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GAME OF THRONES: Rap Royalty

A comprehensive analysis of contemporary Hip-Hop royalty, @TrevBetter’s Game of Thrones is strictly for Advanced Placement, critical thinkers of the culture. Enter at your own discretion….

Words: @TrevBetter

It’s an abstract dissertation not a simplified “Top 10” list. The tangents are more like footnotes for supportive perspective written with an insider’s ear and a pariah’s spirit. The breakdown—surgical— will evoke the concentration of the pencil and pinky finger technique needed to revive your favorite cassette that got eaten in a deck once upon a time.

So while the unwritten test to be an E-M-C-E-E is now a dead scroll that some rappers have recently begun to unearth, I’m going back to the future, digitizing the intangibles that are currently being lost in transition. In essence, they say that numbers don’t lie, but they don’t necessarily tell the truth either…

Part 1: The Temple of Our Familiar

This is a warning! Please don’t let my opinion mess with your pride. The premise is within the title. My views are based on principle, not personal taste. DJ Premier might like Justin Bieber, but he had to ban him from BET’s cipher the same way KRS had to throw PM Dawn off the stage. We are all in the arena, but don’t mistake this for ensconced spit coming from the click of a mouse that leaves droppings in the comments section; virtual gladiator audiences filled with cowards.

Allow me to introduce the conclusion as an important preface. There is NO King or Queen of Hip-Hop because the culture is based on a cipher. Though there is a royal establishment that has seats at this round table, it is highly unlikely that all will be seated at the same time (Unless they are asked by a Viacom subsidiary with global reach or other to pose for a photo.)

Hip-Hop has become a conduit to various forms of success whether it be movies, or Coke-a-Cola buying Vitamin Water for billions (wtf?!) So before your career heads into another stratosphere, treat it like a revolving door of comedians on Saturday Night Live: don’t argue about who’s funnier, just make us laugh. If your comedy movie does better than another’s at the box office, don’t use it against your cast member. Will Ferrell and Tina Fey co-exist just fine. Will Smith and Queen Latifah co-exist just fine.

There was a time in Hip-Hop where Billboard didn’t mean shit to us and hopefully, with the industry’s downturn and emerging underground, that won’t be the only measuring stick. Sure, numbers don’t lie, but they don’t necessarily tell the truth. All emcees need to do is earn their keep with talent a la Lupe and stay true to their “comedic” roots.

Stop acting like crabs in a barrel. When another rapper mentions your name in varied context via rhymes or social media, it doesn’t necessarily constitute as beef. Think more like late night hosts taking shots at other entertainers. Get in a “Yo Mamma” joke state of mind because beef is not something you really want. You just want to talk loud in a crowd knowing that there are others around to *ahem* “hold you back”.

I’m from an ill era, where you couldn’t fake the blood sport whether you were on stage or in the streets. You were reminded that “Kings lose crowns, teachers stay intelligent” and “that no matter who you are, you’ll still catch a bullet scar.” Be clear, I’m not really speaking about violence as rite of passage and it’s not that I’m partial to a dated dream team just for the sake of saying my favorite rappers are better than today’s. I’m saying it’s a contact sport, but the rules and code of conduct are blurred by what “winning” is. I miss judging skills by a DJ dropping the needle…

Truthfully, I’m not that mad at the players in the game. Though I hate when people compare Wiz to Snoop because they have the same laid back silhouette, I appreciate Khalifa’s core, Cole’s cult, Meek’s Philly street meat and Waka’s flame. I have literally said, “All that ass, in them jeans,” thousands of times before he made a song. I’m glad he gave it a melody. In addition, I’m glad all isn’t quiet on the western front, including Dom K bubbling under, Kendrick getting anointed and a Hieroglyphics-font uprising from Odd Future (more proof that creativity flourishes in an organic collective). Even though it’s harder to be Blacker than Paul Wall, artists like Mac Miller, Yelawolf and Machine Gun Kelly are making footprints where Bubba Sparxxx, once trailblazed. Even dark horses such as STS have sparked my genuine interest. As far as the mixed martial art of freestyling, emcees like Iron Solomon and The Saurus are just two of many who can battle in the streets while levitating (a feat commercial artists want no part of).

