“Pac is without question, in my view at least, the most passionate hip hop artist ever. What may at first listen be an elementary lyric or bar undergoes an astonishing metamorphosis via Tupac’s style of delivery. Lyrical artists offer a variety of delivery packages from a Ghostface to an underground Masterful freestyle artist who can improvise off top without flaw. Pac stands alone on a very soulful stage. Not the GOAT, it’s a title wreaking of too much vanity, a vanity I’m sure Pac himself would snub. Astute revolutionaries often tell flattery to fuck-off. ‘GOAT’ is too subjective, too many top 5 variations to count. Tupac is simply Tupac. Ali was not the greatest boxer ever, in the technical sense of boxing, yet Ali is considered the Greatest. Tupac’s historical significance to hip hop speaks to the political struggle of oppressed people, not nearly as controlled nor as eloquent as a Chuck-D in terms of political message, protest, or movement; Pac is instead Hip Hop’s political Wild Flower, a Masterpiece of a life lived, strangely perfect in his imperfection.”
– Da God Emblem
#SkillastratorLO disclaimer: When the critique is aged with validated published reason it reaches beyond opinion and the simplicities of like and dislike. Dismissal demands more than emotion, more than the potions of pontification pouring pathetically.
The GOAT is a fun exercise in Art-analyzing for the listener but an abused title used by the media. That fake media that leads the hashtag, #RespectFAKE. The worst rappers and the fakest fucks have been named the GOAT or given the credentials. Still, it’s important to note much of the origins of GOAT by the media are a mutation of the pioneer of this Creative Writer/Journalist/Historian element I add on to. It was Bonz Malone who named Biggie the King of New York as he reigned commercially with the technical and charismatic skill that made him known in all Hip Hop ciphers and rap pop Billboard bulletins. That mutated after Biggie and Pac’s death to two erroneous claims. After succeeding to sell mags fanning the flames of East versus West and helping to cause the ignorance that got these talented brothers returned to the essence. Eventually, the King of the New York, then all rap would be an issue and a seller for media whenever it was proclaimed or insinuated. Soon an actual GOAT candidate, LL Cool J names his 2000 LP, proclaims himself as such and the listeners, media and the fighting artists all vie for the title with works and also bullshit hits and sales achievements. Oddly, the actual, precise foundation, for what a GOAT MC is comes from a great MC, Kool Moe Dee. His 2003 book There’s A God On The Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs, is a forgotten book by most, probably from a logical dismissal that his list rates himself with great bias and includes some trash rappers. However, Moe Dee does something media was supposed to overtly do a long time ago: offer a complete checklist of criteria that really can add insight to appreciating whom upholds the principles of Hip Hop. His checklist included originality, concepts, versatility, vocabulary, substance, flow, flavor, freestyle, vocal presence, live performance, poetic value, body of work, industry impact, social impact, longevity, lyrics and battle skills. Many of these categories are too abstract to be useful (i.e. flavor) without detailing a standard, some would often merge righteously innovative MCs with pop rappers both getting high marks for being sellouts or a pioneering trailblazer (i.e. industry and social impact). Still, this is exactly the type of work to build on and work with…but this element I’m in is the fakest and so they really didn’t, still don’t and in my experience won’t. #RespectFAKE
Eventually this all made posthumous analysis/homage of Pac and BIG a switch to categorizing the deceased. Vibe, The Source, XXL and the other major rap mags owning up to the overall destructive journalism they displayed to get paid rebooted the coasts, hypocritically lamented pathetically at how this drama shouldn’t have ever happened and then re-shifted to simplistically boxing in careers they helped ruin. So to prevent the Biggie versus Tupac melodrama, they just erroneously surfaced with the simplistic thinking that Biggie was the MC and Tupac was the entertainer when the reality is they were both. Biggie had exceptional charisma and appeal that when compared to Tupac wasn’t even close to fruition (and may not have been exposed the best way as he was led by a bloodsucker, Mr. Combs). Tupac was immediately used, abused and re-used on all levels with mass amounts of b-sides, archived verses and other incomplete or lesser works being packaged behind pictorial memorial liner notes that range from truly worthy (R U Still Down) to the collector’s only items (Better Dayz). The media’s labeling of him as an entertainer fueled the purveyance of many East/West biases particularly one on both coasts where an icon is just an overseen pop sellout if they aren’t even a true MC.
