Can I already do the thing where I assume everyone knows the back story behind our March Madness Rapper Tournament? Yeah, you're right, probably not, but I'll make it quick for those who have been riding since the beginning.
We're mirroring March Madness exactly, round for round (except with rappers) to determine the best rapper alive. We selected 65 rappers to start, with an eye towards representing as many eras and styles as possible. Black Milk won his play-in game, and with the real first round wrapping up today, it's time for us to also reveal our first round winners.
Myself, Yoh and Lucas got on the phone and argued, bargained, debated and at the end of a hectic hour-plus, we've got 32 winners advancing to the second round. I'll provide the blow-by-blow recap of each "game" below - and for the record, I swear the match-ups were randomly generated - but first, the updated bracket:
Kanye vs. Black Milk: Black Milk wins our play-in game, but as much as we all love him, he just can't match Kanye's impact and catalog (and dance moves). Kanye wins.
Rick Ross vs. Ludacris: We had to pause for a moment to make sure we weren't sleeping on the Bawse, and we did bring up how much Luda's been coasting off those Fast & Furious checks for the past few years, but a tournament like this would bring out the best in Luda, and his best is just so much better than Ross' best. Ludacris wins.
J. Cole vs. Rapsody: Goddamn. This one was tough, especially with a verse on Kendrick's album fresh under her belt I think we all wanted to see Rap become the tourney's dark horse, and yes, J. Cole's occasionally made us cringe while Rap has not. The skills Cole showed on Forrest Hills Drive were enough to see him emerge as the winner of the N. Carolina head-to-head. J. Cole wins.
Bun B vs. Royce da 5'9": Our first buzzer beater!!! Bun was my selection, while Lucas and Yoh voted for Royce; I thought it was a lost cause, but made my case for Bun as a formatilty anyway. Bun may not have the typical rapper skills that make you say "oh shit!!!" but from UGK to today, no one's been more consistently dope. To my surprise it worked, Lucas switched over to Bun and gave the Trill OG a 2-1 victory. There's no wrong answer here, but there has to be a winner. Bun B wins.
KRS-One vs. E-40: I love E-40, I may or may not be drinking some Earl Stevens wine right now. I'm ready to write an article about how under-rated E-40 is. Still though, KRS is KRS. As Lucas said, when you think about the word emcee, you think about KRS-One. KRS-One wins.
Pusha T vs. Q-Tip: What a strange match-up. Q-Tip has that nasally, eccentric style, Pusha T has those punch-you-in-the-face coke raps. How do you really compare them? Ultimately, I think it was Q-Tip's sparse output post Tribe that pushed Pusha over the edge, but it was close; as much as it hurts to watch the man that did Low End Theory go out in the first round, "Keys Opens Doors." That's all. Pusha wins.
Andre 3000 vs. Cam'ron: In my later years I've really grown to appreciate Cam, and we had to consider Andre's lack of solo output, but come on. We're talking 3 Stacks here. Andre 3000 wins.
T.I. vs. Freddie Gibbs: Two guys who would rather die than lose, it's no surprise this was such a battle. In my heart of hearts I really wanted Gibbs here, I just believe that he has the best flow in hip-hop. But Lucas and Yoh were pretty insistent on TIP as a force, if not the force, in Southern rap over the last decade, and they wore me down. Fuck, I'm still playing ".38" all day though. T.I. wins.
Drake vs. Kid Cudi: Can you make a case for Kid Cudi here? Sure. Is that case at all convincing? Nope. Drake wins.
Jay Electronica vs. Young Jeezy: Let the record show that Yoh fought hard for Jeezy, and as an ATL resident it's easy to see why. I has some similiar reservations - it's hard to put a man who's never even dropped a project over a man who's been putting in work for years - but as much as I play The Recession, a Jeezy verse has never made me rethink what's possible in hip-hop the way a Jay Elec has. Jay Electronica wins.
Big K.R.I.T. vs. Missy Elliott: It pretty quickly emerged that there were match-ups where you felt bad for voting against a rapper, you wanted to make it clear that you had all the respect in the world for that emcee, you just couldn't pull the trigger voting for them. That's this match-up. All praise due to Missy, but Big K.R.I.T. is the dark horse pick to make the finals. Krizza wins.
Ghostface Killah vs. MF DOOM: What an insane match-up, how do you even begin to figure this one out? DOOM and Ghost are two of the most singular voices in hip-hop, unstoppably creative emcees. Personally though, as much as I love DOOM, especially when you factor in his Wu-affiliated work, it's gotta be Ghost here. Once again Yoh disagrees and puts his vote in for DOOM, but it's 2-1. Ghostface Killah advances.
Nas vs. Curren$y: I think we all wish we could be Curren$y, but only one of these guys is called God's Son. Nas wins.
Game vs. Tech N9ne: Game is always a much better emcee than he gets credit for, I forget how dope he is all the time. But Tech's just too versatile, has too much emcee artillery at his disposal, to lose here. It'll be fascinating to see how far he goes. Tech N9ne in a hard fought game.
Rakim vs. Wale: Again, I'm trying to be as objective as possible here, and in my most objective I have to hand it to Wale on some levels, but we're talking about the man who made Paid in Full here, the man that essentially invented modern lyrical rap. Rakim wins. [Insert "Wale makes angry call" joke here.]
