Monday, January 7, 2013

CNN Dubs Nas The Greatest Lyricist of All Time.

CNN writer Eliott C. McLaughlin dubs Nas the GOAT in his opinion piece, "A case for Nas, hip hop's finest MC." According to him, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones is rap's greatest master of the pen.

ORLY?

After reading his article, I felt compelled to pick up my own pen to offer my own opinion. This is purely my opinion and does not reflect the opinions of the other writers here at DLP(though I do believe Luke might agree with me).

Nas. Why Nas? Mr. McLaughlin mentions Nas' seven platinum albums, but goes on to say this:
"This debate, if you will, isn't so much about who can move the most rump in a club, but rather, if we were delivered back to 1800, who could hold their own with Coleridge and Wordsworth."

Well, let's look at it that way then. If we are discussing how well rap verses are written and constructed on a poetic level, then you can't give the title of greatest rap lyricist of all-time to Nas. Would Nas really be able to go toe to toe with the old masters like William Wordsworth and his friend Samuel Taylor? I have to disagree. I'm not going to sit here and say that Nas isn't one of the greatest writers in the rap community. He is. But to say he IS the out and out greatest? No, I can't agree. Sure, Nas has displayed impressive versatility in his topical range and has written insightful lines on those topics. If that was all we were talking about, fine, hand him the crown. But we're not merely talking about the breadth of topics discussed, are we? We're talking about the verses themselves and their worth as poetic exemplars, right? 

If so, Nas' abilities as a poet are limited. His style is limited to occasional metaphorical imagery, a la I Gave You Power, and intricate rhyming patterns, a la Nas Will Prevail / It Ain't Hard To Tell. In regard to the former, Nas is more a master of artfully constructing blunt imagery, he is able to sell gritty visuals with the best of them. But he is no master of the metaphor. To explain this point better, let's take Jay-Z. Outside of battle emcees, Jay is the most prolific user of wordplay and double entendres. Nas is the superior storyteller and has Jay-Z beat when it comes to topical range, but Jay-Z is Nas' superior in regard to use of poetic devices(particularly metaphors). In regard to rhyme patterns, Nas will let a few words go by before he introduces the next word in his pattern. Where Nas' patterns featured just a little more in-rhyming than the average rapper, lyricists like Rugged Man, Pun and MF Doom marry nearly every single word they write to the next word written via rhyme scheme. Word for word, Doom's verses feature arguably the best rhyme schemes of any known rapper. Even when we discuss Nas' bread and butter, blunt real-life imagery, the fact is that there have been blunter lyricists, most notably Scarface(an emcee who is DISGRACEFULLY ignored in these conversations).

Are we to accept Nas as the greatest lyricists merely because he bridged the gap between the blunt reality rap of Kool G Rap and the superior rhyming abilities of Rakim? No, there is more to poetic depth than rhyme schemes and direct imagery. Shakespeare and Homer are the most celebrated lyric poets of all time because they developed masterful metaphors in the context of their storytelling and image creation. And when we discuss rap, there is but one lyricist who constructs verses as skillfully as the old masters.

Lupe Fiasco.

Now, I'm not saying Lupe is a poet the way Homer or William were. I am saying that he is the only rapper worthy of approaching that altar. Lupe's gift for utilizing literary devices in the context of delivering stories with as wide a topical breadth as Nas is nothing short of amazing. Lu's rhyme schemes aren't consistently as sharp as Nas' patterns, but Lu is far from a slouch. He may not hit as many in-rhymes as Nas does on a regular basis, but at his best, Lu is just as skilled as Nasir at rhyming unconventional sounds in his schemes. But even so, I can admit that Nas' patterns are on that high plateau on a much more consistent basis(there are instances in Lupe songs where the rhyme schemes fall off and you don't hear the pattern at all). But where Nas is a step above Lu in regard to actually rhyming words(purely because of consistence, mind you), Lupe is unequivocally Nas' superior in regard to lyrical architecture. The difference in their rhyming abilities is evident but mostly negligible, but the difference in their technical writing abilities is enormous. There is no verse, no song and no album in Nas' discography that features the level of technical ability that Lupe displays on the first verse of Failure:

"It's so serious, every time I write my John Hancock, like...
could damn near see Detroit. (I see you!)
Niggas is scared of heights.
This is Saran wrap and aluminum foil
some potpourri, a little machine oil.
I stack my paper and throw off my scents
this is top flow, better look out below.
Pennies from heaven is the same as a semi from the second.
And I reign supreme.
Turn your umbrellas upside down...
Did you even catch the change in theme?"

^ There are several interconnecting layers of wordplay and metaphorical imagery here. All in the span of a few lines, Lupe is doling out self-aggrandizing braggadocio, telling the tale of an elusive(and murderous) drug dealer and creating the imagery of dropping a coin from the top of a skyscraper(the John Hancock Center)... all of which he connects via several plays on words. That type of extended metaphor is on par with the extended metaphors employed by Homer in the Illiad(i.e. breaking down a collection of soldiers and relating them to a hive of bees, describing the hive, then relating them to more vicious animals as the battle begins).

Where Jay-Z, in general, would ride a single play on words for a few lines, Lupe will ride a play on words for several lines, introduce new wordplays, connect those new ideas to the initial idea, then connect those new ideas to one another. In a Lupe verse, there will be an initial, secondary and tertiary connection between several different ideas, all within the span of a few lines. No other rapper, past or present, has shown the ability to build a verse that way. Lupe is a master of wordplay and has a genius for literary device usage. No other rapper is as technically gifted as he.

