Black Thought, Freestyles & Why Rap Needs Competition to Flourish

"It’s imperative for hip-hop to acknowledge the gladiators who enter the Colosseum. The art of lyricism isn’t dead."
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“Rivalry of scholars advances wisdom.” —Hebrew Proverb

“I just want my credit, baby. That’s it,” Mickey Factz admitted as legendary Hot 97 DJ Funkmaster Flex explained the tweet that led to the Bronx rapper appearing on his freestyle series. “I’m taking the mic with me. Soon as I’m done,” Factz adds with confidence, a gutsy proclamation before the needle drops on the DJ Premier-produced “Nas Is Like” beat. 

Self-assurance is an MC’s armor. Their words wouldn’t faze a feather without it. Factz has always been a bearer of bars—there’s no questioning his capabilities as a lyricist—but his brief introduction makes clear he didn’t visit Flex to restate the obvious. He came to show and prove. He came to compete. 

December 14, 2017. What it means for rappers to enter the Hot 97 building and have Funkmaster Flex record your addition to his archive of freestyles forever changed on that date. To take a seat before his microphone is to sit beneath the enormous shadow cast by Black Thought and his 10 minutes of hip-hop excellence. 

The four-month-old viral performance was a rare spectacle displaying a mastery of rhyme and otherworldly technical proficiency―the mystic middle between Beyoncé at Coachella and T’Challa after devouring the Heart-Shaped Herb. 

It was also one of the rare times where the world (read: the internet) stood still in appreciation of lyricism. No charts, no numbers, no gimmicks. Twenty-four years after The Roots delivered their debut album, Organix, Black Thought received a well-deserved ovation from every corner of the culture. 

Extraordinary acts leave lasting effects on those who bear witness. Hip-hop as a competitive culture reacts to feats of virtuosity with a rival mentality. If steel sharpens steel, excellence begets excellence. Mickey Factz maneuvering through nine minutes of concise katana-swinging is nothing to slumber on. His heavy breathing by show's end proves he's not quite immortal, but his entire verse is a feast of bars for the starving.

Professor Factz teaching a three-minute financial advisory crash course is the kind of performance that is only made possible with preparation. Watching him break down the feat was a reminder of what Royce da 5'9" recently told me about his 10-minute appearance on Flex.

“When I make impressions in this business now, I want them to be lasting impressions. I don’t want to go up there and do some regular shit.” —"Everything I Know Is From Making Mistakes": A Candid Conversation with Royce da 5'9" 

It’s imperative for hip-hop to acknowledge the gladiators who enter the Colosseum. The art of lyricism isn’t dead. The space for its appreciation has migrated to platforms like Funk Flex, the L.A. Leakers, Tony Touch, Sway In The Morning, and DJBooth’s collaboration with TIDAL, Bless The Booth. Each time an artist appears on one of these platforms, it opens the opportunity to casket an instrumental as if you were in the basement with Big Tigger. 

Rap City was dear to fans of rap because of the endless possibilities that came with their favorite rapper stepping up to the microphone. Everyone had the chance to have their Cam’ron counting Washingtons moment while rapping over Scarface’s “My Block.” It was a moment—hip-hop history since the day it aired. The viral aftermath of Black Thought’s superhuman effort proves that there is still a hunger for these moments. Look no further than G Herbo’s “Who Run It” for yet another example of freestyle turned social media phenomenon. 

In his post-freestyle interview with Jimmy Fallon, Black Thought tipped his hat to the MCs who freestyled on Flex before him. Seeing peers and newcomers rhyme consistently for nearly 10 minutes inspired his approach to the performance. Raising the bar is how you encourage those who come after you to jump over it, but we don’t get Black Thought without Loaded Lux, J.I.D, Jay IDK, Don Q, Murda Mook, or Charlie Clips. Not every valiant performance will receive the clamor of mass appeal, greatness is overlooked more often than not, but it doesn’t take a million views to elevate the standard and provoke competition. 

Hip-hop was better for Kendrick’s “Control” verse; the commotion it caused brought a shift in energy that could be felt throughout the genre. It's what I miss most about the time period when Wayne was proclaiming himself the best rapper alive; he made sure to push the point at every turn. Tha Carter II's five-minute intro exists for the sole purpose of making a statement: I’m the greatest and this is why. 

Black Thought’s freestyle has the potential to encourage lyricism of a higher merit. Being the best technical rapper isn’t affecting the charts or bringing home plaques, but the conversation hasn’t stopped. 

“We're at a point in history where lyricism almost comes last in very many regards. So for someone from my school, who has come from the ilk of lyricism being held in far higher regard, it brings a different sort of urgency to every performance. That's what I went into that Flex freestyle with, with that same urgency that I had when I was a young person coming to New York from Philly with very much to prove.” —"The Roots' Black Thought on How He Spit Nearly 10-Minute Viral Freestyle"

For all the complaints about hip-hop’s current state and its neglect of lyricism, there has to be an increased emphasis on uplifting the spaces where rappers are motivated to bring their sharpest pens. If the fanfare surrounding Black Thought expanded to every great freestyle uploaded, awareness will rise and the competitive drive will spread. To this day, history-making freestyles during the ages of Red Alert, Marley Marl, Stretch & Bobbito, Lady B, Tim Westwood, Sway & Tech, and DJ Clue continue to be discussed with the high praise and glowing regards of classic songs and albums. 

History has a way of repeating itself in unexpected forms. The freestyle arena remains the lounge for lyricists to reign. For veterans who still have fire left in their gut and new rappers who want the respect, enter the Colosseum. 

I watched as Beyoncé went from a queen to a God overnight; on the very same Coachella stage that Drake flopped on. History isn’t made by being ordinary. Black Thought went from a contender in the GOAT conversation to hip-hop’s Thanos. He’s proof for anyone who dares to speak about being the best breathing that there are plenty of platforms around to prove it. 

By Yoh, aka Yohmaster Flex, aka @Yoh31

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