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Black Master of Any Trade Under The Sun

This piece is about why I think Tariq Trotter, of The Roots, the greatest emcee of all time and stands head and shoulders above most. This is purely an opinion and thought piece, you have your own opinion that you likely can substantiate, and that’s okay – but hear me out.

In most art forms there is an underlying competitive nature that fuels the progression and development of the art. Whether this competitive nature is created by artists or is fueled by the passion of aficionados is a mystery, and any explanation given to root of this nature is subjective, case-sensitive speculation at best. The comparison of one artist to another is something that happens in every avenue of art, whether you approve of it or not is immaterial at this point – it is happening and it is likely to remain as long as art is a conversation between creator and audience.

I will try my best not to dampen this piece by making comparisons to the lukewarm rhymes, songs and overall presence of the flurry of hip-hop artists that flash on our screens daily – “hashtag rappers”, you know them, you’ve heard them. Many folk have labeled such rappers as ‘legends’. However, if that is the case then I bring to you a giant who dwarfs these so-called ‘legends’ to the stature of a Chihuahua lying on its belly:

“My 9 to 5, is just to hit you get the party live
I’m Black Thought, used to rap for sport
Now the rhyme-sayin’, rent-payin’, life support
I take it very seriously, within this industry”

(Track: What They Do; Album: Illadelph  Halflife)

Very seriously indeed. With all that has been changing in the music industry – sounds going pop and the more ‘hypey’ less ‘contenty’ sound that’s currently dominating our airwaves – the sound, content and rhyme potency that has been maintained by Riq-G’s over the years is par-excellence and, dare I say, unmatched. That being said, it’s virtually impossible to separate The Roots and Black Thought. Most things that I will say of Black Thought in this piece are directly applicable to the ever-shuffling Roots band. It seems as though Black Thought’s style of delivery never changes, but curiously that doesn’t make it stagnant. It seems to develop along a path, which he laid in his first years in his career. Hearing tracks like ‘At 15’,  on the ‘Rising Down’ album, which is essentially a sound clip of Mr. Trotter rapping at the age of 15, gives an example of what I am talking about. Though his lines in ‘At 15’ seem to have a sense of youth and immaturity to them, the rhyme schemes and well selected rhetoric that Black Thought is still known for today was present even then. I put it to you that most artists go through a certain ‘soft’ or really weird period where even fans are disappointed at their output (e.g. Lupe Fiasco’s ‘Lasers’ *smh*), but Black Thought has never been through such a period – never. There is no Roots album where this dude has not brought the heat. So much so that you can only compare his outputs with their levels of dopeness; and there hasn’t been a general decrease in quality as time moved along its path. ‘Undun’ is much a musical masterpiece as ‘Things Fall Apart’ – no doubt you might prefer one over the other personally, maybe for nostalgic reasons, or maybe cos you like the newer features on the recent stuff but either way, the quality of the music is unquestionable through both albums.

“Catch the herald, I’m fresh chopped and beveled
Rap on a doctorate level, so F. Scott Fitzgerald
Maybe I’m the new Rakim, maybe I’m fat Pharaohe
Undergarments of armor be my intimate apparel

(‘Funk Flex Freestyle; 2017)

For me, Black Thought strikes the perfect balance between being commercially successful and being lyrically legendary – between that real street cred stuff that makes you know that Black Thought could rip it off top in a cypher; and that commercial success that has allowed The Roots band to embark on numerous sold-out tours and have people actually BUY their music. The way it is nowadays it just seems too hard to be able to do both at the same time. We know that ‘drug boys’ are a heavy trend right now, and though my personal feelings towards them are that their music is lightweight, whenever I have a conversation with anyone about drug boys the response I get is usually: “yeah but they eatin’ though!” And that is true; I can’t even deny it. The bulk of really dope emcees are keeping it real but are really failing to keep it profitable because of numerous factors – but that’s another piece altogether. My point here is that Mr. Trotter and The Roots crew have manage to keep their sound both real and profitable while never surrendering to modern trends but rather interpreting the times into their own timeless sound.

“I’m not a typical arrogant American on prescribed medicine
I’m sick as I ever been
Rollin’ out of the dealership in a McLaren
These rappers is Peter Pan, I’m Pan-African

(Track: ‘9th vs Thought’; Album: Streams of Thought, Vol. 1)

With Black Thought you just get the feeling that it’s really about making the best music possible. By that I mean, it’s not likely that you’ll hear about Black Thought unless it’s music-related. Maybe he has a really good publicist or something but either way, it’s awfully refreshing not to be dragged into his life via bar fights with Chris Brown. I maintain that Black Thought has our attention because of his excellence at his craft and nothing else; and that is something I admire about this particular artist. The art is at the forefront of his fame – almost as if he is an afterthought to his music. The dude remains potent no matter if he’s featured alongside seasoned pros such as Pharoahe Monche, Kweli and Phonte, or even when he’s featured by newer emcees such as Logic or the ever barred-up Rapsody – Black Thought swims at all depths and is never a guy to sleep on in any track. Black Thought definitely qualifies as an old head (it’s been 25 years since The Roots dropped their first album ‘Organix!’) but he maintains his excellence, as colorful new schoolers drift in and out of fashion while singing hooks on autotune and swirling sippy cups.

There’s not much more I can say about Black Thought and uphold my (fragile) masculinity as a cis-het male, so I’ll leave it here. Tariq Trotter is definitely, to me, the greatest rapper of all time.


Tlholo Modiba (@tlholomodiba) is a Pretoria based designer, entrepreneur and late adopter of modern technology.

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