Today I am going to examine a certain argument that is popular in any
hobby or sport: who is the Greatest Of All Time? Usually, discussions
of the GOAT revolve around little more than which Stan can argue more
strongly for his favorite rapper, without actually examining what should
be at the heart of the matter: each rapper’s respective raps. In this
analysis I am going to look at the work of a rapper who is brought up in
any discussion of the GOAT: 2pac. What’s more, I’m going to go right to
the heart of the matter and examine a song of his that I have no
problem calling, objectively, one of the greatest rap songs of all time,
if not the greatest.
As usual, you can hear the song here:
And get the lyrics on Rapgenius here.
First, to explain why “Changes” is a song that should move the ground
beneath our political, moral, and societal debates, would be
self-defeating. To do so would belabor the searing bluntness of 2pac’s
assault on the same old talking points and buzzwords surrounding the
discussion of the war on drugs, which continues to this day, decades
after the release of this song. The crack epidemic, institutionalized
racism, the prison-industrial complex, and police brutality do not
escape his target sights either. The fact that his lyrics, “It’s war on
the streets, and a war in the Middle East / ‘Stead of war on poverty,
they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me”, still apply as
much today as they did about 20 years ago should make us all work to
examine more deeply our automatic-response thoughts to such destructive
forces. And no matter who you are, what class, what race, you can relate
to him: “I wake up every morning and I ask myself / Is life worth
living, should I blast myself?” is something I know I’ve asked myself to
varying degrees, and something we all have at some point in our lives.
I point out 2pac’s clarity of image only in order to start the
discussion of the GOAT. In general, a rapper plays many parts: poet,
musician, comedian, storyteller, actor, and more. In order to account
for these varied roles, I like to separate the discussion of the GOAT
into 3 separate Top 10 lists. The 3 lists are, “Greatest Storytellers of
All Time”, “Greatest Rap Comedians of All Time,” and the “Greatest
Technically Accomplished Rappers.” How a particular rapper ranks
respectively on each separate list can then be used to more accurately
determine how they should rank in the general list of “Greatest Rappers
Of All Time.” The first and 3rd lists are self-explanatory by their
titles, but the title of “comedian” includes all the jokes a rapper
makes: puns, double entendres, jokes, everything.
I do this because it is the rare rapper who can rank very highly on
all 3. For instance, Kanye absolutely is in the top 3 for “Greatest
Comedians”, and probably the top 10 for “Storytellers”, if for nothing
else besides his work on “College Dropout” (the songs “Family Business”,
“Jesus Walks”, “All Falls Down”, and more, as I explain in my article on Big Sean
But on “Technically Accomplished”, while still being better than most,
Kanye would not make the Top 10 list at all.
Big Sean might show up on “Comedians”, just barely,but he doesn’t come
close to the top of the other two lists. Common, meanwhile,
would make the “Storytellers” list (such as for “I Used To Love H.E.R.”, which I analyze here),
and make the top 15 for “Technically Accomplished,” but as far as “Comedians” goes, I
don’t see him showing up very high. (“Good rappers is hard to find…like
the remote.” Eesh.) Nas, though, would be all over that list of the most
technically-accomplished rappers, because he can do things like drop
crazy polyrhythms from his 2006 verse on the Busta Rhymes song
“Don’t Get Carried Away,” as I explain in my other article
So how does 2pac fit into this? As we’ve already established, he is
an amazing storyteller (the “storyteller” does not have to necessarily
refer to a story like “this happened, then this happened, then this guy
did that thing.”) I think we can establish pretty objectively that he is
the greatest rap storyteller of all time. As his resume, I submit no
less than “Changes”, “Unconditional Love”, “Dear Mama”, “Brenda’s Got A
Baby”, and “Life Goes On,” and those are only the best of the best.
