As a writer and English teacher, I’m forced to come to grips with the ever-(d)evolving way we approach our language. We’ve managed to squeeze zeitgeist-y words like “LOL” and “YOLO” into the dictionary and our vernacular. Words and phrases like “I could care less” and “irregardless” are no longer as subject to deserving scrutiny as they once were. When I graded papers, I was forced to put my big red pen to texting language that made it into an academic paper—like “u” in place of “you”—far more often than I would’ve liked. This is now the world in which I live, and I’d do well to adapt.
But there are some words so pointed in their meaning that I’ll never be willing to concede on them. “Best rapper alive” rankles the ever-loving shit out of me because of how frequently and recklessly the phrase is used. I see it in many headlines, often as a method of clickbait—Complex might have employed the most egregious usage of the phrase for its “The Best Rapper Alive, Every Year Since 1979” list.
Kendrick Lamar has received lots of best-rapper-alive accolades from publications that I respect as of late. As a preface, I think Lamar is probably the most talented chart-topping mainstream rapper today. If Good Kid, M.A.A.D City were his first album, it would fit cozily in the pantheon of classic debuts with Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt.
But when we call Lamar the “best rapper alive,” we’re running afoul of etymology. Merriam-Webster’s first definition for “best” is “excelling all others”; denotatively, if you’re the “best rapper,” your rapping exceeds all others’. The label suggests that Lamar is better than all other living and sentient rappers, which you might believe if you’re young enough to carry around a fidget spinner in your floodwater cargo pants.
Kendrick Lamar doesn’t make my “Top 10 Best Rappers Dead or Alive” list. He hasn’t earned it yet. And the fact that he’s popping up on everyone’s shit, spitting guest verses with ever-diminishing returns, is not going to get him there anytime soon.
In contrast, Nas (my personal best rapper alive) could release five straight albums of fart noises over that same goddamn Lex Luger beat that everyone was tricked into using six years ago and maintain his status as best rapper alive unless he dies or someone else proves that they’re a better rapper than he is. And that’s a battle against a 23-year-and-going career that has never seen his bars falter.
K-Dot basically has an uphill-on-ice-skates-during-an-avalanche climb to become the best rapper alive, and he’s closer to the title than just about any other rapper who’s ever been on XXL’s Annual Freshman List. He would have to reverse his downward musical spiral right the fuck now, and cats like Jay-Z, Black Thought, Eminem and Scarface would simply have to perish.
For the sake of argument, I’m willing to make a distinction between “greatest” and “best.” To me, greatness signifies factors not related to rapping skill, including longevity, cultural impact and the likelihood of a Twitter hashtag being created when an artist drops a new record. But even To Pimp a Butterfly— perhaps the most talked-about (and overrated … battle me) album released this decade not named Lemonade—is not enough to bestow the “greatest alive” title upon a rapper whom we didn’t know existed throughout the majority of President Barack Obama’s first term (though it didn’t stop Rolling Stone).
People should exchange “best rapper alive” for “best rapper right now,” which sounds a lot more palatable and less hyperbolic. For example, my personal best rapper right now is Dizzy Wright, a Las Vegas cat (and Layzie Bone’s nephew) who has put out more music that I like than any other rapper this year. As much as I dig Dizzy, though, he’s many years away from becoming a “best” or a “great.”
We don’t have this wild “best alive” variation shit for anything other than hip-hop. I don’t see “best NBA player alive” change with the years on a calendar. But then, hip-hop has long suffered the curse of hyperbole: Folks attach the “classic” title to 60-minute albums 25 minutes after they hit iTunes. The reality is that “best rapper alive” is an extremely rarefied distinction, and there’s a whole hell of a lot of competition to reach it.