I recently finished a long piece on the thirty best rappers of all time. I already disagree with one of the placements, and when I listen to Redman’s discography again next week, I’m going to want to edit him back in. Similarly, I fully expect that The Marshall Mathers LP 2 will make a strong case for making this list a bit less white. Basically, this isn’t meant to be definitive, even for myself.
That’s not to say I didn’t put a lot of thought into it. Ranking artists against one another forces you to define exactly what it is you value in music. Then it gets you to work through their records systematically to find what works, what doesn’t, and precisely how good they are. If you’re being honest with yourself and your readers, this also means a thorough revisiting of each and every catalogue. (Assuming we all love music here, this is the most enjoyable part. I spent an entire day last week walking around Los Angeles listening to Cam’ron albums.) I mean, we all want to talk about this, right?
But the process (both the writing and reading the reactions to what I wrote) reminded me of something a bit troubling. I’ve spent the better part of my life arguing about rap music, and I’ve come to realize something: We’re not very good at it. Here’s why.
1. Everyone’s hung up on “objectivity.” I can’t count the number of debates I’ve been in or read that have been stopped in their tracks because someone stuck their head in the sand and insisted that “everything’s subjective” or “it’s all just opinion.” You see, of course we can’t be truly, scientifically objective. There’s no mathematical precision in arguing that It Was Written is better than Somethin’ ‘Bout Kreay. But to stonewall an argument by “agreeing to disagree” is to be intellectually lazy. Objectivity in music isn’t the same as it is in the hard sciences. Instead, we have a global set of standards that serve as a vocabulary for debate. We can all agree that Truman Capote is a better writer than Dan Brown; centuries of formal studies in English and literature have given us the ability to articulate why. We need to get to the point where we all accept that “it’s just my opinion” isn’t good enough to substantiate your tweet about Born Sinner being better than Dour Candy.
2. We filter everything through the same set of standards: Not everything sounds like Illmatic, nor should it. Songs should be judged on how good they are, not how closely they follow a narrow template. Penalizing Gucci Mane because he doesn’t sound like Lord Finesse makes no sense. Once you tease out what works or doesn’t work about a record, inane comparisons (“he’s the next Nas!”) are unnecessary.
3. We’re not really listening: When Yeezus came out, I reluctantly thought it was pretty cool. Then I was uncomfortable with it. Then I hated it. Almost three months after it leaked, I again feel differently, and I’ve just now sat down to write my review. I’m not going to turn this into a think-piece about how the digital age has changed our listening habits or whatever, but there’s no doubt that the conversation about contemporary rap albums is both dominated by knee-jerk groupthink and not very long. Sure, some albums don’t deserve a whole lot of critical thought, but many absolutely do. I’m not interested in arguments with people who tweet me links to Metacritic pages.
 As much as I love this side of Joe Budden (back when it was about rap, not “my girl’s a bisexual guys do you know what that means she likes other girls isn’t this great”), and as right as he is about 99% of this, why does he pick Method Man to call out? We can’t really blame the Wu for feeling some type of way about this.
 That’s not to say people haven’t tried to use math. Earlier this year, I read a long article (tirade, really) about how Macklemore’s The Heist was a great album. The author’s main talking point? A rhythmic measurement that aimed to quantify how good a rapper’s flow is by mapping out where the syllables fall with respect to the instrumental. I’m not joking. Similarly, one of my Facebook friends recently pitched a formula (well, he called it an algorithm) to determine a rapper’s ability. Included was the category “Lyrical Truth”, or if what the rapper said in a song was verified as fact. Really.
 There’s no reasoning of any sort, really. Somethin’ ‘Bout Kreay is clearly the better album.
 I was going to contrast Rakim and Cam and then laugh at people who didn’t realize how similar their rhyme patterns often are, but that would be pretentious.
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