I was beginning to think that rappers wouldn’t persevere without a sequel to Scarface. Caution: many rappers who were on fire just a few years back are kindling once again. I’ve come to terms that my argument, for my favorite Pete Rock and CL Smooth song to be in the Top 20 Greatest Rap Songs Ever, may barely make a current Top 200 list. So rookies take the first letters of this article’s title and take heed as I prove my point. If you want to be in the rat race, you must be a rat. But be careful what you wish for because you will get G.O.T.

I’m reserving the right to be selective when discussing thrones, sometimes separating church and state while purposely neglecting to give details about some of the obvious crown holders. For example, Kanye will never be a content king because he’s in search of a crown made of thorns. But that’s neither here nor there…The purpose in this piece lies in distinguishing the rulers and the default worship that defines their reign. It’s easy to identify teenage love when presenting Mindless Behavior less than a decade since we last heard B2K, because all industries are sustained on the cycle of introducing factory products to a new generation. I’m talking about question-mark kings like Rick Ross, who I tout, but seemingly don’t have a choice about truly because it’s like he’s offering us an extended version of the same song (Okay, 50 didn’t knock you out… same lawyer, huh? The real Rick Ross can’t sue Rozay even with different lawyers. You weegie-ed Tupac, you know the real Noriega, Meech, BMF, Ciroc-a-fella—you’re Biggie, he’s Diddy, I get it!)

A King is out of jail, again, and Tiny xscaped doing time of her own. Since we’re talking about the ATL, let’s credit Ludacris for being the Hannibal of the South and Jeezy for being his own sovereign power. And I won’t, nor do I want to run down the timeline naming predecessors like Scarface just for the sake of dropping names. I, like most Rap enthusiasts, have argued every category like sport statistics, so this posting could go on forever. Remember when rappers use to shout their crew/label then follow it with the word “forever”? Is G-Dep in jail saying “Bad Boy forever” now? Is Puff the only reason Mase didn’t come out on G-Unit because he wouldn’t sign Betha’s release? If so, I guess it is forever… Soon rappers will need to form unions because in this Warholian world, everyone will have at least one single on iTunes. Twitter will have pre-programmed beats by Dre (or whoever is producing for him) and “Don’t Be Tardy to the Party” theme music will fulfill a YouGeneration popular desire. What does all this have to do with Rap Royalty? Controlling the free for all, of course. Order in the court!!!

Part 2: The Queens

Ladies first, let’s start with the Queen’s speech. I personally think there is more than one “Queen of Hip-Hop” and they don’t rap, they sing. (BTW, that was my cool way of side-stepping Nicki & Kim, which I touched on somewhat diplomatically in my previous article. But if I had to choose—keeping my sexual prowess in check, trying not to get distracted by which Kings may have penned certain verses, knowing both can “kick shit like a nigga do”, yet knowing that would also bring Eve, Foxy and Remy into the debate—let’s just say, I prefer the one with the letter “k” in her name. Ok, let’s just say, me and Prince stayed at the same hotel and met the same girl in the lobby masturbating to a magazine (hope she don’t go under the knife too)…

As I was saying, I declare the Queens of Hip-Hop to be Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys. Oh! I can’t forget Erykah Badu, who has three kids with three different high caliber rappers, while transcending the talk show Baby Mama image. With all due respect to her family, I am convinced her box is something biblical, definitely mythical. If she ain’t one of the queens, she’s definitely the most powerful siren.

Mary is a queen for obvious reasons supported by her discography. While the late ’80s golden era had the dopest group of female emcees from coast to coast, Mary was a true rose in the concrete. The most hardened criminal would bump her first album from start to finish. She was rough around the edges but suitable for a suit-and-tie guy. Mary is a queen because there really was and still is, real love. “What’s the 411?” (the actual song) is a pendulum swing from Hip-Hop’s stylish consciousness to its general street consensus status quo. Though Grand Puba’s verse was a classic American Hillfiger fit, the remix formally introduced the Bad Boy version of Hip-Hop and R&B, where Puba finished his 40 and passed the blunt to B.I.G. who told us all about his dreams of being with certain singers (while sipping Beck’s). From then on, there was a changing of the guard and new breed of emcees emerged, each yearning for the day to be knighted by the Queen (I like how happy Weezy was over that old Chubb beat). Uptown Records made an entire remix album and if not mistaken, it was the first and only one of its kind at the time, hence “We Invented the Remix.” I don’t know about “invented”, but Puff definitely put a flag on it (sorry Marley, Teddy and Pete).

