Lyrically no emcee has a bigger impact than Rakim. Every single lyrical emcee that came after Rakim can arguably be traced back to him. He opened up the lyrical floodgates. Plus, he gave us some classic songs and game changing albums to boot. Rakim’s legendary status will never fade. At least not while I’m around talking about Hip-hop.
However, even though Rakim literally changed the game and elevated the game notches no emcee before or after has been able to achieve, he falls just shy of Black Thought in overall musical artistry.
When talking about the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) I consider several factors:
The Music / Catalogue: how good is the music of the artist overall?
Lyrical Skill:how lyrically sharp is the artist?
Influence:what is the current and future legacy of the artist?
Longevity:how long and how relevant has the artist been around?
Live Performance: how well can the artist move a crowd?
Versatility:how many different dimensions does the artist have?
First, let’s look at the music. Between 1987 and 1992 Eric B & Rakim released four albums. Then, Rakim went on to release three solo albums between 1997 and 2009. Have any of these albums stood the test of time and still hold up as great bodies of work? Yes, I would argue several of his albums meet these criteria. However, I would argue that some of his albums have not aged as well. Musically speaking Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em, Don’t Sweat the Technique, and several moments of The 18th Lettersound as good as ever. Plus several stand out singles from his other albums also sound incredible today. On the other hand his first two albums with Eric B and his last two solo albums often sound dated. They are still good, don’t get me wrong, but personally I don’t go back and listen to those albums all the way through that often.
Now, we turn to Black Thought and The Roots. Between 1993 and 2014 the Roots released 11 albums. Most recently Black Thought recorded two short projects in 2018. Additionally, The Roots have a new album, End Game, slotted to be released very soon. That is a total of 14 albums. Of the 13 currently out I would argue at least 8 of them received critical acclaim. Personally, I don’t think they have released a bad album yet. Furthermore, when I go back and listen to their earliest work, I love it. It still sounds fresh and innovative even two decades later. There is pretty much one, maybe two albums from their vast catalogue that doesn’t hold up that well. And even those albums have some incredible bangers.
So, musically, I have to give it to Black Thought. He has been a part of a wider and better musical catalogue than Rakim imo.
But, what about lyrical skill? Well, this one is a bit of a toss up to me. I think Black Thought is actually better lyrically. However, if you take into account when these artists came out then I have to give it to Rakim. He elevated the lyrical game by miles and we’ll talk more about this in a second. However, Black Thought’s lyrical skill is impeccable. And Black Thought has the edge over Rakim in regards to consistently being dope lyrically. Rakim never spits anything whack. However, he pretty much never spits anymore. And that’s totally fine but to me the steady stream of dope lyrical content this late in Black Thought’s career is very impressive. That is something I can’t say for Rakim because he just doesn’t release much music. So, I give these guys about the same score for lyrical skill. It is a draw.
Okay, I know what you are thinking, “You won’t dare say Black thought is a more influential emcee than Rakim! Or will you?” Well, I won’t go that far… yet. I do think Rakim’s influence on lyricism is unparalleled. Black Thought has fathered some emcees. No doubt about it. But, Rakim has fathered a nation of emcees. So if we are looking at straight lyrical influence, Rakim wins this catalogue hands down. However, Black Thought and the Roots have had massive influence on Hip-hop and music in general. They were not the first Hip-hop band, I’m sure, but they were the ones who introduced the Hip-hop band to the masses. And they were and are the best Hip-hop band ever. They continue to hold this crown too. Just as Rakim smashed through the lyrical status quo so did the Roots with how Hip-hop was being created at the time. Furthermore, Black Thought can be seen every night on the Jimmy Fallon Show. Black Thought stays true to Hip-hop while appearing on a national, mainstream show. I’m not sure anyone else could pull that off as impressively as Thought. Still, because Rakim took the game up so many levels I have to give this one to the God mc.
Longevity on the other hand has to go to Black Thought. Rakim had a strong run where he was releasing albums every year or every few years for about a decade. Black Thought has been doing that for over two decades. And just as it doesn’t seem likely Rakim is going to put anything out any time soon it doesn’t seem like Black Thought is going to Stop. I mean after two decades of releasing music with the Roots he starts releasing solo material?! This man could be a grandpa. Shoot, maybe he is. And he is STILL in his prime putting out incredible content. It is like he is just getting started. That is amazing. So, yeah, longevity is going to Black Thought.
Regarding live performance I have to refrain from picking a winner here as I’ve regrettably never seen either in concert. However, I have watched video and I’ve asked people about their experiences and it appears that Black Thought is definitely the better live emcee. And so I tend to say he is a better live performer, but I can’t state this emphatically because again I’ve never witnessed either.
I don't have a cute transition here, so let’s look at versatility. I’m calling this a toss up too. On the surface I can see how people might say both emcees are pretty straightforward. They both just rap and simply do it better than anyone else. However, I remember hearing Rakim talk about how he modeled his cadence after jazz like something from John Coltrain. When listening with that in mind one can hear the incredible ways Rakim bent his words around the beat. He did it in such an easy manner and made it sound like he wasn’t even trying. So dope. On the other side, Black Thought can run wraps around any beat. He is able to flip his cadence to fit with just about any musical landscape. Furthermore, he can sound like Big Daddy Kane or Kool G Rap better than they can do themselves! haha, okay that’s a stretch, but hearing him impersonate those two on the mic is unbelievable. Plus, Black Thought can freestyle well so he is able to switch it up anytime if need be. And finally, I’ll throw this in there for what it is worth. Black Thought can sing. I know we are talking who is the best emcee, but I think his crooning ability adds to his versatility on the mic. So, both of theses legends are versatile imo and I’m goint to call this one a draw too. Although if I had to give it to someone I’d probably say Black Thought just barely inches it out.
Let’s do a quick review
The Music / Catalogue: Black Thought
Live Performance: Can’t call it, although consensus seems to be Black Thought
Versatility:Draw, although Black Thought is probably a centimeter ahead
Yeah, it is super close. But, when looking at these two great artists analytically, I have to say that Black Thought edges it out for the GOAT status.
Now, let’s keep a few things in perspective here. First, we did not weight the categories. Should more weight be placed on influence? Perhaps. Would that tip the scale back to Rakim? Maybe so. And let us also keep in mind who I am. I was born in the Midwest in 1980. I first heard Erik B & Rakim when I was a very, very young child. I didn’t realize the impact that Rakim had on Hip-hop and music in general until much later. On the other hand, I was a young tween coming to my own when I first heard Black Thought. I tried to be unbiased in my critique of both artist, but I know I have a Black Thought bias.
Finally, let us also remember that art is subjective. And as much as we argue and debate who the GOAT is, we also really enjoy the music. We love it. And the music doesn’t stop and configure itself into categories before it hits us. It just hits us. We experience it and feel it. So just as I analytically think Black Thought is the GOAT my favorite emcee by far is Posdnous of De La Soul. I’d rather hear a new album from Posdnous than any other artist, including a Black Thought and Rakim duo albumJ
At the end of the day, we love Hip-hop. We debate it. We argue over it. And most importantly, we listen to it and appreciate it. I appreciate you for taking the time to read this and I would love to know what you think. Let me know!