Possibly all of those chart as the greatest Top 10 “Rap Story” songs of
But his position on the “Comedians” list is a little harder to pin
down. From everything I’ve heard, and 2pac is one rapper who I’ve heard
pretty extensively, I can’t recall off the top of my head any pun,
double entendre, or joke. And, since I’m sure there has to be some, if
there are, they are not very memorable. But 2pac is a special case,
because he simply seems completely uninterested in this aspect of the
modern rapper’s toolbox. He does not try to make jokes…so should we even
evaluate him on this level? If you insist on doing so, first let’s
examine the 3rd list to see where he ranks: “Technically Accomplished”
Now, for my list, which evaluates the list from the perspective of
the year 2013, he does not make the top 10. But if we are going to judge
him based on the time period in which he raps, it’s another matter.
What’s more, any flaws or lack of technical acrobatics in his rap are,
contradictorily, transformed by his delivery — the way in which he says
his words — into being hallmarks and even strengths of his style. He is
not going to drop 4-syllable rhymes inside a sentence, like Pharoahe
Monch (who I’ll release an analysis article of on the 21st), and he is
not going to use extensive metrical transference, like Andre 3k as
described here or Busta Rhymes here.
And he won’t have complex noctuplet rhythms, like MF DOOM in his rap on
“Vomitspit”, or drop 16 rhymes all in a row, like Jean Grae.
What I mean to say is that 2pac’s raps have a certain unfinished
quality to them, but that is part of their strength. If you know
anything of the man, you know that he just rapped, and rapped, and
rapped. No one ever needed rap more than 2pac (Eminem, I think, comes in a
very close second; you can find proof of that in my articles on him,
such as the one on “Business” here.) You get the feeling if 2pac didn’t have rap, he wouldn’t have
made it past childhood. Because, from listening to rappers, you can
always tell who needs rap. Lil Wayne doesn’t need rap; he needed rap to
get him rich, and you see that once he did his lyrics went to shit.
That’s why I don’t believe the rumors of 2pac still being alive, people
saying his albums are still being released and that’s how – no, he just
lived in the studio. So it is somewhat unsurprising if we find his raps
not as technically finished as some other rappers’ work.
For instance, multiple times he rhymes the same words, one after the
other. For instance, he rhymes “brothers” with “other” 3 times in seven
bars, in the first verse. The capitalized words are the rhymes:
(One instance is the “-other” in “another.”) He’s got a nasty habit
of rhyming the same words over and over, like “brother” and “other”, or,
in verse 2, the word “way.” He rhymes, “easy WAY, “G today,” but then
goes back to “sleazy WAY”. That’s not even that bad, but when you’re
comparing it to the greatest technically accomplished rappers of all
time, it especially hurts that he goes back to the word for a third
rhyme, when he then rhymes “I gotta get PAID / well HEY / well that’s
the WAY it is.” It’s a problem because it’s repetitive. I’ve got no
problem if the same syllable is combined with another rhymed syllable
that changes, and in fact that seems to be a marker of 2pac’s style in
this song. In verse 3, he rhymes, “Don’t let em JACK YOU UP / BACK YOU
UP / CRACK YOU UP / pimp SMACK YOU UP”, where jack/back/crack/smack is
combined with the “you up.” He does it again in verse 1 with the “Huey
said / Huey’s dead” rhyme, or the rhyme “When we KILL EACH OTHER / it
takes skill to be real trying to HEAL EACH OTHER.” But when that rhymed
syllable goes back and forth between the same syllable that has the same
exact definition, it hurts. He does it again in verse 3, with “But now
I’m BACK with the FACTS giving it BACK to you.”
But this is what I was saying before: I could not imagine 2pac as a
rapper with those kind of elements sanitized. I wouldn’t want to hear
it. There is a certain raw, frenetic, uncontrolled energy to the
structure of his raps as well as their delivery. I would love to see
video of him in the booth. You can hear that 2pac had something to say,
and he needed to get it out before he got killed early in life
(something he believed would always happen), any conventions of the
communication medium – rap — be damned.
Furthermore, he moves between different modes of rhyming without any
sort of transition, and there doesn’t seem to be any overarching,
guiding principle to how he’ll move from one rhyme to the next. That is,
the pacing of his rhymes – how many he drops, and how intense they are
in terms of length and placement – is all over the place, and either not
very complex or too complex. For example, he starts off with a couplet
and a single-syllable end rhyme:
“Wake up every morning and I ASK myself / is life worth living,
should I BLAST myself”. Then, he moves to a triple syllable end rhyme
group (“worse I’m black” / “purse to snatch”) with single-syllables
nested inside that group (“hurts”) and before it (“blast”).