Where Nas, in general, is direct and to the point, Lupe will give you that same direct and to the point surface story, but then he will layer that story with different, but interconnected, metaphorical images. Obviously, Nas has a superior commercial standing, but that is something that can be attributed to Nas' material being more concrete and factual in style. Lupe's writings are a touch more abstract and conceptual, which can be boring and off-putting for the casual fan of music who isn't interested in trying to break down the lyrics of a song.

Our culture has touted Lupe as the next Nas, but no, he is not. Lupe drew influence from Nas, much as Nas drew influence from Rakim and Kool G Rap, but Lupe is easily Nas' superior. 

I am loath to discuss sales here, but since Mr. McLaughlin brought it up, let's discuss it. First, let's remember Jay-Z's Moment of Clarity lyric: "If skills sold, truth be told / I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli." If we can use that to build a lyric-density ladder, the rungs would look something like:

Talib.

Lupe.

Nasir.

Jay-Z.

At the bottom of the ladder, you have one of the most astute lyricists in the game. But even as gifted a lyricist as Jay-Z can be(see Reasonable Doubt), the businessman Shawn Carter understands that fans of music aren't listening to music to be inundated with double, triple and quadruple layered lyrics that have to be broken(or slowed) down to be understood. That type of lyricism will bore the casual listener who is just turning on a song to rock out and enjoy themselves. And there's nothing wrong with that, we all have our preferences. But rather than completely disregard complex lyricism, Jay uses it in very small spurts, with the bulk of his material being plain, yet intriguingly phrased, thoughts. The Beatles, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder... these caliber of artists are all time legends in music. Their lyrics are not dense or packed with double and triple meanings. Instead, the lyrics are simple but poignant. That is what Jay-Z has done. Trading in expert
 technical skill for simple poignancy, Jay was able to build rap's greatest commercial career. 

Higher up the ladder is Nas, who built rap's second best commercial career(seven platinum albums, one more than Eminem who has 5 Platinum albums and one Diamond album(I'd include Pac, but like Mr. McLaughlin, let's keep this discussion to living artists, as death inflates sales tremendously)). Nas wasn't able to reach Jay's tier because he never made a transition from dense and wordy lyricism to poignant simplicity. But his storytelling style, while wordy, is so bluntly told that it is understandable to the casual listener. Though, with that said, his lyricism remains dense enough to earn the admiration of rap purists, but straightforward enough for casual fans to enjoy.

A rung up from Nasir is Lupe Fiasco, the greatest rap lyricist of all time. Where Nas is a foot inside the threshold that houses dense lyricism and shields it from the poignant simplicity all around it, Lupe is clearly in dense lyricism's living room with his feet up. His lyric structure is incredibly dense, layered with heavy vocabulary and metaphorical imagery. His writing style is the envy of rap purists, but it is so far removed from being straightforward that casual fans inevitably feel off-put, something reflected in Lupe's count of zero platinum album plaques(a situation exacerbated by his downturn into a preachy wannabe revolutionary(I believe his intentions are well-meant, but music is not the medium for such expressions anymore)). But to his credit, Lu's ability to cleverly dissect popular subjects has merited three of his singles Platinum plaques(Superstar, The Show Goes On, Battle Scars). Lupe's conceptual powers and abilities have won him two Gold albums and two Silver albums, as his lyricism appeals greatly to rap purists(casual fans are what take you into the Platinum range, purists will only get you half the sales casual fans will).

And then, there is Talib Kweli. To use the house metaphor again: where Lupe is lounging in dense lyricism's den, Talib Kweli is in it's basement. Talib does not boast the literary device mastery of a Lupe Fiasco, but his lyrics are twice as dense. Where Lupe thoroughly layers his lyrics with extended metaphors, Talib packs as many words into a verse as is physically possible. His vocabulary is stellar and his metaphor/simile usage is solid, but it's almost as if Talib has TOO much to say and doesn't know when to scale it back. Rap purists rarely tout him as an exemplar and casual fans are unaware of him, something again reflected by sales. Worse off than Lu, Talib's overly wordy style has led to only one of his four albums bring home a plaque, a Silver one at that.


Lupe does not have the commercial standing that Nas has, but that is akin to Nas not having the commercial standing that Jay-Z has. Mr. McLaughlin was able to look past Nas' commercial shortcoming and crown him the G.O.A.T., much as I look past Lupe's commercial shortcomings and crown him the G.O.A.T.

And why do I look past that shortcoming? Because If we're discussing lyrics and lyrics only, Lupe is leagues above any rapper out, for all the reasons I mentioned. He is without question the most technically gifted lyricist in the history of the rap community, considering all emcees past and present. Among rappers, Lu alone would be offered a seat the table with the masters of old... though his seat would be at the far, far end of the table(
Nas would be begrudgingly allowed scraps at the kid's table in the far corner.. lol).

The Greatest Rap Lyricist of All-Time is: 

Lupe Fiasco.

17 comments:

  1. Nas the best lyricist he changed the entire game

    ReplyDelete
  2. Reading this was a waste of time. Nas is the best. Period.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nas is the greatest MC Ever. Accept it own it!

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  4. Sorry, but even from a technical standpoint Nas really is the best. Lyrically, Double Entendre, metaphorically he's top notch. He did a whole song that is a Triple Entendre..And ENTIRE song as a Triple Entendre (Fried Chicken). Nas packs so much into little space. He says 4-5X as much in the same 4 bars that Jay-Z or Eminem would spit, you just haven't broken it down yet.

    ReplyDelete
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  6. This is a joke of an article. Nas is the best...maybe you haven't heard all of his work. Try listen hard to what goes around,you're da Man, it ain't hard to tell, take it blood, heaven...and the list goes on and on

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