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Hip-Hop Fridays: H to The Izzo… Why The Problem With Ranking Jay-Z?

For those of us to dare to enter those "greatest MCs of all time" discussions, things are never easy. You always are confronted with people who are too emotional and even irrational about the matter. And you are always faced with the problem of people who can't establish a criterion by which they can evaluate any rapper other than their favorite. For that reason and others, many people like to stay away from such conversations.

But for those few who can avoid the arguments and fisticuffs and the mind-altering substances that often lead to such, and discuss the hypothetical or more abstract regions of Hip-Hop artistry in a sincere, balanced and reasonable manner, the effort to make a list of say, the top ten greatest MCs of all time can be revealing and a lot of fun.

We have been in about three of those discussions this summer and in each case we ran into the same problem: serious controversy as to where to rank Jay-Z. Now, everyone that we talked to agreed that he was definitely in the top ten but there were problems as to how high he should be ranked. Now, that would not be a real problem, in our opinion, were it not for the reasons offered by some for the dilemma.

Now on paper, the case for Jay-Z to be in the lower half of the top ten is pretty strong. Arguably, he has 2 classic albums; numerous hits, even street anthems, ("H to the Izzo…" only the most recent); has the ability to rhyme over any style of beat; demonstrates exceptional wittiness; he has longevity (he his finishing his 6th album as we speak); he has "fathered" an incredible amount of MCs who try to sound just like him; he also does not write his rhymes down with a pen and pad in a studio – he actually can have 3 songs memorized – the chorus and everything - in his head, before he lays down his vocals.

Just about everyone in those discussions agreed with the above but had their criticisms as well. They said that 1) his lyrical content could be much more conscious than it is 2) he has never been able to match the quality of Reasonable Doubt 3) his recent success is more a by-product of his emphasis on scantily clad women in videos and the "Big Pimpin" imagery. 4) He has only blown up because Biggie died. 5. Nas is better 6. He hasn't shown he can freestyle like other great MCs…

Reason # 4 we thought was the most interesting because we hear it a lot and wonder about the legitimacy of the claim. Nine times out of ten it comes from people who rank Biggie higher than Jay-Z on their lists, which is fine. But we ask them do they remember what Biggie is quoted as saying about Jay-Z? Surprisingly, they don't remember that Biggie, in effect, said in 1997 that Jay-Z was the only MC that made him nervous or that he felt could get with him. I remember at the time hearing about that. I also remember a few discussions I had with people very close to Biggie who told me the same thing.

At the time I was with Wu-Tang and Jay-Z was on the total opposite side of the music spectrum and so I did not make too much of the comment(s), although I did have his album, Reasonable Doubt and would play it, along with a few others, whenever I took a break from the seemingless hundreds of RZA, Truemaster and 4th Disciple-produced tracks I had in the vehicle.

But over the last two years I have heard Hip-Hop fan after Hip-Hop fan knock Jay-Z for reasons that I think border on "hate". It is not like we think Jay-Z is the best rapper of all time, at this point, so we are open to any arguments against him pro or con, if they are reasonable. We questioned people front, back and sideways and were shocked to see how many people really had no reason for not ranking Jay-Z highly. Some said that they did not really know why they felt as they did. Others' arguments boiled down, again, to the fact that Jay-Z is not Biggie. Huh?

I really can't understand what lies beneath the refusal to give credit where credit is due. The best I could come up with is that Jay-Z's self-confidence, to some, borders on arrogance, and that many are tired of hearing him talk about himself. After all he now does have two major hits with a chorus where you are "commanded" to say or spell his name (smile). But this is competitive Hip-Hop, right? Not a humility contest.

The Biggie argument against Jay-Z is a bit unfair, we think, being that there is no way for Jay-Z, in the minds of Hip-Hop fans, to compete with the memory or unseen potential of the Notorious one. In that sense, it seems as if only KRS-One and Rakim are allowed the honor of being ranked ahead of Biggie in the minds of many fans. Notice we haven't even factored in Tupac's enormous appeal before and after death. Sometimes it appears as if people don't know what to do with Tupac, even more than Jay-Z, on their "lists".

KRS-One and Rakim are ranked ahead of Biggie, at times, because they came before him. The same can't be said about Jay-Z. Being a peer of a posthumous rapper puts one in an impossible situation. But in a sense that is natural. When a person dies we have the ability to examine their life work free of any future transitions or stages of growth. We can see the beauty of a person much more clearly in death than we can in life, unfortunately. As it is written in the scriptures, "For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth."

And then there is the fifth reason or the "Nas-factor", which will heat up (we hope only lyrically) now that Nas has reacted publicly, and in a freestyle, to Jay-Z's new track and the alleged and real tensions between Roc-A-Fella and QB.

Many people that we talked to think that Nas' album in 1994, Illmatic is better than any Jay-Z made and pound-for pound think that on their best days, Nas is a better MC or lyricist than Jay-Z. On the other hand, many of Nas' biggest fans concede to us that in recent years Nas has "fallen off" a bit and that they would give the upper hand to Jay-Z on consistency alone. In a sense, it is good that they are peers of one another and if they keep what they are doing on wax, it could bring out the best of both of them, lyrically speaking.

There is no doubt, in our minds that Nas and Jay-Z are two of the greatest MCs to ever do it – and they both have strengths that the other doesn't.

Already, people are telling us that the new Jay-Z album is poised to be his best. We don't know if this is hype or based in reality, as we have not heard the album yet. We even wonder whether the people telling us this have even heard the album. But "H to the Izzo…" is a great start and has just about everybody open to the album. If in fact, the upcoming album is his best or equal to Reasonable Doubt the problem of ranking Jay-Z will become just about impossible for those who can't seem to fully recognize his greatness, as he would have been able to do what no other MC that we know of has: make his sixth album a classic.

We will have to wait until September to see what happens…and then maybe for the next Nas album, and then the next Jay-Z album and then…(smile). This could get like a Vince Carter-Kobe Bryant slam dunk contest.

P.S. will publish its list of the 10 greatest MCs later this year.

Cedric Muhammad

Friday, August 3, 2001

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