Then, he moves to a couplet, 2-syllable end rhyme on negro/hero, with the trigger/nigga rhyme inside it:
There doesn’t seem to be any plan to the pace of his rhymes. There is
no acceleration or deceleration of phrases (shorter or longer
sentences, or more or less of them), any discernable switch between a
high number of rhymes and a low number of rhymes. There isn’t even any
variation on the couplet structure, which would be somewhat laborious
without 2pac’s delivery and strong message. This contributes to what I
hear as the freestyle (off the top) flow of the song – he’s just going,
like you’re with him and he’s coming up with it on the spot.
A better example comes at the start of the 2nd verse.
He starts off with a heavy amount of syllables, from “changes” to “races”.
But the rhymes are rather run of the mill, and you can even see some
of the “nursery rhyme” early history of rap coming out here. He starts
off with a huge amount of rhymes: 12 out of 13 straight syllables rhyme
at one point, from “racist” to “races”. But he’s chosen to do this at
the start of a verse in the middle of the song, and it is easily the
most rhyme-intensive section of the song. More rhymes increase the
tension in a rap, and we’d expect to have the most tension at the end of
a song, just like we always have the highest amount of tension at the
end of a movie. Contrast this to the finished nature of Mos Def’s rhymes
in part of his verse from RE: DEFinition, a full analysis of which you
can read here. You can hear the song here:
You can see the section in question notated below:
In Mos’ verse, there is definitely a plan to the pacing of his rhymes
(which are indicated by those less than signs, like on “minimum”). He’s
got a 3 syllable, 1 or 2 word rhyme block, starting with the
minimum/entering/millennium/etc. group and going through the whole 14
bars shown there, until “Ellington”. He varies how quickly they come in
ways that set up your expectations, and then either confirm or
disappoint them. His first bar has the block 3 times, the second bar has
it once, the 3rd has it twice, the 4th has it twice, the 5th has it
twice…but then the 6th bar has it 4 times! And because what’s notated
there as the 6th bar is actually the end of the 14th bar because I’ve
omitted the first 8 bars of his rap, and because his verse is the final
verse on the song, he’s picked a logical place to heighten the musical
tension: more than halfway through the verse, and near the end of the
song. Then, at the very end of the verse, he reduces it to 3 blocks in
bar 12 above, 2 blocks in bar 13, 1 block in bar 14, and finally 2
blocks in bar 15. He’s brought us down from the musical climax of the
verse that came at that bar with the 3-syllable block 4 times.
This is a rather subtle point, but think about it for yourself: in a
movie, where does everything happen? Where does everything get resolved?
Towards the end, about ¾ through. Or where do you get the biggest chord
in a symphonic piece of music? At the end!
But with 2pac, you don’t get much of that planning-out. And as I said
before, this is not a knock on his style, because it works for him. Not
many rappers could pull this off. That’s because after the “racist
faces…” to “disgrace to races” lines, he drops the amount of rhymes off a
ton. Meanwhile this whole time, throughout the whole rap in fact, the
structure of his sentences and how long they are have been almost
tediously consistent: they are almost all 1 bar long, and they almost
all start and end at the start and end of the bar.
When you combine that uniformity of sentence structure with the
predictable rhyme structure of being extremely couplet-heavy, you
better understand what I’m trying to describe here – his unfinished,
What’s more, consider his mode of rhyme linking – how he moves from
one rhyme group to the next. He just skips from one to the next, with no
combination or intertwining of them, like Notorious B.I.G. does here.
For instance, 2pac rhymes on chill/kill/skill/real/heal in verse 2,
then moves right on to the rhyme group with heaven sent/president, then
the group –ceal the fact / packed / filled with blacks, and so on. If
the first group is labeled A, the second B, and the 3rd C, his form of
rhyme linking would be ABC. This is very simple, especially when
compared to Eminem’s first verse of “Lose Yourself”, as you can see at
this link here, where his rhyme linking between different rhyme groups is:
Pretty complex, right?
