No Country for Old (Rap) Men: Does A Rapper Need Variety To Be Great?

A top-shelf MC doesn't necessarily have to be a jack-of-all-trades, writes Robbie of Unkut

Posted By Robbie Ettelson |

What is it that defines an outstanding MC? Is it simply delivering consistently top-notch material? Or does it require something more? I caught a discussion on the merits of range the other day, where it was suggested that Roc Marciano wasn’t in the same league as guys such as Nas and Jay-Z simply because he ‘lacks variety’ and sticks to his criminology lane too closely. This got me thinking – does a hip-hop album need to cover all bases to be a classic?

If we examine some of the undisputed masterpieces of the genre, the evidence tends to point to no. Raekwon’s seminal Only Built For Cuban Linx… doesn’t have any ‘party’ tracks, and the closest it gets to an ‘emotional’ track is Rainy Dayz. Ice Cream provides a moment of respite from the Wu-Gambino onslaught, but for the most part the record works so well because of its focused intensity. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic is all bitches, blunts, booze and beat-downs, except for Lil’ Ghetto Boy, which everyone skips over anyway, while Mobb Deep’s The Infamous is nothing but anti-social Thun Rap except for Drink Away The Pain. These albums are all regarded as classic because what they lack in variety they compensate for by doing what do so perfectly.

That doesn’t address the issue of the MC’s though. It’s worth noting that Mobb Deep, Snoop, Dre and Raekwon aren’t going to feature in most ‘Top 5 Dead Or Alive’ lists for the same reason, as popular opinion of them would indicate that they lack range, despite having made some of the best records in rap thus far. It seems that to be regarded in the upper echelons of MCing, you need to cover all the bases. Biggie, Nas, Eminem and Jay-Z mastered everything from storytelling to bragging to pop hits, while still being able to deliver sentimental or emotional engaging content just as effectively. On the other hand, LL Cool J just gave us incredible songs about his lyrical superiority and a bunch of tracks to charm the broads, yet he’s arguably the greatest rapper of all-time in terms of his longevity and impact. Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane never had any massive crossover singles, but who can deny their skills when they were in their prime?

Variety and range are great, but not essential. KA gave us the amazing Grief Pedigree last year, without a ‘party’ song or ‘story-telling’ track in sight, but he’s not that kind of lyricist. KA is effective because he’s unique and unorthodox. Roc Marciano takes the stream-of-consciousness technique that Kool Keith introduced on Critical Beatdown and replaces the space shuttle with a caddy. He doesn’t try to cover all bases but that wouldn’t make sense within his persona. ‘Party’ songs are overrated anyway – for every Ain’t No Nigga success there are ten Summer On Smash failures. At the end of the day, it’s more important for an MC to master their lane, even if it’s a narrow one, than to be a jack-of-all-trades and attempt to please everyone.

Keep up with Robbie’s weekly ‘No Country For Old (Rap) Men’ here.

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