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GOAT debates are a hip-hop tradition. Spotify is here to spoil the fun

Kendrick Lamar performs at a Spotify event in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Lions media festival in June 2022.
Getty Images for Spotify
Getty Images Europe
Kendrick Lamar performs at a Spotify event in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Lions media festival in June 2022.

If you listen to rap music, or if you watch professional basketball, you know that one of the core experiences associated with both is hating. Not in a malicious sense, of course — more a petty one. Sometimes a player irks you just because. Sometimes a fanbase is obnoxious and you love to see them suffer. Sometimes the hype has gotten out of hand and a correction is needed. Much of the discourse in both realms is devoted to hating, and since that discourse happens mainly online, we’re almost always in it. Doomscrolling for long enough will inevitably land me in the thick of a conversation I don’t actually want to be a part of, yet cannot look away from; the cycle of hate-reading, -listening, and -watching can inspire a specific madness wherein the space of the screen comes to feel like the whole world. When consumed by the vexations that hating can produce, a moment arrives where an irrationally heated response can, for a moment, feel like the only course.

This familiar, searing sensation went through me recently when, just before Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Mavs and the Celtics, I stumbled upon a post on X from RapCaviar, Spotify’s main hip-hop playlist. I do not use Spotify, and my relationship with the playlist — once dubbed the most influential in music — has always been guarded, since to my ears it has never really reflected the breadth of the genre it seeks to encapsulate. Being served this post from an account I don’t follow already felt intrusive, but I was more struck by the content: a graphic of an NBA-like power ranking featuring the faces of various hip-hop stars, arranged in a grid. This ranking, a tabulation of the streaming platform’s rap charts, had a predictable No. 1 if you’ve been even casually following music in the last few months: Kendrick Lamar. He was followed in the top five by Future & Metro Boomin, GloRilla, Gunna and Sexyy Red. (A picture of a goat, currently Kanye West’s official profile image on the app, stood in for him at No. 10.) “Who’s been your MVP this year?” the caption asked. I should have just kept scrolling, or, even better, put my phone down. But I found myself hung up on this question, not because the particulars of any such race interest me, but because of who was doing the asking.

I sought out a little context. The campaign is part of an ongoing RapCaviar series called the All-RapCaviar Teams, modeled after the end-of-season honors in pro basketball. RapCaviar’s version consists of “the 15 rappers who’ve had the biggest impact on the flagship playlist (and other hip-hop-centric Spotify playlists) over the past 12 months,” a release for the 2023 selection process explained. Fans are then given the opportunity to vote via social media for their MVP. “As the leading destination for hip-hop, conversation, and culture, we’re thrilled to unite the best rappers in the game with their biggest fans through this unique social-first experience,” the statement concluded, “and we can’t wait to see who will step up and lead the way for hip-hop in the year to come.” True to the black-box reputation of the streaming economy, I could find no breakdown of the methodology, no critical brain trust accountable for shaping the presentation. I couldn’t even find an explicit explanation for why the project existed, save for a 2022 quote from Creative Director Carl Chery about encouraging “a little friendly debate online.” This was a ranking based on numbers, but with no work shown and no personality on display, it was hard to tell what the numbers even meant. What, then, was the point?

Look, I’m hating. I get it. And on its own, this sort of thing is harmless enough. You see it across the internet every day, a key part of the dogfight that is engagement; variations of it spill out in all directions and can be gratifying and insightful, extending beyond the present moment and the social media echo chambers. Think of the spirited living room back-and-forth in Chris Rock’s Top Five, or MTV’s now-defunct annual list of the Hottest MCs in the Game, or even Shea Serrano’s The Rap Year Book, which has little disagreements between fanatics built into every single selection made. There is value in the practice. But I’m also not wrong that when an entity like Spotify enters the chat, it feels weird. The primary benefit of our discourse, no matter how trifling, is that it’s ours, a personal expression of taste and investment. When a corporation insinuates itself into that mix, it can only hope to speak from a characterless void, in the monophonic voice of the bottom line.

To be fair, hip-hop has long invited comparisons to the basketball meritocracy. Rappers have always referred to the music industry as “the game,” and many have turned the G.O.A.T. talk of pro sports into a template for success in their field. On “Just Rhymin’ with Biz,” Big Daddy Kane rapped, “If rap was a game, I’d be MVP / Most Valuable Poet on the M-I-C.” A decade later, The Game himself took it a step further on “Hate It or Love It,” declaring that rap was literally a game in order to frame his rise out of underdog status. When Biggie, newly ascended to rap stardom, called the streets a short stop from which the only other escapes were slingin’ crack rock or having a wicked jump shot, he was speaking to competition as the common denominator. As recently as 2019, 2Chainz named an album Rap or Go to the League. To embrace ball is to embrace skill as a gateway from hardship to glory, and the hustler’s grind of honing a skill set for primetime is relatable for a class of performers thinking of their own maneuvers as feats of dexterity and virility. But even at its most braggadocious, this mentality has always been more about clutch performance and clever strategy than pure commercial success. In invoking Allen Iverson’s crossover of Michael Jordan on 2010’s “Thank Me Now,” RapCaviar’s 2023 MVP, Drake, made clear the correlation between demonstrable ability and seized opportunity: “And that's around the time that your idols become your rivals / You make friends with Mike but got to A.I. him for your survival.”