And perhaps 2pac could still place higher on the “Technically
Accomplished” list if his rhymes were of a more complex nature. But they
are mostly 1 syllable rhymes, both internal and external. We have this
born out by our statistics of our past 3 articles:
You can examine it as much for yourself as you want, but the important points for Pac’s stats are:
- He has the shortest words used – from his lowest syllables per word.
- He has the lowest rhyme density – from the lowest % of syllables rhymed
- He has long, uniform sentences – from almost a 1 to 1 ratio of sentences to bars.
Those three statistics are roughly indicators of technical
complexity. Thus, we see that Busta and MF DOOM are very technically
complex, because DOOM has a higher syllable per word and a higher % of
syllables rhymed, and Busta had 24 3-syllable rhymes in his rap on
“Holla.” Therefore, we see that 2pac’s rhymes are generally on the
But as I said before, I don’t think this reflects negatively on 2pac.
This is because that style fits his aggressive message and delivery
very well, and not just in this song. For instance, there is the epic
“Hit ‘Em Up.” Besides, by no means is he a bad rapper. The weak points
I’ve just described separate the extremely technically complex – Jean
Grae, Pharoahe Monche, Mos Def, Eminem, Black Thought, Nas, Talib Kweli –
from the run-of-the mill technically complex. I mean, 12 out of 13
straight syllables in 2pac’s rap here is pretty impressive. And he does
use some metrical transference, even if it is of a very, very simple
nature, and mixes in a few multi-syllable rhymes, like acting right/
black than white / crack tonight, which is a good rhymes series.
But there are 2 camps of differing thought on 2pac: 1 side says he’s
only famous because he died young and that made him a martyr, and the
other side hold him up to be the greatest of all time in every category
ever, and there does not seem to be room for much middle-ground. Here, I
think we have some proof to move the discussion forward.
My final assessment would be this: we don’t assess him on the
comedian scale, because he doesn’t even strive for it mostly. Second, he
is more technically complex than some people give him credit for, and
for his period he is one of the more technically complex. But compared
to today’s rappers, he isn’t. However, his storytelling is so strong and
so powerful that he is number 1 on that specific list by far, far, far.
So, I think 2pac rightly deserves his general reputation as one of the
greatest of all time. Where you want to specifically put him on that
list is up for debate. In any event, if you want to judge him by the people
he influenced, 2Pac turns out to be even higher on the list than wherever
you had already put him, as I explain in my Kendrick Lamar “To Pimp
A Butterfly” album review & analysis article that can be found here
(and, just to round it out, I also did Kendrick’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city” album
review and analysis right here.)
man, great analysis ! I've never realized how unfunny Tupac was. I've always just been listening to the aggressiveness.
Yeah, it's weird. I always expected someone to come back and be like, "No, this, this, and this song are full of 2pac puns," but no one ever did. Thanks for the compliment!
This is a flawed analysis because you have chosen to analyze a tupac song he never released.Pick songs from Me aganist the world, All eyez on me and Makaveli to make a valid point.Changes was recorded early 90s before All eyez on me etc and he never put it on any album or single….as you rightly pointed out alot of his material was unfinished.
You need to listen to "I get around","Whats yo phone number",All about u",2pac was not trying to be a clown but showed humour in many songs.
Nice analysis! I always thought Tupac was more of an emotional rapper as in it hits you in your heart. Whereas biggie is very smooth and competent – you get dazzled by his skills. Rap these days are probably not straight off the dome to the paper to the mic boom boom boom like tupac did it, I would think there is a lot more editing. Not many rappers have an itch to get shit off their chest or they don't have a unique message. Tupac was a leader in hiphop and in black/youth culture. From tupac raps you can tell he cared about shit other than himself. He was bigger than rap.
What about analysis of his voice? I think he has one of the best voice and it even comes off in his interviews..he doesn't hesitate much…not many 'hmms' and 'ahhs'. He is really good at expressing himself and his voice sounds very refined and sharp with a certain weight.