Some of you may say I’m bugging for making it a split decision with Alicia Keys and that’s totally understandable. Especially, since my argument is also biased, in favor of a city. A city where the unofficial slogan is: “if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere.” A concrete jungle where dreams are overplayed—here in New York (and soon to be in the bathrooms of the new Nets stadium). I’m so sick of that song, yet girls from all over the world still sing it with the conviction of a love ballad. The chorus is so strong that the version without Jay-Z doesn’t even miss his vocals. Keys drowns out the “King” like his “Queen” at home can’t sing (run hum dat!). Relax, I’m not saying Beyoncé can’t sing, just that she can’t sing that song and shouldn’t try to fill in for this song or the ones Jay does with Mary either. And that’s why Mary and Alicia are queens.

Who runs the world in this game of thrones? The song credited to Alicia Keys & Jay-Z is the volcanic eruption of a “New York State of Mind” as pointed out by Rakim’s explanation to “Mahogany.” Nas then took that line and made it a hot song; a song made for the crevices of cement unique to our subway system. Alicia then prepared to make a table for three and sandwich herself in Rap history as a queen with two kings—Nas and Rakim. She knew the song had very little to do with herself the same way Nas wrote Ra’s unauthorized biography. She wasn’t going to sell more with these guys on her album, but she recognized the importance of exposing them to her audience, for the sake of Hip-Hop. She took the same beat from the Nas song (one of DJ Premier’s hardest) and sang like she was singing for food stamps. The song was meant to pay homage to the gritty labyrinth and all the chatter of Nas being his era’s equivalent to the 18th letter. Rakim describes it in one of his best verses post-prime as “the opposite of Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra, Alicia Keys, Nas and Ra, the gangster’s opera!” Unfortunately, it was hardly heard, because the song never officially came out due to slow clearances.

Colleagues said she was devastated it didn’t make the album and so was I. It was a dream fulfilled then deferred until her supreme justice came along through Jay. Nas often doesn’t come off on top when he and Jay collaborate. Fittingly, Rakim starts his verse “I’m from the home of a million legends,” and that’s what this piece is about. He’s technically referring to NY, but let’s substitute “home” for “Hip-Hop” without borders.

I know I put too much thought into this crap. I know it was a NYCentric analysis and though bridges and tunnels from the birthplace of the Bronx are still being built all over the world, you can NOT be a ruler in Hip-Hop without NY approval (or so I hope, but it will soon be an irrelevant stamp anyway). It takes New Yorkers a minute to admit that the King of NY doesn’t necessarily default you as the King of Hip-Hop. Frank White died at the end and life imitated art. We like to compare it to Hollywood when convenient, but it’s not. It’s a unique genre of music that mirrors multiple civilizations. Again, that’s the whole point (of origin), the womb. Thank you, ladies.

Part 3: The Kings

Okay, let’s talk T.I., 50, Em, Ross, Snoop, Kanye, Drake, Weezy, Jeezy, Tupac, Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas. That short list may span too broad of a reign for fair ranking, but they’re all pharaohs. Of course, B.I.G. and Pac have their own pyramids on sacred real estate so there’s no need to expound. But since men of all ages argue about the belt in every weight class, I’ll divide it into grandfathers, forefathers, godfathers, generals, architects, assassins, kingpins, bosses—and you can put whoever you want in one of those categories, so I can continue on with my diatribe without Melle Mel, LL, et al being mad at me.

Putting the “can” in Canada, here comes Drizzy! He’s definitely a valedictorian who likes stripper-esque women. So does Bill Maher, there’s nothing wrong with that. Sidebar: it’s sad that if it wasn’t for Superhead, most of Generation Y wouldn’t know who Kool G. Rap is. But anyway, I listen to Drake’s older mixtape stuff more than his current stuff because he now seems too distracted by what others think of him. Even though it does often seem like he wants to remake Usher’s greatest hits more than he wants to make his own.

