I think a lot about television, my favorite medium that isn't music. Like hip-hop, TV’s cultural impact only grows with the expansion of its accessibility, as viewers can increasingly migrate through their own viewing patterns at their leisure. No longer are sales or ratings the looming barometers of success for either rappers or showrunners, but rather variables in a much more complex equation.
In short, TV and hip-hop matter because they generate and impact the cultural content and conversations we have on a daily basis.
It feels only right, then, that we—meaning me—search for the connective tissue between hip-hop’s most recognizable figures with television’s most memorable shows. Why? The better question is: why the f*ck not?
Eminem — Lost
The first few seasons of ABC’s Lost were arguably three of the most thrilling and engaging seasons in TV history. What Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse, and J.J. Abrams delivered was a behemoth of a show, with an otherworldly dense cast, story, and setting ripe with mysteries and weekly theorizing. However, as Lost continued, and as the show attempted to stick the conclusion, it became obvious, even to superfans like myself, that not only had the creators not prepared to bring the story home, but that the flaws of the show became increasingly more obvious the more it overstayed its welcome.
Enter Eminem, the Lost of hip-hop. Eminem, a once great rhythmic technician and purveyor of horrorcore and pulp rap, not only overstayed his welcome by failing to maintain his most intriguing characteristic as an emcee but his biggest flaws transformed from blemishes to craters with each subsequent album. Like Lost, Eminem is stuck in limbo, forever trying to reshape his narrative from one lukewarm album to a lukewarm album responding to the previous lukewarm album. For as great and unique as both Lost and Eminem once were, their legacies are forever soured by their worst artistic tendencies.
Nas — The Sopranos
David Chase’s The Sopranos is one of the most compelling, introspective, and supremely particular shows in the history of TV. The program launched HBO as a hub for talent looking to develop prestige auteurism. Its protagonist, Tony, somehow straddles the line of traditionalist gangster and atypical family man consumed by his own anxieties. The show juxtaposes mob killings with extended dream sequences, classical genre beats with anticlimactic character deaths, and a finale so polarizing people blamed their cable companies. It was brilliant, frustrating, moving, uneven, self-aware, and narcissistic all at once.
Nas, an artist with one of the most confusing discographies in rap history, is much of the same. He’s a writer who understands the individual components of making great art without always understanding how those pieces best fit together. Like The Sopranos, Nas’ music goes from brilliant to nonsensical in the blink of an eye, and while neither he nor The Sopranos never truly fade away, the conversation around them too often becomes about why they are frustrating rather than why they are great.
Snoop Dogg — CSI
The thought of CSI compared to its reality is vastly different. No one has ever wanted to watch an episode of CSI. It’s just... there, and it seemingly never stops being there either. CSI is easy to poke fun at until you realize, holy shit, this show has been on the air since you were in sixth grade. Every single episode is way too watchable for your own comfort.
Snoop Dogg has been the CSI of hip-hop since Doggystyle. An emcee unevenly lauded for his lyricism and pioneership, Snoop has damn near survived his contemporaries by maintaining a level of consistency that frankly shouldn’t be possible. With every subsequent Snoop release, just like every new version of CSI that rolled out, listeners begrudgingly mosey their way into an album only to be pleasantly surprised at how dependable Snoop remains.
Future — Mad Men
Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, a show that is only slightly overshadowed by the fact Weiner is an alleged sexual harasser, is a scripted program in the prestige category unlike any other. Mad Men’s brilliance was always in its writing and the way each line of dialogue depicted just how fractured, lost, and afraid most of its main characters were, even if they refused to act like it on the outside.
Similarly, Future, everyone’s favorite fractured heartbreaker, has maintained a level of brilliance for as long as he has because the mythos of his writing is also wrapped up in a very understated pain and emptiness. Large swaths of Future’s music steers towards pettiness, anger, jealousy, and pain, almost like a defense mechanism to the world around him. Like Mad Men’s main character, Don Draper, Future’s Casanova lifestyle feels less like a cape, and more like a blanket only barely protecting his insecurities. We love because sometimes human imperfections can be quite the spectacle.
