Who Is Hip-Hop’s Alpha Dog? A Grantland Staff Survey to Determine the Most Important Rapper Right Now
If 2014 was about a new collection of young insurgents rising, from ILoveMakonnen to Iggy Azalea, then 2015 appears to be a year for solidifying superstars, from Kanye West’s fashion-forward return, to Kendrick Lamar’s impassioned sophomore album, to Drake’s sneak-attack mixtape release, to Nicki Minaj’s unceasing assault. To determine who’s really on top — creatively, commercially, spiritually — Grantland gathered a collection of writers to make their case for the genre’s true leader, the artist by whom even the leading lights are dimmed. With (minimal) apologies to Iggy, Big Sean, and Macklemore, here are the facts as we see them.
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Alex Pappademas: Let’s set aside the question of who the actual best rapper alive is, because there are always at least three best rappers alive at any given moment, usually all swinging for different fences. Let’s factor out bars and hooks, because everybody in this conversation has bars and hooks, or they wouldn’t be here. Let’s talk about one weird trick: consensus-building. Reach is a metric we almost don’t bother to measure artists by anymore, because in the age of microniche pseudostardom and accent-flipping omni-regionalism it generally seems beside the point — until you see it manifest in somebody like a mutant power, for the first time in a while. A fan base alone doesn’t make you a star. A star is a person in whom contradictions are resolved or voided. A star bridges disparities, gathering up an audience of people who may have little in common and giving them something to talk about. Up until now I’ve said nothing that couldn’t fairly be applied to Kanye West. But Kanye’s too openly conflicted about his relationship to the whole of his audience. He’s distrustful of big pop gestures and loath to meet pop’s expectations — you got the sense from his interviews circa Yeezus that he views even My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as to some degree a kiss-ass record, and is probably even sicker of “Gold Digger” than everyone else is — but he’s also obsessed with the validation of mainstream gatekeepers. He’s the Questlove of Tupacs. Going full Laurie Anderson on the SNL special last weekend was classic Ye; his all but wearing Paul McCartney around his neck like a talisman that attracts positive Rolling Stone reviews is also classic Ye. That contradiction is what keeps him going, and it’s part of why I love him beyond all reason and will defend him to my last breath, but he’s too internally divided to pull off the whole astride-the-world-like-a-colossus thing.
Anyway, by the metric of reach, or at least potential reach, it’s Kendrick. Here is a story: A few Mondays ago, I was in a discount sneaker store — because that is how I ball — when “i” came on the in-store speakers. The song had been out since September and I hadn’t warmed up to it. It always struck me as a half-successful attempt at radiofication of what Lamar does, cynically hooked around a marvelous but bonehead-obvious Isley Brothers sample that the Beastie Boys and Salon Selectives and Anchorman got to first. I’ve seen some really smart, passionate arguments in favor of this song and the political charge that I love myself hook carries, but as an aesthete, I always felt embarrassed by it. Now, a single that had materialized months earlier as a kind of false alarm for a not-exactly-forthcoming album was just another data point in a stream of unobjectionable urban music piped into a budget-footwear emporium, which actually seemed right to me, like this song was a pair of Nikes whose styling and color was just, y’know, off. I had a weird thought: What if this song — peak U.S. chart position no. 39, by the way, so much for selling out — is it for Kendrick? What if this is as far as it goes? He wouldn’t be the first renowned rapper to misjudge that leap from true-school messiahdom to the mainstream and end up impaled on bad ideas. He wouldn’t even be the 10th. (And yes, “i” finally won Kendrick a Grammy a few Sundays ago, word to Macklemore. But there’s something deeply uncool about winning a Best Rap Performance Grammy. In hip-hop terms, it might as well have been a D.A.R.E. award.)
Maybe you know where I’m going with this. This turned out to be the day that “The Blacker the Berry” dropped. “i” sounded like an earnest but underinspired attempt to position Lamar within the larger continuum of black music that white people like — which, duh, is why I resent it. But “Blacker the Berry” sounds like Kendrick riding out of the hills on a sled pulled by hellhounds. Given the choice, I’ll always opt for the dancehall-tinged anti-single with a feedback migraine and cobra-spit rappity-rapping better than the pop song calculated to get Interscope A&Rs to turn up in their cubicles. But the one unlocks the other — the confessions of self-loathing on “Blacker” make the chin-up persistence of “i” feel hard-won. And that one followed the other makes me believe Kendrick is fully in control of what he’s presenting on a conceptual level. I said up top that stars bridge contradictions, but sometimes they do this by denying contradictions, creating personas big enough to accommodate them. I can’t think of a lot of precedents in rap for something like the “i”–“Blacker” yin-yang, but the obvious outside one is Curtis Mayfield putting “Move on Up” and “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go” on the same album in 1970. Those were both singles, although they came out seven months apart. And there’s more than a little bit of Curtis in Kendrick’s rasp.
