For too long there has been an ecstasy of dick-swinging in the rap community, among musicians and fans alike, over who is truly the best in the game. Time was, you would debate a Top 5 list of your current favourite rappers ‘till the cows come home. And then the cows would join in too. Here’s a bitter truth for you: in the modern era, the Top 5 debate is played out. Especially if we’re talking rappers. Who wants to see another list with Drake, Kanye, Kendrick and Cole occupying the Top 4 in a different order every year like the Premier League in the early aughts? Nay, I say dead that.
Of course, rap’s place at the top of the zeitgeist means that now more than ever, everybody feels like they can pick up the mic, the full effects of which are only just beginning to be felt in the music industry. While this means that we now get banging verses from Beyoncé and Rihanna (a good thing!), it also means that now more than ever, virality is just as important to a smash single as musicality. And now that YouTube views count toward chart success, the next viral rap hit might come from someone who isn’t a rapper at all.
Thing is: what corner of entertainment is that hit going to come from? Let’s analyse 5 of the likely groups of suspects and pin down who might (might!) (but probably not!) manage to steal the crown from your favourite GOAT. We’ll pick five categories, one song to represent each, give a score, and then the results at the end. Let’s do this.
Ok: so just know that if you could call William Shatner’s spoken word “Rocket Man” cover a rap song, this debate would be over already. Dollar Bill Shatner had that loose, easy Biggie flow and a gentleman swagger that would make even Thugga wind his neck in. But to include him would be to irrevocably skew the results of our investigation.
Actors do have a long and noble tradition in rap, though – from Donald Glover all the way back to Marky-Mahhhk Wahlberg. It’s my party, so I’m only going to do rappers who began as actors first and not vice-versa, meaning Will Smith, 50 Cent, 2Pac, DMX and Ludacris are all excluded. If you don’t like it, get the strap. Stepping up to represent all of Hollywood, Transformers star and higher being Shia LaBoeuf with his Five Fingers Of Death freestyle from Sway In The Morning.
Bars: Shia gets bonus points for going off the top of the dome and sending for the whole new generation of rappers, for whom freestyling seems a nasty chore (it’s funny because most of them are teenagers ahahaha). “Trying to insure this legacy / Geico” is a damn hard punchline. 3.5/5
Flows: A little sloppy, doesn’t vary the formula much but again, he is off-top. What’s with the high society British accent though? It’s like Thomas Jefferson taught this guy how to rap. 3/5
Credibility: Shia knows exactly what he’s getting himself into, leaning into his clean living, Jewish lifestyle and not making any threats he can’t back up. 3.5/5
Longevity: He really should be flying the flag for all the actor-rappers out here but until he finally jumps on record and drops something official, this YouTube freestyle will remain just a meme, living on through post night-out YouTube sessions on the laptop when everyone should have already gone home. 1/5
A lot of the greats of basketball have made serious overtures to the rap game, to the point where T.I. made a heartfelt plea on Jimmy Kimmel to try and stop them. Stop they did not, however, especially when a transatlantic beef with Michael Dapaah brought the platinum-selling icon Shaquille O’Neal out of rap-tirement. For this section, take in Shaq Diesel’s “Man’s Not Hot Remix”.
Bars: Shaq promises a lot of heat from the start, but there isn’t a single quotable in this verse, just a weird line about cheese. This is worse than his free throw record which, for the uninitiated to basketball is infamously bad. 0/5
Flows: At the total opposite end of the scale, who really expected The Big Aristotle to ShaqAttack this drill beat with a skippy flow. We are 100% living in a simulation. 4/5
Credibility: Shaq claims to have a lot of crazy stuff in his backyard (Superman on a Glock??), but considering this is a man who spent his first million dollars in 45 minutes, I’m inclined to believe him. 4.5/5
Longevity: While there are plenty of baller-rappers to take up Shaq’s mantel, will any of them enjoy the meteoric success he has in both fields? Like the man himself says, there can only be one. 2/5
You can definitely understand why YouTubers – who have everything – would force us mere serfs – who have nothing – to listen to their anemic brand of rap music. Their power in a world of new media is total and before you tell me that I’m overreacting, just remember that you can still purchase official Bed Intruder Song merch at this very moment. They’re also the youngest, yet the most formidable of these groups, which makes them a pretty bankable dark horse. But just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should, as Jake Paul’s “It’s Everyday Bro Remix” featuring Gucci Mane shows.
