What makes a rapper great?
It's a question that's been around since the dawn of hip-hop and one that remains difficult to answer with a consensus position to this day.
Earlier this week, comments made by TDE founder Top Dawg from an old The FADERinterview circulated through the DJBooth staff Slack chat, in which he spoke of the five-point plan hanging in TDE's studio. The wall details the core traits necessary to become a rap star: Charisma, Substance, Lyrics, Uniqueness and Work Ethic.
In discussing Top's plan and core tenants of rap stardom, we got to thinking: What is it—specifically—that makes a rapper truly great?
Here's what we came up with:
Brendan: Some things are required—skill in using words to convey thoughts, consistency, passion—but most important is originality. It's that ever-abstract X-factor that separates an emcee from the masses, offering something so uniquely your own that listeners can’t help but gravitate to your personality. Like porn, it’s hard to define but you know it when you see (or hear) it. It’s an unteachable charisma that makes rapping and making music seem effortless, and the second it no longer does, you’ve lost it.
Yoh: When I was six or seven, Biggie Smalls was on the radio. I remember my mother saying, “The voice is what makes a great rapper.” It was a strange revelation coming from a woman who wasn’t very keen on rap’s subject matter, but her sentiment has stuck with me. Without being a hip-hop head she was able to conclude how a voice could make the most vulgar lyrics pleasing. An artist could take Biggie’s flow, his delivery, and even his cadence but that voice was the natural instrument that couldn’t be replicated. The same can be said for DMX. It wasn’t just the way he rapped or what he said, but the bark, growl and gruff of his voice made every line of his tragic life even more chilling. He could paint the most vivid image of Hell but it was the tone of his voice that made you feel the fire. The voice is the most engrossing element of artistry. Especially once an artist realizes the power of that voice, how it can be used to convey emotion and feeling, how it can be used to command attention and exude presence; the voice is a powerful tool that can be the most crucial element in making sure lyrics, flows, wordplay and delivery is savored by listeners.
Andy: It’s safe to say Top Dawg has produced more great rappers (among those the greatest rapper of his generation) than I ever will, so it’s hard to argue with his five-point plan. Charisma, substance, lyrics, uniqueness and work ethic (*paging Jay Electronica*) are all equally important elements—if not borderline clichés—that separate the great rappers from good ones. But what I will add is that great rappers are born, not made. Sure, Kanye West managed to sharpen up his once-sloppy delivery (only for it to revert back to its old ways in recent years, some would say), MF DOOM rose from the ashes of his brother’s sudden death, and Danny Brown didn’t hit his stride until he turned 30. The point is, though, all these great rappers—scratch that, great artists—already had that unique vision, that unstoppable determination, that potential for greatness within them. The rap game reminds me of the stand-up game: you can spend 10,000 hours perfecting your craft, but ultimately you’re either funny or you’re not. The cream always rises to the top, especially when you’ve got someone like Top in your corner.
Brent: Speaking from a general standpoint, comfortability is key. A great rapper can sound comfortable over a variety of sounds and production styles, and that comfort points to a mastery of many necessary skills—delivery, flow, clarity. It also points to awareness, which in a more intangible way is what really makes a rapper great. A great rapper is one who is aware of the influence their music has but hasn't been consumed by the pressure of that truth. Every decision made—musical and otherwise—should reflect that awareness of their potential reach. The technical skills of an emcee can be learned by repetition, but using those skills for something bigger takes a knowledge of self, and that's not something you can learn simply by watching others or practicing.
Hershal: To borrow the words of the once-great Lupe Fiasco, answering this question feels a bit like “sitting with a blind man and trying to describe yellow.” For as much as I try to intellectualize it, I find that labeling a rapper as "great" can mostly be chalked up to a gut feeling. Lyricism, cadence and consistency are all vitally important, sure, but I tend to think of these more as basic prerequisites rather than as a definitive set of criteria. And, yet, this gut feeling is prohibitively profound. It is the abstract sensation that makes a rapper’s voice singular; it is the intangible charm that separates Jay Z from Young Chris; it is the metaphysical X-factor that separates the goods from the greats.
Relaying Lived Experience
Miguel: When Top Dawg outlined what makes a rapper “great,” he was stating an ideal instead of the reality. While his formula has produced dope music, the answer to “What makes a rapper great?” is broader. Really we're really asking is what makes any artist “great.” Nas (Carravagio) is great. So is Young Thug (Monet), but for very different reasons. They’re both able to give a snapshot of their lived experience. In doing so, they help listeners understand a part of themselves, beautiful or ugly. Thinking your experiences are exclusive to you, and absorbing that mindset, creates your own living Hell. The great rappers show us the light leading from the underworld by detailing universal struggles in their subjective manifestations. Approaching the topic this way, we see the futility of holding Monet to Baroque standards.
Consensus Amongst Fans
Matt: Greatness, especially in music, is in the eye of the beholder, and that makes it much harder to define what truly makes a rapper “great.” Aspects like albums sales, critical adoration and artist notoriety all feel circumstantial these days. So, the only way we can really define greatness is to take into account that rap fans are mostly irrational and opinionated about the artists we love and hate. So what makes a rapper “great”? If you walked into a room of a hundred random rap fans and said “I think (insert rapper) is great,” the fewer people that get pissed off at your statement, the greater that rapper probably is. What other calculation makes more sense in 2017?