Now, the reasons we listen are very real. Technically like and dislike are subjective but the judgment of Art isn’t. Art is performed so it has aspects that may be measured and a criteria that can be generally accepted for its judgment. Hip Hop culture absolutely has a criteria of judgment in all the elements. It’s main one is creative originality. So the generally used “it’s all subjective” argument to uphold one’s choice or dismiss another’s reason for choice isn’t correct. This isn’t to knock anyone’s said choice in anyway but only to note that SkillastratorLO is a Hip Hop creative writer/journalist/historian. I wouldn’t be able to be that if it was just subjective. My supreme elder nor legends that inspired me as Amiri Baraka with Jazz could’ve had created and captured so well without real, valid judgments. In all genres of music of the Black Diaspora (that is from Black to Brown–all those rooted in the drum), the GOAT, of any type, is very subjective yet holds legitimacy. All Art can be analyzed with a criteria of integrity, technical skill, catalog depth and strength, originality, creativity, Soul. The last two seen as abstract still hold under mathematical lenses. Creativity is measured by the proportion of unique progression in original ideas to the overall Art. That is, that progressive unheard-of stays getting flipped more than the norm. Soul is the measure of our beautiful presence, the constant relaying of our emotions, passions, nature and style that is defined as that wonderful Blackness. In the GOAT MC battle, the technical skills and Originality have been predominately emphasized which properly puts the most important all around property of an MC in the lead at all times, the pioneer. So the absolute GOAT MCs, those with a catalog of multiple classic LPs and whom brought an Originality that all after must master to even progress, continue to be Rakim Allah and KRS-One. The fact that they both got Soul and their creativity resulted in pioneering lead one to assume that Soul has been particularly thought of but that isn’t true. When the MC, 2Pac, whose primary greatness is being a complete conduit of Soul–the voice of pain, emotion and love in Hip Hop’s greatest recorded decade, the 90s–the focus on Soul isn’t overtly brought up as the crucial reason he’s in this GOAT candidacy.
In this Writer’s understanding, the GOAT is a living title, one that fluctuates because others still work and build. As a living truth, while I see two absolutes (meaning necessary of mention), Ra and KRS, there’s never really a final GOAT in a living music and with so many categories to qualify through so the choice can and must vary if the genre continues powerfully. If the music ever develops and its counter-cultural spirit continues repping the disenfranchised, oppressed Black and Brown with all those down, more GOAT candidates will arise. A near absolute is Kool G Rap whose technical skills also put him in the pioneering category with a catalog of essential albums as well. His content can be dismissed as mired in the ciphers of violence but his depth and detail with it literally extends the explicit, untold story(ies) of our experience. Now, with criteria, these absolutes I would join with MCs with catalog supremacy from Ghostface Killah (who clearly has an extremely high Soul rating but his technical prowess and album strength turn it into an add on and not the focus it ought to be), Pharoahe Monch and NaS. We can speak of the rare, abnormally versatile, technical talents that suffer with small catalogs and BIG PUN (Remembered In Perfection) and Lauryn Hill I would champion for here. Then there are MCs with strong catalogs and who are superior technically as Black Thought or with average catalogs (this is comparison to the above mentioned) but amazing technical gifts as Big Daddy Kane. There are also the MCs that rank high in every last category even while they have questionable commercial material. One such I’d still put in the candidacy of GOAT for these reasons is LL Cool J.
All these mentioned candidates all seem to mix in the reasons and this is the difficulty that should be the joy of Art appreciation. However, the wavering of a catalog’s strength, the popular heights that overshadow actual skilled diversity and the extreme focus of supremacy in one category make the GOAT argument lose its usefulness. So MCs as Ice Cube, Guru (Remembered In Perfection), Chuck D, GZA, Sean Price (Remembered In Perfection) or Scarface are not considered with enough serious study and honorable mention they deserve.
Journalism is a science of covering immediate history that will become a powerful resource to the future as it lives as an honored reference to the present. With real criteria given, and explained through, to making a GOAT choice, the finality of the choice is not the jewel but the concretely described appreciation given to the artists mentioned. In my offering of candidacy here, the appreciation heights of journalism continue.
Well now, I definitively see 2Pac as a GOAT candidate. Most of the typical criteria used to judge 2Pac as a GOAT candidate he is said to be weak in (i.e. lyrical complexity, vocabulary depth) I contend is done with emphasis too particular and incomplete to eliminate him. In addition, most expected GOAT candidates fail or are nonexistent in many of the exceptionally special categories that (i.e. subject diversity, emotive visualization, stylistic inflections and punctuation, charismatic diversity, etc.) Pac blatantly excelled extremely high at.