People should leave him alone and let him be good. Saying you don’t like him is the equivalent of hating on an interracial couple who is clearly in love, while you’re on a date with someone of mixed race. It’s like Tupac’s attraction to Kidada [Jones] and criticism of Quincy’s Love composition. Drake’s probably going to be the only rapper to make a successful Christmas album. I’m serious. He could do a joint with Rev Run and Mary Mary about the immaculate birth of Jesus. I would buy a Drake Xmas album, yes I can.

Poor Jeezy is in a state of shock and denial from watching Gucci blow with a retarded flow, and Rick rocket by chanting the names of Jeezy’s incarcerated colleagues. I don’t mean to pick on Rick. I just think not admitting you were a Corrections Officer says something about your character. Just as easily, he could have implied that’s how he met his connect if he wanted to appear sinister. For many, taking sides in this battle is less about the hit list and more about authenticity. It’s the difference between Rick Ross thinking he’s Big Meech, and Jeezy knowing Big Meech, in a way the Feds distinguish. It’s deeper than Rap (in memory of Shakir. I gotta shout Morehouse).

T.I. really wants to be a Colin Farrell version of Ice Cube in his transition from America’s Most Wanted to the Hollywood Shuffle. I think if you put Cube’s first three albums up against T.I.’s first three, Cube’s stuff is still stronger. It has more substance that’s still relevant today. Plus, the Friday and Barbershop collection have a heavier impact than what T.I. is doing. Most merely like the idea of T.I. as the King. Kind of like we like the idea of Trina being the baddest bitch just off one verse from over a decade ago, but she ain’t. She’s just somebody everybody wants to fuck. I guess there’s the contradiction.

From Billboard hits to the box office, Luda does it better, but the girls are more attracted to TIP, so there’s the contradiction again. Name five verses that T.I. absolutely and undeniably murdered. Unfortunately, since he can no longer afford to be too gangster (there’s no coming back from being on The View), we must accept him going full force as an actor and an edgier LL over beats, because too much murder in his rhymes would sound like a parole violation.

Marshall Mathers has the skills of Willie Pep and Eminem has the mass appeal of Rocky. Not much else needs to be said especially since he gave thanks to a long list of pioneers when he won his Grammy. That brings us to the first most anticipated rapper ever. Other guys may get their shot at a Vegas run, but I guarantee you Snoop will be the last man standing, making more money over the age of 50 than under that milestone. You know why, because even if you hate Hip-Hop, you still want a picture posing next to Snoop. He’s going to be the coolest old man on the planet, filling the void of a Hugh Hefner coming attraction.

While on the subject of robes, I just want to squeeze in Ghostface and give an honorable mention to Fabolous. Both get left out of Top 5 discussions, but they can both spar and check hook any emcee when boxing after dark. There are others of course, young and old (our Ortiz wouldn’t wait for the referee), but Ghost commandeers a very unique respect (at the time of the Wu’s debut, it seemed unlikely that he would be the last man standing). Fab, too, started going on a low key killing spree that rivaled Weezy’s shift to fifth gear. A more dexterous version of Jadakiss, his S.O.U.L. and Funeral mixtapes have gotten the most airplay in my whip, whether I’m riding with guys (my money team) or girls (shout out to Tahiry’s block). This leads us to being a king of your lane like Flo Rida, who turned out to be a modern day Rob Base, independent of 305’s best. These examples are equally important to study for rappers who want to enter the Game of Thrones.

Speaking of the Game (as I continue to drop names), while most rappers reside on land, 50 is a Poseidon who has the jurisdiction of an ocean (even the Pacific). Owning water gives him an earth-shaking, not giving a flying fish attitude. Swim or sail at your own risk (Maybach must make submarines, right?). One king wasn’t scared to get wet and quietly claimed victory against 50’s gentleman’s bet. As I said before, Kanye may watch the throne, but he seeks the crucifix that was bestowed to Nas due to his street monk debut. It somewhat pains me to say that if I had to choose one artist’s entire collection to represent all of Hip-Hop’s cannon, it would be the unexpected mouth of Mr. West, only when accompanied by music.

