The Greatest of All Time (GOAT) conversation is as old as time. It’s also kind of a waste of time. It’s a great way to drive discussion and exchange ideas within any topic, and it can serve as a decent icebreaker in certain situations. Recently, an anonymous internet user dropped a list ranking the top 50 Greatest Rappers of All Time. It included some interesting choices, to say the least. Retired rapper Joe Budden rang in at number three, while legends like Rakim barely made the list. This of course triggered an avalanche of people responding with lists of their own. What makes the GOAT conversation in rap so annoying is that it always becomes a popularity contest. You’ll have the pseudo-intellectual crowd dismissing anything that was made after ’02; on the flip side you’ll have newer listeners dismiss a lot of old school rap music that doesn’t have catchy ad-libs or 808s.
Much of the discourse is dominated by people who are so self-important and smug that they’ll make an indictment on your character just because you don’t share their totally subjective music taste. This reinforces the toxic gatekeeping that’s already rampant within the community. That’s what’s funny about this whole conversation; it’s entirely subjective to the era you grew up in and the type of music you were exposed to at that time. A millennial who grew up in the 2000s would probably pick Lil’ Wayne, Drake, or Eminem as their GOAT. However, Kendrick Lamar is looking to challenge that. A Gen X’er would probably pick Tupac or Biggie, and even that is its own debate given the different styles of music and controversy surrounding the two. Not only that, but for every top 50 list you make, there’s always a cohort of people shrieking at the top of their lungs because you didn’t put Redman or Aesop Rock on it.
These conversations should allow us to reflect on how far rap music has come. In an ideal world, they would be centered around the significant figures and moments that shaped rap music into what it is today. Rap has transformed from a subculture practiced by poor kids in the Bronx to something that unites people from all over the globe. Instead of reflection, these GOAT conversations are merely a chance for older heads to lambast the younger generation, despite the many artists that are putting out great work today.
If you’re into Gangster Rap check out guys like Mozzy, SOB x RBE, Freddie Gibbs and DaBaby. Dreamville and TDE have entire rosters of guys who cover a wide range of styles. If you’re into more experimental stuff, JPEGMAFIA and Injury Reserve might be up your alley. If you’re into super lyrical stuff Denzel Curry, Joyner Lucas and Mick Jenkins can provide that for you.
I’d argue that this generation has pushed the envelope even further, especially when it comes to beat making. WondaGurl and Travis Scott take aspects of lo-fi ambient music and marrying it with trap. Death Grips and SOPHIE have an unconventional approach, whether it be making beats out of sampling a printer or other everyday household items. For the past 10 years, alternative rap has brought a different dimension of sounds to the genre, evolving it artistically and making it accessible to people who wouldn’t have been open to the genre in the first place. Many rap purists tend to dismiss that because they’re gripped by the nostalgia and hype tied to the 90s, which is concerning because it parallels how rock music at large has been trying to recapture its glory days by retreading on styles and cliches that worked back then (I’m looking at you, Greta Van Fleet). Not to say that current rock music is bad, but like rap music, its fans are too hung up on trying to relive “the good ‘ole days,” instead of moving forward and creating something new.
All that being said, hip-hop culture and rap music in particular, has provided a space for disenfranchised people to express their frustrations with society. That in itself should be celebrated. GOAT conversations, while fun, never really go anywhere and tend to bring out the worst in rap fans. It focuses too much on nostalgia. which is something that not only hip-hop needs to move past, but society altogether. These conversations should be left where they belong, within the dusty confines of neighborhood barbershops.