I guess the first thing we've got to discuss is the elephant in the room. What does it mean to be the "Greatest of All-Time?" Simply put, without going overboard, it means that you're so good at what you do, even if you were put up against someone in the future, you'd be able to compete with and probably best them because you're that damn good. It's a seemingly objective term. To be "Greatest of All-Time" is to be Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan Goku on a hundred thousand trillion, because not even death or fighting an actual god can keep you from competing against people.
This is where we go to hip-hop. Finally, right? Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One and Slick Rick (let's not sleep on Rick's skills, people) are lyrical masterminds.
|The face I'll probably get from a lot of people after this piece.|
They are greats. They could probably go toe-to-toe with a lot of the "best rappers" out in 2016, in each artist's prime years, and not take that "L" for the ol' days. Does that make them "GOATS?" Yes and no. The no comes from acknowledging that, like with Ali versus Tyson, the game has changed a lot in the 20-30 years since the "GOATS" first dropped. In fact, there are, in the rap game today, people who could potentially best our established greats. For instance, and let me just get it out the way before I sound like a blind Stan, Kendrick Lamar. Lamar's gkmc and TPAB proved that the Compton native quickly escalated the game around him and forced himself into the conversation of being one of the greats.
I mean, hell! He managed to, by association to the "Control" verse, piss off Big K.R.I.T. and get the normally-chilled Mississippi storyteller to drop "Mt. Olympus," a song that I almost instantly go to when people say that K.R.I.T. is just a Southern rapper in that "cars and bass" mindset. That, as a K.R.I.T. fan, is not to say that K.R.I.T. doesn't typically go in on songs. Listen to "Mt. Olympus," Krizzle's retort to Kendrick's "Control" verse, then listen to most of his other tracks. He's a lot more subdued. We get so many moments of greatness, but he's so damned relaxed that they'll sometimes go over peoples' heads.
Not on "Mt. Olympus."
Kendrick awoke a sleeping giant, and through that competitive awesomeness, we got K.R.I.T. to up his game and drop both It's Better This Way, (one of my favorite albums of 2015) and 2014's Cadillactica (an album that had classic written on it from the jump). Let's even, in a glance, look at some of the other artists Kendrick called out on that track. Kendrick managed to instill some of that mixtape Cole fire back into Jermaine and we got 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Big Sean's Dark Sky Paradise showed signs of Sean not just relying on catchphrases, ad libs, etc. to make memorable tracks again. Meek Mill...actually went at Drake, even though, from many standpoints, he failed to launch. But, at least "Lord Knows" was fucking dope, right?
I could go on, but why?
The gist of what I'm saying is this. Kendrick, as one of the best out now, ups the ante in the way that legends like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and KRS-One did with their contemporaries. In that raise of the proverbial stakes, Kendrick sometimes manages to outshine people, even the greats. Because of this simple reasoning (there are people now who are able to compete with and, potentially, beat up on the greats of yesteryear), the term "GOAT," as Rem discussed, sometimes becomes irrelevant. "All-Time," again, means that, in theory, regardless of whether it's 1986, 2016, or 2099, these legends will be able to get their shots in and pull out the W on an average better than the new kids.
Now let's run with Kendrick. There may and probably will be someone, either today or somewhere down the line, who can do Kendrick better than Kendrick (Angry K.R.I.T., someone in Kendrick's camp, that kid Schama Noel, True God--I don't know who. I don't care who. The point is that there's gonna be someone better). That's just the nature of life and of music. People and styles evolve. The younger generation revere the legends, but they want to learn from them--and learn to beat them. While Kendrick's a bit more forward thinking, a la OutKast, Pharrell, and Left Eye, when it comes to how he approaches a song, there will be someone that comes up and knocks us out, on our asses, with their verbal veracity and lucid linguistics.
So, with that in mind, "GOAT" is one of those terms that gets tossed around but ultimately doesn't mean a damn thing. Why? Well, for starters, we seemingly often confuse "GOAT" with trailblazer. While they're tied together, they're not exactly the same thing. Someone who's a great at rap or whatever, they've blazed trails and have do so much to get their names in every discussion about "who could win in a battle?" or whatever. However, not all trailblazers have the skills to be in those discussions every time.