Cardi B — The Good Place
Science will prove that no living soul truly dislikes NBC’s The Good Place. It’s a cold, hard fact. Creator Mike Schur’s critical and internet darling is the absolute peak of how transportive TV can be when all we want is to escape from the terrors of the world for a brief half-hour. The Good Place is sharp, introspective, self-referential, and clever, but more than anything it’s delightful.
Science will also prove that only a cold-hearted soul or someone with the Twitter handle QUEENicki5678 (kiss emoji) would hate Cardi B. Cardi’s music is vibrant and outlandish without ever being schticky. It’s crass and loud, but her command of the mic is intoxicating. Cardi’s music, like The Good Place, is as delightful as rap should be able to feel without becoming a parody of itself. Both Cardi and the show channel cleverness and absurdity, otherwise known as the most exciting aspects of current pop culture.
Lupe Fiasco — Arrested Development
You can watch Mitchell Hurwitz’s Arrested Development countless times, and always find something clever; a joke or pun so hidden in the show’s script that you can hardly believe a writers’ room could balance so many comedic moving parts in one half-hour episode. Based on its first three seasons, and with its continued legacy on streaming services, there is an argument to be made that Arrested Development is the smartest comedy ever written. At the very least it's the most unique.
Lupe Fiasco, one of hip-hop’s rarest lyrical talents, has often sat on that exact throne in the modern era of rap. Fiasco’s penmanship is nearly unrivaled (see also: Black Thought), and yet, his mastery of the art of subtext and clever lyricism might be his most impressive feat. Like Arrested Development, Lupe’s music is unrelenting. It doesn’t stop to hand-hold through its densest points, but the more patient, attentive, and engaged the listener or viewer remains with them, the richer the experience. There are inherent flaws to find in both, but they each manage to transport their audience to a higher plane within the medium, where casual viewers and listeners are rarely rewarded like the dedicated ones.
J. Cole — Breaking Bad
The answer here is more obvious than you'd think. The reason J. Cole is the Breaking Bad of hip-hop is that, like Cole, everyone who remains a staunch fan of Breaking Bad can’t help but tell you at every turn how great Breaking Bad really is.
Oh, you’ve seen Breaking Bad and know how great it is? Okay, but have you really seen Breaking Bad and do you know it’s even greater than that?
The irony of both J. Cole and one of the truly immaculate shows of the 21st century is that their allure is diminished only by their loudest fans.
Post Malone — Ozark
Ozark, one of strangest programs on Netflix, is either the worst good show or the best terrible show in recent memory. Ozark sports a stellar star cast, which includes Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, and creates a tone and a color palette that feels like a prestige drama, yet rarely manages to make any sort of narrative sense. It’s a confusing show that wants to be Breaking Bad mixed with True Detective. If you can forgive the lunacy of the plot, it works just enough to keep you engaged.
Similarly, Post Malone, everyone’s favorite sentient cigarette and someone who could probably actually star in Ozark, is as confounding and mind-numbingly entertaining as the very peaks of the show. Everything from Post Malone’s waning, swirly voice to the trap-influenced production that carries him across his songs feels like prestige pop music—until you fully realize his style is nothing more than a heaping pile of dilution.
Even if what both Post Malone and Ozark do is enough to clearly keep us entertained, they are not like their prestige contemporaries because their contemporaries never make their audience members feel like they should be wearing Crocs with socks.
Big Sean — The Big Bang Theory
There are times when you turn on The Big Bang Theory and find yourself pleasantly surprised at how well the jokes land, and how charming the cast can be. There are other, far more frequent times where an episode of The Big Bang Theory comes on, and you start to wonder whether the laugh track audience was held hostage during the taping.
I have just described to you Big Sean’s career; a string of frustrating moments that either provide you a decent amount of enjoyment, or the far more common moments of wondering just what the fuck is happening here.
It's not just that Big Sean and The Big Bang Theory are painfully corny, that their entire premise is boring, or that I frequently find myself laughing out of sheer horror, it’s that... No, wait, it is all those things. Never mind.
Nicki Minaj — The Walking Dead
Nicki Minaj is The Walking Dead of hip-hop not because of some cheap pun from the title, but because the fatal mistake of The Walking Dead as a TV show was that it had no idea how to reshape itself narratively once it was clear the well had run dry. Instead, it has churned on for several seasons, slowly dwindling in ratings and conversation, while failing to course-correct toward a storyline or characters the audience actually cares about.