ScHoolboy Q vs. Danny Brown: I fucking hate that this match-up happened, it's like watching your two best friends fight. Can we re-do the bracket so Q takes out Migos in the first round. No? Goddamnit. In the course of this debate Yoh brought up an interesting point: What's the better album, Habits & Contradictions or XXX? Good question, I'd go XXX. BUT, I'd also say Oxymoron is better than Old. So....that doesn't really help at all. Both have crazy original styles, both are bruisers on the mic (pun intended). There has to be a winner, and with our backs up against the wall we're going with Q, but on another day Danny could have easily come out on top here. ScHoolboy Q wins.
JAY Z vs. Migos: Migos are better than the Beatles, but it turns out that Jay is better than both the Beatles and Migos. JAY Z wins.
Chance the Rapper vs. Childish Gambino: I literally spent days thinking this over, right after I saw they were matched up. Gambino's got the superior track record - he's got two big albums and a few major mixtapes under his belt - while Chance is still very new in the game. Personally though, while Gambino's a creative force in his own right, he's never completely fucking blown my mind the way Chance has. Great point me....but it wasn't enough to sway Lucas and Yoh. Gambino wins. (Nathan disagrees.)
Big Boi vs. Crooked I: Another one of those respect due match ups. It might be a cliche to say, but Crooked I is criminally slept on. The man's a pioneer in a lot of ways and an absolute monster on the mic, a true emcee's emcee. Big Boi's no rookie though, and when you factor in both his solo work and his Kast work, I just don't see any scenario in which he loses. Big Boi wins.
Killer Mike vs. Big Sean: Hahahahahaha. Big Sean and I are best friends forever now, but there really isn't even a discussion to be had here. Killer Mike wins.
Common vs. Gucci Mane: We can do the thing where we recognize Gucci's contributions to modern hip-hop - consider them recognized - but Common's not exactly some rookie rapper. We're talking about the man who made Used to Love H.E.R. Common wins, easily.
Lauryn Hill vs. Raekwon: Like Pusha T vs. Q-Tip, this was an odd match-up, it was hard to know where to start. On one hand you've got The Chef, Wu-Tang founder, OB4CL author and coke-fueled, nonfuckswithable rapper. On the other hand you've got Lauryn, who's had a troubled past few years, but also rewrote not just hip-hop history but music history, both with the Fugees and Miseduction. Yoh went with Rae, Lucas went with Lauryn, I went back and forth like a coward for a while, but when push came to shove I put my vote with Lauryn. Lauryn Hill wins.
Mos Def vs. Busta Rhymes: If this was 2000 I would have been tragically conflicted about this match-up, both emcees were personal favorites at the time. But while we've heard very little music from Mos over the last decade, we've heard a lot of bad music from Busta over the last decade (oh, hey there Arab Money). I can still recite every word from Black on Both Sides, Mos Def wins.
Snoop Dogg vs. Brother Ali: Another respect due match. It's hard to think of another emcee I just have more outright respect for than Brother Ali, and yes, Snoop is past his prime, but the man's still an absolute legend who - and I know it may be hard for younger folks to believe this - has absolutely no shortage of emcee skills in his own right. At the very least, both Doggystyle and The Chronic altered the course of hip-hop history, Snoop Dogg wins.
Kendrick Lamar vs. Joey Bada$$: We can all just agree that Kendrick wins here and move on, right? Right. Kendrick Lamar wins.
Lil Wayne vs. 50 Cent: A fucking fascinating match-up. I remember the Get Rich or Die Trying era, and I've never seen that much excitement around a rapper. Not even in '07/'08 when Weezy was on his legendary streak. Fifty is a legend in his own right, but he's never been able to lay claim to that Best Rapper Alive crown the way Wayne has. Lil Wayne wins.
Lupe vs. Logic: Logic's a good example of a "team" that just needs some more experience, a young exciting squad of freshmen and sophomores who could really make a serious impact with some more experience under their belt. Right now though, Logic just can't hang with a veteran and true wordsmith like Lupe Fiasco. Lupe wins.
Talib Kweli vs. Mac Miller: Basically everything I wrote about Lupe vs. Logic. Mac Miller deserved to make it into the tourney, if he had drawn a different first round match-up he may have advanced, but he just had the bad luck to run into Kweli early. From Black Star to today, I'd like to believe even Mac Miller himself would acknowledge that Kweli's got him. Talib Kweli wins.
Eminem vs. Jean Grae: Can you imagine if these two ever made a song together? My headphones would spontanesouly combust just playing the first few notes. Eminem is Eminem though, as close to a lock as there is in the tournament, Jean just had the bad luck of drawing him in the first round. Eninem wins.
Scarface vs. Pharoahe Monch: Ghostface vs. Doom was tough, Raekwon vs. Lauryn Hill was tough, but this one turned out to be the heaviest, hardest match-up of the first round; the two are just evenly matched in every way concievable. You can't do the typical Southern rapper vs. East coast rapper thing here - Scarface and Pharoahe both have lyrically astute, narratively driven, fearlessly personal rhyme schemes. Yoh threw his weight behind Scarface, Lucas behind Pharoahe, and once again I was the tie breaker. Ultimately I voted for Scarface, but it really hurts to see Pharoahe knocked out. Scarface wins.
Black Thought vs. Atmosphere: Yet another respect due match-up. Slug of Atmosphere is the man, his freestyle on Sway alone places him in the hip-hop Hall of Fame, but Black Thought is an emcee's emcee even amongst emcee's emcees, if that makes any sense. He might be the purest emcee in this entire tournament. Black Thought wins.
Big Daddy Kane vs. A$AP Rocky: I know Rocky drew his inspiration from the South, but without Big Daddy Kane I don't know if anyone in NYC is rapping like they do - he was the man even JAY Z was trying to rap like. The legendary status is just too much for the young gun to handle, Big Daddy Kane wins.