What makes a rapper great?
Don’t overthink it. Think as basic as possible.
Flow, wordplay and production selection, right?
Well, there’s one thing you're forgetting. One quality that is so important, but gets overlooked in favor of the big three.
It seems weird to say, since it’s literally what we're hearing, but we really don’t talk about a rapper's voice enough. I think it’s because, so often, it just doesn’t seem to matter all that much. But it does. And it should.
I've been listening to Boogie a lot lately. I love his message, I love his personality, and his beats are awesome, but I can’t fully get into the material because... of his voice. I have a friend who isn’t into Kendrick, claims his voice is “weird.” I want to yell at him, I want to kill him, I want to explain the magic that is Duckworth, but I can't be mad. It’s the one characteristic of an emcee you really can’t argue or fault someone for not enjoying. If a voice doesn't hit you, it doesn't hit you. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, but if the lyrics, beats and delivery are all there, yet the voice doesn’t hit you, it's hard to come away with a positive feeling. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some rappers who make a living on what their voice sounds like; think people are listening to Thugger for astute social commentary?
Bawse. I bet you read that in a deep, growling voice. For a long time Rick Ross was my least favorite rapper. I hated him. I wouldn’t even listen. Somewhere along the way though--Kanye’s "Devil In A New Dress"--I changed my mind. The way his booming, growling voice tumbles in like thunder atop such an eloquent backdrop is enthralling. As a result, I’ve really come to love Ross when he raps over a soul sample. Whether it’s “Devil In A New Dress” or “Who Do We Think We Are,” there’s something about the way the clean, smooth vibe of a soul beat meshes with his vocals. When I listen to “Hustlin” or “Devil Is A Lie” I expect a powerful, thunderous voice--and that’s why those songs work--but not over a soul sample. Soul flips are meant for finesse and a sped up delivery, not a slow, growling flow, but Ross makes it work. He’s still not a favorite of mine and, for the most part, I’ll pass on his work, but god damn if that dude doesn’t bring something different out of a beat that nobody else can. I realize it’s weird to put Rick Ross into a conversation about anything “greatest” (unless it’s about wings or cheese covered cinnabuns), but I think it proves just how powerful his voice is. Nobody listens to Ross for wordplay or thoughtful social commentary, people listen because “bawse” his voice gives you a feeling no other current rapper can provide. It’s so distinct, so unique, so powerful. Also, on an unrelated note, shoutout to all the pears.
Have you ever been in a relationship that didn’t work out because of timing? That’s my relationship with ODB. When I listen to Dirt McGurt all I can think about is how I wish I was born six years earlier. When ODB died I was 16 and I didn’t know much about rap, meaning that when he was alive, well, pissing on plaques and getting welfare checks in a limo, I was too young to understand. The more I learn about rap, the more I am enamored with Big Baby Jesus. To me, he’s the first personality rapper. Branding feels like a modern invention, at least the coinage is, but ODB laid the blueprint. He’s was not the best lyricist or the most technical rapper, but nobody, maybe ever, has been so able to capture their personality and aura like ODB. His rhymes seemingly have no structure at all. Is he a rapper or a crazy person on the street corner ranting about the reckoning? Both. A great deal of his aesthetic and his success has so much to do with how he rapped, not what he rapped about. I like to think of his voice as pigpen from Charlie Brown, there’s a cloud of grit and dirt engulfing his words. Normally it would make me want to shower, but it’s so magnetic, so enthralling that I want to live in the filth. It’s frighteningly erratic, it’s gritty, it’s slurred, his voice reflects everything he said, did and felt. He should have made rap purists pull out their hair, and yet, he’s one of the most mythologized, beloved rappers ever. There will never be another rapper that sounds like ODB, ever.
It took me a long time to really come to understand and appreciate Southern hip-hop. I liked Outkast and Lil Wayne like 99.9 percent of human beings, but other than that there was a culture gap. I was a casual listener, Luda, T.I. and UGK all passed through my ears, but I never felt it felt it. That was until I heard Big K.R.I.T. Well...until I pressed play and really listened to him for an extended period of time. At first, there was just something that I wasn’t connecting with, but after a while it all clicked. I was able to stick with his material because of his voice. I may not have been that interested in the Southern culture, but I was very interested in the way he blended power and finesse. He has such a deep, thunderous voice, but there’s a smooth, smoky flavor to it thanks his southern twang--which is K.R.I.T in a nutshell. He’s one of the strongest orators in the game yet what really sets him part is his heart and emotion. You can feel everything he’s saying and that’s because he’s so good at conveying a feeling with his voice. "Dreamin" is always one of my favorites. He doesn’t try too hard, in fact he sounds kind of laid-back, but there is so much emotion in his voice that the track more than works. After I while, I stopped listening solely for his voice and began to appreciate the culture and now I listen to everything from A to Z-Ro.
K.R.I.T's silky southern voice is wonderful, but my favorite voice ever in hip-hop is...
Biggie was one of the first rappers I ha ever heard. I’m not talking about heard as in a teenager buying CDs, but as in a 4th grader who didn’t know a single thing about music, let alone hip-hop. Still, when I heard Hypnotize bumpin’ on my brother's boombox, I knew it then. That voice; it’s instantaneous. With just one utterance he knocks you off balance. B.I.G. reaches out and grabs you with that powerful, dense voice. I love his slower, R&B splashed stuff the best (“Can’t You See”), but his voice can be most appreciated on something like “Suicidal Thoughts”/ “Hold Ya Head.” Biggie was very dark at times and it was his voice that really made this approach so effective. His dark lines have so much more bite, they are that much more jarring because of his voice; it’s dark and almost bone chilling. Lyrically, Biggie is no slouch, but to me, it’s always been the voice that really made him great. I may not be in the 4th grade anymore, and I certainly know more about hip-hop, but I still get that same awestruck, excited feeling I did as a child when I listen to Biggie now. It’s the most recognizable voice in hip-hop.
To quote Yoh quoting his mother, a voice is an instrument. A piano can make something feel more poignant, a guitar can give a piece some edge, and a voice, depending on what exactly it sounds like, can do the very same thing. More than being a vehicle for words, a rapper’s voice helps set a mood or fit an aesthetic. There are literally a million more great voices--2pac, Chance, Danny Brown, all come to mind--these are just my personal favorites. So who’s yours? Who am I forgetting?
Art by [Blubeard]
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]