In the internet age we can often get too caught up in meaningless arguments, but that doesn’t mean there’s no place for debate. After all, what would hip-hop be without arguments about whether Jay or Nas won their beef? This isn’t a passive culture, it’s made for active participation, and so DJBooth and Okayplayer have joined forces to bring some of that good natured debate back.
In the second go-round of our new series (peep our first), we’ll ask a question, pick opposing sides, lay out our arguments and then allow you to select the winner. This time around, we’re switching things up and asking, Who’s the Most Influential Rapper Alive?
The good thing about this question is that it steps around the “Best Rapper Alive” debate we’ve all heard seven-thousand times. Whether the influence is positive, negative or neutral, influential is a different thing than “best” but influence doesn’t get talked about nearly as much as it should. After all, how can we hope to understand today’s hip-hop if we don’t understand who’s influencing it?
And with that out of the way, let’s get to it.
Drake is the Most Influential Rapper Alive (DJBooth)
I’m in the unique position of having literally thousands of rappers email me their music every month, which is soul-destroying but also gives me some unparalleled insight into the hip-hop currently being made. The vast majority of that music is frankly terrible, some of it is solid but uninspired, and a very small percentage is good in its own right. But if there’s any common thread running through all that music sent to me from nearly every city and state in America, in every sub-genre from trap to boom-bap revival, from struggle rappers to major label signees, it’s that more than anyone else, those artists want to sound like Drake. Sometimes it’s painfully obvious - I mean, come on, listen to this - and sometimes it’s more subtle - a sung bridge here, a flow there (check Kendrick’s new “Untitled 02”) - but Drizzy’s chromosomes can be found in a staggering amount of today’s musical DNA.
Drake’s musical influence goes back impressively far. It’s not a mistake to say that he opened the door for every rapper who also at least occasionally sings his own hooks, a phenomenon so common now that we barely even notice. Before him it was simply almost never done, and while Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreaks was also certainly a major player in that department, it dropped at essentially the same time as So Far Gone, which also deserves credit for influentially blurring the line between mixtapes and album.
Since So Far Gone Drake’s become almost impossibly popular, he now has more Top 100 hits than the Beatles, but true influence can’t be measured by the charts. Instead, we need to look to other artists, we need to acknowledge that if Drake hadn’t proven that a new hip-hop generation has arrived that would buy albums from rapper-singers who weren’t afraid to be emotionally vulnerable, would J. Cole have ever been signed to the Roc at all? Don’t forget, Jay Z originally wanted Roc Nation to be a solely pop and R&B label without rappers. Drake was the test case that proved that this new crop of rappers could be pop stars too, and the rest of the industry has fallen in line behind him.
It’s absolutely true that Drake has his own influences, including Lil Wayne, and more than perhaps any other artist he continues to suck in and spit out a huge range of outside influence, but if we want to play the “trace influence back” game we might as well credit Rakim for every rapper of the last 30 years. So go do me a favor, go ask someone under 20-years-old who they’re listening to. I have. Believe me, it may sound crazy to those of us old enough to actually remember the ‘80s, but they’re not listening to Eminem, Lil Wayne or even Kanye. When I was in high school Jay Z wore his shirt with one arm in the sleeve during the “Girls, Girls, Girls” video, the next day half the people in school were doing it. Hova no longer has the kind of influence, Drake does. And he's done it by making his style so easy to copy. It's hard to rap like Kendrick, it's hard to rap like Lil Wayne, but everyone's got woes, everyone's got haters trying to rob them of their energy, with a little hope and optimism it's easy for almost anyone to believe they can rap like Drake.
The man young people are listening to now, the one whose lyrics they use in casual conversation, the one they look up to, the one they trust to co-sign other artists and songs, that man’s name is Aubrey “Drake” Graham, and he who influences the youth influences the future. Like it or not, Drake is the future.
While I'm undoubtedly right, our friends at Okayplayer beg to disagree, they're going with Lil Wayne. Hit the link below to read their counter-argument, and vote below as well so we can determine a winner.