It all started in New York City. In fact, there's no two ways about it. The culture of hip hop was born and raised in the boroughs of NYC, from DJ-ing to graffiti, break dancing and rapping, this is where it all began. Grandmaster Flash, Juice Crew, Run DMC, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, KRS One, Sugar Hill Gang—all of them originated from this magical place.
Commonly known throughout as the Mecca of Hip Hop, NYC is a sacred place (or should be) for fans of the culture, and the root of everything we love about hip hop. Over the years though, that light has shifted, and the biggest rappers today are coming from other regions (mostly the South). But what should be taken into consideration is what it means to hold the weight of being the best rapper from the Mecca of Hip Hop. Even if the most popular artists no longer necessarily originate from there, that crown holds heavy. When put into perspective, it is quite a daunting title. I won’t get into anything pre-'90s, as my knowledge and my comfortability on the subject don’t stretch that far, so I will be covering what is considered the last golden age of New York Hip Hop, onwards.
In 1994 New York’s hip hop landscape changed forever. That was the year Illmatic and Ready to Die dropped. Albums from two of the greatest rappers of all time, Notorious B.I.G and Nas, within five months of each other. This would officially spark the debate over who was the King of New York at any given time.
Though Illmatic is itself a hip hop masterpiece, the crown has to go to one Christopher Wallace. Nas and Big both had the lyrics, the flow, the wordplay, the punchlines, the voice, the charisma, and everything to be considered a greatest of all time, but Big also came with the hits and the swag. To be able to be considered King of New York, you have to come nice lyrically, and be able to produce hits, Biggie was successful not just through art but also through charts. To this day "Juicy" and "Big Poppa" are still mainstays on party playlists all around the world. But after Notorious B.I.G’s untimely passing in 1997, the crown needed a successor. The Jay-Z vs. Nas discussion will rage on forever, but based on the previously stated prerequisites (successful artistically and commercially), Jay is more than deserving of the title.
Of course around this time there were other rappers and crew (DMX/Ruff Ryders, Ja Rule/Murda Inc., Jadakiss/LOX), but none could hold a candle to what Jay-Z/Rocafella had going on (Beanie, Cam’ron, Freeway, State Property, Diplomats), known commonly as The Dynasty for a reason.
Hov’s reign could conceivably be measured between 1998 (Hardknock Life, Vol.2) to 2002. In 2003 another shift had occurred, nobody could have seen the meteoric rise of 50 Cent. As far as Biggie’s, Jay’s or even Nas’ influence stretched out, I don’t believe none of them (at their respective peaks) could compare to how big Curtis Jackson was during this time.
It is easy to say 50 Cent was not only the King of New York, but also of Hip Hop as a whole for a while. With the backing of legendary icons like Eminem and Dr. Dre, and equipped with his own G-Unit empire (that stretched into clothes, books, video games, and porno’s), 50 Cent was untouchable and dangerous.
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Murda Inc. felt the majority of 50’s wrath (most notably Ja Rule), while he also had a large part in helping discredit and dismantle The Source, a well known institution and legendary hip hop magazine since 1988. With Jay-Z’s supposed retirement in 2004, the crown was successfully passed down to 50 Cent, this would also be the last time a transition in power seemed quite clear.
50’s height could be broken down between the years 2003 to 2007, notably the day he lost the much publicized Soundscan battle with Kanye West. Maybe because of his competitive nature, his never-ending list of enemy rappers in his own city, plus a shifting of the preferred sound and evolution in how people find and intake music, he did not have a direct successor. Unlike how only after Biggie died was Hov able to take his place, or how only after Jay retired it became official that there was no one bigger in the city than 50, there was no events or decisions to pass on the torch to anyone.
After 2007, the only New York rapper who was maybe holding it down commercially at similar levels was Jim Jones. And while I love Jim Jones and all of Dipsets, he just doesn’t have anything close to the artistic prerequisites to sit in the same throne as Biggie or Jay once did. This is also happens to be the much talked-about void in New York hip hop that gets brought up a lot, and is an ongoing discussion to this day.
From the early 1990s you had an overwhelming amount of rappers from New York fighting and clawing to be the Kings of the Big Apple. But now, people’s attitudes towards competitiveness have changed. Music is consumed differently and the sound has changed region. From 2007 to 2011, Drake began his run-up to becoming the Rap’s premiere artist, Atlanta’s was now developing their own sound and possibly establish themselves as the new Mecca of Hip Hop. Even though it seemed bleak for the city, there are still artists coming out, one in particular that I believe can hold the throne.
It might sound controversial, some might not want to believe it and others want to straight argue it, but New York’s current reigning King, fitting the criteria (success artistically and commercially), is none other than A$AP Rocky. Nobody in New York is currently riding on as much momentum as he is right now. Much like Biggie had Bad Boy, Jay had Rocafella, and 50 had G Unit, Rocky has A$AP, he is a trendsetter in the fashion world (similar to the other three), he is also a trendsetter among the youth and anything he does in or outside of music garners a lot of attention. Musically things aren’t all the way there just yet, but they are trending upwards. He has a surplus of hits that’s for sure, but his early music (Live.Love.A$AP, Long.Live.A$AP) doesn’t supply the lyrical or conceptual presence of his forefathers. Lately though, after an experimental and drug-influenced sophomore album (At.Long.Last.A$AP), he has been showing great strides on all of his guest appearances, bodying verses at a very consistent rate. The one thing he hasn’t really brought is an album close to the calibre of Ready to Die, Blueprint, or Get Rich or Die Trying, but there is still plenty of time for the rapper.
Of course there is one other rapper we can’t forget about in this discussion: Joey Bada$$. He's extremely talented and pushing a very New York-based style that (like Rocky) salutes those who came before him while keeping an eye out for the future. While he's talented, I don’t necessarily see his influence reaching as far as Rocky’s, plus commercially he hasn’t matched up well either. And to be frank, he just does not possess that star power and charisma that Rocky does—something Big, Jay and 50 very much do (which is very much evident in Fif and Jay’s careers post-Rap heyday). Rocky’s work rate since Cozy Tapes, vol. 1, his results, the level of success and influence, and what he brings to the table all checklist him as the favourite to the claim of New York’s current King.
When you take a step back and look at the list of successive rappers identified as the Kings of New York, it truly gives you a sense of the weight that the title brings. Over 23 years, from Notorious B.I.G to Jay-Z to 50 Cent, and now A$AP Rocky, those are truly big shoes to fill for the young emcee, but not something I don’t believe he is incapable of. To be the best rapper in the world’s Hip Hop Mecca is no laughing matter. It takes time, practice, skill, and determination to hold that title. Let’s all hope Rocky has a successful reign and lives up to the names of those who came before him, and that the mantle is passed more smoothly the next time around.
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