The art of showmanship, a skill that has captivated the hearts and minds of the human race for centuries, is of course as prevalent today as it’s always been. All the way from Broadway to Hollywood there are millions of artists who make an impact on culture, using a variety of different means to showcase their abilities as the rest of us concede in admiration. These people are far from ordinary and stand out from the crowd blending in, all the while providing the common man with some much needed inspiration to get us through our daily routines. Thus to our great fortune they put their talents on display for our entertainment, and in doing so the world becomes their stage as they play their part in making history.
With that in mind one art form in particular has dominated the landscape of entertainment since it’s inception, uniting the power of spoken word with infectious patterns of rhythm in ways that can leave you mesmerized by what you just heard. For all the controversy that surrounds it, few scholars recognize the significance of hip-hop, and in doing so overlook the potential of an MC. At the same time advocates of the craft sometimes support it for the wrong reasons, as real artistry gets lost behind what's more easily assessable, and the lines get blurred as to what’s really the standard. On the flip side the critics see no value in even its best representation, as for decades it's been condemned by politicians who have even petitioned to censor it, an unintended endorsement as to how powerful it can truly be. Considering that throughout history the best artists were misunderstood and berated for their work, this is good company to be with; yet for that same reason it's vital that it not be misrepresented by those who claim it, and documented correctly to ensure the generations behind us continue to hold it in high regard.
Without further ado this article’s purpose is twofold, to either remind or to clarify what makes this art form truly special, and to shed light on two very different MCs who happen to embody the gold standard in their own respective ways.
Every day my mind is captivated by this genre of music, and often times when I think about a particular lyric that’s moved me, I go further into thinking about the bigger picture and how far this music can go. For that reason I’m obsessed with media, as a student of all history I acknowledge the importance of keeping an account on things as they happen, understanding its influence on how these stories get told years later. Therefore let me waste no more time in saying that the record keeping in hip-hop has been all too nebulous, as the art of rap has been characterized so many different ways that there’s no longer any criteria. In some respects that’s appealing, the thought that anybody can rap a certain way and call it respectable, the same vein I suppose as beauty being the eye of the beholder. While that line of thinking has its advantages the downside is what comes of the bookkeeping, how are we to differentiate who can rap at the highest level? and when will hip-hop be documented objectively like every other art form?
Hip-Hop has always been a sport from its foundation, thus for it’s similarity to actual sports the time for legitimate analysis is long overdue. In this country all four major sports are covered ad nauseam in addition to countless others, followed by the rest of the world who documents their athletes with pride in accordance with how much they mean to their respective culture. For example Tom Brady isn’t Tom Brady because some writer made him so, in the same way Derek Jeter didn’t become iconic based on somebody’s ‘opinion.’ The reality is that there are REASONS for that praise, the same logic that explains why the other 99% fall short of their excellence, a standard that can be deliberated on but could never be categorically ignored. In fact there isn’t a field from carpentry to culinary where artists aren’t evaluated off their merits, based off an established criteria which clearly defines the standard of excellence, thus providing the bar for the talent of tomorrow to reach for.
So why should evaluating rap artists be any different? Do we need to redefine what was always the criteria? Or are we so far gone that we’re comfortable with no criteria at all? Perhaps unwritten but if you have to ask then dust off your copy of the Blueprint and Breathe Easy, and let the Mike Jordan of rap recordings get you right. "Best flow, most consistent, realest stories, most charisma, I set the most trends, and my interviews are hotter, holla!" and he could have even said more. Let’s add sales to the mix, hardly the sole attribute that defines the MC but a raw figure that measures popularity, a virtue in itself that rappers covet therefore should never be dismissed altogether. And let’s add one more to the collective while we’re at it, how about an MC who writes his own raps, a characteristic that is hardly as valued in any other genre of music, but what has always been an essential quality of an MC all the same. Not to say there aren’t other components to look at when defining greatness, or that one aspect weighs more heavily than another, yet instead that’s to be debated on - provided of course that each conclusion comes with some kind of legitimate basis.
Thus here comes the part of the show where I may lose you, that is if you only follow conventional wisdom even when the unsaid truth is more likely. For different reasons I say with confidence (note this is not for some mystical reason that can’t be explained - but instead based on the above criteria) that amongst the many others, artists J Cole and Hollow Da Don exemplify the highest caliber of MC in their own distinctly different lanes. Those familiar with these two artists know on the surface they couldn’t be more unalike, yet where they align is with singular talents that are unmatched by their peers, in which case they are undeniably valuable to the art form as a whole. Before I continue a quick notation for those who disagree, if your personal preferences lead you to favor others in the mainstream and underground of rap instead, that’s great - that’s what opinions are all about. Yet the focus of this article is very clear: if your ‘opinion’ tells you J Cole is not an elite recording artist and Hollow Da Don is not an extraordinary battle MC, that’s not an opinion based on any criteria known to hip-hop, thus it should be identified as futile to any discussion on the matter at hand.