This should be obvious, but it is one thing for rappers to use this analogue as a means of self-expression, and another entirely for the most powerful company in music to try to define those parameters. The value of this kind of exercise, where hip-hop artists and the diehards who follow them bicker ad nauseam over who’s on top, is in its inability to be definitive in any sense. A rap debate in a barbershop has a zero percent chance of consensus. That is what makes MVP discussions the aimlessly fun pursuit they are, powered by the participants’ aptitude, flair and finesse, the way rap’s originators would have wanted it. And that is what makes a streamer co-opting such conversations for the promotion of its own algorithmic function so perverse, once you take even a moment to think about it. It is a betrayal of that frivolous spirit, an attempt to certify a selection with the “certainty” of data.

Ironically, Drake has since become the beacon for that certainty: Worldwide, he is Spotify’s most streamed male artist ever. And the language of Drake’s trash talk in recent years has come to align with that of the stan uprising, in which sales figures, powered by streaming, are used as the be-all, end-all determinant for aesthetic value and cultural significance. His status as the 2023 MVP codifies that outlook, drawing a direct line from streaming success to rap greatness. Kendrick, meanwhile, tops the All-RapCaviar power rankings now because of the performance of his Drake diss tracks on Spotify, and on an informal level he would likely be many people’s choice for rap’s most valuable player this year. But he didn’t earn that playing the streaming game, and he certainly didn’t supplant Drake because of “impact on Spotify’s hip-hop-centric playlists” — he did so by A.I.’ing him. His was an equally devastating crossover, seen around the world, cutting down a larger-than-life figure.

As much as it’s just a silly social media strategy, the All-RapCaviar rollout feels like a component of more insidious trends: the gamification of rap, the shift in focus from bars to metrics and, more broadly, the streaming giants’ pursuit of a music sphere where there is no distinction between commerce and culture. Their language is simply too authoritative — the “leading destination for hip-hop, conversation, and culture,” featuring the “best” rappers, looking to see which will “lead the way” for the genre — for something guided by anonymous machine data. Defining the music on these terms commercially can only aid in the pervasive effort to turn hip-hop into a spectator sport to which tickets are sold. It’s no surprise that the most toxic discourse circles within rap closely resemble the talking-head punditry of sports media. Hip-hop is a sport in the sense that competition can drive creative breakthroughs, but when you begin to literally treat the art as a numbers game, it becomes a game less worth playing.

We know well that streamers want to be both the business and the culture, the commercial infrastructure and the canon-makers. Look to the Apple Music 100 for a recent, more brazen example of attempted tastemaking, or to Spotify’s own Classics series, which has mounted lists of the greatest songs of the streaming era in hip-hop and R&B. The problem is that any top-down attempt to editorialize the music on these platforms is inescapably an act of marketing — a way to make the numbers rise, reaffirming an artist’s relevance and, by proxy, the platform’s necessity. A corporation cannot lead the culture, least of all one so widely criticized as harmful to artists' very livelihood. And there is something even more sinister about such moves gaining steam while the editorial apparatus once responsible for doing this kind of work at newspapers, magazines, alt-weeklies and regional broadcasters continues to collapse. For all their convenience and connectivity, these massive businesses are optimized for a vision of the arts in which everything — the music, the conversation around it, the artists themselves — is simply content.

If there is any comfort to be had, it’s that even the most official of tallies can never be the beginning or end of the conversation, only a baseline for more squabbling. I believe in my heart that Kobe Bryant should have won at least one of the Steve Nash MVPs. My brother recently argued to my dad that current Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown is better than Dr. J, the two-time ABA MVP and 1981 NBA MVP. Likewise, someone somewhere is lobbying for Chief Keef or Rapsody or ScHoolboy Q or Tierra Whack, rappers whose playlist impact is too small for Spotify to consider them part of this discussion, as the greatest in the game. Maybe there will come a day when the All-RapCaviar Teams are a televised ceremony of great import. Maybe they’ll fade away, just another blip in a never-ending engagement push. In either case, the real conversations will always be happening elsewhere, far beyond data’s reach.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]