Rap fans—that is to say, people who are passionate and informed about the culture—tend to get into arguments with other rap fans. Debates are often sparked when one mischievous soul declaims their Favorite Rapper. Your favorite rapper is a personal preference, one that requires the most subjective defenses. If you’re rooting for the rookie of the year or a washed up veteran experiencing a career resurgence or someone no one has heard of as your favorite, then so be it. The choice is yours. (Got too many favorites to pick one? Here's a test: If you logged onto Complex.com and saw that three new singles from your three favorite rappers had just dropped, whomever's song you listened to first is your favorite rapper.)
The favorite rapper discussion is cool and all, but the coveted distinction in hip-hop is still being named the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). The GOAT discussion is reserved for the chosen few; no rookies or new jacks qualify. It’s strictly for the catalog artists, people who have shifted the culture in previously unmoveable ways, artists whose music has permeated and resonated over an extended period of time. It’s rap’s imaginary Hall of Fame, existing only within the abstract conversations we have about it. Since it has to consider the entire canon of hip-hop, the discussion ought to be reserved for more refined debate among only the most informed parties.
But there is one debate that every rap fan not only loves to have, but ought to have. A debate that considers both the short-term and long-term implications of an artist’s impact. A debate that pits a rapper in their prime against any and all competitors. A debate that gawks at the cultural landscape and plucks out the one who stands alone: The debate about who is the Best Rapper Alive. Being the BRA is sort of like being the MVP—even though rap doesn’t follow a rigid cultural calendar quite like major sports seasons—because it only requires looking at the current crop of active artists and picking a winner. You can confidently declare the Best Rapper Alive in 2013 without having to consider previous decades, the same way you can say LeBron is this year’s MVP even though you’ve never seen Jerry West play.
Anyone can become the Best Rapper Alive. Some came out the gate with next level rhymes that had everyone running back to the lab; for others it was a culmination of their gifts that coalesced for one great year. Much like rap itself, it’s an evolving process. But one thing we know for sure, it’s more about a general feeling among fans rather than any discernible facts. (What facts? It’s all just opinion anyway.) When a rapper steps in front of a microphone, and everyone in hip-hop has no choice but to look their way and give props, well then they just might be the Best Rapper Alive.
It’s still important to consider that the Best Rapper Alive debate is different from the GOAT conversation. Kobe has one MVP trophy, Steve Nash has two—but who would you rather have on your team? Being the BRA doesn’t mean you’re the biggest or the most successful; it just means you're the Best at one particular moment. Of course in hip-hop, being the best is intrinsically about being BIG. And being at your best, doesn’t make you the best, so if your prime coincides with someone else’s, well hey, there’s always next year.
You can look back on the hip-hop terrain with 20/20 hindsight, tally up the votes, and declare the GOATs, but the Best Rapper Alive from year to year is a feeling in the moment. There have been debates among rap fans living in that moment since the early days of hip-hop, but those discussions have never been properly cataloged—until now! (Yeah, we're excited. Sue us.) Complex is proud to present The Best Rapper Alive, Every Year Since 1979, a comprehensive look back at every year of rap and which MC moved the crowd the most. So the question remains: Who got the props?