Your Next “Top Five” Debate: How to Avoid Falling Down the Rabbit Hole June 5, 2018 – Posted in: Articles, General, Lifestyle – Tags: Top 5 Emcees Dead or Alive
Your Next “Top Five” Debate:
How to Avoid Falling Down the Rabbit Hole
By Sam Saltman aka Mindz Eye
If you’re like me, you’ve probably had numerous discussions with your friends that went something like this:
Who’s in your top five – dead or alive?
[Names top five.]
[Someone in top five]? Fuck outta here!
I don’t think he’s that ill lyrically, but I could listen to any one of his albums and not skip a song.
At some point, the debate devolves into an existential crisis, as someone always has to pull out the college freshman pseudo-intellectual card.
You can’t say anyone is better or worse than anyone else. It’s a matter of taste. It’s completely subjective. Who I think is better is true for me and who you think is better is true for you. I took this class once and…
Blah blah blah.
Again, if you’re like me, these discussions can seem pointless and get annoying. But not if you make some clear distinctions from the get go. Such as…
What music you “like” is not necessarily what even you think is “good” or “quality” music
Define “like.” Do you mean you “like” music when it makes you feel good? It makes you want to dance and you “like” dancing? It makes you think and you “like” thinking? It makes you “vibe” (whatever that means)?
What you’re looking for in music – what you want to get out of it – determines what you “like,” and that may change depending on your mood. The basic threshold for “liking” music is simply that the sounds you hear (including the lyrics, if any) make you feel good for whatever reason. That’s pretty much purely subjective.
But when we’re talking about some rappers being “better than” others, what do we really mean? Some people might think of it in the same way. Rapper X is better than rapper Y because rapper X’s music makes me feel better than rapper Y’s. Ok, hard to debate that.
If, however, you mean what I mean – that “quality” or “good” music is that which requires high levels of skills to create – then we move away from purely subjective into a gray area with some objective guideposts. After all, skill is to some degree measurable. We must still bear in mind here, though, that sometimes quality music – music that requires a high level of skill to create – does not always coincide with music that makes you feel good, or even sounds good. For example, there’s a band from the 70s called The Mahavishnu Orchestra. The original line up of the band consists of two former Miles Davis band members – John Mclaughlin and Billy Cobham – as well as three other virtuosos. These men may be the greatest – i.e., most skilled – musicians ever assembled in our time. I love the band. My friends hate it; they think it’s a joke. In any case, there are some songs that even to me sound just…I don’t know – weird? – even though the skill required to think of and then play those notes is clearly masterful. So I skip these songs – I don’t “like” them – even though I recognize that they are “quality,” in that they require a lot of skill to create.
Ultimately, though, the ideal music – subjectively and objectively – is that which sounds good (to the largest number of people) and requires the highest level of skill to create (which is NOT the same as being “complicated”).
By contrast, we might like music that we know and even admit is a “guilty pleasure.” I’m willing to bet that phrase was invented to describe exactly this sort of thing. In fact, we could “like” our guilty pleasures more than we like or innocent pleasures – the ones we don’t have to be afraid to admit because we know they’re “quality.” Worse (at least from my point of view), an entire culture may descend into one that likes guilty pleasures more than anything else and ultimately gives up on quality altogether. In that case, a musician who is popular because he or she has the “skill” of knowing what the people want and giving it to them is not the kind of “skill” I’m talking about. Sometimes people want shitty shit and it doesn’t take much of what I call “skill” to make shit.
Which brings us to…
Lyricism versus the overall song
As the mock conversation at the beginning suggests, sometimes people include rappers in their Top Five because they are thinking strictly in terms of lyricism (the Top Five, to these people – which includes me – is a list of those rappers they think are the most skilled lyrically) whereas others include rappers that they think have better songs overall – which may or may not be because of that rapper’s lyrical skills.
Or it’s a mixture. See what happens when you put the Top Five debate another way: If you could listen to only five albums (or five artists’ body of work, etc.) for the rest of your life, which albums would you choose? When it’s phrased like this, people’s answers most often conflate “like” and “good.” For example, I like Biggie’s music more than I like Tupac’s, but I think Tupac is a more skilled lyricist. In other words, I “like” Biggie’s music more than I like Tupac’s, but I think Tupac is “better” than Biggie, in that he’s a better lyricist (although, I must say, not by much).
