(1) Tupac vs. (1) Jay-Z
Tupac versus Jay-Z pits a mythical soul who’s no longer with us against a living legend. Both men are amongst the top three selling rap artists of all time. Both have a bevy of hits and memorable moments in Rap history to their credit. And both lay claim to extremely loyal fan bases, with Jigga fans often pointing to his business acumen and mogul status as defining elements of his greatness and Tupac fans sometimes irrationally and always adamantly asserting that his ability to rap from the heart sets him apart from the rest. Jay fans, much like Mr. Carter himself, brush off arguments that other artists are better by simply pointing to his track record. And truth be told, they’re right. Very few can hold a candle to Jay-Z’s credentials of sales, number one albums, awards, successes as an entrepreneur, and of course his music and mastery of bars. ‘Pac fans, much like Mr. Shakur, don’t really give a damn about another rappers flow, sales, or trophy chests. ‘Pac was a self-proclaimed ‘rider’ and whether right or wrong, for better or worse, unleashed his heart and soul through his music and (albeit posthumously) became an icon doing so. His fan base feels him till this day and just as he would, ‘ride’ hard-core for him whenever a ‘who’s the greatest rapper’ debate comes up.
Jay-Z embodies the ‘Hustler’ persona. “Put me anywhere on God’s green Earth. I’ll triple my worth” (‘U Don’t Know’ – The Blueprint). He mastered that laid-back, mafioso, gangster image that Biggie birthed and used it to become one of the best to ever do it. His music is typically very good and often outstanding. While every artist that has been recording as long as Jay has inevitably has some creative lulls along the way, in his case he’s been remarkably consistent. His 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt is considered a classic. And while classic album criteria in Rap music is debatable and often subjective there are many who consider 1998’s In My Lifetime vol. 2, 2001’s The Blueprint, 2003’s The Black Album, & 2009’s The Blueprint 3 classics (or borderline classics). Even his “low points” (In My Lifetime vol. 1, Kingdom Come, and American Gangster) weren’t bad and produced successful singles. His influence simply cannot be overstated. In a 2012 interview with Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg, Nas of all people says of Hova, “hip-hop needs to thank God for Jay-Z. Martin Luther King died, Malcolm X. died, Elijah Muhammad died, Noble Drew Ali died, the Honorable Marcus Garvey died for Jay, for you and me. The fact that he’s doing what he’s doing is an awakening call for all of the Gods and Earths to wake up and understand the true calling. This generation is bigger than what we can even fathom. And he is one of the only ones out of the whole community that we grew up with in the Run DMC days that had taken this sh*t seriously – musically and business-wise. That’s powerful, and you gotta respect him” (http://touch.vibe.com/vibe/#!/entry/nas-talks-about-jayzs-influence-as-an-mc,5026d24a6fab9e43ee6ef505/media/2). When the biggest rival you’ve had in your career bigs you up that graciously, that’s impact.
In ‘Pac’s case as we previously noted, he built upon the pro-Black militant style of Public Enemy and NWA’s gangsta rap model to materialize into the Thug Life warrior that we remember him as today. Tupac had a powerful voice and delivery (akin to Chuck D, Ice Cube, and Scarface). Though mechanically his bars weren’t always the most complex (although I welcome you to study his use of alliteration on Me Against The World’s ‘If I Die Tonight’ and his rhyme schemes on ‘Troublesome ’96’ & ‘The Realest Killaz’ if you have any doubt that the man could rap his butt off), his mastery of cadence and ability to rap from the diaphragm ensured that you heard his every word loudly and clearly. His brutal honesty, whether in his songs or interviews captivated us. And while he often hollered “f*ck the world,” ‘Pac was truly a nihilist with a cause. More than anything it was the message in his music that resonated with his audience. Thug Life on the surface was a cool name for an album (an under-appreciated one by the way). A closer look at Tupac ideology reveals the acronym The Hate U Give Little Infants F*cks Everybody. N.I.G.G.A wasn’t just another song title, it meant Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished. From 2Pacalypse Now to All Eyez On Me to Better Dayz, ‘Pac’s albums were full of tales about the plight of lower-income, urban America and cries for community activism and self-empowerment. That’s not to say he didn’t have party joints, head bangers, and of course those infamous dis tracks, but it’s the strong messages that permeate his catalog that catapult him over more versatile, dynamic, and well-rounded emcees to reach iconic status. Anybody can play a thug in the studio, but Tupac struck a chord with the human struggle and that’s why so many all over the world identify with and love his music even today. Shortly before his own death, the Notorious B.I.G. in an interview with BET’s Joe Clair would say about Tupac’s,”I felt him. I still feel him, you know? We got the records. You know I’m out here every day. He runs the radio stations. He ain’t got heavy rotation, he got every rotation… I hear him and every time I hear him I feel him. So he gon’ always be here” (http://youtu.be/lkBtc6v2ZSU). Biggie was right. 17 years after his untimely passing, Tupac is most certainly still a force in pop culture. And that his arch rival said that about him is a testament to his lasting legacy and impact.
Will it be the Hustler or the Thug? What a match-up! In the end, Tupac’s indelible legacy overpowered Jay-Z’s run of success with 78% of the vote in our poll, leading Tupac to the 2013 Rap Madness Championship.