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The Inexact Science of Ranking Rappers

Backseat Freestyle
The Inexact Science of Ranking Rappers
By Jayson Rodriguez • Issue #23 • View online
Welcome to Backseat Freestyle. This is my weekly hip-hop newsletter that I send out every Friday (apologies this week for the delay in sending on time) focusing on one big thing that happened over the past seven days. I also include links to what I’ve been listening to, reading and watching. If you’re a subscriber, thank you for your continued support. If you’re arriving to this issue by way of forward, LinkedIn or social media, please subscribe below. With that said, let’s get into it….

Kendrick Lamar // Credit: @craigmcdeanstudio
Kendrick Lamar // Credit: @craigmcdeanstudio
Front Seat
This is what’s driving hip-hop this week….
RAPCAVIAR SET OFF A DEBATE two weeks ago with a social media post asking “Who takes the fourth spot on Mount Rushmore of the 2010s?” The caption was set to an image that already had Drake, Kendrick Lamar and J.Cole emblazoned on the mountaintop. Future, Young Thug, Big Sean and Travis Scott mustered a lot of support from the public, before a fan vote ultimately awarded the final slot (correctly and overwhelmingly) to Nicki Minaj. Those four are traditionalists as far as MCing compared to, say, Future, who probably had a good argument to leap-frog Cole. If the Atlanta trap star would have made the cut, perhaps a better argument could have ensued over bars versus melody and tone. That’s the thing about lists like these: You’re measuring the weight of someone’s strength against another act’s strong point, which may not align as cleanly as a punchline competition between the two. And that makes people uncomfortable.
Back Seat
Respect my mind or die from lead shower.
IN THE HALCYON DAYS of MTV’s Hottest MC’s roundtable specials, the hip-hop brain trust—of which I was a member—would engage in lively, televised conversations over who was the top rapper of the moment. (Right now, is the qualifier we often repeated to emphasize the program wasn’t aimed at an all-time ranking, but instead of the past 10 months, give or take a month.) The exchanges were passionate and pointed, conducted among us with the knowing sense that we weren’t talking about who was the most skilled rather who most delivered. That acknowledgment allowed us to pit lyrical wizards against acts with elementary rhymes but a strong sense of melody and/or song composition. MTV Jams host Buttahman, in particular, was merciless in the pursuit of highlighting this distinction, purposely pitting Souljaboy against 50 Cent to incite the traditionalists among us. 
Tuma Basa and I treated the list exercise like a primary caucus, surveying what the other was pursuing in the name of producing a final 10 that represented a cross-section of rappers that marked the time period regardless if they fit the characteristics of an “ true MC” or not. We’d then pivot in the moment to form an alliance to ensure an artist survived to stay on the board. Both our strategy and Buttah’s shared a similar trait: to define success beyond mere bars to present a product that was true what really moved the crowd. 
I was reminded of these moments recently when RapCaviar published a post on May 27th calling for fans to suggest a fourth rapper for their Mount Rushmore of rappers in the 2010s. Their soon-to-be quartet already featured the two kings of the decade, Drake and Kendrick. J.Cole was etched in stone, too, but his nomination and the open slot, along with B.Dott’s subsequent list of his Top 10 Best* Rappers of 2021 (So Far), kick-started a conversation about who makes the cut on these lists and for what reasons.
Drizzy, K-Dot, Cole and ??? Who takes the fourth spot on the Mount Rushmore of the 2010s? 👀
Spotify didn’t denote any of their criteria beyond the assumption of what Mount Rushmore represents historically and the transfer of that importance to this context. Meanwhile, B.Dott’s asterisk served as his only metric: “based on skill, performance, & presence,” he wrote. An anchor, though hardly specific. 
However, he was also speaking to an audience he (rightfully, for the most part) assumed would understand what he meant by his three beats. 
Skill equals lyrical dexterity. Performance could be chart/streaming success. And presence accounts for how an artist is moving, i.e. leveraging their momentum to greater effect. 