Steven Hyden: This question is not complicated. If we’re talking right now, the correct answer is clearly Drake. He matters the most on the pop charts (he has the no. 1 album in the country) and on social media. Four months ago, Drake posted three songs online with practically zero promotion, and one of them (“How Bout Now”) entered the R&B/hip-hop airplay chart basically on word of mouth alone, which almost never happens anymore. Another stray release (“Trophies”) was nominated for a Grammy. But it happens with Drake because, right now, he’s at the top. Drake’s music (as opposed to his celebrity or artistic reputation) looms larger in the culture than any other rapper’s music by any standard we use to measure these things. In this discussion, Drake is the shortest, straightest line from point A to point B. Going against him requires contriving a convoluted counterargument that verges on contrarianism. You could say that Kanye West is more famous or that Kendrick Lamar is just better. But Drake is famous enough, and the run he’s been on for the past five or six years should be favored against the promise of what we think Kendrick is capable of moving forward. At the moment, Drake has exactly the right amount of popularity and credibility. Drizzy doesn’t lie: If he died tomorrow, he really would be a legend.
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Amos Barshad: Look, it was really sweet and considerate of the rest of my esteemed colleagues not to not pick Kanye Omari West, born on June 8, 1977, raised on the South Side of Chicago. But, come on. It’s Ye. It’s still Ye.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed the producer Emile Haynie, who has worked with Kanye (he’s cocredited on “Runaway”), and he said a simple but necessary thing:
I learned really early — before he even did College Dropout — to never bet against Kanye. He sets the tone for music of the next couple years every time he makes a record. People are still trying to wrap their head around Yeezus and bite that sound, and he’s already moved on to a whole different thing … it’s always important take note of what he’s doing. That will be what music sounds like.
If you’re talking dominance, if you’re talking Alpha Dog, that’s what that is. The one dude in the room for whom everyone waits to speak first.
Sure, there are potential usurpers out there: If they play it just right, Kendrick or A$AP Rocky may one day take it. Sure, there are spheres of influence: Without a doubt, J. Cole has the hearts and minds of concert-planning committees on college campuses throughout this great nation. But there’s only one person alive who keeps Kanye up at night, and that’s Drake. And Drake doesn’t exist — as Drake would, one assumes, personally attest — without 808s & Heartbreak. For all of his glorious bounty, Drake still lives and breathes and eats in the shadows of Ye’s worst album.
As the supremely confident warrior that he is, Ye is comfortable revealing his vulnerabilities. On The Breakfast Club last week, he mentioned that his latest, “Wolves,” came from the sessions of an aborted collaborative album with Drake, one that may still happen. Quite possibly — just like Jay Z once did to him with Watch the Throne — he’s attempting to co-opt, and therefore temporarily neutralize, a threat.
“No matter how hard I try, Drake is gonna speak to a generation in a [different] way,” he said in the interview. “I might not have been at that basketball game he was at, that same high school game, watched that same TV show, went to the same club … ” It’s a timing thing: Kanye, at 37, has nearly a decade on Drake. And so he’s aware of his limitations. He’s married with a kid; he’s not living that life.
But acknowledging the threat doesn’t make him weak. True warriors are wise enough to not allow their hubris to be their undoing. And those 10 years? Those are 10 years that Kanye has spent sprinting ahead of the pack into the deep dark woods, Hansel and Gretel–ing everyone else toward the sound he’s already flung away.
It was always going to be interesting to see what Ye did after the earth-eviscerating Yeezus. Does he frighten millions and double down on his Metal Machine Music? Does he comfort millions and pluck up the classic Kanye sound? No. He makes some shit to make the Honda Odyssey LX pop. “Only One” got the soccer-practice car-pool route lit, real quick. A part of him, it turns out, still wants to be Michael Jackson. A part of him, it turns out, still can be. I’m serious when I say that currently on the table is the possibility that one day, your bright-eyed child will look up at you and ask, “Kanye West used to rap?”
