The wrath of Kane, takin over your circumference / Destroyin negativity and suckers that come with / The weak, the wack, the words, the poor / I thrash, bash, clash, mash, and then more / Blow up the scenery, I reign supremer, see / You need a savior to save ya, so lean on me
This was the radical shift; everything that followed basically extended those lines. Some rappers pushed the Rakim–Big Daddy Kane aesthetic to such decadent complexity that it basically stopped making sense. (Aesop Rock: “Martyrs talk funny causes in a harvesting Spartacus.”) Others, most famously the gangsta rappers, stripped things back to Old School simplicity, telling tales of gats and pigs and blunts in easy-to-follow couplets. (Ice-T: “Pigs searched our car, their day was made / Found a Uzi, .44, and a hand grenade.”) The best contemporary rappers, like Jay-Z, manage to blend these traditions: to make every syllable sweat with poetic effort, but in the service of a quick and clean narrative.
Reading The Anthology of Rap was the most fun I’ve had with a book in many months: It just kept pouring out new waves of creativity, personality, and intelligence. The table of contents, all by itself, is full of wit and drama: There are artists called Devin the Dude, Pharoahe Monch, and Brother D with Collective Effort; there are songs called “Alphabet Aerobics,” “Ten Crack Commandments,” “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” and “Incarcerated Scarfaces.” The book is, among other things, a Smithsonian of boasts and insults and brilliant one- liners; you could wander through it for days collecting perfect little treasures:
“I tutor the Torah, I’m in the core of the Qur’an.”—Chino XL
“By the powers vested in me, I digested MCs.”—Aceyalone
“I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.”—Cam’ron
“I move ’caine like a cripple.”—The Clipse
“I’m flying on Pegasus, you flying on a pheasant.” —Lupe Fiasco
There’s street wisdom (De La Soul: “Neighborhoods are now ’hoods ’cause nobody’s neighbors”) and writing advice (Canibus: “The more pretentious, the more apprehensive the sentence”) and free- associative word strings that read like Beat poetry (Myka 9: “Airstrip stormy rain military ship landing a plane in Malaysia amnesia”). There’s a memorable gyno-dis, courtesy of the Lady of Rage: “I flow like the monthly, you can’t cramp my style / For those that try to punk me, here’s a Pamprin, child.”
Some rap, inevitably, doesn’t quite hold up on the page: The words, without the special gravity of their historical moment or the mojo of their delivering MC, just sit there awkwardly. A few of history’s greatest rappers—voices I had expected to love in print—left me disappointed. Lil Wayne, the self-proclaimed best rapper alive, has all kinds of weird swagger—as he puts it: “Swagger tighter than a yeast infection / Fly, go hard like geese erection”—but in print, his vivid fragments never seem to add up; I found myself more disoriented than excited. (“Weezy,” as he calls himself, famously says he never writes down his rhymes, so I’m guessing his material is unusually delivery-dependent.) Wu-Tang, surprisingly, also left me cold—much of their appeal seems to depend on their esoteric ghetto-karate lifestyle cult. Nas, apparently one of the lyrical geniuses of the nineties, somehow didn’t excite me at all. I’m afraid to admit this publicly, but even the Notorious B.I.G., while occasionally funny (“Oh my God, I’m droppin’ shit like a pigeon”), never blew my mind like I wanted him to. The chasm between his reputation and my experience might be the strongest indicator of how much is lost in the transition from oral to written rap.
And now to the ultimate question. Based exclusively on my reading of The Anthology of Rap, who is the best rap lyricist of all time? (Please note that this is a very different question than “who is the best rapper of all time?”) I fell in love with a long list of textual voices: Big L, Big Pun, Bun B, Kool Moe Dee, Mos Def, Brother Ali, the Clipse, Jean Grae, Kanye West, Young Jeezy, DMX, Slick Rick. But my shortlist for the best ever comes down to just six: Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z, Eminem, Canibus, Chino XL, and Lupe Fiasco. These are the rappers who dazzled me most consistently with the density of their ideas and wordplay and imagery. I could make a strong case for any of them. If I had to choose just one, though, I’d go with Big Daddy Kane: He towers, for me, over rap’s other early innovators (Melle Mel, Rakim), he was still around to outrap 2Pac and Biggie in a freestyle in 1995, and his fingerprints are all over today’s best lyricists. I hereby nominate him as the greatest rapper of all time—at least on paper. And now I’m going to go see what he sounds like.