Let’s dismiss some of the usual dismissals to Pac as a GOAT candidate. Firstly, that 2Pac’s greatness is more his personality, pop appeal and that his life was his “greatness” not his skill/talents/work on the mic. Note the special condescension implied in “greatness” in that it really means a nigga was being a nigger and was just infamous for getting into trouble. See, the realness of the MC is lauded and revered for his consistency. Why? Let’s build on it without the crossover white, whether on the nose or the flesh. The MC is an orator of counter-cultural matters. They saying the shit the other man don’t allow you to say, they represent what the other neighborhoods have never had to deal with and offer insights backed by ideals that all out of the cipher probably don’t understand. And we don’t give a fuck so the MC don’t gotta conform and he’s respected for his consistency not to conform. The problem is that the 90’s, while the peak of all recorded Hip Hop music–when looked on as it must be taught in any post-doctorate collegiate cours–was really far more confusing and destructive to the music than we think. This is where the point of contact from journalism is needed—meaning the writers writing that were actually there. The music, as counter-cultural as I show it is rooted to be, is no longer as comfortable in contradiction because the bloodsucking dispensers (record labels), diluting displayers (radio) and the zoo visitors (the mass purchasing white market) are wanting, expecting and needing a content that is acceptable. So the contradictions of selling pure Hip Hop music get filled with hypocrisies staining it. And these hypocrisies are usually imposed standards that only ease the zoo visitors, having nothing to do with the reality of the MC orating the reality of his animals in the zoo. The music was just being attached to dispensers to travel past the bars of one cage to all the cages around while infecting the zoo patrons was a wonderful contradiction. Some of these patrons throw keys and even have lived inside the cages on many levels. Still, the success of the works outside of the zoo cages was appropriated to become an MC’s segue way to alter his content appropriately. The consistency of “realness” we expected, the daring to speak his mind, however harshly, could now be a breach into hypocrisy. Keep it underground. Stay real. Only for my Cuban Linx Niggas…The best continued greatly but many mired in pre-embracing the hypocrisy to prevent their contradictions from being a hypocrisy. So we see the Diddys and Jiggas and Master P-imps deftly seem to give the real with the right blends of caricature with a lack of interactive responsibility the best MCs would impose on the listener.
2Pac did not die in a blaze of hypocrisy; rather he died in a defiantly continuing embrace of the consistency of Real in all its contradictions, confusion and incredible idealism. An MC is a Master of Ceremony and from the Bronx origins to 2Pac’s largest stages, the reality of that particular individual is the entire point. This Original Black man on the mic is the actual story and his Mind Conducts the listener to a joyous state of edutainment, an education of the mic controller, his visions, his insights, through the entertainment of his talents and their relation to every last obstacle that ever could befall one. And so the Mic Crusader battles. Unlike nearly any other MC, certainly up to his point in time, no MC had such a diverse travel of the Black/Brown zoos as Pac. The cages he encountered went from his NYC Black Panther roots to the Baltimore poverty to the Oakland slums. And his achievements are even more profound as he learned the Arts we embrace in the zoo cages and also the ones we giggle and sneer at that are on off off Broadway cages. 2Pac had a perspective that allowed him to approach the mic from beyond individual ego but also from the psychology of any subject he chose. All this made his essential themes of Black love and re-empowerment by any means, defiance of authority’s impositions whether from white/western mindsets or the particular USA government leaders that surround us to the showcase of all the bravado, celebration and emotive collages of struggle, a warrior in the middle of war from cease fires to R&R to all out offensives, the most beautiful mess of contradiction. It rejects the conformity being brought to rap products despite the dynamic charisma and intriguing life events Pac sold immensely with.
Pac’s personality and life are a part of his GOAT candidacy nomination. As an MC, they are part of the story we listen to. As an embedded journalist, a Brown man from my own cage in the zoo, the consistency of real in the MC is the actual story of their life being relayed in the wax. We don’t respect a gunner but the MC who narrates the insights of such a heinous reality in our zoo with a real hand of understanding triggering the perspective. Today, we are programmed to respect the MC who focuses on a niche of our complete reality. This is only done because the said MC, whether great or average, is giving you the best of his skill sets. A Raekwon, a near GOAT candidate, focused on the criminology or a MF DOOM, another near GOAT candidate, focused primarily on the dynamic wordplay are easier to appreciate for their greatness. However, the complete spectrum of Black life is not respected and the trials of the nigga are embraceable by the zoo patron than the root tribulations that put logic and structure to the whole of Black life. 2Pac was marketed and presented in a limited fashion by the media, his label bloodsucker dispensers and even himself in chaotic cleverness that never was the whole story. Actually, 2Pac showed the young Black male as a complete struggling supreme mind amidst a diversity of hells, in all its excitements and depressions. With 2Pac’s natural gifts for this artistic relaying, he is an anomaly in a changing 90’s world where rap is being placed into simple, segregated packages to consume leisurely. Few MCs had such a range in the first or third person narrative, as a representor or as a survivor to do what Pac did. 2Pac’s life, as all MC’s lives, must amplify their Art’s reverence as he was able to transmute it all onto wax.
