Two days before Damn.'s release, Vince Staples did not hesitate to name Kendrick Lamar the best.
Staples told Power 106's The Cruz Show,
Talking about all-time, we can say Michael Jordan is still alive, but he's not beating LeBron James one-on-one. You talking about right now, it's Kendrick. Easy.
No one will say he's wrong, either.
Just think about it. Drake is the one person many fans would say is Kendrick's closest competition, and yet people pretty much forgot about More Life once Kdot dropped The Heart Part IV.
Now that an actual album is here? The easy answer, like Vince Staples said, is Kendrick Lamar.
In April 2017, it's the obvious choice. Like, so obvious it's literally sad.
That's not to throw shade at Kendrick at all. In fact, that's more of a comment on the state of his competition, if anything. The pool of talent we have to choose from in debating the best rapper is just unusually thin right now. It's so thin that there's actually a clear answer.
But there used to never be a clear answer.
That's what makes (or used to make) these debates so fun. Even when Lil Wayne was on top of the game, those who thought he was the best said it with hesitation.
Allow me to jog your memory.
Back in 2008, after Tha Carter III dropped, NPR hosted a debate about whether Wayne actually was, as he claimed, "the best rapper alive."
Sasha Frere-Jones, then a critic for The New Yorker and now Executive Editor at Genius, told NPR,
We've got to do this within quotes, because it's kind of a, you know, completely ludicrous claim. But... yes, he's fantastic. Everything he does just pleases me so much. He gets away with it as much as anyone can get away with such a crazy claim.
The manner of Frere-Jones' answer spoke to the nature of how these conversations used to work. Even people who thought their guy was the best rapper never made the claim decisively.
You just couldn't because the state of rap was more competitive and had to be respected.
Now compare that to how state of the debate today. On Thursday's episode of Complex's rapper-slash-critic-podcaster Joe Budden and DJ Akademiks agreed that Kendrick Lamar was the best, of course.
They way they arrived at the answer was notable, though. They lauded Lamar for his talent, but also struggled to come up with a single viable competitor.
Eventually, Budden admitted,
I can never throw a name against Kendrick because the field is too weak.
Of course, some of this might not come down to weak competition, at all. It just might come down to a shift of the genre.
The "traditional" rappers, like Jay Z and Eminem, who we know could go toe-to-toe with Kendrick are either semi or fully retired. The more popular rappers, like Kanye and Drake, aren't just rappers anymore, which complicated their place in the conversation.
Meanwhile, we aren't even sure if we can call what the younger rappers, like Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert, are doing actual "rap."
Ultimately, this shift might be a good thing for the future.
It's unrealistic to expect any genre to stay the same forever, after all. Until the transformation is complete, though, the state of rap will feed odd, especially when it comes to how we talk about who the best artist is.
With a different field of competition, Kendrick Lamar might very well still be the consensus choice, just with a little more debate within the conversation.
For now, Kendrick Lamar is the obvious answer, but partly because of the sad state of the competition.