Thursday, November 29th, 2012

Is Andre 3000 Better At Rap Than Biggie Was?

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.

34 Comments / Post A Comment

Murgatroid (#2,904)

He's definitely better at doing Gillette commercials than Biggie.

You can make all the intellectual arguments about how Andre 3000 is technically better at this or that (and he is good!) but Biggie is Yoda in the sky and Andre 3000 is Luke Skywalker fighting side by side with Ewoks.

But Andre has the advantage of still being alive.

Can't argue with that!

Trying to find out who is better at an artform: dumb idea or dumbest idea?

Was Picasso better at painting than Rembrandt ever was? Was Joyce better at writing than Doestoyevsky ever was?

Dave Bry (#422)

Hahaha! Agreed! But that stuff is fun to think and talk about, right?

(No? It's not? That's not all you and your friends do all the time is sit around and have these very type of dumb-idea conversations? Kilgore Trout: WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?!)

See also, "Radio Days."

Narrator: "Then there were my father and mother, two people who could find an argument in any subject."
Father: "Wait, you think the Atlantic is a greater ocean than the Pacific?
Mother: "No. Have it your way. The Pacific is greater."

holycalamity (#1,234)

@Kilgore Trout@twitter
it's only a dumb idea if you ignore that the hip hop ethos is rooted deeply in competition and claiming supremacy. It's not like Goya and Picasso had paint battles in the town square, you know.

Plus, people tend to take the whole "Biggie is G.O.A.T." thing as article of faith.

Cooper (#5,827)

Kilgore Trout seems like a fun guy.

Fffrank (#239,746)

If you're going to talk Biggie Vs. A3K, you first need to talk A3K vs. Big Boi. The guy is always sort of in the shadow of Andre but he's been incredibly prolific and he has to get extra points for (almost) never missing. "You Ain't No DJ" is absolutely incredible (and features Yelawolf dropping the best verse of the year.)

s. (#775)

@Fffrank Exactly right. And for real, Speakerboxxx is way better than The Love Below.

Dave Bry (#422)

I would not ever want to argue against Big Boi's greatness. I also prefer "Speakerboxxx" to "The Love Below." But I would say that when we're talking about MCs who, like, do things with their rhymes that no one else can do, Andre and Biggie belong in the conversation and Big Boi does not. (But again, don't get me wrong: my love for Big Boi is strong.)

s. (#775)

@Dave Bry I can't disagree with you. I just wonder if that's the sole or determinative criterion for best MC. There's no doubt that Dre has a greater creative flexibility than Big Boi (or maybe anyone else right now), but I'm not sure that's the same as saying Dre is better than Big Boi (or anyone else).

Also, let's not forget Lauryn Hill. Or at least Lauryn Hill in her prime.

@Fffrank Also, Big Boi was in the episode of Law & Order SVU that had THE MONKEY IN THE BASKETBALL.

barnhouse (#1,326)

WHATEVER he is SOOOOO HANDSOME and collects silk scarves and I LOVE HIM.

Daniel Roberts (#10,861)

of course, according to Eminem, "it goes Reggie, Jay-Z, Tupac and Biggie, Andre from Outkast, Jada, Kurupt, Nas and then me."

holycalamity (#1,234)

@Daniel Roberts
Jada and Kurupt's inclusion in that list is more defensible compared to – wait, did he really put Redman before Jay-Z?

En Vague (#82)

@holycalamity Reggie Noble has the ability to rap in Korean, so yes.

As much as I love his nonsense, Kurupt is definitely the odd man out there.

Julnyes (#232,305)

Andre 3000 is great, but Biggie Smalls remains the greatest rapper of all time (Rakim is second). It is a simple truth and I refuse to debate it.

RonMwangaguhung (#3,697)

come opn, David Bry. Andre is great. Biggie is tyhe bestest

Julnyes (#232,305)

@En Vague if we are including the ability to rap in Korean, Drunken Tiger should be on the list.

The lack of Tupac in this debate is problematic.

Matt (#26)

Excuse me but the answer is Geddy Lee on Roll the Bones, NEXT.

Matt (#26)

Joke stolen wholesale from tip your waitresses.

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

The answer is KRS-One. I thought everyone knew that.

Looking back on your decision to call KRS the GOAT is like Republicans looking back on their decision to invade Iraq? Y/N?

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

@Reginal T. Squirge – BDP era KRS, not the pod person KRS that went solo.

mwachs (#239,755)

How do people feel about Curren$y's "The Stoned Immaculate"? I feel like it's slept on.

Since you are a writer, I implore you to grab a dictionary and look up the word "blasphemy."

anonymass (#13,682)

@Matt Caruso@facebook

For sullying Andre 3000's name by comparing him to Biggie? I'm with you there.

Smedley T (#9,794)

I refuse to let my ignorance of lots of (excellent) mainstream rap keep me from insisting that Boots Riley, from The Coup, should be somewhere up high on all these imaginary, silly lists. No one has ever made class warfare sound that hilarious or flow so well. Both "Wear Clean Draws", and "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a'79 Grenada Last Night" need to be in the imaginary hall of masterpieces. Dave? Can you help me out?

Dave Bry (#422)

Yes, Boots is great. I find him less dazzling, less gasp-inducingly amazing than rappers that I'd put in my personal pantheon. Maybe he's a bit too heady, not musical enough? Like, his writing is better than his rapping? I dunno. But "Fat Cats, Bigger Fish" belongs in that imaginary hall, too.

berts (#235,918)

"suzy screw had a partner named Sasha / Thumper / I remember her number like the summer / when her and Suzy yeah they threw a slumber / party but you cannot call it that cuz it was slummer / well it was more like spend the night / three in the mornin, yawnin, dancin under street light / we chillin like a villain and a nigga feelin right / in the middle of the ghetto on the curb and despite / all of the bullshit we on our backs starin at the stars above / talkin bout what we gonna be when we grow up….."

anonymass (#13,682)

Yes. I've never understood what the big deal is about Biggie.

Andre 3000 is the greatest rapper of all time

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