In January 2019, Tory Lanez asserted via tweet that he was “THE BEST RAPPER ALIVE RIGHT NOW.” Sixteen months later, he deleted this tweet and, by way of a second since-deleted post, apologized for sharing it in the first place, having recognized, presumably, what the rest of us already know: the idea that Tory Lanez is the best rapper alive feels fundamentally, demonstrably ridiculous. (It calls to mind similarly absurd claims made by another prolific tweeter about how he is “the greatest of all presidents;” come on, dude.)
But “ridiculous” or even “Trumpian” is not all Tory’s claim was. It was also a vaguely offensive attempt at a venerated hip-hop custom: vying in a manner that encourages debate for the vaulted title of “Best/Greatest Rapper Alive” (GRA).
Artists typically carry out this custom banally, or flippantly, but execute with authority, panache, creativity, and zeal. It epitomizes something great and unique about hip-hop, something all fans of the genre can appreciate, even those who are here more for the melody. Namely, it epitomizes how hip-hop blends artistry, poetics, and athleticism to make a means of expression wholly its own.
Consider, for example, Kendrick Lamar’s performance on 2017’s “The Heart Pt. 4,” in which he raps: “I put my foot on the gas / head on the floor / Hoppin’ out before the vehicle crash / I’m on a roll / Yellin’ one two three four five / I-am-the-great-est-rapper-alive.” In the first quatrain, he calls to mind that video of Mike Tyson sparring in the gym, his words flying like balled fists. And then, upon employing the fee-fi-fo-fum flow, he sounds more like LeBron James barreling down the lane, or, better yet, a giant introducing city blocks to the bottom of his shoe.
Collectively, the lines are compelling, and yet, they’re also musical and poetic. You can intuit the impact of the words, the imprint they leave on the timeline of hip-hop. Running the song back today—and following it up with DAMN., released a month after “The Heart Pt. 4”—reminds me of watching The Last Dance, specifically the episode when Michael Jordan wins his first ring. You get the sense you’re witnessing something not only objectively impressive but significant in its context. The conclusion you arrive at by the end of the experience—this guy’s probably the best—feels inarguable.
Why, exactly, do these lyrics feel so significant, especially in comparison to other attempts from lesser-skilled and impactful rappers trying to essentially say the same thing? And why is it worth identifying the difference?
The answers have to do with hip-hop’s evolution as an art form. Hip-hop was born as a form of creative self-insistence: the music of roses grown from concrete. And because of the physicality required of hip-hop performance, greatness, skill, or accomplishment was never solely a matter of poetics or musicality, but also of voraciousness—a kind of performative athleticism.
This athleticism, naturally, led itself to competition; to rappers battling each other, one-upping each other on songs, asserting aggressively that their albums qualify as “classics,” etc. etc. With its roots in “old-school poetry,” as writer Adam Bradley notes in Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, along with its physical demands, hip-hop became a kind of literary sport. And like all sports, greats inevitably emerged—MCs who stood above the rest. First, there was KRS-One, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane. Then, there was Ice Cube, Q-Tip, Tupac, Biggie. Now, we have Kendrick, Cole, Drake.
How do we know that it’s appropriate to talk about these artists in the same breath? They each, for a time, could make a convincing claim to be the GRA.
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In hip-hop, no title—nor debate—is more important. Unlike the GOAT label, which is bestowed upon MCs in reflection, typically in the twilight of their prime, to contend for the title of GRA, you have to be demonstrably dope right now. And you have to be comparatively superior, more influential, more undeniable than your peers. The title is also, technically, always in contention.
These facts endow being the GRA with roughly the same cultural relevance as being MVP, Heavyweight Champion, or, even, the King—which is why acquiring the GRA title is so often referred to as “snatching the crown.” This is also why hip-hop epochs are defined by what rapper was, at the time, recognized as the GRA.
There are, of course, a variety of ways rappers compete to be the GRA, as there are several essential considerations fans pay attention to. An MC can acquire the title by accruing an undeniable number of classic albums, delivering a long string of convincingly compelling features, selling lots of records, or by exerting an unmatched level of influence on hip-hop culture.
Drake, for example, has been making a run for the crown on the back of influence and record sales over the last decade. In the previous two years, J. Cole—in the manner of mid-2000’s Lil Wayne—has bolstered his claim by way of a well-publicized feature run. Some would tell you that Big L was, for a time, the GRA based purely off his cannibalizing skill, relatively inaccessible though it was, given his lack of proper traditional releases.
Yet to indeed vie for the most crucial title in hip-hop, to temporarily “win” the most esteemed of the culture’s disparate competitions, you have to do all these things. Then, you have to do something more: you have to consecrate your contention by proclaiming officially—and convincingly—that you, in fact, already are the GRA. In other words, it’s not enough to appear to deserve the title belt; as writer Brad Callas once wrote, the “title belt isn’t passed from one MC to the next unless it’s taken, convincingly.”
There’s no harder feat in hip-hop to pull off, and there’s much you can learn from a rapper’s attempt at it. The attempt itself proves indicative. In some cases—such as when the rapper in question breaks for the crown via tweet—it reveals that they don’t deserve what they seek. This position is evident in the lack of conviction, along with the diminutive impact of the words. But sometimes, a rapper does what Kendrick did on “The Heart Pt. 4,” compelling not only nodding heads but concession, such that the proclamation doubles as a coronation.
Over the last 20 years—in the context of more mainstream hip-hop, at least—you can trace the reign of each disparate GRA to a specific moment when they claimed convincingly, on wax, that they deserved the title.
Lil Wayne’s reign as the GRA—defined by the blizzard of mixtapes and features he unleashed upon the world—started in 2005, when he released “Best Rapper Alive.” Eminem’s tenure as the GRA, which by most estimates lasted from 2000-2002, began on The Marshall Mathers LP when he suggested he was the “meanest MC on this earth.” He was only officially usurped—in this writer’s humble opinion—when JAY-Z, on 2003’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” informed the world that we were “now tuned into the motherfucking greatest.”
Go back and listen to these songs. You’ll feel that same sense of history in your headphones. You’ll recognize why, in those moments, hip-hop fans took these rappers’ words seriously—and why we didn’t write them off the same way we wrote off Lanez’ tweet last year. They created moments, sure, but those moments themselves reflected something special about this form of art.
I cede that I hail from a genus of hip-hop fan that probably takes this whole hip-hop-as-poetic-competitive-sport thing a bit too seriously. There’s more to hip-hop than just lyrics. Obsessively debating what rapper at any given moment may or may not be the GRA exacts about the same tangible utility as watching reality TV. Still, it’s fun to think about this stuff. And it’s enlightening.
Thinking seriously about what makes a hip-hop artist great or unique, just as thinking about what makes a novelist great, deepens our appreciation of the art they create. It’s a part of what will allow us to tell apart the trolls from the truth-tellers, and to more appropriately appreciate the next Kendrick, Big L, or Ice Cube if and when they decide to come along.