The only way he loses the grip is if he loses interest. And for a guy who casually says stuff like, “Humbly, I’m the most influential person in footwear right now,” that’s certainly a possibility. But Drizzy has to be on his knees every morning praying that happens. Because otherwise it’s still one, definitively, chasing the other. Another thing Kanye told The Breakfast Club? “I’m such a futurist. I have to slow down and talk in the present.”
Come on. Come on. It’s Ye. It’s still Ye.
Sean Fennessey: Nicki Minaj has three of the top 15 songs on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart. She appears on five songs on the Hot 100. This week, her third album, The Pinkprint, was certified gold. Given the rising single “Truffle Butter” — a melty, decadent thing — the album will likely go platinum, joining its two predecessors. She’s sold 65 million singles worldwide. She has nearly 19 million Twitter followers, 39th most on earth; 16.3 million people follow her on Instagram. Nicki has stats and hardware. She has fame and beauty and power. She is, definitively, the most successful female rap artist of all time.
Set aside her talent, though it overwhelms. Nicki leads because she is the most malleable, fearless artist of her generation who also happens to make a lot of mistakes. No superstar makes as many creative miscues as Nicki, and it hardly matters. She’s relatable that way. If she veers too pop, rap fans don’t abandon her. If she leans hard, she runs no risk of losing her Barbs. Nicki opens a vein on The Pinkprint, offering as transparent a portrait of a broken relationship as anything Fiona Apple has made in the last decade. She also positions herself as the cold cuts in a Drake–Lil Wayne hoagie. She samples Nelly (by way of Roland), Maya Jane Coles, and Sir Mix-A-Lot. She is tangible and ectoplasm. She sells calendars, tote bags, and Nicki costumes. She isn’t bigger than rap — she’s bigger than personage. People love Drake and Kendrick and Ye. They want to be Nicki. That’s influence.
Vince Staples and Earl Sweatshirt
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Chris Ryan: I’ve never been interested in “the one.” I like watching the races, but I have no interest in gambling on who wins. In the end, we’re all going to the same glue factory. When I think back on my favorite moments from my favorite rappers, it’s all arrivals and departures — Kanye in Hawaii, Jay on his way to retirement, Ghostface when he thought no one was listening.
So while I respect all the mysterious chessboxing taking place between Kendrick, Drake, and Kanye right now, the one for me — or the ones, really — are doing their work just outside the frame.
These are my guys — Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples. There they are, stage far left — one of them putting up a middle finger, the other staring off into the middle distance. They both grew up in and around Los Angeles. I’m almost older than both of them combined, but when I listen to their music and watch their videos, I’m transported back to a room — white walls with some posters, halogen lamp, various things smoking in ashtrays, strangers coming in and out, video games on pause, and some minor-key creeping chaos coming out of the speakers.
Vince is basically the baby from the “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” video all grown up — a ’90s baby, with a modern take on an old Southern California sound.
His EP Hell Can Wait is cool, but I prefer another 2014 release, the mixtape Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 — which features molar-moving tracks like “Humble.”
In Earl, Vince has found a “hyper,” weirdo running mate — they aren’t explicitly a duo, but for a variety of reasons, I associate them as artistic partners in crime — who “talks too much.” A neurotic, paranoid, hippie-sounding fellow Californian who balances out Vince’s narrative nonfiction with free-associative poetry.
If there’s a single moment that defines these two for me, it’s a shot in Earl’s “Hive” video. The camera is tracking an abandoned-looking car. Earl is sitting on the roof, rapping Vince’s lyrics. The camera curves around a shattered window, and there’s Vince in the driver’s seat, doing his own performance. The slow-motion shot, and the transition from one MC to another, makes it feel like you’re listening to the id and super ego of one rapper.
Some MCs want to conquer the world. But when you listen to “Centurion” — like “Hive,” taken from Earl’s Doris album — you can tell that Earl and Vince don’t care about all that. They’re into world-building. This music is a conversation between the two of them that we’re just lucky enough to be privy to.
This idea of playing off in the corner, doing your own thing, making music for yourself, your friends, and not giving a shit if anyone likes it or understands it, is central to my understanding and appreciation of rap. These guys might not be “the one.” They aren’t really trying to be. That’s the whole point.
Rembert Browne: The interesting thing about Jermaine Cole’s rise is that so many people think he’s not interesting.
