Last week, Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, frontman for the Roots, tried to break the rapper-nets with a 10-minute freestyle with Funkmaster Flex over the Mobb Deep “Burn” instrumental that even had people who think Kevin Gates is the best rapper of all time impressed.
Even calling his performance impressive undersells it. For my money, few rappers could do what he did (pack that much substance into that many bars for that length of time and perform it so flawlessly) THAT well, and almost all of them are named Eminem or part of Slaughterhouse. I won’t rehash all that he covered; that’s been done already. But what has happened is that it should reignite a convo that exists in the rap community: Just where does Black Thought rank in the greatest-of-all-time conversation?
Over the course of my life, I’ve probably had a thousand “Who is in my top five?” discussions, give or take a hundred or so. At almost no time has Black Thought ever cracked my top five, which typically consists of Biggie, Jay, Nas, André 3000, and Tupac or Ice Cube (AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted through Lethal Injection). There aren’t any surprises on that list. It’s a fairly standard “mainstream” list of GOATs.
Black Thought is as good as or a better rapper than every single person on that list. Yet he almost never makes my personal list, and based on the conversations I have, he typically gets left off a lot of other folks’ lists, too, even extending them to top 10s. There are a few reasons why I think that’s happened.
For starters, I think because he’s part of such a great collective, the Roots, people sometimes forget to think of him in isolated terms. As an entity, the Roots are super beloved and appreciated, but we always lump them into one. Also because of their “first hip-hop band” image, I think sometimes Black Thought gets lost in that shuffle.
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When we think of the Roots, we think of Black Thought and Questlove, but we think of them in tandem and rarely of Black Thought as just pure rapper. Which is why I think every time he goes on shows and ends up spitting something, it stands out so much more. We are thinking of him as a solo entity in those moments, such as the Flex freestyle. Had Black Thought ever released a solo album, I think that might be different.
Second, he’s been so consistent for so long, spitting at such a high level, that even when you are paying attention to him, it gets easy to overlook just how skilled he is. Which also gets back to him being lost in the collective, so to speak. They make music that often caters so well to his vocals that he sounds more like an instrument than an MC bodying a track. It’s like D’Angelo on Voodoo.
The most controversial of reasons is this: He sounds ... unexciting. He’s not a sexy pick. I’m a Black Thought fan, but that everyman-show-up-to-work-every-day-without-any-pizzazz thing tends to push him into the “Yeah, he’s tight, but he don’t really spark” convo that people like Tim Duncan fell into. Duncan is the Big Fundamental; his game had very little razzle-dazzle or spark, so it was easy to forget you were watching one of the best to ever do it for so long. Of course everybody knows Duncan is one of the greats, but he’ll end up in those conversations in a more interesting way now that his career is over.
I think Black Thought is similar in that sense. Plain and simple, he’s just that damn good. That freestyle wasn’t a revelation for most of us who are familiar with the Roots. It was a super-skilled MC doing what super-skilled MCs do: They get nasty on the mic. For others it may have been an aha moment, and that’s good for him, and hopefully it translates into new fans for him and the Roots.
None of the aforementioned reasons is particularly deep, but I think they are all relevant. Rappers in groups do struggle for that individual “best ever” title, and it’s usually when they step out on their own that we really start paying attention to their greatness. The catch here is that in the Roots, Black Thought has done the vast majority of the heavy lifting with assists from Dice Raw and Malik B., etc. Black Thought is primarily a solo MC in a band that we think of like a group.
But with freestyles like that one or any time he raps alongside musical guests on Jimmy Fallon or spits freestyles while on talk shows, you get the opportunity to appreciate just how special Black Thought is as an MC, IF he gets lost in the group shuffle. So here’s the important question: Where DOES Black Thought rank in the GOAT convo?
Glad you asked. For me? I think if Nas is in that convo, then so is Black Thought if I’m being reasonable. I actually think Black Thought MIGHT be better than Nas, though Nas will always have Illmatic, which ensures his rap Mount Rushmore status for influence and impressiveness.
Biggie will always be in my top five because I don’t think there was a single weakness in his skill set, but I struggle with GOAT because of limited catalog, for obvious reasons. Jay is likely always going to be No. 1 because of how good he’s been for so long and because of his cultural impact and footprint.
Black Thought, while being easily one of the most skilled rappers to ever do it, doesn’t have the cultural impact piece, THOUGH the Roots are easily one of the most recognizable acts in hip-hop, especially as the backing band for Fallon. It’s not like they’re an unknown outfit. They have platinum and gold albums and six albums that opened in the top 10 on the Billboard pop charts, and 10 albums that opened in the top 10 of the R&B charts. Clearly, they’re a band with a presence and are well-known enough to have an impact. Pretty much any outfit where rap is prominently featured out front and there’s a backing band is following in their footsteps.
Here’s another thing: If you ask any MC who their top MCs are, Black Thought is more often than not going to end up in that number. So his impact is felt and he’s universally respected as one of the best to ever do it.
So what’s the point of it all? It’s this: While I think everybody is aware of and knows that Black Thought is a great rapper, I don’t think he’s gotten his just due in the conversations for GOAT. That Flex freestyle is a reminder why he should. If not for the pleasure, at least for the principle.
Black Thought is one of the best to ever do it; that’s indisputable. Where does he rank on that GOAT list? Only time will tell, but he belongs on it.