Is Jay Z the Greatest Rapper?

I have been thinking about this post for the last couple of weeks; what makes Jay Z, considered by many, the greatest rapper of all time (GOAT)? It is a critical question to understand the requirements and prerequisites for such an honor. But one thing I have learned about the music industry is “like = slang-for-penis riding” and “dislike = hating.” Let me reiterate, this post is not “hating,” I am big Jay Z fan. At the same time, I like to challenge the norm and, additionally, have a difficult time passively accepting the norm.

“Is this a serious question?”

“Rhetorical question.”

“If you do not know by now, then you will never know.”

Those were some of the initial responses that I received from my inquiry via twitter. As one can see, the question, which implicitly doubts Jay Z’s greatness, was met with disbelief and wonder. I knew even posing the question that two things could occur: I would never be welcomed to any Brooklyn BBQs and hang outs and/or I could lose a friendship or worse, my Black card. Even with those high risks, I pushed back against my friends, and surprisingly only a handful responded. The lack of response highlights that many foresee Jay’s GOAT-ness as a given, as an indisputable fact. For those brave ones that did respond, the following answers dominated: longevity and cultural relevance.

Notice that no one mentioned the success of his records. Over the span of sixteen years, Jay has released fifteen albums (including the collaboration albums with Kanye, R. Kelly (2x), and Linkin Park). During that time, he has released some commercial duds and albums not embraced by his fans. In fact, after the Blueprint album, Jay Z has flip flopped between classic album and…umm…not so classic album (Blueprint (C), Blueprint 2 (NSC), The Black Album (C), Kingdom Come (NSC), American Gangster, The Blueprint 3 (NSC)). His consistency can be questioned here, but one cannot have a classic album every time, especially when the most questionable album, Kingdom Come, was rushed to help save Def Jam at the time. His classic albums are often his most intimate, which undoubtedly take the most out of him. Jay, from a distance, does not share himself easily, and one can hear it on his albums. However, the few times he did take an emotional risk (read: discussing his personal demons), he reaped the benefits of it (see Black Album, Blueprint 1, The Life and Times Vol. 1).

Notice that no one mentioned the numbers of records sold because Eminem, 50 Cent, and even Nelly all outsold Jay Z during their popularity’s zenith. Here is where longevity places a huge part: Jay officially entered the rap game with the release of 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt. After sixteen years, he is still relevant lyrically in the game. When was the last time any one mentioned 50 Cent’s or Nelly’s music? Other than Eminem’s recent resurgence, Jay has outlasted the many competitors to the GOAT crown. Last year’s Watch The Throne, was easily one of the biggest albums as he matched wits, lyrics, and airtime with Kanye West.

Wait, what about Eminem as the GOAT? Lyrically, he is comparable to Jay Z (some would argue that Eminem killed Jay Z on their one song together, Renegade, which actually used Em’s older lyrics from a previously unreleased song with Royce Da 5’9″–told you I was a rap head). Em has changed the way that rappers enunciate their words, banking on the clarity of his words because it makes it easier for the audience to rap along. In fact, one can hear his cadence more readily in the crop of rappers, from the promising Kendrick Lamar to the violent-nature of Hopsin and Odd Future (notably all three are from the West Coast). He sells records at an exuberant rate; his second album, The Marshall Mathers LP was certified diamond, amassing more than ten million sales (Jay has never sold that many albums, topping out at 3 million for one album). He’s been in the game since 1999, only a few years after Jay.

However, the biggest factors against Eminem are his lyrical content and cultural appeal. His drug heavy, overly misogynistic, and bloody lyrics do not strike the same chord in the listeners as do Jay’s lyrical exercise over beats. Jay seemingly speaks over tracks, his cadence reflective of his natural pattern of speech. Whereas, Eminem’s flow often follows the constraining iambic pentameter, which does not mimic speech’s casualness. On another note, Eminem does not yield the same cultural relevance in hip hop. For example, when Jay Z said that collared, button-up shirts were in, everyone in the hip hop world neatly put away their throw-back, authentic jerseys and made their way to the local department store, grabbing a handful of button-ups. Eminem has never exuded that kind of cultural dominance. No one else has.

The only suitable competitor to Jay’s GOAT-ness, according to my friends on facebook, was the late and great Christoper Wallace, aka Notorious BIG. It was his patent recording style–not writing down his lyrics, but reciting it over and over, mentally writing, and then spitting it in the booth, which was adopted by Jay (and later other rappers like Lil’ Wayne and T.I.)–and his story-telling prowess that makes him a meaningful contender to Jay’s crown. In fact, while BIG was alive, he wore the crown, literally and figuratively. In his short career, he only made two albums and his relative lack of material does not hold a candle to Jay’s fifteen albums worth of battling, breaking, and manhandling beats with his words.

Jay is the GOAT. I cannot find an argument or competitor that can even sustain a strong argument against Jay’s GOAT-ness. I just wish others were not so ready to appoint him. In doing so, they rob Jay of what makes him special, his dominance over an extended period, nearing two decades. In challenging the presumptive answer, one sees that Jay is truly special, and my appreciation for him has increased. *raises glass to the GOAT*

Jay has boycotted the Grammys, became an executive, and branched out to other businesses. He has become the poster child of success in the rap game. More impressively, he’s done it all while building his brand, extending his reach into other aspects of hip hop cultural life.

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4 thoughts on “Is Jay Z the Greatest Rapper?

  1. When asked who the greates rapper alive is Common said that its Nas because when you read his lyrics they read like literature. Nas is the rappers rapper, all lyricist who post date him have sat at his feet gleaning form his linguistic mastery.

    • Excellent point. I guess there’s a subtle, often undefined, difference between the more expansive term rapper and the more specific term lyricist. Nas definitely rewrote history with his debut, Ilmatic, but he hasn’t ‘won’ in the same way that Jay has. Other aspects of Jay’s career has separated him from others. One can argue that we need to examine that term rapper because I briefly discussed lyrics while discussing the greatest rapper. Ironic?

  2. At no point in Jayz’s career has he dominated music, he drops album after album but never hits the heights of true dominance, like eminem or even tupac. He’s been there a long time, but his sales have always been average, despite the PR he gets, nothing GOAT about that.

    • Interesting argument. One can argue that his longevity in an industry which produces more one-hit wonders than reality tv produces celebrities is a sign of his dominance, making him the GOAT. For example, he is record holder for most #1 albums ever. Is that dominance?

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