The G.O.A.T. aka “Greatest Of All Time.”
It’s become the most cliché and unending of Hip-Hop debates: Who is the G.O.A.T.?
You’ll never get everyone to agree – not only on who but on what constitutes G.O.A.T. status? But after watching yet another online GOAT debate unfurl across social media in the first few hours of 2021, I came to a realization:
It’s probably time to retire G.O.A.T debates.
Now, I’m not arrogant enough to assume that my suggesting it will make it so; there are still barbershops and ClubHouse, after all, where people are going to spar over rap supremacy on a daily basis. This has become the easy shorthand for appraising greatness in the genre, but it has always been a flawed, empty approach to that appraisal. And here we are, 42 years after “Rapper’s Delight,” still talking about this vast, wide, decades-old genre in such reductive, poorly-quantified terms.
There’s a few reasons why I’ve become frustrated with “G.O.A.T.” debates. One, when appraising a Hip-Hop artist’s greatness, is it just a sweeping assessment of their overall body of work, or a critique of their skills on the microphone? “Greatest Artists In Hip-Hop” and “Greatest Rapper” may seem like the same, but no one seems to ever bother with determining if they actually are. Lots of Hip-Hop greats weren’t lyrical wizards, and lots of lyrical wizards have mediocre bodies of work. So what’s the standard?
Two: what of groups? The consideration for groups has also slowly faded from this “G.O.A.T.” conversation. Actually, groups were never really a part of the convo, because G.O.A.T. debates became fashionable around the same time that groups suddenly weren’t. Groups play a major part in the canon of music and Hip-Hop is no different; from Run-D.M.C. to Wu-Tang Clan to OutKast and Bone Thugs, the rap group sat at the forefront of the genre throughout the 1980s and 1990s. So how can we appraise “all time” greats now and disregard groups. And yes, reducing a group to its individual members does a disservice to the group’s legacy. The members of De La Soul have never dropped solo albums, does that mean De La Soul can’t be mentioned as one of Hip-Hop’s greatest acts? You can’t really divide things between Pos and Dave as individuals because De La Soul’s greatness is De La Soul’s greatness. Is it always necessary to have separate conversations for solo acts and groups? It shouldn’t be – a great body of work is a great body of work, regardless of whether or not it came from an individual or a collective. When you look at musical Halls Of Fame, their inductees are groups, duos, and solo artists. It’s not like they’re relegated to separate halls.
Three: The “All-Time” part of this thing has seemingly become an arbitrary distinction.
One quick peruse of the debates online and it’s obvious that most doing the commentary aren’t really interested in ranking “all time.” You won’t see a lot of “Melle Mel vs Lil Wayne” arguments, there aren’t a lot of people who can thoughtfully compare a Treach to Fabolous or Public Enemy to Dipset. There’s a casually-accepted ignorance about anything that happened in Hip-Hop before the mid-90s rise of Death Row and Bad Boy; how is “All Time” such an easy distinction when so few people seem to be equipped to truly discuss the greats of all time? That is the very definition of reductive.
The appraisal of rap supremacy is often presented the same as the way we argue about professional athletes. We don’t treat Hip-Hop artists like Hip-Hop artists, we treat them like rappers. We don’t treat rap music like a musical genre anymore inasmuch we act like it’s a league of rhymers, all measurable by the same statistics. The Hip-Hop industry milks that approach for all it’s worth; convincing you that you can measure Jay-Z versus Rakim with the same cold, hard numerical assessment that you can LeBron James versus Michael Jordan: who has more championships, who’s scored more points, who racked up more MVPs. But this, as expansive as Hip-Hop culture is, is still music we’re talking about here. There are no easy “champions” or “MVPs.” Part of the reason the Grammy’s have become so important to Hip-Hop artists is that there is a generation who has been taught to believe that a Grammy is their musical championship ring. It isn’t and it never has been. Your music’s greatness isn’t so easily quantifiable, that’s the beauty of music. Why do we deny Hip-Hop that kind of thoughtfulness in appraisal?
There’s great folly in that approach and there always has been. It’s one of the reasons why “Top Ten All Time” lists have become more laughable by the year; imagine reducing 50 years to just 10 all-time greats. Sales don't make you the greatest, endorsements don't make you the greatest, even industry clout doesn't make you the greatest. Longevity doesn't even make you the greatest. Influence doesn't make you the greatest, either. The greatest artists this genre has ever seen are an amalgamation of all of some of those things or all of those things. The G.O.A.T. debate likely isn't going anywhere, and artists like LL COOL J himself have every right to stake their claim to the title. But for media and for fans, maybe it's time that our discussion surrounding that title change a little bit. Maybe it should expand a little bit. Maybe we should stop treating it like an ESPN debate and dive into what artistic greatness really is. Because if you wouldn't assess Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye or Michael Jackson's greatness via numbers; if you wouldn't reduce Aretha Franklin or The Beatles or Prince to how much money they made; if your assessment of Curtis Mayfield or James Brown isn't limited to their commercial clout or how many years they were on the charts; I think you can use that same approach for this rap shit.
It's time to grow up the conversation. Yanno?