career, which was released in 1999 after his passing. He’d considered Shakespeare his greatest inspiration. “[Shakespeare] wrote some of the rawest stories, man,” he told the LA times in 1995. Although he portrayed himself as a thug, and played the role of a gangsta, it’s definitely possible that Pac was a bit of a softy. It’s become a trend for upcoming rappers to compare themselves to Tupac. T.I, Childish Gambino, Polo G and multiple other rappers have compared themselves to him, often considering themselves the “Tupac of their generation,” making him one of the most influential of his time. Everyone wants to be Pac, everyone wants to have the diversity, impact and talent that he possessed, and everyone gets clowned for having the audacity to even use their own name in the same sentence as Tupac Shakur.
Releasing several incredible albums within the short period of time that god had given him, the fact that he’s even mentioned in this conversation proves that he’s the GOAT. September 13th of 1996, Pac had rolled up to a red light near the MGM casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. An unknown gunman in a white Cadillac had pulled up right next to him, pointing a .40 caliber Glock 22 pistol and firing 4 shots, murdering the legendary rapper.
It’s time we start seeing “Changes” and maybe we could keep a lyrical genius alive for over ten years in the spotlight.
Rest in Power, Tupac Shakur — the greatest of all time.
Cover Image: Mary Evans/FILMFOUR/LAFAYETTE FILMS/Everett Collection