Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Get Rich or Die Tryin' (Part 2)

Mistakes were made. (By who?)

Me. I waited too long to post the second half of this mega blog.

Like a good neighbor wannabe lawyer, I reviewed and deliberated the facts. I looked at my four protagonists (Jay-Z/MJ and 50 Cent/Kobe) closely. I listened to more of their music than I’m comfortable admitting in public. I read and re-read their lyrics, even drawing parallels between 50 Cent’s “How to Rap” mix single and Kobe’s 1997 dunk contest explosion (both acknowledged and respected their predecessors). I even compared 50 Cent’s performance style to Jay-Z’s, and failed to extricate anything that would lend a direct criticism to 50 Cent’s character. Even in a vacuum, 50 Cent doesn’t fully compare to Kobe…and Jay-Z doesn’t fully compare to Michael Jordan.

And I was caught with a mixed metaphor.

Settle down, Kobe fans. This is not to say that Michael Jordan takes a backseat to Kobe. Hold up, 50 Cent savants. He still doesn’t hold a candle to Jay-Z. But as my buddy Jason claimed, to buttress Jay-Z’s accomplishments in order to solidify the metaphor isn’t prudent.

In addition, there are some elements of Jay-Z’s rap game that reflect Kobe’s hoops style. Gasp!

I’m willing to admit that I was licked by additional research, if only to ensure that Trey (my 15-year old son) still comes away with the main point: 50 Cent wasn’t a better rapper than Jay-Z. Kobe wasn’t a better basketball player than Michael Jordan. Got it? Cool.
Argument Caveat #1: Comparing Jay-Z to Michael Jordan openly anoints Jay-Z as the G.O.A.T.
I should’ve done this before I wrote the post, but there’s no better time than the present. Before comparing across disciplines, ground rules have to be established and a framework needs to be cemented. In other words, before we compare Jay-Z to Jordan we have to provide an answer for “The Question”.

Who’s the best rapper of all-time?

Yikes. There aren’t enough column lines in this post to satisfy that answer. We’ll have to save this debate for the barber shop. BUT...if you had to pick four rappers to make a Mount Rushmore-style monument honoring their greatness (a Mount Rapmore, if you will), who would make the cut? I don’t even think Jay-Z makes my top five (Rakim, Biggie, Tupac, Nas/Q-Tip). Does this sound like a guy that deserves to be compared to Michael Jordan – The Greatest Basketball Player EVER? I think not.

Argument Caveat #2: Does Jay-Z pass the Alpha Male Test?
Let’s say you meet a lady for drinks at a lounge. You’re generally having a good run – she’s laughing at your jokes, you’re enjoying sincere quality time, you haven’t tapped into “I Need to Order Her More Drinks to Skew Her Judgment of Me” mode, and you’re beginning to get the feeling that, umm, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. And then, without notice…both of these guys walk through the club door: Jay-Z and 50 Cent. Which guy would command the room?

Here’s the catch: Neither guy is rich or famous, but are simply two regular guys looking for a good time on a Friday night.

Which guy makes you more nervous? For me, it’d HAVE to be 50 Cent. (You know…if random club guys actually made me nervous. Pshaw!)

I mean, look at him. He’s incredibly ripped. He’s got an infectious smile. He walks upright and has confidence. If 50 Cent decided to sit on the adjacent lounge couch and undress my date with his eyes when – coincidentally – I would need to get up and use the bathroom, guess what? I’d have to hold my pee. Period.

Let’s play the same scenario out with Jay-Z. I’d probably invite him to the couch. I’d buy him a drink. I’d even go as far as to solicit my date’s girlfriend (you KNOW there’s always one grenade that looms awkwardly around the date) so that he could have someone to talk to. Basically, I’d assert Alpha Male status…not the other way around.
Argument Caveat #3: How many of these guys are pathologically competitive?
There’s a great debate that will always rage within English Literature circles: Was Hamlet acting crazy, or was he legitimately crazy? In basketball, there’s no doubt that Michael Jordan fits the latter description like a glove. My favorite crazy-competitive Jordan story involves the ‘92 basketball year, when everyone kept comparing a crummy Clyde Drexler to Michael Jordan. Of course, M.J. went on to rip Drexler’s heart out in the NBA Finals (winning Ring #2), and then continued to kick his tail in Dream Team practices to the point where Magic and Bird (the team captains) told Jordan to stop before Clyde’s ego was irreplaceably damaged. Who else would take a slight to that extreme?

I don’t think any of the other three principals have that streak. Kobe exists in a league where guys befriend each other in AAU tournaments (an attitude that definitely rubbed off on him), 50 Cent is driven by sales and paper before greatness, and Jay-Z smartly cashed out while at his peak (netting Beyonce, fame, and 1% of the Nets in the process). I’m not hating on these three, honest…but no one was as insatiably driven to vanquish his foes quite like M.J. For better or worse.
Argument Caveat #4: If you analyzed the greatest rapper year-to-year from 1999-2006…who would claim my teenage heart?
I created a four-part formula to explain this caveat (based loosely on Simmons’ pick-up game theory). This is how I came to my conclusion. Indulge me, if you will:

Part 1: VORR (value over replacement rapper) = If I could replace the best rapper from that year with an average rapper, how much worse would that year have been? For example, if we replaced Tupac with The Pharcyde, 1995 would’ve been WAY different.

Part 2: CLUTCH = If I needed to win a rap battle at any point in that year, who’s the first guy I’m grabbing for my corner? For example, remember when we thought Puff Daddy was going to be the heir to the rap throne once Biggie died? Too bad Puff Daddy was EXPOSED so badly that he was forced to change names three times. He's the anti-clutch.

