This is a project about 17 years in the making.
I’d previously toyed with methods to rank rappers/eMCees/lyricists, and most efforts were either too simple (who are the dopest rappers!!!) or too complex (in college, I included 14 categories such as ‘heart,’ ‘message,’ etc this was really way too much & too corny).
I want to thank Naje for introducing me to the beautiful simplicity that is the Naje Scale. First off, Naje’s gauge, which encapsulates my view as well:
Baby Blue is Midwest
Green is the Greater South
*bold lines represent a 5, or average
In short, I’m sure there are criticisms, critiques and methodology concerns. It’s all conversational and in fun. . .and I do tend to value awesome, awesome flow. It’s one of the dopest things in the world.
well, hopefully this video doesn’t get taken down:
I was listening to some post-his-prime Nas today (particularly the track ) and was really trying to articulate just WHY this man is the most aesthetically pleasing lyricist of all-time.
*Again, I want to be clear that with Nas, specifically post- It Was Written & a couple tracks on I Am, we know content is basically out of the equation.*
I think it comes down to these key elements of flow:
1) Nas’ ability to deftly & precisely maintain a high syllabic content line for line is difficult, if not impossible to emulate, while still holding a normal cadence. Take this line on verse 2 on the Nasty track:
Silent rage, pristine in my vintage shades
I’m not in the winters of my life or the beginner stage, I am the dragon
As a former eMCee who has attempted to mimic all kinds of eMCees doing all kinds of flows, a line like this – potentially awkward timing, a ‘line after line’ (line 2) element and a rhyme prior to restarting a new rhyme are all factors that can throw an eMCee off his smooth train. Not so with Nas.
2) as John Wooden says, “be quick, but don’t hurry.” Play this segment, also in Verse 2, and note the difficult complexity of what he’s doing here – again, many words/syllables but nothing forced. He let’s the rhyme come to him, and with this kind of structure that’s near impossible.
Past nasty now, I’m gross and repulsive
Talk money, is you jokin’? Cash everywhere, in my bank, in the sofa
In the walls, in the cars, in my wallet, in my pocket
On the floors, ceiling, the safe, bitch
I got all you envy, but don’t offend
I’m skinny, but still I’m too big for a Bentley
You are your car, what could represent?
Too Godly to be a Bugatti, you honestly
Must design me somethin’ Tommy Mottonic from Queens had before the ’90s
3) Nas maintains a conversational tone while flowing. VERY underrated factor, and something many eMCees just can’t avoid (Eminem most obvious, M.O.P., Pharoahe Monche, etc). I personally think there’s a time & place for screaming/singing/etc (again, whole other discussion), but the smooth vocals of just. . .conversation. . .are what make Nas’ flows so aurally pleasing.
Also, Nas = Stephon Marbury?
Additionally, You know one of my fave hip hop things to do is say, “_____ rapper is
like _____ basketball player.” Love the obvious potential for analogy
in the art, aesthetic and execution of each; not to mention similar
culture just makes it obvious sometimes.
Nas has always been sui generis, though – how to classify a cat that
was so utterly beautiful, executed on such a high plane only to fall –
not precipitously, but gradually. . .but still maintaining flashes of
brilliance, enough even to go toe-to-toe 20 years later, at least in
argument. . .which brings me to Starbury.
I think stylistically, Star may have been the most gorgeous, smooth &
precise cat to grace the court in our lifetime. I’m in no way putting
him up there AS A PLAYER with Kobe, Mike, even LeBron and def not
Iverson. BUT, the kid from Brooklyn with the silky 20-footer, the deft
three point shot, the no-look passing guaranteeing 10 dimes/game and
the CONTROLLED quickness (as opposed to AI, let’s say, whose reckless
quickness was advantageous nonetheless) combined with the ball control
of Chris Paul and driving ability of Dwyane Wade who could leap like
Mike? And at 6 foot even, if that??!
Fact is we know how the Starbury story turned out, but we don’t also
appreciate his four year run averaging 23.5/10.5/5. Even toward the
end, when motivated, he was unstoppable. Shoot, today I hear he’s
dropping 30/game in China:oP
Alas, Star can be Nas and Nas can be Star, save for the fact that as
you said, Mr. Escobar has his Trophy on the mantle already. But
aesthetically, stylistically and perhaps most important in regard to
career & emotional trajectory, you gotta admit there’s something
The key elements of true lyricism are – in no particular order – flow, content, creativity, consistency, staying on message.
