Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Source Magazine's Most Ironic Moment? The 50 Greatest Hip Hop Lyricists for an Era When Lyricism in Commercial Hip Hop is Dead

I am in a pop culture mood this week given that the finale in Nolan's Batman Trilogy is coming out Friday. I am swollen and heavy, prepared for an epic geekgasm come Thursday at midnight!

I am a member of the hip hop generation. I remember walking down Michigan Avenue one evening and a brother about my age was hustling his CDs to passersby. He asked me if I loved hip hop. I replied that I still love hip hop, but hip hop doesn't love me anymore. 

This does not mean that hip hop has not given me so very much. She has bestowed many opportunities upon me. But, I worry that we have failed her, and by implication the younger heads simply do not know any better because those of us with wisdom have not passed it down...and they, like young folks of every generation, are especially resistant hearing from us "old" heads.

Of course, we age out of youth culture. Such is life. But, and I have said this many times in classrooms, workshops, and at conferences, hip hop--commercial hip hop in particular--is in crisis because 1) we have grown ass men in their 30s and 40s making music for people with the intellectual capacity of 12 year olds; and 2) that mediocrity and low hanging fruit have become the norm and standard for greatness in the craft. 

For folks who grew up in an era when excellence in flow and lyricism actually mattered in how the public appraised and judged an MC's ability, to hear the assorted Two Chainz, Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka nonsense that has become the norm for commercial hip hop is truly depressing. 

For folks of my generation, we could never imagine or dream that any of us could be as good as Rakim, B.I.G., Pac, KRS-ONE, Redman, or Big L. Even more frightening and shocking is that you heard all of those titans on commercial radio. 

Now the heroes are far closer to the public; the music is more democratized. Perhaps it is a personal quirk, but I do not want to be able to stare eye to eye with my gods and idols as equals. It would appear that many do not share this guiding principle as they wallow in the mud of nasty, uncritical populism. As such, this explains a great deal about the state of American political and social life, a moment when mediocrity has been elevated to greatness.

The much (fairly) maligned Source Magazine has offered up its list of the 50 greatest lyricists of all time. I was surprised that while they catered to current trends by including Rick Ross and Lil Wayne on the list, there was not much there to disagree with. 

My only interventions would be that Raekwon and Ghostface are obvious omissions bordering on the criminal. Where is AZ? Ludacris is a beast. Why is he so low? How did Lauryn Hill, who is a glorified RnB singer, even make the list? What about Phife Dog? I do like their ranking of Pac. He had a great deal of heart, and was a great MC, but not the greatest of all time as many would want to anoint him. 

And this may be sacrilege to some, but 50 Cent should be much higher, as he is the synthesis and refinement of a model for the prototypical commercial MC which was offered up many years ago. And frankly, there is no way that Bun B, Fabolous, or Queen Latifah are "more lyrical" MCs than 50 Cent.

How would you (re)rank this list?

As someone deeply invested in hip hop as a culture, should I be worried and depressed that many younger listeners who are self-proclaimed "hip hop heads", despite the proliferation and easy access to music online, will likely not know who most of these MC's are? Being more provocative: do self-proclaimed "hip hop experts and aficionados" of a certain age have far less knowledge of their chosen musical genre than "classic rock heads" of the same age? If so, why?

#2. Nas
#3. The Notorious B.I.G.
#4. Jay Z
#5. 2PAC
#6. Eminem
#8. Big Daddy Kane
#9. Lauryn Hill
#10. Melle Mel
#11. LL Cool J
#12. Chuck D
#13. Andre 3000
#14. Ice Cube
#15. Slick Rick
#16. Scarface
#17. The D.O.C.
#18. Kool G. Rap
#19. Big Pun
#20. Q Tip
#21. Redman
#22. Common
#23. Mos Def
#24. Jadakiss
#25. Queen Latifah
#26. Big L
#27. Pharoahe Monch
#28. Talib Kweli
#29. Snoop Dogg
#30. Guru
#31. Kanye West
#32. GZA
#33. Method Man
#34. Black Thought
#35. Bun B
#36. Lil Wayne
#37. Busta Rhymes
#38. Posdnous
#39. Prodigy
#40. T.I.
#41. Fabolous
#42. Ludacris
#43. DMX
#44. Canibus
#45. Lil Kim
#46. Rick Ross
#47. Styles P
#48. Royce Da 5'9"
#49. Lupe Fiasco
#50. 50 Cent


nomad said...

Where's Will Smith?

But, srsly, where's Treach? No Nelly either, huh?

Bruto Alto said...

I'm good with the top 20 except Lauryn. She had no staying power (and may have not wrote her album).

They did miss people who are regional legends: Tech Nine and the only Wu-tang member that still makes good records GhostFaceKilla.

I wish they would add Murs but that's a dream.

Anonymous said...

That's a pretty good list; can't think of any obvious misses, really.

I might throw Tash of Alkaholics fame in there; his flow is pretty amazing.

Oh, and J-Zone -- maybe better known as a producer, but his lyrics are pretty tight as well.

Sir-Mix-A-Lot, maybe?

And Big L should be MUCH higher than 26. If there are 10 lyricists better than Big L, I'm even more out of it than I had suspected.

chaunceydevega said...

@Nomad. Will Smith is a happy rapper. Where is Will I Am another great MC too...insert snark.

@Bruto. Hell what about Capone or Noreaga? or either of The Beat Nutz?

@Dan. There first two albums were very good and still underappreciated.

Anonymous said...

Things I'm not feeling about the list: If Lauryn Hill is going to be on the list at all (and I'm not sure she should), she needs to be way lower. Also, Queen Latifah but no MC Lyte? Come on. Her material was head and shoulders above most when she hit the scene, let alone Queen Latifah. And no Jeru? No Ghostface? No Raekwon? I'm also of the opinion that Scarface should be higher (personal preference).

I gotta be honest about 50, I don't see what people see in him as an emcee at all. He's not bad to me, certainly better than some of the trashy pop rappers being put out today, but I've never thought of him as anything more than a mediocore emcee who got lucky to get Dre and Em backing him. Either way, I'd say that Bun B is definitely more lyrical. Granted, his verses aren't quite what they used to be but his material on Hard To Swallow, Too Tight and Riding Dirty is enough to put above 50 in my opinion.

Bruto Alto said...

Nice you get the name.
Big Pun and Chino XL were the best Latino rappers. Beatnuts and NORE both brought fun things to the culture but not enough to be on the list.
If it was Producers then this would change with Juju (beatnuts) making the list.
Reading the comments here still sadness me though. No CNu, multi-anons, It makes me wonder what they listen to? Plain white tees/Bon Iver? Smooth Jazz?

nomad said...

Me? I'm a soul man. Rap is not my thing but I like good music of almost any genre of Afro-diaspora. Hence, some rap I like. What are the greatest rap songs of all time. Also, anybody know about a Ghetto Boyz cut based on an RB song Memphis Soul Stew?

Anonymous said...

Whoa, whoa, whoa. That is a malicious gap between Royce and Eminem. Last year's collaboration album between the two of them showed that Royce is clearly the better of the two.

My problem with this list and lists like this in general is that it's too canonical and vague. What does it mean to be a "Great lyricist?" I think a better title for this list would be "Most respected lyricists of all time" because then we could acknowledge that this list was culturally crowd-sourced.

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