He got a big ego: Breaking down self-praise in hip hop

Wednesday, April 5, 2017 - 6:54pm

A rapper’s “ego” has been an important part of their identity since the birth of the genre. Since the days of Grandmaster Flash and the spawn of hip hop in the Bronx, rappers have been fighting over who’s “the best.” Most rappers today still have some mention in their music about why they are the best rapper or how they’re living the best lifestyle. It can be aggressive, much like the East Coast vs. West Coast debacle in the days of Tupac and Biggie, or it can be passive and self-aware, like in the track literally titled “Ego” by A Tribe Called Quest. There’s no doubting its importance in the genre, but does this obsession with being the best push the genre forward or hold it back?

Giving an absolute answer to this question is complex. On one hand there are a lot of egotistical rappers that have pushed the genre forward. Kanye West is a great example of a rapper that most hip-hop fans automatically think of when thinking of rappers with expansive egos. Kanye is famous for his ego, but has used it to drive himself to create some of the best albums the genre has ever seen. Graduation won the Grammy for rap album of the year in 2008 and on the first song of the album, “Good Morning,” his first bars after the hook go “Wake up Mr. West, Mr. West, Mr. Fresh, Mr. by himself he’s so impressed.” We’re 40 seconds into the album and he’s already talking about himself, yet this is one of the most beloved hip-hop albums of my generation. A lot of new age rappers have taken after Kanye’s approach and used their egos to drive themselves to create music that is worthy of what they think of themselves.

On the flip side, there are rappers that arguably use their egos to also hold back the genre. These rappers are constantly stunting and bragging, but in reality don’t do much to warrant the rhetoric. In most of Lil Uzi Vert’s songs, for example, he likes to talk about how great he is and how shiny his “diamonds” are, how hot his “bitches” are, and how he’s always “ballin.” But I still haven’t heard a single Lil Uzi Vert song I’d listen to outside of a party setting. If there’s ever anything special about an Uzi song it’s the beat made by the producers, which I’d rather listen to on its own without the rapper’s signature, whiny voice going “Yeahhh, Yeahhh, Yeahhh, Yeahhh.” He’s the one rapping about how great he is, but the producers are the real heroes of his music. Uzi has been rapping this way ever since his first mixtape, The Real Uzi.

Think about that one friend you have — maybe you don’t consider them your friend — who’s always talking about himself. He’s always talking about all the cool shit he’s doing and giving you constant reasons why you should think he’s the shit, but there’s a concerning lack of evidence that all the hype is true. He’s the real-life equivalent to the rapper who talks about how amazing they are on their first release. If a rapper wants to talk themselves up they should have some previous success and specific examples of why they’re the best instead of just making blanket statements. For instance on Kendrick Lamar’s “Black Friday” he spits, “I merge jazz fusion with the trap music / I mix black soul with some rock ‘n’ roll” which he indeed accomplished with his second LP, To Pimp a Butterfly. A lot of “new age” rappers seem to have this problem of assuming that just because they can talk about themselves, the statements they’re making will be valid. This isn’t true for all new age MCs though. Isaiah Rashad and Chance the Rapper don’t make their ego one of the central components of their music. Chance’s last album Coloring Book was one of the least egotistical rap albums I’ve ever heard and also rocketed Chance  to stardom. Isaiah's rise has been gradual, but it has continued its upward trend because of his honest and relatable lyrics. These rappers cause the genre to grow because they don’t let the ego blind them into already thinking they have reached the top. They don’t let their own sensitivity and ignorance prevent them from seeing how they can improve and change their music.

Rappers that aren’t aggressive with their ego can use it to their advantage later on in their careers. Lamar and other various seasoned rappers didn’t start making proclamations until they had the evidence to back them up. Kendrick’s proclamations became more substantial as he ascended the rap game. He didn’t start calling himself the best until To Pimp a Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered. These albums were released after the insane success of Good Kid M.A.A.D City and after The Game and Dr. Dre himself had already dubbed Kendrick the “King of the West.” Isaiah and Chance seem to be taking Kendrick’s style of approach to their egos so far, and only time will tell if they continue down this path with future releases.  

On the other hand, there are some rappers that start heavily using ego early in their work but also express self-doubt and have an expansive portfolio of emotions that they express. These include rappers like Kanye and Travis Scott. Although their first albums College Dropout and Rodeo, respectively, are ego-heavy, both albums also speak to the rappers’ worries which bring a satisfying balance to the work. “Piss On Your Grave” (featuring Kanye) and “Impossible” on Travis’ Rodeo tell stories of both his anger and his concerns; while songs like “All Falls Down” and “Spaceship” tell of similar stories on College Dropout. The rest of Kanye’s music has continued to express a variety of emotions with the expression of his ego fluctuating as his career has progressed (see 808s & Heartbreak for an expansive portfolio of Kanye emotions). These types of rappers help push the genre forward because even though their egos are heavily in play, it does not blind them from seeing their own faults. These rappers have a special skill of being able to sustain an extravagant view of themselves while remaining inwardly critical. Their egos also usually cause them to be more present in the media which in turn creates more publicity for the genre. As long as a rapper can express other emotions and bring more overall publicity for the genre I’m down with a large ego. The problem comes when all they do is talk  — creating music that sounds eerily similar to their previous work, creating a cycle of repetitive and pointless music.

Without their lofty egos I doubt Travis and Kanye would have become the heavyweights they are today; artists putting out chart topping albums while also being involved in other creative industries. Their egos pushed them into the spotlight which makes everything they do is of public interest. Their egos set a standard for themselves that they’re afraid to fall short of.

Even Kendrick wouldn’t be the same without his ego. To Pimp a Butterfly is a great example of a rapper setting his own standard and meeting it. Kendrick proclaiming himself as the best rapper alive made more people pay attention to the album, and listeners were greatly rewarded for their attention. On the contrary, rappers like Lil Uzi Vert don’t reward their listeners. They continue to draw attention to themselves by talking about how much money they have and women they get just like they always have, and what does this attention give us? More repetitive lyrics and music that isn’t anything new. The high ego of rappers ultimately pushes the genre forward because without it they wouldn’t have the drive to create the music they do, and they wouldn’t bring as much publicity to the genre, but I wish all rappers with big egos could utilize it this way instead of being simply satisfied with only their own self-praise.