The second major dismissal of Pac is his technical abilities. This is usually accompanied by a pseudo-definition of lyricism that really is just about high vocabulary and a complex dexterity. So bigger words and more words said which is a real feat of MC GOAT candidates particularly the East Coast. It makes MCs as AZ and Inspectah Deck earn their considerations even with respectable but not classic LP catalogs. It also limits what lyricism is because content is seen as an insight conveyed complexly via word structure or word choice. It fails to see the depth of lyricism as diversity of subject matter, diversity of conveyance (sharing ideas in multiple memorable ways), working of themes into anthems and the embedding of Soul into any and all song style formats.
To begin, 2Pac’s MC technical abilities begin with his Soul. Technical ability as an MC is to turn the word into our peoples’ spoken poetry. And 2Pac’s metamorphosis with words took appealing phrases of dissent into anthemic chants (“I won’t deny it/I’m a straight rider/You don’t wanna fuck with me…”), song titles became the defining words of contradictions embraced (“I Ain’t Mad At Cha,” “White Manz World”), his insights into refrains (“You are appreciated”) and his commentary into aphorisms (“They got money for wars but can’t feed the poor”) and our most beautiful to our most mutated dreams into fantasies to rewind (“Unconditional Love,” “I Wonder if Heaven Got A Ghetto”). 2Pac’s works are masses of original all time quotables of true meaning (“And although it seems heaven sent/We ain’t ready to see a Black president,” “…always was a Black Queen mama”), technical depth in wordplay (“institutionalized, I live my life a product ready to crumble/but still too hard to smile”) and poetic ideas (“rose that grew from the concrete,” “don’t shed a tear for me nigga/ I ain’t happy here”) that describe so much of our Black experience. He was able to rhyme positively without preachiness (“The message I stress: to make it stop, study your lessons/Don’t settle for less, even the genius asks questions/Be grateful for blessings, don’t ever change, keep your essence…”) and angry without filter (“Damn, they wanna label me a menace/Cause I’m sittin’ here sippin’ on Guinness/Weighin’ 165 and these tricks should die/For being jealous of a brother when he rise…”) but a constant prophesying of what might become of him (“And even if I did die young, who’d care/All I ever got was mean mugs and cold stares/Got homies in my head that done passed away screamin’, please/Young nigga, make G’s/I can’t give up, although I’m hopeless, I think my mind’s gone/All I can do is get my grind on, death around the corner”), a paranoia of demise that all we oppressed deal with on subtle and/or overt levels daily. They characterize our generation so powerfully, quoted so often and understood so easily that they are parables to the obsessed and clichés to the embarrassed.
Lyrical dexterity is the layering of the verse with wordplay injecting things as homonyms, double entendres and metaphors. 2Pac has these but his devices usually chart into the Soul category here as well. That is, their worth must be amplified by the actual Soul embedded in them. It is a special Soul others rarely have and usually do not employ. For example, MCs as NaS will use random, gratuitous details (i.e. “Wipe the sweat off my dome, spit the phlegm on the streets…”) that serve as visualizing tools the listener can immediately use to see the MC’s reality faster. Nas is a master at this and through countless tales, this technique offers a scenery making the reality real. 2Pac did this often but with emotional triggers (i.e. “It feels good putting money in your mailbox/I love paying rent when the rent is due,” “My girl said I need a raise, how long will she last”). These are usually hard to pinpoint because Pac simplified his word choices as his subject matter became nearly all emotionally based but definitely there, as on his largest selling and most known LP, All Eyez On Me (“So mandatory my elevation, my lyrics like orientation/So you can be more familiar with the nigga you facin’,” “My lyrics motivate the planet/It’s similar to Rhythm Nation, but thugged out, forgive me, Janet…,” “Keep your head up, legs closed, eyes open,” “My dreams is censored, my hopes are gone,” “Picture perfect, I paint a perfect picture/Bomb the hoochies with precision, my intention’s to get richer,” “Pardon my thug poetry, but suckers is born everyday/And feared men grow on trees/Criminal ties for centuries, a legend in my own rhymes/So niggas whisper when they mention”). In addition, the release of so many incomplete works and cutting floor verses dilute the messages in redundancy. No MC’s verses are so repeated through songs as 2Pac because of this. Couple these technical devices used soulfully, he was also a dynamic live performer, possessing powerful voice projection, distinct clarity, wrote with masterful alliteration (particularly the letter ‘P’), was effortless at countless tempos and nearly always in the pocket, reached out of pocket deliberately and a wildly addictive chorus writer. Two of his major accomplishments are MC developments from the ability to make iconic songs of diverse subjects and creating one of the most unique inflections of extension, especially on the rhyme word that influenced all of MCing (i.e. “I seen the future and its hopeleeeeessssssss,” “Follow me/tell me if you feel me-eeee/I think niggas is trying to kill me-eeee”).
