No one ever says Meet The Beatles! was that band’s best record. I’ve literally never heard that. Sure, it started the mania that would eventually lead to their immortality and Ringo Starr being able to say “Peace and love” all the time without being called out for being a maniac, but it’s never critically or casually considered their finest work. They were young and developing, not the Beatles that would later define music in general, and now popularize a dumb meme with Rae Sremmurd. They were a pop band not yet evolved by experience. Practice makes perfect, and in the case of the Fab Four, acid also helped.
You commonly hear about artists like Nas or Jay Z, never being able to top the hunger from their debuts
You see, rock music in general allows for growth. Hip-hop, on the other hand, does not. You commonly hear about artists like Nas or Jay Z, never being able to top the hunger from their debuts Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt respectively, and that sort of thing both bums me out and makes sense. Rap music fans applaud the teenage work of a struggling MC rhyming about his dreams, like the lines immortalized in Biggie’s “Juicy,” but when they can actually afford the unlimited chains and cars, sometimes we think they just... fell off. It’s the reason the Rolling Stones can still sell out Dodger Stadium well into their ’70s, yet we have to package every old school rap group together to create a tour that half fills the Microsoft Theater downtown. In general, rappers don’t “get better over time” and we’re pretty adamant about it.
But I’m here to tell you that some rappers do get better. Especially as of late.
So I’ve decided to compile a list of MCs that I think have accomplished the rare feat of improving over time and should be celebrated because of it. These rappers are like a fine wine of rhyme. Sorry about that. That was lame. If you haven’t abandoned the article based on that one phrase, well, here are a few of my favorite examples. Enjoy progress.
When he was called “Fat Joe da Gangsta,” and part of the legendary Diggin’ in the Crates crew, he was always the weak link. Lost amongst pioneers like Big L, Showbiz & A.G. and O.C., Joe was basically an intern. And when he signed a solo deal at Relativity soon thereafter, his first single “Flow Joe” and debut album Represent had ridiculous production, but always felt weak to me on lyrics and delivery. In the late ‘90s, I only saw him as “Big Pun’s best friend.”
But lo and behold, 20 years have passed and Don Cartagena is still thriving in the game, despite also being part of a very weird Ponzi scheme. And he can chalk up his longevity on becoming a much better rapper. Sure, there are rampant rumors that he’s hired dozens of ghostwriters during the progression, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt here—especially with a bevy of memorable first singles like “Make It Rain,” “Slow Down,” “Lean Back,” and “All The Way Up.” On Ja Rule’s 2004 slapper, “New York,” he mentions that people must think he “stole Pun’s rhymebook,” casually dropping he knows of his evolution. But is that advancement fully his? That’s just a question we’ll never be able to answer. Also, did he name himself? ‘Cause I feel like that’s a real sign of low self-esteem.
BEFORE :: 1993
AFTER :: 2010
Back in 2011, when Pittsburgh native Mac Miller released his first album, Blue Slide Park, there wasn’t much distinguishing him from other “frat rappers” of the time. His outstanding, and unprecedented, independent success was clearly a sign of his popularity, but as far as pure rap talent or original voice goes, he wasn’t even an Asher Roth to me. Also, looking back, he probably shouldn’t have kept repeating this name in a catchy fashion.
But as Miller continued his rise to fame, he also workshopped his craft. At the end of 2012, when he released Pink Slime, an album that featured appearances from Action Bronson, Jay Electronica, and Schoolboy Q, he not only held his own, he showed an impressive maturity and flow. All while looking like every other white kid in a dad hat on Fairfax. His newest single, “Dang!,” featuring Anderson .Paak, is a certified banger with shades of Outkast and Kendrick—a combination that would’ve seemed impossible to pull off when he first started. Congrats Malcolm McCormick, you’ve done grown up.
BEFORE :: 2011
AFTER :: 2016
Jarobi was to A Tribe Called Quest what those two weird looking guys who aren’t will.i.am are to the Black Eyed Peas: someone to ask about in total confusion with a question like, “What does he even do?” He never rapped on any of their songs, but was credited with contributing to classic tracks like “Can I Kick It?” and “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo.” Mentioned as being an “occasional member” of the group, his mysterious presence was only heightened when he left in 1991 to become a chef. And not like a Raekwon chef—a real chef. But just a few weeks ago, when the group’s final surprise album We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service was released, the biggest shock wasn’t its last minute announcement, it was the voice of Jarobi. He appears all over the record, actually rapping, almost possessed by the late Phife Dawg’s spirit, and he legit kills it. Not sure if he got better, or just found confidence, but either way, his presence is a major highlight for one of the only hip-hop, and nationwide, feel good stories of 2016’s second half. Maybe Taboo is the next rap visionary as well. We’ll just have to wait 20 years to hear it (and I doubt it).
BEFORE :: 1985 – 2014 – ????
AFTER :: 2016
One of hip-hop’s most beloved—and puzzling—MCs wasn’t always the wordsmith that’s been immortalized on albums like Mm.. Food and Madvillainy. The London-born rapper founded KMD in 1988, a group including another rapper named Onyx the Birthstone Kid (for real) and his brother, DJ Subroc. Although KMD released a criminally slept-on debut called Mr. Hood, Doom, then going by the name Zev Love X, is best known for his verse on the 3rd Bass hit, “Gas Face.” He definitely showed promise and swagger on the song, but no one could’ve predicted what was to come for the young spitter’s skills.
After the tragic death of his brother, he retreated from the business, unable to rap through his grief and not sure of his future. When he did finally start rhyming again, almost 5 years later, he would eventually don the metal mask and name that now defines him and allows him to hide his face (and presumably pain of the past), doubling as an homage to Marvel comics and characters. But most importantly, he became a superhero of an MC. His mind-numbing lyrical acrobatics is sometimes too intricate to even fully understand and his music has influenced an entire generation of Earl Sweatshirts and Joey Bada$$es. Now one of the most important rappers of his generation, MF Doom always left room for improvement.
BEFORE :: 1989
AFTER :: 1999
Yeah. I’d hate me too. Listen, there aren’t many people in comedy who have publically mocked the Indiana Jones actor more than I have, but we have to give credit where credit is due. I’ve always known LaBeouf to be a hip-hop head, since in numerous interviews he’s professed his undying love for underground legend Cage, an artist he directed a music video for and once announced intentions to make a biopic of, but his own skills have always seemed comical at best. We had seen videos of him freestyling in the park, presumably wasted off something besides his rattail, and it wasn’t only bad, it could’ve warranted career-ending embarrassment. He showed definite signs of Joaquin Phoenix and deserved nothing more than a TMZ story about how his rap skills were part of a larger mental breakdown.
That is until his recent appearance on Shade45’s Sway in the Morning, where a sober LeBeouf participated in the “5 Fingers of Death” freestyle segment. What was almost certain to become a Final Destination wooden log freeway scene car crash shockingly went down as one of the most impressive—and shared—verses in the show’s history. What starts off as unconfident stammering slowly morphs into a perfect blend of off-the-cuff improv and written standbys that may just mean the young actor has undeniable, and now marketable, skills. Almost a throwback to the days of Rawkus Records and Wake-Up Show era Eminem, Shia is an all-out beast by the end of the appearance. It’s unpredictable and shockingly good. Believe me, I’m as pissed as you are—but hip-hop improvement is rare, so we’ll take what we can get.
BEFORE :: 2015
AFTER :: 2016