It’s no secret that hip-hop fans are enamored with ranking projects. We’ve all schemed on our “top five” lists, while debating those worthy of GOAT status. Often times, the general criteria of upper-echelon inclusion is vague-at-best; categories of “lyricism,” “flow,” and “impact” are tried and true favorites. Popular names in these discussions include 2Pac, B.I.G., Andre 3000, Jay-Z, Nas, Kanye West, Eminem, Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and J. Cole. In fact, the usual suspects are so frequently evoked it begins to border on cliche; even the most ardent conformist risks being swayed to contrarianism.

Yet there exist several sleeper picks, many of whom we’ve chronicled in our own existing series. The likes of Pusha T, Busta Rhymes, Dr. Dre, DMX, 50 Cent, and Scarface. The ones often omitted from the tabletalk. Skilled in nearly every way, yet generally brushed aside amidst the popular selections. As if a line exists, serving only to separate these classes. This invisible line has often nagged at me, especially during my more existential moments of GOAT reflection. After all, plenty of candidates have been put forth in GOAT discourse, and plenty of different cases can and have been made. Yet where does personal taste end and objectivity begin?

After all, nobody likes discussing music with the “it’s all personal taste” guy. While you might respect the pacifism, it doesn’t exactly make for lively debate. But should there indeed be an objective measuring stick specifically tailored for assessing greatness, which attribute is the most valuable?

On the topic of lyrics, you’d be hard pressed to argue against Eminem, Kendrick, Nas, Lil Wayne or Three Stacks. Even dark horse picks like Royce Da 5’9”, Pharoahe Monch, and Redman can hold their own among the widely accepted greats. For many, the aforementioned rappers have set themselves apart through their lyrical aptitude; likewise for flow, as the two categories tend to overlap. As far as impact, look no further than 2Pac and B.I.G, who continue to have a posthumous impact on hip-hop. For those still active, Jay-Z (who exemplifies proficiency in all fields), Drake, Kanye West, and J. Cole have proven more than capable of shaping the culture on both a social and musical level.

Don’t get it twisted. All conventional GOAT contenders succeed on nearly all fronts, at least where skill and impact are concerned. To debate the nuances of Andre’s lyricism vs. Eminem’s lyricism does, for better or worse, seem to come down to some degree of personal taste.

Perhaps a deciding factor does exist. Discography.

This may very well be an archaic mentality, but the concept of artistic legacy remains an integral motivator. Even in an era of instant gratification, where contemporary artists seem to place little value on the album as an artform. One can’t help but wonder how much thought the “SoundCloud” rappers of the world put into sequencing, let alone greater thematic coherence. We already know the rules have changed; streaming practices have albums going gold and platinum minutes after their release. These days, it can’t help but feel like labels and artists alike are more concerned with securing the bag than they are amassing a legendary catalog.

Kanye West Albums Described By The Simpsons

The money-first mentality is not for everybody. Outside of hip-hop, minds like Quentin Tarantino and Radiohead seem to place everything on their legacy, crafting their material selectively; imbued within their catalog is a clear sense of purpose. For that reason, fans have come to trust their brands almost unconditionally. Considerably fewer artists ascribe to that mentality in the rap game. You see it in Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, who currently have four and five studio albums respectively. You see it in Kanye West, who is pretty much seven-for-seven. Yet many rappers are unfortunately marred by inconsistency, especially as their careers progress.

That’s not to say one dubious project can derail a legacy. After all, the highs will always outweigh the lows. For every Magna Carter there is a Blueprint. For every Nastradamus, there’s a Matic, both Ill and Still. Yet while “bad” albums do little to wash over the “good ones,” too many lows can prove detrimental in the context of analyzing one’s greater legacy. Would Lupe Fiasco find himself included in the conversation if he had kept the pace of Food And Liquor and The Cool? I’d bet some would be willing to ride for him off the strength of his first two. Yet to count oneself among the truly flawless is a rare honor, and should be respected as such.

To be fair, some have used an artist’s discography as a detriment. It’s not uncommon to hear the classic “Andre 3000 doesn’t have any solo albums” argument, nor are fans entirely willing to forgive Eminem for a few late-career missteps. Conversely, over-saturation can also be problematic, as quality control is rarely a rapper’s strong suit; too much material can equate to sensory overload, occasionally hiding quality amidst a sea of noise. At best, it’s overwhelming. At worst, it’s mired in mediocrity. Can a GOAT still be a GOAT with a mediocre project under their belt? It depends who you ask.

Consider Jay-Z. The man has thirteen studio albums in his name. More than the average artist. Of those thirteen are, at the very least, four undisputed classics. Reasonable Doubt. The Blueprint. The Black Album. American Gangster. Were an artist to deliver those four albums as his sole contributions to the game, there’s a strong chance he’d be hailed as an undisputed king. Admittedly, he already is. But his claim would be all the stronger, would it not? Again, this line of reasoning is not intended to take away from an artist’s accomplishment. Yet proclaiming the GOAT is a serious task and should be treated as such.