It takes a degree of digging, and a swift shutting of your laptop, to realize that Cole belongs on the same tier as Drake, as Kendrick.
Many rappers have surprisingly large faithfuls, hidden acolytes who crop up for concerts and album releases. From Eminem to Tech N9ne, there’s a deep history of rap artists who have fallen out of favor with the Internet — or never had that favor — and have still found a way to maintain popularity and sell records.
This also applies to Cole — who sells lots and lots of records — but his story has a different, more interesting wrinkle. The ebb-and-flow, show-up-then-disappear act that he’s pulled throughout his career is unheard of in this celebrity-driven, fame-obsessed, tabloid-dependent, he-commented-on-her-Instagram-holy-shit culture. And it’s even more impressive, considering he’s only getting bigger, only getting more culturally relevant — he’s a socially responsible rapper now who knows not to lean on the crutch that is the popular Internet for his popularity. He’s post-popular.
Kendrick thrives on a kind of secrecy, but Cole makes Kendrick look like a Kardashian. Cole might not be “the one” right now, but when this Internet fame bubble bursts — and it will burst — he may be the one best suited to survive music’s next frontier.
Molly Lambert: Rae Sremmurd may not be the most accomplished rappers on this list, but they’re certainly the youngest. And in popular music, that counts for a lot! Khalif “Swae Lee” Brown and his brother Aaquil, a.k.a. “Slim Jimmy,” are ’90s babies from the South, and that means they are the future, so you might as well hand over the keys. Their vocals are hypnotically unhinged and the choruses impossibly catchy. Anyone who wanted to write them off as one-hit wonders after “No Flex Zone” had to eat their sdrow when “No Type” came out as the follow-up. And with “Throw Sum Mo’” as the hat trick third single, “Come Get Her” as a potential fourth, and a spot on Mike Will Made It’s label EarDrummers Entertainment (hence the name), get used to saying their name.
Dave Schilling: If you want some kind of grand theory that explains why Makonnen is the most important figure in hip-hop at this very second in time, direct your eyeballs right to this video:
Thanks to a State Farm–quality assist from Champagne Papi (who may or may not be beefing with his protégé right now) on his unavoidable hit “Tuesday,” that squishy dude at the keyboard is now one of the biggest names in music. Yeah, that dude. The dude who looks like a background extra from an episode of Drake & Josh. He seems more credible as a forgotten member of the Goonies than he does as a rapper. And yet, here we are, two months deep in the Year of the Red Dragon. He’s achieved an insane amount of success despite (and because of) the fact that he doesn’t look or sound like anyone else in the game today.
It’s very, very tempting to write Makonnen off as a gimmick, a product of Drake’s largesse rather than a legitimate potential legacy artist. His Ewok-esque appearance and mirror-universe version of swag carry the distinct, pungent odor of the one-hit wonder. “He’s a product of his time,” you might say.
You’re probably right.
He has the same propensity for alternating sad-boy navel-gazing with bank account braggadocio as his frenemy Drake, so can you say he’s truly original? Yes, because what he does so well is cultivate a persona that is achievable. Part of what makes him so approachable is that his lyrics can be stunningly simplistic. “I Don’t Sell Molly No More” is what it says it’s about: a guy who no longer sells Molly. These are hip-hop songs you can comfortably consider doing at karaoke. “Tuesday” is like a nursery rhyme compared with the lyrical dexterity of a Nicki or Lil Wayne track. In today’s pop world, that’s a virtue, and it has been in the past.
We thought it was cool when Juvenile passed off his grunts as rhyming. That didn’t make the Cash Money crew any less unstoppable in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Once every six months, I listen to Tha G-Code or 400 Degreez and they still work in their own special, unrepentantly filthy fashion.
Makonnen is more musically gifted than Juvenile, but they can both brag about a career-defining success that stands as a microcosm of the zeitgeist from whence they sprang. The Cash Money sound typified by “Back That Azz Up” was crucial to that era (and my futile attempts to dance during junior high) and for a moment, Juvenile was the hottest MC in the game. Right now, Makonnen is the most important figure in hip-hop because his music fits with a pop moment when a song about loving cocaine can rhyme “Neo” with “Nemo” and get major radio airplay. Just remember that these moments don’t last.
