2Pac’s birthday, GOATs and how we get hip-hop wrong
Tupac’s place in hip-hop history was never about being the best rapper. It was always about his artistry.
June 16 would have been Tupac Shakur’s 48th birthday, and the iconic rapper’s legacy is still one of music’s most lauded — and one of its most contested.
Recently, author/commentator Marc Lamont Hill stirred a semi-hornet’s nest by declaring 2Pac “the most overrated rapper in the universe” on BET’s Black Coffee. “2Pac is overrated” sits alongside “the Beatles are overrated” as one of those “unpopular opinions” that have actually been quite pervasive for quite a long time. And, almost every time this conversation plays out, it reveals more about how we appraise greatness than it says about the uber-popular artist being slammed. 2Pac’s mythologized status makes him an easy target, and Hill’s co-hosts’ cries of outrage and disgust let him know they did not agree with his take.
“I know you love what Pac stands for!” Hill acknowledges to the others. “But actually rapping?!”
That’s almost always where the “2Pac is overrated” opinion starts. To be sure, 2Pac has never been the kind of lyricist that Jay-Z, Rakim, Biggie, Andre 3000, Big Daddy Kane, Kendrick Lamar, Black Thought, Big Pun and lots of other upper-echelon rhymers are. His early rhymes are almost alarmingly stiff and basic, and his later flow, while much more nimble and fluid, relies more on his melodism than verbal agility. But 2Pac’s place in hip-hop history was never about him being the best at rapping, it was always about his artistry. And at some point in conversations about hip-hop greatness, the appraisal of artistry took a back seat to the critique of ability.
“Greatest of all time” (GOAT) conversations can be both fun and tiresome, the kind of barbershop debate that can go on for hours but has become the de facto way for too many actual platforms to appraise greatness. Disseminators are supposed to be a bit more thoughtful about these things, but even the most celebrated of rap commentators can sometimes have a reductive lens when it comes to canonizing the genre as a genre. To be certain, hip-hop has never been just a genre, but the ways in which we’ve underserved it as a genre specifically speak to how oversimplified our view of it has remained. And it’s apparent in how we see “greatest rapper” conversations.
In the 1980s and ’90s, rap groups were among the biggest acts in hip-hop, so any “greatest hip-hop artists” lists would have included Run-DMC, Outkast, Wu-Tang Clan, etc. But because we’ve oversimplified the conversation as “greatest rappers,” it’s led to further muddying. “Greatest rapper” suggests a ranking/appraising of individuals. Can you extract individual members even if they’ve never released a solo album? That’s fine if you’re focused on rhyming ability — you can tell if someone can rap regardless of whether they’re solo or in a group. But if you’re appraising legacy/discography, you can’t give the entirety of that legacy to someone who was just one facet of what was a collective.
When discussing the GOAT, so many people don’t seem to consider that “greatest rapper” is an insufficient and cloudy distinction. Is that the artist you feel was greatest at rapping or is it the artist you feel has the greatest artistic legacy in hip-hop? Because greatness in hip-hop, like every genre, isn’t limited to a specific skill set. There are lots of people who can rap better than Gucci Mane, but Gucci Mane’s artistic legacy (quality of discography, the impact of that discography and scope of creative influence) is fairly untenable. If 2Pac was never rated so highly because people thought he was a supreme lyricist, that shouldn’t be grounds for calling him “overrated.” He was never “rated” so highly because of that in the first place.
The constant conversation around 2Pac as lyricist also seems to suggest that 2Pac is the only legendary figure in hip-hop who isn’t a top-tier rhymer. Artists such as Too $hort and the late Pimp C are widely respected, but it’s not necessarily because they spit Black Thought-level bars. DMC has one of the most iconic hip-hop voices ever, but it’s apparent that Run was always much more dexterous on the microphone. The entirety of No Limit’s late-’90s roster (excluding Mystikal, Fiend and Mia X) was stacked with rappers of questionable ability. Chuck D is no slouch on the mic, but is he who you think of when you think of the most skilled lyricists? If we recognize that these legends’ skill as rhymers isn’t what totally defines their respective legacies, it’s hard for me to understand why 2Pac doesn’t get such allowances.
Appraising hip-hop greatness should not be about ranking who can rap the best; if you want to have that conversation, a “greatest MCs/lyricists” list works just fine. But just as there’s a difference between “greatest rhythm and blues singers” and “greatest R&B artists” (see also “greatest rock guitarists” and “greatest rock artists”), there is a difference between “greatest MCs” and “greatest hip-hop artists.” Critiquing the artists focuses more on their body of work and impact, less on specified skill proficiency. We should embrace that mindset more in hip-hop.
In the late 1990s, The Source published a “100 Greatest Albums” list that recognized the classic albums from the previous 20 years of hip-hop history. It was a great issue, with one of the all-time great covers: a pic of a brazen LL Cool J holding five mics. I remember picking up that issue eagerly and feeling like hip-hop had achieved a certain place; it was now a mature genre, old enough to go back through its history with a long lens and start canonizing that history. But as media moved from print to the web and as our attention spans got shorter, such lists started to change. I saw fewer “100 Greatest” and more “Top 5” and “Top 10.” I saw less that emphasized history and lineage and more that focused on “hottest rapper in the game” and “richest rappers.”
There was definitely canonization of the artistic merits of artists and music, but it seemed to take a back seat to easy rankings designed to spark debate or just to stroke our fetish for vicariously basking in the luxuries of celebrities. That condensed canonization led to a dumbing down of our conversations around this genre as a genre. As a result, nuances like “great rapper or great hip-hop artist” fell by the wayside as we rushed to name an easy GOAT without ever distinguishing between technical prowess and creative legacy.
As an artist, 2Pac is one of hip-hop’s most revered, as Hill himself acknowledged. His artistic legacy deserves that reverence: 2Pac’s ability to meld social awareness, street bravado, ladies’ man come-ons and party raps proved to be a template that so many have attempted to follow in the decades since; his fatalism fetish and self-mythologizing are just as influential. His brief career yielded a three-album run that still stands alongside the best in hip-hop (Me Against the World, All Eyez On Me, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory) and one “group” effort that should be mentioned way more (1994’s Thug Life: Volume 1).
He’s also been overly sanitized for the sake of easy martyrdom and hypermythologized to the point of caricature. But in this age of “I said what I said” hyperbole and overstatement, it’s easy to hurl gigantic rocks at our most popular figures. Is 2Pac overrated? Yes, but not uniquely so. And, as these things often do, the backlash against his legacy is leading to him becoming underrated by those eager to dismiss him as a mediocre artist just because he couldn’t rap as well as some others. If that’s not what your legacy is in the first place, then it sounds like building a straw man, offering an arbitrary dismissal. Hip-hop warrants more nuance than that.