Now let’s put this into context, and let’s first start with J Cole. The understudy to Jay Z has by and large had as successful of a career as you can possibly have as a rap artist, selling millions of records and headlining tours and festivals around the globe. But what is rarely (if ever) detailed in the media is the uniqueness of his abilities, a rare combination of talents in which his substance and his delivery are second to no one. Before you impulsively disagree because your favorite blogger says different, let’s look closer. First let’s talk delivery, where disregarding groupthink while keeping in mind what makes hip-hop great will lead you to one conclusion: J Cole flows like water.
In less cryptic terms J Cole can rap his ass off, and can rap circles around more celebrated artists [see Just Begun and Looking For Trouble for confirmation]. On the other end of the spectrum is the meaning that can be found in his music, with relatable but sophisticated themes that touch on ‘angels and demons’, ‘faith and temptation’, as well as articulating pain as well as any poet before him [Born Sinner, Love Yourz, Nothing Last Forever, etc. etc.]. It’s also imperative to mention he does this without sacrificing the more superficial qualities his contemporaries are known for, as he puts it “they give you money, cars, and hoe shit, I give you that, and then a whole lot more shit” with records like Can’t Get Enough, GOMD, No Role Models, along with many others that show his versatility. In essence he’s the entire package, yet as it’s been documented thus far he’s only “average at best,” a baseless narrative that we’ll revisit in a moment.
watch the interview
On the other side of the coin but with a similar story is Hollow Da Don, hailing from Queens by way of Houston this MC isn’t particularly known for his abilities on wax (although he’s better than advertised; see: Sway in the Morning and The Cypher 1.0), but instead he’s widely touted as one of the greatest battle MC’s of all time. With tremendous delivery along with an uncanny ability to improvise, Hollow is one of the most talented human beings to ever pick up a microphone. As the founding fathers of hip-hop are lauded for their battle raps from the early 80’s into 90’s (Kool Moe Dee vs Busy Bee, KRS One vs MC Shan, LL Cool J vs Canibus, etc.), Hollow has indisputably surpassed them all in skill level (forget nostalgia, Kool Moe Dee was not rapping like Hollow Da Don), thus as a brand and artist he’s taken battle rap to heights that many thought were unimaginable. Imagine if you told those legendary MCs back then that one day battle rap would be on Pay Per View, they wouldn’t believe it yet thanks to a transcendent talent like Hollow that day is already upon us, and if promoted correctly the future of battle rap will grow to be so much more.
It goes without saying Hollow isn’t the only battle MC who can rock a crowd, with Charlie Clips, Calicoe, and Murda Mook being a few of my own personal favorites. Yet what battle fans and hip-hop fans need to keep in perspective, is that these other MC’s simply can’t do what Hollow can do, at least not as smooth and certainly not as often. So let’s break it down:
Does Murda Mook have an incredible pen? Yes. Can he improvise/freestyle? No.
Can Charlie Clips freestyle? Yes. Does he stumble and choke? All the time.
Did Hollow have a debatable classic with Aye Verb? Hmmm.. Ok fine… But Wait…
Is Hollow vs Lux a classic? Without a doubt
And thus hip-hop history is made, and for any Cole fans or hip-hop fans who find this article and are unfamiliar, Hollow Da Don vs Loaded Lux is an absolute masterpiece and should be perceived as a monumental moment in hip-hop - press play on that classic footage before you do anything else. And that goes for any of you journalists out there as well, if you cover hip-hop but have largely ignored these groundbreaking performances that have garnered millions of views on the net for years now, you’re not doing your job correctly - and by all accounts you’ve neglected the very essence of what makes this art form worth writing about...
Which leads me to some more thoughts about media. At this point there are hundreds of outlets that cover hip-hop in some way, shape, or form, yet the large majority of journalists seem to operate using no criteria at all, as if their judgments (good or bad) come from completely out of thin air while recklessly claiming credibility at the same time. Let’s take Cole as an example, who was the #1 selling artist in the hip-hop genre in 2014, and was unfathomably left off Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 40 Rap album list of that same year. Before you try to rationalize this, understand this was not an issue of 4th Quarter scheduling, as Royce and Ghostface dropped on the same day and Nicki Minaj came out the week after, all of whom can be found on this list and in good standing. Furthermore if you’re going to simply chalk this up as an “opinion,” I ask would it be responsible to leave Chris Paul off a Top 40 point guard list? Or LeSean McCoy off a Top 40 running back list? Not at all right? Then again I ask why hip-hop should be thought of as anything different. Just like any other art form there’s always been a standard of excellence, yet in hip-hop’s case we seem to ignore it while otherwise providing no explanation.