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David Jacoby: To be honest, A$AP Rocky isn’t “the one” in the truest sense of this list’s premise. But fuck that; I argue that the rapper who is “the one” shouldn’t be dating a Kardashian, shouldn’t be dropping sappy, singy, chart-topping mixtapes, and shouldn’t be a household name. The secret to hip-hop is that once you are the highest-grossing, perma-trending, soccer-mom radio favorite, you can’t be “the one.” Popularity is the antidote to being “the one.”
Now, one could easily counter, “The reason A$AP Rocky isn’t popular is because his music isn’t really any good and without good music, how can you be ‘the one?’” Totally fair argument, but the best thing about A$AP Rocky is that his music isn’t accessible, it’s weird and unpolished. Two parts Harlem, two parts Houston, and one part straight-up left field, Rocky’s raps routinely rotate from New York boom-bap to Houston screw music to West Coast new wave to “What the fuck is this?” A$AP Rocky isn’t your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, because your favorite rappers aren’t smart enough to keep an eye over their shoulder looking for the A$AP onslaught. Rocky is slated to drop his second album later this year, along with a couple more from his (actually talented) A$AP Mob cohorts, and then to star in a Sundance-approved, critically acclaimed film titled Dope. If we make this same list next year, someone will make a case for A$AP Rocky as “the one.” But the problem with hip-hop is, once you’re big enough to be dubbed “the one,” it’s already too late. The most powerful position in hip-hop isn’t “the one.” It’s where ASAP Rocky is right now: “the NEXT one.”
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Shea Serrano: This is all very simple, really. The way to figure out who the no. 1 person is in anything is to figure out who the most important person is in that thing, and then there you go, there’s your no. 1. Who is doing a thing that is becoming bigger than the thing itself? Boom, there you go, there’s your most important person.
Think about N.W.A in 1988 when they shotgunned a hole in the country’s chest with Straight Outta Compton, or Jay Z and Nas in 2001 during the “Takeover” vs. “Ether” mega-war. If we can peek outside of rap, then we can consider Arnold Schwarzenegger and Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991, when action movies became just the right amount of ridiculous art, or Tom Brady in 2007 when his right arm was coated in diamonds.
That’s why Young Thug is the no. 1. He’s an important rapper, and were we to rank them, it would show that he is the most important rapper right now.
Here are some others who have been mentioned, in reverse order of importance:
ILoveMakonnen, Vince Staples and Earl Sweatshirt, and Rae Sremmurd
You dudes gotta go sit down somewhere, thank you.
Aw, man. I miss when A$AP Rocky was exciting for that one song.
Cole has never done anything new and has rarely done anything interesting; he has only ever taken things that were once new and interesting and smudged their screens with his fingerprints. He’s like the guy in Good Will Hunting whom Matt Damon brain battles in the bar and who’s just mucking his way through someone else’s thoughts.
Cole has fans. So does astrology. So do celebrity parody accounts on Twitter.
She will continue to be a seismic force, and she will continue to use her sway only to acquire more sway instead of bend the trajectory of rap in a new direction.
Kendrick is currently the most devastating rapper, and he was the most important rapper in 2013, but, save for a very good video for “i” and a gargantuan new single (“The Blacker the Berry”), he hasn’t moved the needle enough these past nine months to leapfrog Kanye or Drake, let alone Young Thug.
Kanye is beautiful and I love him and there were for sure a handful of years when he was recalibrating what rap was and what being a rapper meant, but he is not that anymore. He’s just a guy who really cares about sweatshirts and also sometimes makes songs about his wife and daughter.
Drake is for sure the most popular rapper, and the only one who has come close of late is Nicki Minaj. And I suppose “very popular” is easy to confuse with “important,” and maybe it might even be an arid version of it. But it’s not the kind of important that really matters, because something is important when it advances a style or an idea. Drake has not been that kind of important since 2011, which was two years after he showed up and turned Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak into Aubrey Graham memoirs, and two years was a long enough market test to validate the style of rap he’s perfected, so everyone mega started copying him. Rappers still copy him, but more because he’s a planet’s worth of successful than because he’s innovative.
Do you know who is innovative?
Young Thug raps like if the sun were made of Jell-O and you just jumped headfirst into it. Young Thug raps like if your skeleton jumped out of your body and ran down the street and you were just a blob of meat and eyeballs. Kendrick uses words and builds them into sentences and then those sentences into nuclear weapons. Young Thug uses words, but only accidentally. Mostly, he’s just making noises. Mostly, he’s just being a tall alien. Mostly, he’s just arcing rap out into infinity.