During our yearly Hottest MCs debates, we also shared this unspoken understanding that we were all operating from the same plane. In the accompanying online editorial, led by Shaheem Reid, he would relay our five beats: skill, success, presence, outside ventures and influence. (B.Dott christened us the 1515 Boys and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was inspired by Sha’s foundation in establishing his basis.) We also operated with the comfort that we’d be comparing apples to oranges in some cases. 
The apples to oranges conversation rankles many. 
In barbershops, it can be difficult to convert a head to regard anything being comparable to bars. Twitter and IG commentors can echo that philosophy. At MTV, there were suits at the time that didn’t understand the fluency with which we would inherently pivot from one artist’s primary strength to their secondary one and down the line and in comparison with another artist’s accolades that, again, may not align cleanly: for example, the critical praise of an album against the chart success of one’s singles. 
As hip-hop has grown and eras bleed into one another the currency of intricate rhyme structure has recessed.
In fact, one specific executive demanded we create a matrix that clearly defined different point values for each category. Not only was this detrimental to the then growing boundaries of what the culture entailed, it also ensured Eminem’s ascendancy to the top of one particular year, which so upset us that the program never aired. A story for Shaheem and I and a few others to tell one day; our stance and point was that this rigidity unfairly awarded extra value to things MTV News higher ups deemed more worthy than what we did and it chafed against the editorial independence we established. Case in point: Eminem, while an all-time great, is not a popular request in clubs, at barbecues nor blasting out of cars driving down any MLK Boulevard. That matters immensely and caps Em’s place among other peers. 
Back in the day this was much easier. We operated with a clean distincting between an MC and a rapper. The former indicated a higher skill level, almost the difference between operating in the major leagues versus the minor leagues. I reference traditionalists often in this piece, because those with that belief system, be it critics, fans, etc, still subscribe to tying rapper value to wordplay prowess above all. 
As hip-hop has grown and eras bleed into one another (along with the genre’s center moving left, as Jon Caramanica noted often in his pieces, due to the result of Drake’s rise), the currency of intricate rhyme structure has recessed. There’s still value there, as evidenced by the reception to J.Cole’s latest project and Griselda’s rise. But Kid Cudi, Roddy Ricch, Young Thug, Lil Tjay, Coi Leray, Moneybagg Yo, Don Tolliver, Travis Scott and many others have something to say about that and it’s likely to be said in AutoTune and a sing-songy staccato. (Melody has even waned as the vibe and sound has risen due to the success of Soundcloud rappers.)
Sports debates about Jordan versus LeBron, Ali versus Tyson, Jim Brown versus Barry Sanders are fun until a sourpuss tries to dispel any argument by noting since the aforementioned greats can’t play against one another or that they played in different times, it’s impossible to judge who is truly the better of the two. Current day debates avoid that and actual head-to-head matchups or counting of rings solve disputes. The latter isn’t as fun, though. And in hip-hop, there’s not a similar approximation beyond the rare SoundScan clash and that’s more inconclusive than anything. 
What we have is an inexact science that we’ve turned into an art where we can pit Benny The Butcher’s lines against Gunna’s flow. We know Wayne is more talented than Jim Jones, but in the past 12 months there’s few who’ve put out better music than Capo. Soon enough, Bad Bunny, Burna Boy and global rappers influenced by each, will make this inexactitude even messier. 
I can’t wait. 
Music, reads, podcasts and videos (music and more) I’m checking for.
