In high school, I spent a lot of lunch periods arguing with my friends about LeBron James. Everyone would sing his praises, saying he was already the best player in the league and on his way to taking Michael Jordan's throne, but while I recognized his incredible talent, I didn't believe he belonged in the same conversation as Jordan (especially since this guy named Kobe was still in the prime of his career).
As the comparisons persisted, my initial reaction was to root against LeBron. Over time, though, I realized that my criticism was less about LeBron and more about what others thought of his game. Rather than appreciating LeBron for being LeBron, I was viewing LeBron’s game through an MJ-filtered lens.
Hip-hop, much like basketball, spurs comparisons between its greatest players, and just as LeBron has always fought comparisons to MJ—it didn’t help that he picked jersey No. 23 when he entered the league and has always name-dropped Jordan when referencing career achievements—new generation rappers continue to battle comparisons to their older generation counterparts, a destructive practice that is severely affecting how fans perceive them.
When I first caught wind of Joey Bada$$, it was impossible to miss the parallels being made to Nas. Whether it was a blog headline or a YouTube comment, the “Joey as a new age Nas” comparisons were everywhere. The same thing happened to Action Bronson. When I first heard his music, I could tell he was from New York; his rhyme patterns, cadence and storytelling were a throwback to the ‘90s golden age of rap. As I scanned the internet, reading what critics and fans alike thought of Action, I couldn’t help but see one Ghostface Killah comparison after another.
While these comparisons certainly haven’t been a detriment to the careers of either Joey or Action—though, that Bronson vs. Ghostface beef certainly wasn’t a net positive—their work serves as a constant reminder of how often we rely on comparison when we describe a rapper’s sound, style and approach.
The urge to draw parallels between emcees from different generations is understandable. Since most rap artists were hip-hop fans before they ever stepped foot inside a recording studio, it’s virtually impossible to not consciously or subconsciously be influenced by the work of the artists that preceded them. Fans are attentive and will almost always notice these similarities.
At times, comparisons can be a blessing for an artist, helping knowledgeable fans spread the word about a rising artist. It’s impossible to listen to each and every new artist on the rise, so people typically need a reason to give a new artist a try or a click or a play. It’s easier for a prospective fan to be sold on something new off the strength of something they already like.
Comparisons to Nas and Ghostface might have initially helped Joey and Action gain more traction and eyeballs, but at the same time, they limited how people understood both rappers. It made sense on the surface for Joey’s early work to be linked to Nas; Joey’s music was carved out of the same boom bap tree and Illmatic is the epitome of that sound. In addition to their shared New York roots, Joey entered the game as a teenager just as Nas did on “Live at the Barbeque.” However, since Nas delivered a classic album with his debut, displaying a razor sharp technique and the ability to issue social critiques that didn’t sound preachy, following in his footsteps was a tall order for any rapper, let alone a 17-year-old who was just starting to dip his toes into the industry pool. By calling Joey the “new Nas,” people placed Nas’ depth and impact on hip-hop on Joey's shoulders.
The fatal flaw in the Nas-Joey comparison, though, is that once you get past the beats they rhyme over, Joey and Nas are distinctly different emcees. They’re both skilled lyricists, but Joey favors double entendres while Nas tends to use metaphors. The two separate further when it comes to delivery. Nas shows a lot of composure when he rhymes, while Joey tends to be more animated. He has a signature way of pausing between certain syllables and intonating at the end of bars to add energy and flair. On the flip side, Nas is well-known as one of hip-hop’s most vivid storytellers. One of his verses on "One Love" was literally turned into a scene in the movie Belly. Joey has yet to reach that level of painting pictures with his rhymes, and that’s no slight to him. If Nas is the bar by which we judge a rapper, most artists are going to come up short. Five years after making his entrance into music, Joey is still in the early stages of his career, so even comparing him to Nas today is premature. Joey’s latest album AABA showcases an emcee who is expanding his artistry, both in terms of sound and content, which means even now, a dreaded comparison will only distract us from what makes Joey impressive in his own right.
Like Joey, Action has also had his identity misunderstood due to comparison―both figuratively and literally. Due to the similarities of their actual vocals, countless rap fans mistook Action for Ghostface Killah during the rapper's initial rise. While I have personally never confused the two―their respective flows would tell me who was who―it isn’t difficult to imagine an untrained rap ear making that mistake. Ghostface is frenetic when he raps as each of his bars follows the last one with barely any time separating them. Action, on the other hand, spaces his rhymes out more, giving his punchlines the emphasis they need. On top of that, Action’s subject matter is one-of-a-kind. Ghostface is far from your typical rapper and one of the greatest storytellers to ever pick up a microphone, but you won’t hear him rattle off artisan pastries and ‘80s sports references the way Action does. Ghostface's material portrays his past life in the streets, while Action's rhymes could be the script for a Mr. T action-comedy flick.
Although Action forged his own lane, he continued to be linked to Ghostface for several years. Many interviewers would bring up their similar voices and some critics questioned if Action was intentionally trying to sound like Ghostface. When asked about the comparison, Action would often show hints of frustration, which finally boiled over during an appearance on ESPN. Action implied that Ghostface was no longer rhyming on the same level as him, which Ghostface, in turn, replied to with a bevy of threats. The conflict has since been buried but is a prime example of the ugly side of comparing artists.
There's a fine line between influence and imitation, so tying one rapper to another creates just as much opportunity for conflict as it does for camaraderie. On top of that, comparisons can give a rapper like Action Bronson the wrong type of attention. Through his music and his TV show, Action has made himself one of hip-hop’s more unique characters. A Jewish, Albanian chef that raps and wears shorts year-round is pretty rare. Yet, Action’s originality has likely been overlooked by some who think he's a merely a Ghostface knockoff.
Hardcore hip-hop heads already know this, but it bears repeating: Action Bronson isn't a Ghostface Killah imposter, and Joey Bada$$ isn't the new Nas. Each emcee has built an identity that is truly their own. It's easy to understand this today with the help of perspective and time, but fans could have reached these conclusions much earlier by simply changing their lens.
If we only look for rappers to recreate what has already been done, we’ll miss out on what they actually add to hip-hop.