Mac MillerJay Z

The competitive nature of hip-hop is one of the main reasons I’m so in love with the culture. In the past, I’ve half-jokingly said that my favorite sport is “rap”. I’m only half joking because in all seriousness, there’s a certain level of combativeness that’s present in rap but not in other genres, or at most not nearly as aggressive or divisive. While you may see classic rock fans discussing whether Aerosmith or The Doors are the greatest American rock band, it doesn’t come anywhere close to the battle that rages on as to whether Jay Z or Nas won their famed beef. Nirvana versus Pearl Jam was certainly a considerable battle of grunge in the early 90s, but pales in comparison to the deadly feud between Biggie and Tupac. Of course, in such a case that ends in violence, all of hip-hop loses, but the back and forth between fans of different artists and styles is what’s kept the culture so vibrant and colorful. It’s the reason a Top Five list is so vital to any rap fan’s knowledge base.

Whenever I’m asked about my Top Five list, one question comes to mind: favorite or best? As I’m sure is the case with most people, the best rappers aren’t necessarily my favorite, and my favorite rappers aren’t always the best. But many seem to misunderstand the distinction.

To me, a Top Five Best Rapper list is comprised of those whose artistic output, overall influence, and lasting legacy has made a positive and permanent mark in hip-hop, both in the music and the culture. This list is one that should be more concrete and stable. On the other hand, a Top Five Favorite Rapper list is one made up of those artists who have personally affected you. Be it their style, reliability, charisma, or simply the nostalgic feeling they give you when you listen, they’re the ones you keep returning to. As your taste evolves, so too can favorite rappers, making it possible for this list to be ever-changing. Jay Z, in my opinion, is the best rapper of all time. Mac Miller is my favorite rapper, and has been since his K.I.D.S. mixtape back 2010. Jay’s rise from dope-dealing street rapper to a head of industry is one for the history books. Mix that with his tremendous discography, mainstream/crossover appeal, and cultural recognition, he stands at the top of a mega-list, one that I’ve constructed but you may disagree with. As my favorite rapper, Mac’s music and personal growth has been a near-reflection of mine. Our close age and white, suburban upbringing have produced a correlation in our continuing life paths, and I can always count on his music to be heavily relatable. As much as I love him and his work, there’s no way I’d try to argue him into the Top Five to ever do it. At least not yet.

Two very different artist, each one at the top of my respective lists.

The same can be said for projects or songs. The emotions that a piece of art can conjure for an individual can be far greater for a lesser-known work than one that receives critical praise. After looking through the comments on a poll we recently ran about Big Sean’s best project, I couldn’t help but agree that Detroit was one of his highest-praised projects. But to me, it doesn’t even rank in the top three simply because it doesn’t hold as much personal emotion for me as does Dark Sky Paradise, Hall of Fame, and Finally Famous. It may just be because I listened to them more frequently upon their release and now associate with it more upon re-listening, but it’s true to me and my ears. My favorite Chance the Rapper song is “Finish Line/Drown“. His best is “Pusha Man/Paranoia“. My favorite Mac Miller song is “Goosebumpz“. His best is “Perfect Circle/Godspeed“. My favorite Kanye West album is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. His best is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Ok, so those two match and his best album is always up for debate, but you get my point.

All of this is to say that there’s a major difference between naming the best of something and your favorite. This applies to rappers, their albums, and even individual songs. It’s my hope that rap, as collaborative and overlapping as it is in this new era, forever maintains its competitive, striving nature in a healthy way. Kendrick Lamar, arguably the best rapper of this era as well as one of my favorites, said it best: “I got love for you all, but I’m tryna murder you n*ggas”!