Lil Baby and Lil Durk had 2020 in a headlock and haven’t let go in 2021. The pair’s The Voice of the Heroes collab album has arrived and while my initial thoughts are this would have made for a better EP instead of LP, early standouts include “Medical” and “Rich Off Pain” featuring Rod Wave. Related: In Backseat Freestyle issue # 1 I named Baby the ‘20 MVP and Durk the 6th Man. [Listen]
Hard to believe The Course of the Inevitable is the first proper Lloyd Banks album since 2010. The listen is what you want from Banks: the voice, the bars and the grit, especially the three-song run featuring Freddie Gibbs, Roc Marci and Benny The Butcher. [Listen]
Another former G-Unit solider, Sha Money XL, returns to retail with Chain On The Bike, Vol. 2. My brother Sha is so talented, I can’t decide if it’s best for him to be in the boardroom or behind the boards. Check this one out and keep your eye for his collab LP with Ali Vegas. [Listen]
Also, check out Peter Rosenberg’s Real Late album with contributions from Method Man, Westside Gunn, Buckwild and more. [Listen]
Apple Music honors Juneteenth with a new playlist, Freedom Songs, that features originals and covers by Black Thought, Hit-Boy, Sech, Tobe Nwigwe and more. [Link]
Diddy teams with Salesforce to create a curated marketplace for Black-owned businesses. (There’s a new fire burning inside of Puff; I’m curious to see where he takes it.) [Read]
Reservoir Media’s big purchase of the Tommy Boy Records catalog should mean De La Soul’s music will finally land on DSPs. Related: Now That You’ve Bought a Multi-Million-Dollar Music Catalog, What Are You Going to Do With It? [Read] [Read]
Yo Gotti officially brings his CMG banner to Interscope. I often praise Gucci Mane’s roster of artists, but Gotti is no slouch, either. Epic must be kicking themselves. [Read]
I enjoyed this long read on MC Jin. I’ve lost touch with him over the years, but diving into this piece I’m reminded of how cool and thoughtful he is. [Read]
Hoops: LeBron’s agent, Rich Paul, gets the profile treatment in the New Yorker, meanwhile Kevin Durant covers the New York Times Magazine. [Read] [Read]
Mad Skillz hosted on his Hip-Hop Confessions pod and you wanna listen to this one even if you think you don’t wanna listen to this one. [Listen]
Marley Marl launched a new podcast, Legendize, and I don’t think he could have picked a better first guest: MC Shan. Their history together is more complex than artist and producer. [Listen]
Fat Joe and Angelica Vila were dynamite together on NPR’s Tiny Desk (Home) Concert. Joe’s delivery is a gift. And she left very little folks missing Ashanti or Rihanna’s vocals. [Watch]
This Blueface x OG Bobby Billions track, “Outside (Better Days),” made a lot of noise online a couple weeks ago because Blueface rapped more in pocket than the style he’d been known for. It’s a somber track and the visuals prove to be a good pairing. There’s a lot to like about Blueface (and a lot to dislike), it’ll be interesting to see how he continues to develop (or not). [Watch]
Meek Mill in this “Flamerz” bag, muscular flow and with bite, is the best version of Meek Mill. [Watch]
Easily my favorite video of the week: Cochise and $not jam on “Tell Em” and Cole Bennett blesses them with a cool look. [Watch]
Roddy Ricch’s “Late At Night” video gets really interesting just before the 2:00 minute mark and just after the 3:00 mark. If that isn’t enough to click, then do it because you trust me. It’s a fun homage. [Watch]
Money looks good on Rod Wave. Ha. Peep the high production value on “Forever Set In Stone.” [Watch]
I like 21 Savage being a part of curated projects, like here on the “Gully” soundtrack. It gets him to a good place with his music, like this offering, “Betrayed.” [Watch]
The world is too small for Bad Bunny. On “Yonaguni” he sings in Spanish, obviously, but also some Japanese as he pines over a lost love. The clip even nods to Anime at the end. [Watch]
Backseat Freestyle is written and produced by Jayson Rodriguez for Smarty Art LLC. If you have any comments, questions or want to discuss sponsoring a newsletter issue, feel free to email me: And follow me elsewhere:
Twitter: @jaysonrodriguez
Instagram: @jaysonrodriguez
YouTube: jaysonrodriguez
YouTube: smartyartllc
Podcast: coming soon
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Jayson Rodriguez

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