Kanye West is the greatest hip-hop artist of all time. He's made the best albums and changed the game the most, and his music is the most likely to endure.
One thing before we get going: This isn't one of those arguments meant to piss people off or “start a conversation.” We really mean it. And, considering we were born a few minutes after hip-hop was and we've been writing about it for over a decade, we feel qualified to say. So let's say it again: Kanye is the GOAT.
Rather than laying out all the evidence in his favor, though, we're just going to predict and shoot down your arguments, one by one:
1) He's not a very good rapper
Fine. Maybe. Sorta. Well, not really, but even if that were true, being the GOAT is not the same as being the bestest technician. If that were the case then Christopher Cross or someone would be the best rock dude instead of Bob Dylan.
2) Biggie Smalls is the GOAT
We love Biggie more than many members of our family, but Biggie died too soon to be the greatest. He never got a chance to experiment much with style, or to refine his story-telling abilities as he moved into different phases of his life. Maybe Ready to Die and Life After Death are better than The College Dropout and Late Registration (maybe), but would his next three albums have been as strong as Graduation, 808s & Heartbreak, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? Would his music have evolved in such interesting, complex ways? The answers are most likely no.
3) Kanye's fallen way off since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Sure, Watch the Throne was not classic, and Cruel Summer is definitely not classic, but they are not Kanye solo projects and should not be judged in the same way. Are they evidence that Kanye has fallen off permanently? Absolutely not. Don't forget that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — an album that is Kanye's best, in the opinion of many — is barely two years old. Let him get his kilt-wearing, kingmaking phase out of the way and see if he doesn't come back with an even more interesting perspective.
4) Jay-Z is the GOAT
Jay-Z is an absolutely first-rate songwriter, rapper, and performer, and his influence and style have unquestionably shaped the genre permanently. And, not for nothing, he brought the world Kanye West. (And Memphis Bleek.) But even putting aside Jay's great mountain of subpar work, very few of his albums are truly canonical 'art with a capital a,' whereas one can make this case for every one of Kanye's albums.
Though he's an expert boaster (not a slag) and makes stellar street anthems and pop hits with equal ease, Jay-Z doesn't often go to interesting places emotionally. In that sense, he's the best rap traditionalist; rap didn't used to be about psychiatrist couch confessions. But we believe the genre's tendency toward introspection is a positive shift, and while others deserve credit in this regard (including Scarface and Eminem) no one's more responsible for it than Kanye.
Also, shouldn't the greatest hip-hop artist be at least somewhat relevant when it comes to social issues? While one gets the feeling Jay hangs out with the president mostly because it makes him look cool, Kanye has legitimately risked his reputation on issues like gay acceptance and the diamond trade. He addresses issues like poverty, inequality, and access to education in his songs, in a way that is not trivial but is also not shrill or annoyingly Kwelian.
Oh, and this might be petty, but personally we'll never forgive Jay for ruining “Never Let Me Down.” What could have been one of Kanye's best tracks evar is blemished by Jay. After J.Ivy offers one of the most heartwarming, uplifting verses we've heard, Jay-Z returns for a megalomaniacal, completely pointless second turn on the mic, and it's the absolute pits.
5) 808s & Heartbreak is not that good
Wait, it's the Future era and folks are still complaining about Auto-Tune? Not only did Jay not successfully kill it off, but it's come to be as ubiquitous in pop and hip-hop as, we don't know, 808s. (And yes, we're still waiting on that critical reevaluation of T-Pain.)
What everyone who wasn't blinded by the great anti-disco-style Auto-Tune hysteria of the late aughts already knows, of course, is this: What makes 808s great is the songwriting. The work, a downer concept album focusing on relationships that was somehow a giant hit, pioneered the now-pervasive “sad robot” subgenre, and helped solidify the idea that it was ok to be really, really vulnerable in rap.
It's built on real emotion, channeled eloquently. And we'd say the song structures are Beatlesque, if not for the fact Kanye's achievement is probably greater than the Beatles', if only because he did a lot more producing than they.
6) OutKast is the GOAT
Sure maybe if you take OutKast's first five albums — but pry The Love Below out of the double CD case and replace it with Sir Lucious Left Foot — and pit them against Kanye's five albums, then maybe it's close. But that's a lot of math.
7) My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy won't hold up
Yeah, after our initial obsession with the work we too thought that. And it was definitely a terrible thing for Pitchfork to give it a 10.0. But we challenge any doubters to listen to MBDTF again, right now, and see if you're not caught up all over again. Truth is it sounds as good now as it did before, maybe better. Raekwon, Nicki Minaj, Pusha T, Bon Iver and Fergie alike are at peak form, and that's a strange sentence to write. In fact, we'll even go so far as to say the 34 minute “Runaway” video holds up.
8) Tupac is the GOAT
If you genuinely feel this way then there's probably no talking you out of it here, and in terms of worldwide cultural influence there's admittedly no topping Tupac. (And that's comparing him to any cultural artifact short of Baywatch.) But c'mon. Also, let's be honest, “Hey Mama” > “Dear Mama.”
9) Kanye's an asshole
So was Picasso. So was Ty Cobb. So is Jay-Z for that matter. (That was a not nice thing he said at the Grammys about The-Dream's hat.) It's something of a given that anyone driven to celebrity is going to be arrogant and confused. But it's one thing to be an asshole and it's another to have a sense of self-awareness, which believe it or not Kanye possesses. After Lil Wayne drew a more-enthusiastic crowd response at Summer Jam 2008 (despite performing “Pussy Monster” on guitar), Kanye acknowledged that he'd been one-upped, and vowed to come back with something bigger and better. And he did. Even if Watch the Throne the album wasn't too special, Watch the Throne the tour was pretty unstoppable.
Oh, and if anyone is still upset that he interrupted Taylor Swift, or about the George W. Bush hates black people thing, or if anyone doubts his love for Kim Kardashian and their baby — you're an asshole yourself.
10) Nas/Rakim/Immortal Technique is the GOAT
It's nice to have a lane, and it's even nicer to drive faster and straighter in your lane than anyone else. But being the GOAT is not about doing one thing really, really well. It's about being the best artist, it's about confronting one's fears and weaknesses, expanding one's sound, and reinventing oneself time and time again. It's the Kanye West playbook, and we are all lucky to be around while he's in his prime.