For the last few years, I’m often entertained by rankings that list hip-hop’s Greatest Lyricist of All Time. Occasionally, there’s a list with real substance, though far too often, greatness is defined by commercial success and the list leans toward buffoonery, including the likes of Birdman and Soulja Boy. I’m like, “Soulja Boy…Really?”
I’m sure the criteria at times can be challenging for those creating the list. Maybe I’m wrong, but you’d think in order for someone to be considered a great lyricist, they should be able to write, or have WRITTEN some amazing lyrics. Not only that, this “lyricist” should be able to convey those lyrics in such a way that’s both entertaining and informative.
Not everyone will agree with me and it’s cool for you to be WRONG (LOL)! You see, my exposure to hip hop dates back to the WAY TOO early 80’s. I believe there are guys I’d classify as great lyricist and then there are guys (or groups) I’d simply classify as game-changers.
For example, I remember getting on the bus headed to school and being stared at as if I had a third eye because I wasn’t familiar with Rappers Delight:
“Now what you hear is not a test–i’m rappin to the beat
and me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet”
Although this song became as common for me as a nursery rhyme, I probably wouldn’t include the Sugar Hill Gang on my list of great lyricists. No doubt about them being game-changers; pioneers even. The group’s lyrical style/technique became standard and blazed the trail for pretty much everyone that followed.
I think the first time I heard the combination of a game-changer AND a great lyricist was in 1987, the summer leading into my senior year in high school. Several tracks had already been released and when the album dropped, everything in hip-hop changed. The combination of hearing dope (which in this context means really good) samples of older songs and at the time, an unparalleled lyricist all on the same track was unheard of!
Yo, there’s no way I can fully explain the significance of the Paid In Full album, by Eric B & Rakim. It’s one of those hip-hop joints that took the art form to an entire different level of entertainment. In fact, I Know You Got Soul is still to this day (HANDS DOWN) one of my all-time favorite tracks.
C’mon man, that old school Bobby Byrd sample along with Rakim lyrically assassinating the track…WHAT? The dude literally animated a line with hardly any voice inflection whatsoever:
I start to think
And then I sink
Into the paper
Like I was ink
When I’m writing I’m trapped in between the line
When I finish the rhyme
I Got Soul…Soul…soul…soul…
It’s interesting to hear interviews by some of the greats (Pac, Biggie, Jigga, Nas) and they all make reference to Rakim being a major influence on them. Clearly, he doesn’t get the love he deserves if he influenced those bruhz!
Makes me wonder, who are there other game-changer & great lyricist combos the genre has produced over the last 30+ years? I’d love to review that list!