I completely disagree about Tupac being the best storyteller in rap. I'm sure we have different criteria as to what makes one a good storyteller(I just found your site a few days ago, so I haven't read any article that goes into depth on storytelling yet). I can say that as far as telling a story, Lupe Fiasco is without a doubt in my mind the best. If you haven't look into his 'The Cool Saga', there are several songs all following the same narrative through several albums with many different layers of metaphor, personification, etc. I would be really interested in your take on it.
As I said, I just found the site a few days ago and I've never seen anything like it. I've been pretty much obsessed with music theory for years and recently started playing instruments, that and I've always loved hip-hop/rap. I'm completely amazed by the site.
This was awesome and this sight is awesome in looking at rappers on an intellectual level instead pure bias opinion and emotion. I have a question I'd like answered though. How is it that the new school rap has gotten better since the 90s. There's some talent ( mainly underground) but if you look at the big names, i don't even consider it hip hop( Kendrick's delivery is impressive though). Lupe fiasco was fairly big but he still meddled with the pop crowd too much, but overall the hip hop lyricism at its best is easily in the 90s when ra first then nas brung it to a new level. Anyways, I was just wondering what you meant by tupac not on par with lyricism today. Remember Q
Hey man! If you hit me up at [email protected], I'd love to answer your questions. I'd do it here, but it's gonna involve links to images and web pages, and you can't do that in these damn comment boxes, haha 🙂 Anyway, hope you hit me up! And thanks for your words man! Your first sentence is music to my ears, because honestly, that's originally why I started all this shit, haha.
As makaveli on 7 day theory Me and my girlfriend, 2pac uses his girlfriend as a metaphor for his gun. Not quite sure where metaphors fits in your 3 lists but seems to have some similarities to the comedian section.
I would put "metaphors" into the "storyteller" column, which might actually be better called the "poets" category, as you're pointing out to me. I do have an article all about 2Pac and why he is the greatest storyteller of all time, but also might not want to be as worshipped as he much as he is today — he did, after all, spend time in jail after being convicted of a first-degree sex assault charge. And yet Talib Kweli calls him a martyr on his song "RE: DEFinition"? That seems like a contradiction.
Anyway, hit me up at [email protected] — I love hearing from people like you, who seem to already know what I'm telling them, but just didn't know how (or where) to say it, maybe.
Nice analysis, but is it always one song analysis, I think a lot of rappers have technically better songs than the ones you analyzed for instance 'Me against the world' vs 'Changes', maybe I'm wrong but Me against the world sounds way better than changes, another example is Biggie's 'Hypnotize' vs 'One more chance'(original version). Maybe you can do multiple analysis to get a more comprehensive view
Hey man, first I wanted to say thanks a lot for writing back to me. (It lets me know people actually read these haha.)
Second, I wanna thank you for not being a dick when you critiqued my writing (which I'm totally fine with), unlike this dude:
>I think a lot of rappers have technically better songs than the ones you analyzed for instance 'Me against the world' vs 'Changes', maybe I'm wrong but Me against the world sounds way better than changes, another example is Biggie's 'Hypnotize' vs 'One more chance'(original version).
You make a good point, but honestly, this is just a case where I do know lots of other songs by these rappers besides just the ones I mention; I just didn't mention in the articles that I have 2+ albums from them already memorized, word for word and line for line. Whenever you get an article from me, you should kind of just assume that I'm giving you specific points that have been distilled from that comprehensive view:
>Maybe you can do multiple analysis to get a more comprehensive view
That has little to do with rap music, and everything to do with good journalism and knowledge of how to make an argument. Besides, I do do comprehensive views on rappers sometimes; I've written 4 articles of 4000+ words on Earl so far, and he's not even my fav rapper! haha
Look, I'm not saying I'm ever wrong; one time I wrote something about Eminem's "Rap God" that I think is now so horribly wrong that I unpublished it. But on this one, 2Pac and Biggie are simply 2 of my biggest strengths, so I'm standing by what I said, although I will add this caveat: "Changes" is, like you said, one of 2Pac's weaker songs. But his rhymes are still there to serve the story, and not the other way around.
Thanks again man! Hit me up at [email protected], I'd love to talk to you more 🙂
P.S. More thoughts on 2Pac, which might help explain why even though I don't think he's a superb rhymer, he's still Top 3 all time: