It’s Tupac’s birthday and of course across the Internet I’m hearing fans touting him as the greatest rapper ever, the best to ever do it, and so on and so forth. Years after his death, Pac fans still reserve the title of “greatest” to Tupac in terms of lyrical ability, influence, and apparently just being the man in general. I personally grew up in California at the height of Pac’s popularity and have never been as much of a fan as seemingly everyone else. There, I said it. However, that opinion doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge the man’s contributions to hip-hop and respect his ability…just wasn’t my cup of cognac aside from certain songs (see videos included below for two examples).
While Pac undeniably wrote some classic joints and put out some classic albums, any hip-hop fan knows there’s a huge difference between being able to write songs to present a quality, finished product and freestyling, battling and/or writing a hot 16 bars…ask Canibus. To me, Tupac didn’t have that “rewind factor”…there wasn’t much he said that blew me away in terms of wordplay. There will be those who totally disagree with that, but whatever….to each his own. In an obviously hypothetical freestyle battle situation, do I see Pac going toe to toe with a Black Thought or a Big Pun, for instance, and not getting eaten? No, I do not. I see a battle worth watching 100 times over, ultimately resulting in a loss on Pac’s end. [Kanye Shrug]
A large portion of Tupac’s fanbase also consists of females who practically love the man and would fight you tooth-and-Lee-press-on-nail if you say he isn’t the greatest to ever pick up the mic, yet these are some of the same people who have never heard of Big L and haven’t even listened to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx in its entirety. I absolutely hate when people say you have to have heard this or that to be a “true” hip-hop fan or a student of the artform, but to go out on a limb and say someone is the greatest ever is to also imply that you have a wide range listening experience, not just what mainstream urban radio has spoon-fed you.
To be fair, some of the same things can be said of Biggie, though to me Big was the full package in terms of lyrical prowess, wordplay, storytelling and even humor. Both are legendary, both had classic albums, but it’s important that we as fans don’t romanticize the memory of deceased MCs to the point we reserve the superlatives only for those MCs, who we attribute to another time out of stubbornness and/or nostalgia. There will always be those who mimic or draw from the influence of Pac or Big or others, but hip-hop has always built on itself, so while we can’t forget what has come before, it’s important to remember why the ones we consider great are considered great. Pac was a star and he built a persona that was both alluring to mainstream America and was something that the Black community could get behind: an N.W.A. who just did not give a f*ck. But he did give a f*ck, and that internal conflict is what made his work compelling. Greatest lyricist of all time? No, but I will hand it to Pac for giving us a body of work that will arguably hold more longevity and influence than anything else ever put out.
“2 of America’s Most Wanted” by 2Pac f/ Snoop Doggy Dogg
“Ambitionz As A Ridah” by 2Pac