Thus, these are the most outstanding hip hop eMCees over the past 20 years. . Peep:
Andre3000 check 13th Story/Growing Old from ATLiens, or The Art of Storytelling 4 for his best work, though factually and subjectively The Greatest eMCee of All Time. I challenge you to find one lazy rhyme, line or vocal. The thing with Andre? He’s evolved from Southernplayalistic to ATLien to the amazing work of art Aquemini through Stankonia, The Love Below and yes, Idlewild. Growth akin to say a Radiohead in rock & roll; he’s not what he was, but he’s more him than ever. Amazing growth, maturity, intelligence, wisdom, talent, skill & execution.
(image courtesy of DilsJ)
Mos Def from Blackstar to Black on Both Sides, Mos was consistently the most heart-felt, artful eMCee in the land. Evocative, emotional, intelligent & mature; a rare combination in hip hop. Fell off slightly during The New Danger/Black Jack Johnson phases, but returned with an authoritative revitalization with Ecstatic.
(image courtesty of threesixphive)
Pharoahe Monch who? why? isn’t that the screachy guy that yells? Indeed. Since the days of Organized Konfusion, Pharoahe has pushed the envelope of singing/preaching in the context of his complex, layered sonnets. Tracks such as Agent Orange & The Healer showcase his relevant, political leanings, and his intelligence and awareness of The Modern World is second-to-none in hip hop. Remains underappreciated, and just like Mos & Andre, does not waste a verse.
Jay-Z/Eminem/Nas each has received enough accolades, album sales & kudos to last seventeen lifetimes (see below lists). Each deserves the credit, and though the trio probably has enough content/stories/rhyme scheme creativity, longevity to speak for themselves, I tie a common fault with each in that there are ALWAYS one-to-in-the-case-of-Nas-five tracks per album that are just lazy, cliche & there to check a box. While Nas’ first album, Illmatic, remains an artistic and lyrical icon, his steady downfall (laziness) has relegated him to the second ‘tier’ of true lyrical stardom.
Other notables include Notorious B.I.G./Tupac (though both were extremely reliant on image and thusly coasted on too many tracks, specifically on their respective double albums); Rakim (basically invented the ‘modern’ flow, though in the prism of retrospect, content lacks); Guru from GangStarr (maturity, content, voice, but ‘the king of monotone’ really did get old); Common (post-Like Water for Chocolate, though, guy really adopted the Neo-Soul thing and just split); Phonte (from Little Brother – completely underappreciated and essentially put 9th Wonder on the map, but peep ‘Last Day’); J-Live (raw deal from the days of raw shack, Longevity was amazing and has consistently released crate digging albums for lyricists to enjoy for 15 years); One Be Lo/One Man Army (formerly of Binary Star, one listen to his verse on KGB or ‘I Know why the caged bird sings’ and you’ll understand); Method Man (consistently impressive despite the pothead facade; in particular, his rhyme scheme evolves with each album, even after all these millions); Big Pun (negative points for content, but an amazing flow. Amazing).
This the type of day that makes swaths of Southern California feel downright heavenly. Awaken awash in sunshine, with a hint of autumnal crispness injecting energy into a Sunny Sunday. . .in short, a perfect day to blaze one to the first formal effort from notorious Bat Caver, Spinwell: Music for a Sunny Sunday Afternoon.
A hardwood floor reflects an emboldened sun on the cover, immediately setting the tone visually as track one (3582,Sound Imaging, 2001) breezes into an ill sample, foreshadowing the next hour’s journey:
“We have a fine program today. Today the orchestra is going to paint pictures for us; pictures in sound. But we have to listen very carefully. . .and use our imagination. . .”
The CD art is exceptional as well, a personal slice into the crates of Spinwell, featuring vinyl classics such as K-Otix, Dusty Fingers, Zero 7, etc). . .here’s a small shot:
As the album launches into the wonderfully sentimental, piano- & horn-laced Atmosphere track, God’s Bathroom Floor (1997), the compilation reaches full chill mode. Perusing through the uncharacteristically introspective liner notes from the reclusive, analytical mind of Spinwell, the listener is complemented by the processes of the track selection, which encapsulates the album’s intended mood precisely.