The obvious remainders are both Carters. Their recent static has some tug of war history, but nothing that really divides the same audience. It becomes a comic book argument, even replaceable with some of the aforementioned candidates. Like the difference between Ali and Tyson, the difference for me lies in purpose. Jay-Z is a secular hustler with a God-given gift that makes Hip-Hop his religion. But here’s the problem with Jay, he’s an exception to the rules. He’s like a Buffet, Branson, Bloomberg mixed with L. Ron Hubbard. He can have presidential influence, reinvent the Roc and with his wife like a Virgin, set his own term limits, and make followers ask “What would Hova do?” He really “do got Baby money.” Yeah, it may have been a little jab, but when industry folk find out the cash Baby gave Wayne F. Baby on TV was just for show, there’s going to be elbows and winks amongst those in the know. Everybody’s so sensitive. Jay’s MC Hammer line wasn’t a diss, it was a dream come true. “I loss 30 mil so I spent another 30, cause unlike Hammer 30 can’t hurt me!” Is the entendre of “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em?” too personal or too powerful because Hammer does an equally good job of exploiting his own loss. To me, it alley oops the lines that follow, where Jay states his own disbelief that he’s even able to confess a loss of that amount and be able to double down. Clap for him.

Lil Wayne is the Pythagorean product of two emcees to the exponent, such as Redman on Red Bull plus Method Man on Crystal Meth, it equals Tunechi. But what does Wayne stand for? With so much going on with him post-emancipation, I’ve decided to write him a whole separate open letter without the ultimatum of Uncle Luke, mainly due to his so called PSA. Jay’s PSA off the mic is displayed in his humanitarian and philanthropic support. Now, I don’t know where Weezy’s money goes, and I’m not talking child support, late model hand-me-downs or giving out turkeys in the hood; it’s kinda not my business since he earned it. But since Cash Money is the business, and “100 Million Dollars” and every other song is overloaded with digit and ice figures, I am curious about his non-obligated, charitable call to duty. This is not meant to single him out, I’m equally curious about the MTV Carib, gold-plated tanks in N.O. city limits, but that guy isn’t currently a GQ deity. I believe P was last seen dancing with the Stars.

Maybe there’s a gossip back story to why Spike edited Wayne out of both documentaries. All I know is that Brad Pitt showed up in the backyard Wards, putting up solar roofs for those who witnessed roofs float away, while Weezy looked like an absentee dad driving around Miami with the roof missing. Prove me wrong; I don’t need to be right with this. I want to picture Wayne, his kids, their mothers, Brangelina and their kids, all on an episode of Extreme Makeover. Altruism can be a good hustle and there’s no better way to have a housing project named after you than to pay for it. Any king wouldn’t hesitate to do that, duh.

There are two others that could make an album that would trump Jay and Ye. One paved the way for the other, and that other, hasn’t really rapped in years. In 2004, one man, on his second album, made a poor man’s proclamation to enrich his soul (and the souls of Black folk) by walking through the eye of a needle or “die trying.” In the song he manifests his destiny with lines like, “I could be a pretty good thug, but it wouldn’t compare to a great me.” His predecessor put his legacy in perspective with lines like, “I started out starving, now they got me out here Brett Favre’in, tryin’ to see if I still got it.” In a trap dominated field, their birds flew into another orbit. Cee-Lo Green found a crazy vibration and Andre 3000 became a time traveler. They make fashion statements without their songs making them sound like fashion whores. Unlike DuBois’s definition of “two-ness” that splits Jay when humbly discussing world issues with Bono all the while slightly embarrassed that the codes of the street still mandates his music, Andre and Cee-Lo have been comfortable in the metamorphic, unique representation of themselves. In a day and age where love is measured by hate, hating them means you hate the integrity of an artist. Imagine your reaction if I told you I hate those guys…. I don’t know about the king’s clothes, but Andre 3000 and Cee-Lo Green are certainly the kings of something. Peace to RUN-D.M.C. and all you Sucker M.C.’s, this concludes the cipher.

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