As a MC, poet and writer, we may relate Pac to Langston Hughes who could be pathetically demeaned with some of the same labels of simplicity. Still, Hughes’ gift was being a mouthpiece of the renaissance era of 1920’s Black Harlem through the capturing of multiple voices, experiences and mentalities. There may be other poets with greater abstraction, higher vocabulary and more complex word choices yet Hughes contends with any and all. Pac’s work wrote in endless perspectives (“My baby mama gotta mind full of silly games”) and constantly teeming the battle with Black (from colorism within our own to racism without) and our infinite beauty and immeasurable despair are all just as Hughes. Pac’s oration then actually amplified the emotional sensibilities of basic MCing that make him comparable to Soul singers augmenting the groove of sensuality. However, Pac’s extended MC bravado, confrontational oration and the deeper psycho-socio-economic-spiritual subject matter in the verse is the next level of Soul music. These all give Pac’s bars a reread worth and a re-listen necessity.
As a cultural force, we can mirror his entire character as iconic as Bob Marley in representing an entire generation’s emotional mindset, expressing its complexities of strived for self-love and crippling self-hate, our oppression and his life intersecting as part of the experienced Art. This comparison is usually tossed saying Marley had embraced and firmly held conviction and principles as opposed to the destructive demise of Pac. However, that isn’t the point. A simple study of 2Pac’s life and one can see the battle with the commercializing of a counter-cultural art detailed above, an embrace of principles in an endearing, obsessive, near illogical idealism in his embrace of rebellion to approach revolution. His old journals, poetry and interviews all supplement these truths that in his MC art are expressed as the most contradiction embracing entertainment. It’s so contradiction embracing that it confused many but he is gone now and a look back reveals a tragic beauty in it all we can learn from and be proud of.
The GOAT is supposed to be a concept that lets us understand the Soul of Art better and in seeing it there we see it in our own lives and creations forthcoming. These proofs of 2Pac as a GOAT candidate, one of the definitive greats of all time, the most uniquely reasoned of them all, extends the conversation into an appreciation for the greatest MCs of exceptionally distinct and diverse measures. From the smooth, articulated principles that were Guru’s soul to the powerful baritone power that the revolution manifestos of Chuck D, the GOAT must be a journalistic device of appreciation.
See, for this writer, Sunez, skillastrating the page, there is a passion that is special to few in MCing that I rarely hear. It may be that my bias is that MCing, at its best, must be counter-cultural, that it must be Black/Brown rooted with respect to the foundation of all Hip Hop’s sensibilities. It is also that as a humble Creator, creating Creation honorably and presenting it with the vigor of freedom’s last attack, I know this struggle. There is a great difference between representing the few writing to many, to writing for all reppin with an art from the few. The finagled frivolity to anyone I can’t fuck with. So I continually place value in the fight to create freely, warring versus the other man seeking to disqualify my statements at pre-press, always knowing each word is a moment’s insight and may reach many I could never imagine. That even though it may not be read, they really were triumphs of captured capsules of integrity for a time. Imagine the idealism of Black freedoms by any means charging through the greediest execs, the diversity of Black youth growing right in front of the aging cameras of the western world and the portraits of the good, bad and ugly of Black life passing through zoo patrons to reach cages unknown helping them be torn down. This is what I know Hip Hop to be. It is what I witnessed of 2Pac’s MCing and it was powerful, dangerous, uplifting, filled with disappointment and artistically immense, sullied by surrounding poisons of dilution and ultimately always endearing. 2Pac, as I understand, was a creativity mined when our lives demanded breakbeat spirituals in recuperation and platformed enlightenment’s joy when the enlistment of war hymns was requested.
Remembered In Perfection to an eternal GOAT, 2Pac.