Bars: How many different ways can one kid say his life is like a movie? How many? 1/5
Flows: It’s serviceable, but what about these ad-libs? Have you ever heard someone shiver so aggressively? 2/5
Credibility: Sure, you can pay Gucci to be on your song, but you just can’t buy credibility. No more than you can buy good taste. 0/5
Longevity: Jake Paul has so much influence, I doubt he’s done out here as a rapper even if he should be. I think we’re looking at a joint tour with a Biggie hologram in less than two years. 4/5
Trash talk, braggadocio, threats of violence; pro-wrestling and rap music go hand-in-hand. It’s what John Cena found it with his squeaky-clean opus You Can’t See Me, which went to 15 on the Billboard 200 and includes his WWE theme “The Time Is Now” - frankly an undeniable bop that belongs on every gym playlist there is. Taking wrestle-rap into the Internet age is Real1, FKA WWE’s Enzo Amore. This is “Bury Me A G”.
Bars: It’s not Kendrick but there’s some nice imagery in here. “If money can't buy me happiness / I hope I die angry as f*ck / In a fur with a full purse.” 4/5
Flows: Enzo can’t decide whether to go full mumble rap or use his wrestling promo voice, which is suuuper jarring. You ever heard a nursery kid read? That’s this flow, frustrating in a way that’s kind of adorable. 2.5/5
Credibility: The delicious irony here is that a rapper named Real1 is probably wearing fake fur and jewels here. But Enzo is so entirely consumed by self-belief that it… kinda works. 3.5/5
Longevity: For all its obvious flaws, Real1’s music is moody, detached and stubborn, which suits the new trap wave to a tee. A good sign for wrestlers who might follow suit. 5/5
Reality TV stars
Another season of Love Island is in the can and sadly (just me?!), it’s looking like we aren’t going to get any music from it this year. Can you imagine the outrageous damage that Dani Dyer and Danny Dyer going bar-for-bar on a track would do to the charts? Instead, we have to settle for Kem & Chris’ official soundtrack to doing lines in ‘Beefa and “‘aving it large”, “Little Bit Leave It”,
Bars: Even though the whole ‘Leave It’ concept was shamelessly jacked from Lethal Bizzle, I defy you to say you kept a straight face during the ‘Nut in her mouth like cashew’ line. 2/5
Flows: Pretty standard for even the least initiated grime fan. And that line about the reload? It wasn’t a reload. Welp: these guys definitely studied up in the Evening Standard school of rap. 2.5/5
Credibility: Chris & Kem definitely live the party life they’re on about but all this flipping the bird and ‘smashing up the rave’? Nah. This is exactly what the Essex and Kent youths who come to Lovebox to scrap yuppies during Skepta sound like. 1.5/5
Longevity: There isn’t any. Arrive, ruin Grime forever, leave. 0/5
And now… the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Ddddddddddddrum roll please!
Well, the answers couldn't be clearer. It seems the next generation of rap gods will be made up entirely of retired and/or disgraced professional wrestlers. Sorry to all the actors/youtubers/potential-love-island-contestants – wrestlers just have just the right combination of charisma, bravado and pantomime-like determination to make it in a world where anybody can rap.
Does this mean that authenticity in hip-hop as we know it is doomed? Are we to believe that Real1 or any other former WWE champs are likely to make a song that more than halfway slaps in the near future? Let’s not be too hasty. For all the defenders of the hip-hop faith: don’t fret. Real rap and real rappers aren’t going anywhere just yet. When the current market saturation has dried up and people move to the next wave, those who dedicate their lives to the craft will remain and will endure. All I’m saying is that when John Cena finally decides to stop playing and returns to run the game, don’t say that you weren’t warned.
Alex Ekong is a writer and pioneer of the deep underground ‘journo-rap’ wave. Follow him on Twitter .