I have long been a proponent of the idea that the Notorious B.I.G. is the best rapper of all-time. (This after having long been a proponent of the idea that Rakim was the best rapper of all-time. I have been proponentizing for a long time. I am very, very old.) But I am starting to consider a different idea. Is Andre 3000 the best rapper of all-time? I think he might be! The body of work he amassed with his partner Big Boi across the six OutKast albums that came out between 1994 and 2006 already made for a strong case—Andre expanded the breadth of rap-lyric subject matter with stunning, beautiful rhymes about alienation, sadness, race, class, confounding expectations, retreating from fame, untraditional masculinity, family, parenthood, love, remorse and regret. (Biggie only released two proper albums before he was killed. But prolificness doesn't matter as much in this kind of discussion as does consistency and brilliance and the heights of artistic achievement. Quality trumps quantity.)
Remember on "Return of the 'G'," from 1997's Aquemeni album, when Andre rebuked, "Them niggas that think you're soft/And say, 'Y'all be gospel rappin'…'/But they be steady clappin' when you talk about bitchin' and switchin' and hoes and clothes and weed/Let's talk about time travellin'/Rhyme javelin/Something mind-unravellin'/Get down…"
That's about as good as rap gets. That's about as good as any lyrics get. That's about as good, I would argue, as any writing gets. Did you ever read Robert Stone's short story "Helping?" It was published in The New Yorker in 1987. (Here it is: subscription required) It's about an alcoholic Vietnam vet named Elliot who falls off the wagon after fifteen months of sobriety and it is awesome and devastating. The man's wife Grace is a child services lawyer who just lost a case in which she was trying to remove a child from the care of his abusive parents. The child's father calls Elliot's house and threatens violence. Both men are drunk, but Elliot remains calm.
"Do you keep a journal?" Elliot asked the man on the phone. "What's your hat size?"
"Maybe you think I can't get to you," The man said. "But I can get to you, man. I don't care who you are. I'll get to you. The brothers will get to you."
"Well, there's no need to go to California. You know where we live."
"For God's sake," Grace said.
"Fuckin' right," the man on the telephone said. "Fuckin' right I know."
"Come on over," Elliot said.
"How's that?" the man on the phone asked.
"I said come on over. We'll talk about space travel. Comets and stuff. Astral projection. The moons of Jupiter."
I don't know whether or not Andre read that story before writing "Return of the 'G'," but it's pretty much the same thing. And equally awesome. And it rhymes.
(Of course, Biggie spun some jaw-dropping stories with his lyrics, too. I think his most impressive work might be the song, "I Got a Story to Tell," from 1997's Life After Death—told from the perspective of a thug who's having sex with the girlfriend of a professional basketball player. The basketball player comes home when the thug is at his house, necessitating some quick thinking. "I'm like, 'Bitch, you better talk to him/Before the fist put a spark to him/Fuck around, shit get dark to him/Put a paw through him/Lose a major part to him/Arm, leg…'")
They are both so great, Andre and Biggie. (Robert Stone, too.) Similarly great, I think. Imbued with a feel for language rare among writers of any genre. But Andre has the advantage of still being alive. And over the past decade, he has developed a new method of burnishing his legend. Around the turn of the century, feeling creatively restrained, he began expressing himself through different modes—singing, guitar playing, acting. Taking time off from OutKast, recording less, working sporadically. But seemingly just to keep his chops up, has invested himself in stealing Busta Rhymes's title of all-time show-stealingest guest rapper. He has succeeded at this. As his verse on T.I.'s new song "Sorry" attests. (Andre comes in at the 3:18 mark.)
Man, that's good fast rapping! (Which he says he doesn't even like doing!) And then when he switches up and slows it down and changes his tone and gets reflective and directly addresses Big Boi?! All confessional and contrite about retreating from fame again, he apologizes for the way his ambivalence may have slowed his partner's career. But he gives sound reasoning. "Why do we try so hard to be stars?" he says. "Just to dodge comets?"
He's a bright star, all right. Outshining pretty much everyone else in the sky.
Even Biggie? Do you think? Could it be?
The longer Andre raps at such a high level, the more prolificness does start to come into consideration. At a certain point, the quality of their work being relatively equal (as I think it is), the sheer volume of Andre's has to tip the scale, right?
It's a particularly apt time to be thinking about this question, because the young Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar recently released the most widely hailed rap album of the year, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Kendrick Lamar is very, very good at rapping. (Though I think his album is not as good those released this year by Killer Mike or El-P or even Lamar's friend and partner in Top Dawg Entertainment's Black Hippy collective, Schoolboy Q. Schoolboy's album, Habits & Contradictions is basically hard-nosed gangsta rap rhymed over Portishead beats. If that sounds good to you—and it should—you should check it out. I have been listening to it a lot since it came out in January, and I can't stop.) And Kendrick's intricate, confessional style betrays a huge debt to Andre 3000's. There's no one he sounds more like. Which is not at all a bad thing. Who could blame anyone for rapping like Andre 3000? Andre 3000 might well be the best rapper of all time.