This is the same fate of Nicki Minaj; a superstar who, while maintaining a loyal and delusional fanbase, can’t seem to reshape her style and music to anything interesting outside of gimmicks. While both had good runs and immense influence, it feels inevitable at this point that we will eventually remember them for their fallout.
JAY-Z — The Wire
Fully connecting JAY-Z to David Simon’s television masterpiece The Wire would take me a lot longer than a couple of paragraphs. I could draw connections from the thematic elements and use perspective in storytelling present in both Jay’s music to the way The Wire’s socio-political commentary remains as timeless as ever. There’s even something to be said about the way in which both uncover a depth within the conflicts they present that hasn’t aged a day for those revisiting their art.
However, the connection is a much simpler one that has way more to do with hardcore JAY-Z fans and those who stan for The Wire: we all really like to argue about every minute detail. JAY-Z's music is brimming with quotables and there isn’t a year that goes by where lines nearly three decades old aren't deciphered and picked apart by those who recognize the brilliance in them. Likewise, The Wire’s extremely profound writing and sprawling narratives leave the tiniest aspects of the show to be drawn out and examined to find a new sliver of gold within the text.
André 3000 — Seinfeld
Hate it or love it, Seinfeld is one of the most unique and trendsetting shows ever made. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s creation reshaped pop culture conversations as well as the norms of structured TV storytelling forever. The “show about nothing” is a Trojan horse in that sense, and the genius of it was that, for its time, it felt like a show operating in its own galaxy with an entirely different language. Since the show came to an end in 1998, no show has ever truly replicated or conceptualized the style or feeling that made Seinfeld the anomaly it was.
André 3000 has been that same anomaly for hip-hop; a unique, uncompromising genius who has always felt like an alien sent here to teach us all that we could never be like him no matter how hard we tried. Like Seinfeld, André always seems to be operating at a lyrical consistency that very few could ever dream of maintaining. Neither the show nor 3 Stacks ever outstayed their welcome, either, with each mostly bowing out at the peak of their popularity and power.
Lil Wayne — The Office
The Office is the most replayable show of all time and you aren’t going to tell me otherwise. The feeling that The Office creates is an endless stream of good feelings and classic TV escapism. The show's popularity is completely wrapped up not just in nostalgia, but unfiltered happiness, even if it's mildly problematic.
Lil Wayne’s replay-ability, especially for the generations that grew up during his prime, will always resemble that of The Office’s more than any other rapper in history. There is energy built into every Wayne song and verse that keeps fans coming back, no matter how many times we’ve heard songs like “Upgrade,” “A Milli,” “Sportscenter,” or “Tha Mobb.” Incredibly, the sensation never changes. A record like “I Feel Like Dying” is a timestamp in a transcendent career, and revisiting Wayne’s best moments is as satisfying and commonplace as binging yet another season of The Office.
Drake — Friends
Think of a pop culture entity, one with astronomically high popularity marks and an undying affinity from white people, and what comes to mind? If your answer wasn’t Drake or Friends, you're lying to yourself.
Drake is the Friends of hip-hop. Period. He’s a pop culture machine, sometimes fantastic, other times contrived and hacky. Both Friends and Drake will live on forever until the mutant cockroaches from the nuclear fallout Trump caused with a tweet will be the only ones with Netflix or Spotify access.
Drake and Friends are both just fine. They are always enjoyable—with a stench of overrated that you can’t ever truly be mad at—even if you aren’t totally satisfied either.
Kendrick Lamar — Game of Thrones
Like winter, you knew this was coming. Both Kendrick and Game of Thrones are damn near worldwide events whenever they choose to be. Their respective popularity is more passionate and fevered than any other fanbases in pop culture.
Game of Thrones, like Kendrick, will have to stand the test of time in order for us to gauge where it sits on the throne (heh) of pantheon TV shows, but it has built its path, to this point, with an extremely high level of entertainment that also knows how to be about something meaningful.
Kendrick, while the current king of rap, has also laid the foundation to be mentioned among the greatest to ever pick up a microphone, but for as monumental as his career has been, he, like Game of Thrones, still must stick the landing.
Here’s to hoping both are able to pull it off.
Editor's Note: Yes, we're aware Phonte tweeted rappers as TV shows... five years ago.