So often in the Top Five debate people forget this critical difference. They disagree at least partially because they’re not seeing the difference between judging lyrical skills and judging overall song quality. I can like Biggie’s overall songs more than I like Tupac’s for reasons that have nothing to do with lyricism or even overall song quality: Biggie’s from the East Coast and so am I; I like his beats better; there are fewer songs I skip on his albums than on Tupac’s albums; and so on.
So, before jumping head first into “Top Five” debate quicksand, it’s helpful to make this distinction: Are we talking lyrically or overall? “Overall” could include not only song quality but also other things like voice (I can’t stand Jada’s voice, but some people love it), character (“Slim Shady” or Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “shitty drawers”), personality (“He’s a humble dude” or “He’s a real G”), and so on. These other things are mostly subjective and hard to debate. They also overlap with “song quality” and even with lyricism. Speaking of which…
You Can Debate Lyricism without Falling Down a Rabbit Hole
While there is a lot of subjectivity in these discussions and, ultimately, it’s impossible to state with scientific accuracy that X’s lyrics are “better than” Y’s, can we not agree that – lyrically – Mos Def’s
“The shiny/Apple is bruised but sweet, and if you choose to eat/You could lose your teeth, many crews retreat/Nightly news repeat who got shot down and locked down/Spotlight to savages, NASDAQ averages/My narrative grows to explain this existence/Amidst the harbor lights which remain in the distance”
is better than Offset’s
“Putting in work like a foot soldier/I got the work you can smell the odor/Knock em out the way like a bulldozer/100 band jug turn your life over/Working the 9 to 5 ain’t no money/Work in the trap it’s like hundreds on hundreds/No homo got the dick hanging out the 4 5th on my hip make the fuck nigga flip/I’m a bang with the thang/Offset Sean Kemp…”
If you’ve ever tried to write lyrics, it might be obvious. But maybe not. Putting it perhaps too simply, the assumption is that the harder to think of something, the better it is, as long as it makes sense. It doesn’t have to be complicated or refer to obscure historical events or abstruse scientific theories or use fancy words like “abstruse” and shit. But it has to be something that not everyone could think of. Like any good writing, the more it creates pictures in your mind and makes you think about or see what the writer is saying, the better.
So what, if any, are the criteria you and your friends can use next time you have this debate—after, of course, you’ve distinguished the purely subjective “like” from the somewhat less subjective “good” or “quality” and have agreed to focus solely on lyricism? Here is a non-exhaustive list I’ve put together:
- Originality. Does he or she sound like anyone (or everyone) else or is there something different about what this rapper says and/or how he or she says it?
- Versatility. Compare the rapper to him or herself. Does he or she sound the same on every track or does this rapper go from gangster to thought-provoker, and from spitting punchlines to telling stories, and so on?
- Witticism. Wordplay. Metaphors. Thought-provoking concepts and points. Does this rapper do any of that kind of shit?
- Descriptiveness. All great storytellers are great describers. The lyrics don’t necessarily to be a story per se, but do they paint a clear picture in your mind of what the rapper is talking about?
- Flow. Any hip-hop head knows what this is.
- Rhyme-scheme. Same. Although check this out – it gets into the science of this shit. Also see this.
- Depth of Content. Does this rapper have anything to say other than party and bullshit? A rapper doesn’t have to be a philosopher or a Buddhist Monk, but it’s fair to say that someone who just talks about cars, parties, sex, and violence can’t really think of anything deeper than that – because they lack “skills.” At the same time, take Big L – he doesn’t have many songs that go beyond the surface of the street life (with some exceptions), but he does it so well. Like with the other criteria, this one is on a sliding scale and overlaps with others, in this case descriptivenes
- Cohesiveness. Does this rapper just ramble from one thing to other, saying anything he or she can to complete a rhyme? Or do the rhymes flow just as smoothly as one idea into the other? This, to me, is one of the most important criteria, if not the most important.
- Consistency. How often does this rapper meet the highest standards of these criteria?
These are just some the categories that lyricism can be separated into and, when lyricism and overall song quality and these otherwise intertwined things are separated like this, it can guide you through a hopefully more constructive conversation about why you like what you like, or why you include or exclude this or that rapper from your Top Five, or why you’d rather listen to this album than this other album for the rest of your life.
What other criteria for lyricism would you include? Do you agree with how I’ve described the ones above? Are there other distinctions I missed? Who’s in your Top Five – and why? Add your thoughts in the comment section below.
Written By: Sam Saltman