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Calling someone the “best mixtape rapper ever” feels like a pseudo-compliment; a conditional plaudit not much different than being the tastiest tofu or the midget with the biggest dick. It’s also not completely clear. Do you mean they consistently produce the best mixtapes? Or are you saying they're the best at “mixtape rap”—an NYC-centric hip-hop subgenre where rappers spit over recycled beats other rappers already made popular?
If it’s the former, the praise is acceptable. Drake and J. Cole are among the several who've used great mixtapes as springboards to major-label success. And some legitimate stars—Rick Ross in particular—craft mixtapes with the same meticulousness as their albums.
If it’s the latter, who the hell would want to be that? There’s no money in that. No award show love. No magazine features. No impact. No legacy.
But thinking of mixtape rapping that way reduces hip-hop to a zero-sum game. With clear winners (Kanye West, Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, etc) and losers (pretty much everyone else). It ignores the visceral value of first hearing a complex sequence of rewind-worthy lines, and the appreciation of craft present when recognizing both simile and assonance within the first two bars of a verse. Basically, it forgets why we’re fans of rap in the first place. Nas isn’t your favorite rapper because It Was Written went triple platinum and you liked him in Belly. He’s your favorite rapper because the first verse on "The Message" blew your fucking mind.
The best “mixtape rappers” are in the make-you-nod-your-head-so-fucking-hard-you’ll-blow-your-mind business. They are professional scene stealers. Steve Busemci’s with 16s. Maybe they went platinum once in 2002. Maybe. But it’s not happening again. They’re not winning any Grammys, and they’re definitely not getting any apologies from Macklemore. And that’s fine. Maybe they care about that stuff. But we shouldn’t. Not as long as we continue to marvel and make ugly faces at their ability to manipulate words.
The best “mixtape rappers” are in the make-you-nod-your-head-so-hard-you’ll-blow-your-mind business. They are professional scene stealers. Steve Busemci’s with 16s.
And while your Cassidys, your Joel Ortizes, and your Royce Da 5’9's—all mixtape rap legends—each take turns making us scan the track listings of mixtapes we’ve recently downloaded just so we can hear the tracks they’re featured on first, none are as consistently sublime as Fabolous, the best mixtape rapper ever.
Now, I realize giving anyone a “best ever” title in any—especially one as subjective as music and as arbitrarily determined as “best mixtape rapper”—practically baits refutation. This is especially true for Fabolous, who has two major things going against him.
1. He did not win the voice lottery.
While certain rappers (Jadakiss, Ghostface, etc) have immediately distinguishable voices that immediately manage to convey their unique brand of charisma, confidence, and manliness, Fabolous’s relatively soft staccato—which, at times, makes him sound 19 years old—isn’t as distinct and occasionally gets overpowered by certain beats.
2. His subject matter rarely varies.
Fabolous raps about four things:
A) Bitch Niggas
B) His Niggas
D) That One Bitch Who’s Not Like The Other Bitches
But a focus on his flaws obscures the fact that Fabolous seems to be aware of his limitations, and instead has seemingly focused on being consistently better at his particular trade—showing off his ability to craft increasingly clever and complex rhymes—than anyone else is. And, a decade plus into the game, he’s getting better at it.
To wit, I looked at verses from The Soul Tape 3, trying to find a perfect example of the type of adroitness I’m talking about. But it’s near impossible to narrow it down to one. I could choose his verse on “The Hope”—a 24 bar-long boast of him finding different words to rhyme with “hope” while riffing on everything from the papacy to hood porn stars. Or maybe the first four bars on ”Young OG”, where he basically summarizes Peter Gunz’s life in four sentences.
Actually, you know what? I think we have a winner. Here’s the first 16 on "Sacrifices"
Seeing your family scrambling, that's sanity damaging
Gotta, make a move can't just stand and be mannequin
Have a man who be managing, randomly standing in places he shouldn't
Trying to move that Pamela Anderson under
Stand and beat hammers and grandma keep paneling
Cause them niggas from the other side are fans of me vanishing
New day, new funeral, my grandma be panicking
But I gotta eat, she just handing me sandwiches
And an appetite like mine, got me scamming and scandaling
Riding shotty with my homie, but I plan to be phantom and
Bumping something I can feel, fam, I need sampling
Not no Bieber on the hook, I need Anthony Hamilton
I got molly, I got white, I be Hannah Montana and
Like a Migo it's illegal, but it's grands in my hand again
So it probably ain't right, but this the land of the scandalous
Til your own friend a snake you probably can't understand it then.
At first listen, it seems like he’s just rhyming about a subject—bitch niggas trying to stop him from making money—he’s rhymed about at least 17,000 times before. This is not untrue. And I can see how this would bore certain listeners. (Also, after listening to multiple Fabolous albums back to back, you realize he must really, really suck at making friends.)
The lack of variety in his subject matter is intentional, though. The topics (bitches, bitch-ass bitches, etc) are just vehicles. Props. They’re just his opportunity to show off his command of the English language and let us all know how good he is at rhyming words together. He’s a storyteller more concerned with us marveling at the telling of the story—and finding a way to rhyme "sandwiches" and "Hannah Montana"—than the actual story. Basically, he’s a thinkpiece rapper.
I realize that last paragraph was just a long way of saying, “He raps about nothing.” Which, should be troublesome, I guess. Wit without substance is just gas. But, as long as I keep rewinding, I don’t care about that.
Pittsburgh-native Damon Young writes about things. And, @verysmartbros, he (occasionally) tweets about things too.
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