From the words of Spinwell:
Few things are higher on my list of preferences than a lazy sunny day on the weekend. If you really want to get specific, then it’s one starting with brunch with my wife, maybe the Sunday New York Times, and at some point opening up the blinds to let the sunlight shine through and reflect off the hardwood floors. The hardwood floors are critical. Because few things sound better than good music vibrating off toasty hardwood floors.
As the bass reflects of of said florrs, the smoke dissipates into the ethereal nature of the album. Quasimoto’s Boom Music (2000) gives way to the underground classic Pete Rock remix of Black Star’s Respiration (1999) featuring Black Thought. Mos Def delivers one of the ultimate introductory couplets on record:
“I push my pen and wrote this scribe/Like the morning wouldn’t find me alive”
Followed by an obscure but oft-sampled early funk record, On the Hill by Oliver Sain (1972) and segueing into the Brit Hop stylings of Emmanuel (Let’s Go Away, 2005), Spinwell ensures that his international palate is satisfied without compromising the overall feel of the record.
Ensuing tracks include artists such as Siah and Yeshua da poEd, France’s appropriately-named Mike, Thes-One and a YKI favorite, Asheru and Blue Black.
As the album reaches a climax with Common’s I Used to Love h.e.r. (1994), the tape segues perfectly into George Benson‘s The Changing World (1974), which actually is the source for the legendary Common track.
With a runtime of a little over 79 minutes, the beats keep coming and mix melts more and more into the Sunday malaise, just chilling and enjoying the Sun. Here’s hoping you do the same:
Thank you, Phonte of Little Brother, for leaving the rap game at your absolute lyrical apex with Tigaallo for Dolo, a Nas is Like. . . or The Sixth Sense au revoir to the youthful hubris of being a raw lyricist. After all, Phonte is now one half of the grammy-nominated duo The Foreign Exchange (along with Nicholay), concentrating mostly on the downtempo, soul-heavy sound.
Regardless, check out this track (lyrics below), and enjoy the sound of mature, ‘big boy’ lyricism. . .
Little Brother: “Tigallo for Dolo”
From the album: Leftback (2010)
Produced by Khrysis
H.O.J., even when I’m by myself
Little Brother, even when I’m by myself
Foreign Exchange, even when I’m by myself
Zo! & Tigallo, even when I’m by myself
Justus League, even when I’m by myself
Phontigallo for dolo
Smile for the camera, nigga, pose for the photo
Pause for the promo ’cause failure’s a no-no
Back on my fly shit
So green with envy, kiss me, I’m Irish
Niggas be asking me “Who we got to ride with?”
They saying “Come back Tay, we been craving”
We need LB to come and save the rap game
But, truthfully, I don’t think the shit needs saving
I think we got wives and sons that need raising
New dreams to fill and for that, we need patience
Twenty-one years old, I used to slang verses
But ten years later, I am not the same person
Whole new perspective, not the same purpose
And sometimes I have to question if I even want it
Not mad at the game ’cause it is what it is
And not mad at the radio ’cause I don’t know what’s on it
Be in my own universes when I be doing verses
Burn ‘em down like the Klan used to do to churces
Back in the day in my town, nigga
Don’t come around if you a clown nigga, then go and do the circus
First, do the knowledge, then do the purchase
Understand why, against me, a coup is worthless
Battle Tay That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard
Since ex-hoes claiming that they’re born-again virgins
Feeling like a born-again version
Of myself, thought I left the shit I used to listen to
‘Til one day, I was playing my old shit
Like “Who the fuck is this? I kind of miss this dude.”
It’s the same old Tigga that slowed your whole movement
And y’all dudes just all show and no proving
But honestly, I like what them young boys is doing
But my niggas like “Tay, they close, but no Cuban”
Like I was the chosen one for flowing
I’m done, the rap game’s no country for old men
I’ll always spit whenever the spirit hits me
But fuck if I’m a be doing this shit when I’m sixty
And that’s no disrespect to KRS
I’m just trying to make my art and do what’s smart
I’m saying, rapping Tay, four-and-half-mic honoree
Or singing Tay, first-time Grammy nominee
Nigga, you do the math, nigga, you add it up
That’s on my mind when I press record
A lot of niggas probably mad at me
But I would rather be a lonley wolf than a sheep that’s bored
So fuck it, be by myself
Big Pooh, even when I’m by myself
Big Dho, even when I’m by myself
Nicolay, even when I’m by myself
My nigga Zo!, even when I’m by myself
Median, even when I’m by myself
Yazarah, even when I’m by myself
DJ Flash, even when I’m myself”