Which in turn brings me to the journalists who do a far better job with self promotion than they do representing the art form itself, to such a degree that none of them looked to correct the record with Rolling Stone, even when I brought it to their attention. The fact is if the other platforms aren’t writing about it then they don’t feel compelled to either, a reality that leads to the same monotonous stories getting told even when a blockbuster is right in front of them. I suppose it wouldn’t be hip-hop of me to avoid calling these people out by name so let’s have at it: Shea Serrano and Craig Jenkins write for the NY Times and NY Mag respectively, and with their platforms they go out of their way to diminish Cole while praising his lesser contemporaries e.g. Chance the Rapper (the equivalent of admiring Lance Stephenson’s game while depreciating Russell Westbrook), a position that simply doesn’t make any sense.
Elsewhere B Dot from Rap Radar is on video disputing Cole’s Top 5 status with Charlamagne, only to immediately follow that up with admiration for Migos, pull up the footage if you think that’s too inconceivable to believe. [A note for all prospective journalists, these swag rappers are great but have little to no longevity, see: Trinidad James and play your part accordingly]. Furthermore, Hot 97 personality Peter Rosenberg apparently doesn’t cover Cole’s career because he can’t get an interview, and although he’d never admit that he’s simply to be un-relied upon for any analysis, which may be a good thing considering his Born Sinner projections were about 200,000 units off and were far more Kanye than they were Mac Miller - a vast deviation from his senseless prediction that demonstrates how detached from the culture he really was. [On a complete separate note Rosenberg recently used his platform to condemn police brutality, a courageous move I applaud yet has nothing to do with his position in music, so let’s return back to regularly scheduled programming]. In the end Rosenberg, B Dot, Jenkins, Serrano, and countless others said close to absolutely nothing when Cole had an HBO miniseries and documentary film which gave the art form much needed POSITIVE exposure. Another significant moment in hip-hop that was inexplicably undocumented, another missed opportunity to recognize this art form's potential and how far it’s already come.
Which brings me back to Hollow, why isn’t there one journalist in hip-hop’s mainstream who has the wherewithal to see his talent for what it really is. Not one of you is good for that? None of you care about battle rap and the origins of where this all comes from? They can’t plead ignorance as Hollow went to all their platforms a few years ago and bodied every interview with Joe Budden, a celebrity with tremendous skill himself who clearly saw something in Hollow that his media friends must not have noticed. Meanwhile Drake, the biggest rap star in the world, is a self proclaimed Hollow fan who's come to Irving Plaza and watched his performances from the balcony in awe, yet still none of you in the mainstream media want to come to an event? Which brings me back to the Joe Budden battle, an event that was mired by shady business practices still left one thing very clear, Hollow’s cadence amongst anything else is what makes him a rap messiah. Like Kyrie’s handles Hollow Da Don is the truth, and I see no reason in the 'love of hip-hop' why he’d be anything less than a household name.
Thus here we are, the world keeps turning and hip-hop continues to be documented with no structure, cohesion, or substantive reasoning to be found. Any writer can say absolutely anything about hip-hop with no accountability, and the majority of the fans seem to like it that way. Yet let me propose a different method by contemplating what it would be like if we did cover this field objectively. Would the media that comes from it have more relevance? Would journalistic integrity lead to more opportunities with production value behind it, like HBO specials and Pay Per View On Demand? I’d venture to say it would, therefore while journalists troll for Likes and Retweets they underestimate the damage they do to this culture, and as a result they marginalize it’s potential for all of us.
So there it is, I’ll say what they won’t say because the art form deserves better, and I’m tired of waiting for someone else to do it. My focus on Hollow and Cole were just examples of artists more worthy than the coverage they get, and I plan on promoting other artists in the future who continue to transcend hip-hop in spite of receiving minimal recognition for it. This is more than a hot song or a fly pair of sneakers, this is history in the making, and simply stated these artists are creating legacies that need to be accurately documented. In all other varieties of entertainment our legends are celebrated as such, thus if Cole is something like rap’s John Lennon and Hollow is something like rap’s Mike Tyson, than I think it’s time that we all start paying much closer attention.