Recently I listened to an interview where Kool G. Rap (one of the most talented lyricists of his era) was asked to name his top 10 lyricists. I believe he said:
- Big Daddy Kane
- Ice Cube
- Big Pun
- KRS One
He didn’t put them in any specific order. When asked about the Notorious BIG he made the statement that he considered Biggie a great rapper, not a great lyricist. On the one had I can see his point; on the other I was shocked and appalled. Biggie didn’t have the most intricate rhymes in the world, but he painted a picture with lyrics that few others could. I was talking to a coworker about this and he was livid. So much so that he started getting loud every time he thought about it over the course of 2 or 3 days!
Personally I think that any list that has Cube and Face on it but excludes Big is extremely flawed. But then I realize that there’s no science to this; it’s all about opinion and personal taste. So having said that, my top 10 lyricists of all time are (in a very particular order; an order that shifts daily depending on how I think about it and what I’m listening to!):
- Notorious BIG
- Big Pun
- Andre 3000
- Kendrick Lamar
This is slightly different from my top 10 rappers list from a few years back. Kendrick Lamar hadn’t dropped yet and I do recognize the distinction that Kool G. Rap was making between a rapper and a lyricist. I think that all of these artists are great lyricists. I’d even put Kanye West in that category now, although his earlier work wasn’t all that lyrical to me. Some might be surprised to see Kendrick Lamar on there but I’ve yet to hear a wack verse from him. It doesn’t hurt his case that he’s unique and that he put out one of the most well thought-out and entertaining albums I’ve heard in years with good kid, m.A.A.d. city.
And that’s all part of being a great lyricist. Consistency, creativity, wordplay, delivery, intricacy, originality, flow, etc. all factor in. Joell Ortiz is a fantastic rapper, but he can’t do a concept song to save his life. Such was Canibus’ problem as well. Snoop had all of the above mentioned attributes save consistency. He’d rightly deserve a spot on that list had he not done so many wack songs in the No Limit days.
You’ll also notice that there’s no names of rappers who dropped in the 80s on there. Why? Well, even though Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, and Kool G. Rap were great lyricists for their time, they don’t measure up to those who came after. They may well have influenced all of these artists, but the bar was raised and they sit squarely under it. And I will defend that opinion until my dying day.