Ice-T was a trailblazer in rap. He was one of the first gangsta rappers. He gave listeners that real, raw shit that you weren't getting from the Beastie Boys and Run-DMCs of the world at the time. He painted pictures with his bars of subverting norms, pimpin' hoes, and discussions on gang life ("Colors" is an amazing song, mainly because it comes from a place of reality, not over-the-top, outlandish depictions of gangs). But lyrically? While I love Ice-T's tracks, some were a bit limited in that department, at times, even though that kind of comes with the era he grew up in musically.
There, I finally said it. I love Ice-T's music. He is one of my favorite artists. But "6 in the Morning" isn't a lyrical masterpiece, at least in the "OMG HASHTAG BARS" sort of way. Please don't hurt me, Ice-T. It's a great use of storytelling that helped to set up the idea of gangsta rap in the genre. It was saying "fuck the police" before N.W.A. dropped a song of that exact name. It is a song that will forever be greatness. It is a classic track. But, when compared to songs that came after, including Ice-T's own work, "6 in the Morning," for instance, was, in some ways, lyrically simplistic (again, that's a product of when the track came out).
That's the process of evolution.
"6 in the Morning" did wonders for the genre. However, a "GOAT" has to constantly be on the forefront of the new, creating new ways and avenues for artists to grow and further their excellence. A "GOAT," by definiton, cannot be defined by just one genre, one song, one approach, etc. And while, keeping with T, he's been out here doing this shit for over 30 years, solo, with Body Count, and otherwise, some COULD argue he's been within the same musical sphere for a minute. I don't know if I'd say that, because he's one of the few artists who's been legitimately successful and progressive in several genres, to this day, even. But, it COULD be said.
This is another reason why the term "GOAT" is both subjective and a feels like a buzzword along the lines of "social media." Every artist has a flaw, a fallacy, a chance for the argument of "oh, we've heard this from you before," and so on That is, just like evolution, human nature. Someone could say KRS-One and Kendrick can get too preachy, or Cole has a boring flow, or Jay Z kind of sucks as an A&R. Someone could say Eminem has bars for days, but ultimately his bars can be broken into a couple categories ("I'm better than you on the mic," "I'm dealing with my white trash problems," "I'm mocking pop culture to get a rise out of mainstream America," etc.).
Now, are these artists great at what they do? Hell, yeah! If they weren't, people wouldn't hold them to as many high standards as they do. The idea of being "legendary, while not the exact same thing as being "GOAT," is a thing because of people like those I've mentioned. But, do they have every friggin' thing in place to be that end-all, be-all when it comes to music? Eh...not exactly.
I'm 27 (I'll be 28 in August). So, I'll be the first to admit that I probably haven't seen the whole story, even if I'm out here watching and reading up on the entire history of hip-hop or humanity as a whole. Even if I take Dart Adams' brain and Elliot Wilson's brain, mash 'em both up into brain stem stew, eat it and absorb their wealth of knowledge, I'll still have my own biases and possible youthful inaccuracies when it comes to things. And, it's with that youthfulness and somewhat fresh look on the matter (no offense, of course) that I have to agree with Rem when he says that Jay isn't the GOAT.
Hell, I'll take it a step further and loop back to the opening of this piece. In this world where we're constantly evolving and upping our overall awesome, no one will be the greatest of all-time. They can't be the greatest at everything, at all times, for all-time. They can set the bar, but there will be people who pass that bar. Even Michael Jackson, as legendary as he is, had songs that make you want to question "Dear Michael, what were you on, mentally, when you made this?" For instance, most of Invincible, but that's neither here nor there.
I guess what I'm getting at is this: don't get hung up on titles and hypotheticals and all that shit. Just be awesome, better yourself each and every day, and have fun with life. You may not be ever be the "greatest" of "all-time," especially when there's a such thing as an "average" life span (I'll stop before I get into Jaden Smith territory because fuck that). But, dammit, you can still be great and make stuff that stands up to the test of time. Getting hung up on being the "greatest of all-time" is why no one's been able to fully beat Saitama, to toss in another anime reference.
Fuck the bullshit and just live. Drop dope music. Just don't get caught up in buzz words. Be great.