Part 3: LEGACY = When we talk about that year's "rap state" ten years from now, who’s the first person that comes to mind?

Part 4: DEFENSE = If you pick a guy that someone doesn’t agree with, would they respect your decision?
Sweet. Now that we’ve got a loose formula, let’s examine our time period:
1999 (Eminem), 2000 (Nelly), 2001 (Jay-Z), 2002 (Jay-Z), 2003 (50 Cent), 2004 (Jay-Z), 2005 (Kanye West), 2006 (Lupe Fiasco).

If I were Gregory Peck, here’s where my “Jay-Z over 50 Cent” defense would rest. Jay-Z clearly owned three of my teenage years; ’01 (The Blueprint), ’02 (The Blueprint 2), and ’04 (The Black Album). 50 Cent only holds claim to one year (’03 – Get Rich or Die Tryin’) and even then, he’s elbowing Andre 3000 and OutKast for space most of the year. (Ultimately, I gave 50 Cent the nod even though Speakerboxx/The Love Below won the Grammy that year, because it was a tag-team effort.)

FINAL ANALYSIS = Jay-Z (3) > 50 Cent (1).

As you can see, I overanalyzed and debunked this concept to the fullest. We can add the “Jay-Z/50 Cent” answer to the annals of other great debates, like Nike being better than Adidas and Lucky Charms over Marshmallow Alpha Bits. Thanks for hanging in, and I hope you enjoyed the ride.

Hey, if this saves me from a depressing car ride to the Poconos in fifteen years with my 15 year-old son Trey, it was DEFINITELY worth it.
M.B., II


  1. "I don’t even think Jay-Z makes my top five (Rakim, Biggie, Tupac, Nas/Q-Tip)."
    I agree j/z's not a top 5 rapper, especially if you weigh lyrical adeptness more than anything else. I whole heartily agree with the first 4 rappers on your list. I don't know if I'd put Q-Tip on that list, though. I think may KRS-One (contribution to hip-hop) or Common (longevity and relevance) deserve consideration for top 5 before Q-Tip.
    I'm not exactly sure I understand your 3rd argument. I think everyone you mentioned in your post would be considered pathologically competetive. I agree MJ was probably the most egregious of the group. But I think it takes a lot of drive to be successful in hip hop AND basketball. I think they all pass that test. 50 > j/z? or 50 < j/z? I don't think we can determine that by how much we like their music.
    I like the sabermetric approach to analyzing this. But I would argue that there needs to be one of those era-adjusted stats. Eg. GOAT+ (Greatest of Adjusted Time.) It's hard to throw 50's name in the mix before 2002 because the only people who knew who he was before then bought mix tapes on Jamaica Ave.

    Also, j/z couldn't beat eminem (who was brand new in 1999) and nelly (who was never any good, ever) was because these two guys were more marketable/mainstream friendly than j/z. I can tell you that in 2000 & 2001 both eminem and nelly were getting more air time overseas than j/z did. In the late 90's the ny sound was out of favor. Outkast, no limit, cash money records, etc. were doing their respective things in the late 90's. This coincided with the emergence of the internet as a better music media outlet than tv and radio. But I digress.
    I agree, 20 years from now, j/z will be the icon of your teen yrs. But the fact that 50 topped him at all weakens the argument that he's one of the greatest. In a GOAT+ scenario, I don't think 50 would beat any of the top 5 on your list or my list. But he beat j/z head to head, even if for a minute.

    I'm not a 50 apologist. But I'm also not ashamed to say j/z is overrated.

  2. Jaaaay, I totally agree with your points. Some rebuttal arguments:

    1. Re: Timing. I think it's too early to analyze the '00's, just like it's too early to compare A-Rod to Harmon Killebrew/George Brett in MLB. However, an adjusted stat like GOAT+ would be helpful to weed out guys who are just popular (Em) from guys who are actually GOOD at rap (Rakim), with respect to their generations.

    2. It's SOOOOO hard to separate market success from actual talent in rap today, especially since in order to make bank (since no one buys music anymore), you've got to make "club bangers" and cater to the gen audience. I in NO WAY think Nelly/Em can hold a candle to Jay-Z straight up, but I DO think that they are the most memorable rappers of those years, regardless.

    3. Make a typo when talking about my Top 5. KRS-ONE definitely deserves to be there over Nas/Q-Tip. I let my fanhood get the best of me there.

    Don't know about Common though. He's good...but how many peak years has he had? He's like the Jim Rice of rap.

  3. Jaaaay, also...I did a crap job of defining GOAT. In simplest terms (w/o spawning a long diatribe), I define RAP GOATS here as guys who were tops at the skills, not so much at marketability. This idea of marketability didn't even exist as is until post-Biggie/Pac deaths. Thank you, Puff Daddy.

    Lyrical adeptness (to me) splinters three ways: delivery (how you say the lyrics), freestyle ability (can you come up with your own lyrics ON THE SPOT), and studio skills (do your lyrics translate to CDs = historical marker).

    Lastly, deciding on the GOAT of a certain year is HARD. Especially when I don't think/agree with most mainstream artists nowadays. Still pick The Roots/Common/Talib Kweli/Lupe Fiasco over anybody rapping mainstream right now.

    In essence, it really just comes down to how we define SUCCESS. In basketball, pretty easy (rings, 1st Team All-NBAs, ASGs, stats). In rap, super HARD.