It’s entirely possible that discography has kept the DMX’s and Pusha T’s of the world from becoming proven commodities in the standard GOAT discourse. That’s not to say they don’t have excellent records under their belts, but are the highs iconic enough to spar with the genre’s essential albums? It’s arguable to be sure. As somebody who counts DMX’s 1998-2002 run as among the game’s elite, it’s hard to deny the post Cradle 2 The Grave fall off. As for Pusha, it’s entirely possible that his output is simply too meagre; despite being in the game for over a decade, the rapper is currently sitting on two solo albums.

So where does that leave us? Is discography simply the quintessential tie-breaker? Maybe. Yet for some,  a carefully curated catalog is the epitome of artistic excellence. For those people, a single moment of weakness can be the difference between a number one and number two spot. Some might view such line of reasoning as problematic, and debating with such a perfectionist can undoubtedly prove tiresome. But this is hip-hop. Competition is simply part of the game.

Notable Discographies

2Pac: 2Pacalypse Now, Strictly 4 My N.*.*.*.A.Z, Me Against The World, All Eyez On Me, The Don Killuminati

50 Cent: Get Rich Or Die Tryin, The Massacre, Curtis, Before I Self Destruct, Animal Ambition

Biggie: Ready To Die, Life After Death

Busta Rhymes: The Coming, When Disaster Strikes, E.L.E, Anarchy, Genesis, It Ain't Safe No More, The Big Bang, Back On My B.S., Year Of The Dragon

DJ Quik: Quik Is The Name, Way 2 Fonky, Safe & Sound, Rhythm-al-ism, Balance & Options, Under Tha Influence, Trauma, The Book Of David, The Midnight Life

DMX:  It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, Flesh Of My Flesh Blood Of My Blood, And Then There Was X, The Great Depression, Grand Champ, Year Of The Dog...Again, Undisputed

Drake: Thank Me Later, Take Care, Nothing Was The Same, Views

Dr. Dre: The Chronic, 2001, Compton

Eminem: The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, The Eminem Show, Encore, Relapse, Recovery, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Revival

Ghostface Killah: Ironman, Supreme Clientele, Bulletproof Wallets, The Pretty Toney Album, Fishscale, More Fish, The Big Doe Rehab, Ghostdini: Wizard Of Poetry In Emerald City, Apollo Kid, Twelve Reasons To Die, 36 Seasons, Twelve Reasons To Die II

Gucci Mane: Trap House, Hard To Kill, Trap-A-Thon, Back To The Trap House, Murder Was The Case, The State vs. Radric Davis, The Appeal: Georgia’s Most Wanted, The Return Of Mr. Zone 6, Everybody Looking, The Return Of East Atlanta Santa, DropTopWop, Mr. Davis, El Gato: The Human Glacier

Ice Cube: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate, The Predator, Lethal Injection, War & Peace Vol 1 (The War Disc), War & Peace Vol 2 (The Peace Disc), Laugh Now Cry Later, Raw Footage, I Am The West

J. Cole: Cole World: The Sideline Story, Born Sinner, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, 4 Your Eyez Only, KOD

Jadakiss: Kiss Tha Game Goodbye, Kiss Of Death, The Last Kiss, Top 5 Dead Or Alive

Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life, Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, The Blueprint, The Blueprint2: The Gift & the Curse, The Black Album, Kingdom Come, American Gangster, The Blueprint 3, Magna Carta Holy Grail, 4:44

Lil Wayne: The Block Is Hot, Lights Out, 500 Degreez, Tha Carter, Tha Carter III, Like Father Like Son, Tha Carter III, Rebirth, I Am Not A Human Being, Tha Carter IV, I Am Not A Human Being II, Free Weezy Album

Lupe Fiasco: Food & Liquor, The Cool, Lasers, Food & Liquor II, Tetsuo & Youth, Drogas Light

Nas: Illmatic, It Was Written, I Am…, Nastradamus, Stillmatic, God’s Son, Street’s Disciple, Hip-Hop Is Dead, Untitled, Life Is Good

Kanye West: The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation, 808s & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus, The Life Of Pablo

Kendrick Lamar: Section 80, Good Kid Maad City, To Pimp A Butterfly, DAMN.

Pusha T: My Name Is My Name, King Push - Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude

Redman: Whut? Thee Album, Dare Iz A Darkside, Muddy Waters, Doc’s Da Name 2000, Malpractice, Red Gone Wild, Reggie, Mudface

Royce Da 5’9”: Rock City, Death Is Certain, Independent’s Day, Street Hop, Success Is Certain, Layers

Scarface: Mr. Scarface Is Back, The World Is Yours, The Diary, The Untouchable, My Homies, The Last Of A Dying Breed, The Fix, My Homies Part 2, Made, Emeritus, Deeply Rooted

Snoop Dogg: Doggystyle, Tha Doggfather, Da Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told, No Limit Top Dogg, Tha Last Meal, Paid Tha Cost To Be Da Boss, R&G: The Masterpiece, Tha Blue Carpet Treatment, Ego Trippin, Malice n Wonderland, Doggumentary, Reincarnated, Bush, Coolaid, Neva Left, Bible Of Love