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Has Rick Ross surpassed Biggie?

OLD SCHOOL v NEW SCHOOL: Biggie, left, was the king of hip-hop in the 1990s. Rapper Rick Ross, right, has dominated the airwaves since 2009

THE NOTORIOUS BIG is widely heralded as ‘the greatest rapper of all time’. I personally spent (or misspent) countless hours of my youth arguing passionately in favour of this motion. I now consider the very notion that there is a single ‘greatest rapper of all time’ patently ludicrous. It’s like saying ‘Rice pudding is the greatest dessert of all time’ and someone replying ‘nah man, Bakewell Tart and custard edges it out’. It is far too subjective a concept, far too reliant on myriad disparate criteria (almost all of which, by definition, are not universally applicable) to be even remotely plausible.

The concept of hip-hop, or rap music in this instance, as a monoculture or single genre is also far from credible. Under the banner of hip-hop music there are now countless genres and styles. Some of them connect with vast audiences and some of them are niche in nature, but all of them make valuable contributions to the culture.

It’s not a fair comparison to suggest that the Notorious BIG is a better or greater rapper than, say, Talib Kweli.

First of all – lyric for lyric, he isn’t. Secondly, Talib Kweli is a very different kind of rapper - one who caters to a (highly intelligent) niche. Biggie made populist rap music (though skilfully so) at a time when hip-hop was at its most commercially viable. He also died a sensational and emotion-drenched death, endearing him to hip-hop fans forever. As a result of all this he emerged, posthumously, as the ‘greatest rapper of all time.’

But, looked at objectively, was Biggie’s body of work, influence on the culture and originality greater than that of, say, Ice Cube? Had Ice Cube been gunned down after he laid the final track on Lethal Injection (his last truly great album – released in 1993) and not lived to make ‘You can do it, put your back into it’ would his legacy have been boosted to Biggie’s level of reverence?

COMPARISON

I digress slightly. Is it fair to compare Biggie to Busta Rhymes? Or Jay Z to Juvenile? Or Talib Kweli to T.I.? Of course not. It’s like comparing Metallica to U2. Broadly speaking, they may both make the same genre of music but couldn’t be more different. They may be on the same motorway, but they are not in the same lane.

Biggie and Rick Ross however are in the same lane. Rick Ross makes the exact same sort of Mafioso character based, populist, extreme capitalist, opulent, ladies man, sensational fantasist hip-hop that made Biggie famous.

Jay Z makes this sort of music too and there is hardly any question as to whether or not Jay Z has surpassed Biggie because he clearly has. But there is now a growing school of thought which believes Rick Ross has surpassed Biggie too. And it is not one that entirely lacks credibility.

This era in mainstream hip-hop, from 2009 till now, belongs to Rick Ross. He is to this era what Snoop was to 1993: he defines the culture and is synonymous with what is current, hip and profitable. The very elite of hip-hop (Jay Z, Nas and Kanye West) deem an appearance by him on their albums and association with him to be a necessity. Surprisingly, he always out performs the likes of Jay Z and Nas. Always! On the ‘street’ he couldn’t be more credible if he tried – he survived a well coordinated and deeply personal campaign by 50 Cent for crying out loud. Not bad at all for a former prison warden.

Another area where Rick Ross excels is that he actually breaks new ground and sets trends as opposed to just popularising them. For instance his music, good or bad, is a reflection of his ideas and tastes at that moment.

Jay Z’s albums, on the other hand, are usually a snap shot of who and what is popular. In short, Jay Z makes sure he stays close to the fire to keep warm, whilst Rick Ross creates the fire. Finally in a move guaranteed to impress me, he shot a video in Ajegunle, Lagos, Nigeria; perhaps one of the worst and most dangerous slums on earth. If you’ve been there you’ll know that really is gangsta.

Has he surpassed Biggie? It’s hard to tell. But even harder to dismiss.

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