The Best Rapper Alive Since…
This week, maximalist rap fans rejoiced at news of several forthcoming albums. This Friday brought Pusha T’s It’s Almost Dry; April 29 brings Future; May 5 sees the release of Jack Harlow’s Come Home the Kids Miss You; May 12 heralds Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers; and May 19 elicits Young Thug’s Slime Season 4. Coupled with a timely GQ cover drop written by Elliott Wilson, the activity generated the usual debates about who deserves the title “the best rapper alive.”
Wilson’s argument is that Future has had the most impact over the past decade. “When you survey the hip-hop landscape, no other artist has been as consistently excellent, or as influential, for as long as he has,” he writes. “He invented his own sound, which has since become the dominant style in rap. He has delivered hit after hit after hit. And he’s done it all on his own terms.”
Yet later in the story, Wilson – an excellent writer whose lengthy career includes a memorable run as editor-in-chief of XXL in the Aughts and who currently oversees content for Tidal – undermines his declaration. He acknowledges that Future’s 2020 projects High off Life and Pluto x Baby Pluto were disappointments. In fact, one could make the argument that Future hasn’t made a consistently interesting album since his 2017 1-2 punch, Future and Hndrxx. Wilson’s premise seems less about who is the best rapper right now, and more about who is the best rapper of this era, namely the melodic rap style that continues to define the mainstream.
Conversations around the best rapper have evolved over the decades. In the 80s and 90s, it centered on who was the most exciting rapper at a given moment, regardless of whether that person crafted excellent material. I remember when some folks considered Canibus a “best rapper” candidate strictly off a superior 12-inch single, “Second Round K.O. / How We Roll,” and a handful of strong cameos. (His clumsy 1998 debut album, Can-I-Bus, killed that chatter.) Sometimes it has meant the rapper who controls the Zeitgeist, like Jay-Z and Lil Wayne; other times it has meant the rapper with the most hits, like Drake.
Today, it translates into a Mount Rushmore-type of argument. For the past several years, Complex has anointed a “Best Rapper Alive” award that’s akin to Artist of the Year. Tyler, the Creator earned the honor in 2021. (Runners up were Kanye West – laughable since Kanye has never been considered an top vocalist – J. Cole, and Mach-Hommy.) Tyler is a decent rapper with a great voice, but he’s hardly known for incredible bars, cadence and flow. His aesthetic power results from a visceral blend of production, musical concepts, and songcraft. Meanwhile, truly inventive vocal stylists are rarely considered, usually because they’re haplessly underground (Boldy James, KA, Earl Sweatshirt), too niche (RXK Nephew, Babyface Ray, Larry June), or, sad to say, too female (Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, Noname). To be fair, Lil Baby earned Complex‘s honor in 2020 with a worthy mix of vocal innovation and a superior hit album in My Turn.
A final observation: notice how the “best rapper alive” candidates are usually in their 30s and 40s? Even Tyler is 31. These days, it apparently takes years of accumulating institutional credibility, record sales and social-media hives before one can be considered for the honor. Perhaps the days when fans argued over the superior merits of twentysomething sensations like Nas, the Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac are long past.
Happy Almost Record Store Day?
In Happier ALC News…
Curren$y and the Alchemist’s 2011 tape Covert Coup — one of the best projects to emerge from Alchemist’s post-major label revival — is getting a colorway repress. (The producer originally released a vinyl edition in 2019.) Copies go on sale on on ALC.com on April 29 and tend to run between $40 (black vinyl) and $100 (color vinyl). Be warned…ALC color editions are usually hoarded by bot-armed flippers and sell out in seconds.
Ranked: The Alchemist’s 10 Best Post-Major Label Projects
- Curren$y & Alchemist, Covert Coup (2011)
- Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist, Alfredo (2020)
- Armand Hammer, Haram (2020)
- The Alchemist, Israeli Salad (2015)
- Boldy James, The Price of Tea in China (2020)
- Curren$y, Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist, Fetti (2018)
- Prodigy x Alchemist, Albert Einstein (2013)
- Gangrene, Vodka & Ayahuasca (2012)
- Conway & The Alchemist, Lulu (2020)
- Step Brothers, Lord Steppington (2014)
(rankings subject to change)
Godfather Don’s Hazardous
Earlier this month, 90s Tapes (a subsidiary of Berlin shop HHV) announced a reissue of Godfather Don’s 1991 debut, Hazardous. More importantly, it brought the long out-of-print album to streaming services for the first time. Folks who don’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for an original copy – or weren’t paying attention during the file-sharing/blog era in the mid-Aughts – finally have access to this unique artifact from New York’s fast-rap scene.
Producer/rapper/guitarist Godfather Don is a cult figure that’s arguably best known for his brief association with Ultramagnetic MCs – he contributed to their great third album, 1993’s The Four Horsemen – and The Cenubites, his 1996 project with Kool Keith and a key text in the decade’s independent movement. He has an elliptical rap style full of stops and starts, and Hazardous is filled with odd metaphors that land with a thud. “I’m rushin’ like dressing with the lesson,” he raps on “On on On,” which fancifully builds around a vocal loop of Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause.” Like a lot of producer/rappers, his music often translates best as the sum of its parts. There are strangely fascinating moments: “Just Begun” kicks off with his own hard-rock guitar solo, and he brags, “I’m extra strength like Bayer.” Hazardous is typical of a period when hip-hop was full of talented, febrile youth figuring out what the genre should sound like.
To coincide with the re-release of Hazardous, Godfather Don made an appearance on the British podcast Fly Fidelity with host Luke Bailey. Warning: the two-hour interview takes a while to pick up momentum. They finally get to Don’s career at the 29-minute mark.
Song of the Moment: Caveman, “I’m Ready”
Last January, Hip Hop Golden Age published one of its better listicles: a collection of 100 Essential UK Hip Hop Albums. American fans have long had a complex perspective on British rap. Its innovations – from sampladelica in the 1980s and “trip-hop” in the 1990s to UK drill today – have exerted clear influence on the US scene. But its artists have rarely achieved mainstream success despite frequent critical acclaim. M.I.A. and Dizzie Rascal are rare exceptions; Stormzy, a dominant British star who has yet to crack the US charts, is more the rule.
For US fans who have only paid fleeting, occasional attention to the UK, HHGA’s list is informative and a lot of fun. One entry stands out: Caveman’s 1991 album Positive Reaction. Its standout single, “I’m Ready,” is a memorable, Dust Brothers styled flip of Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic.