Hip Hop Lineage – The Passing of the Torch

The lineage of Hip Hop royalty begins with 2pac and Biggie, the two greatest rappers of all time, who were killed within 6 months of each other between ’96 and ’97.

2pac vs Biggie

2pac sat the throne on the west coast, a reign characterised by an emotive and heartfelt style that emphasised bold aggression and straightforward delivery over layered meaning and subtlety.

2pac vs biggie hip hop lineage theory

Biggie on the other hand, who topped the throne on the East coast,  represented a cerebral, intricate style of rap that puts value in clever wordplay and deep storytelling.

Where 2pac could write thematically broad songs that appealed earnestly to the basic human range of emotions, Biggie wrote about the everyday struggles, characterising his story with metaphorical layers and real life detail. Of course Biggie could conceptualise common experiences just as successfully as Tupac (mo’ money mo’ problems) though in truth his genius lay in the disguised nods via lyrics coded specifically for his immediate cohorts.

Big’s music infiltrated much of suburban America but those teenagers cycling his album on repeat are to this day still oblivious to many of the subliminal messages peppered throughout his verses.

When pac and Biggie died a gulf in the hip hop landscape opened and the opportunity was created for a prospective heir to ascend one of the stylistically opposite positions.

The succession of Hip Hop royalty that followed the line of ‘pac and Biggie can be traced up to the present day, although there remains a discrepancy around the exact order of succession. I propose two similar hereditary lines.

Here’s number one.

Hip Hop Lineage – Route One:

hip hop lineage theory route one

Nas Vs Jay-z

Following the tragic demise of either rapper, Jay-z, fellow Brooklynite, former George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School pupil and firm friend of Biggie (and actually, Biggie’s senior), quickly ascended to the vacant position of the cerebral style.

The passing of the torch from Biggie to Jay-z is clear, understandable, and in from any hip hop fan’s perspective neat and effective.

The two rappers have a similar style, write (or ‘think’) thematically similar raps and the influence of Biggie on Jay-z is very clear.

Both were crack dealers turned rapper, and neither wrote down their lyrics in any form (they ‘wrote’ in their heads). Jay-z was probably the more established in the drug world prior to finding fame, Biggie arguably the more commercially acceptable (based on average unit sales per album) though both share many traits; numerous infidelities with women despite lacking what one might consider traditional ‘leading man’ looks, starting out in or forming independent labels with a Harlem partner, immediately shy personalities, with great intellect, charm and keen wit. The main difference is that Biggie had a harsh, aggressive style of delivery which contrasts the higher pitched, softer vocal style of Jay.

Along the other side of the ascension line Nas assumed 2pac’s vacant throne, the one characterised by emotively charged and straightforward lyrics.

This ascension fits nicely in the sense that Nas obviously admired 2pac, and had an element of friction with Biggie. Even though Nas and 2pac had a temporary war of words (though which rapper active in the mid 90’s didn’t spar with ‘pac?) the animosity was briefly lived and the two had a chance to exchange words and make amends before 2pac’s passing.

The heritage also fits the narrative nicely in that Jay-z and Nas would go on to challenge each other for the title just as 2pac and Biggie had done in 1996.

This torch pass gets a little harder to accept when analysing the stylistic approach of Nas, who in terms of verbal wordplay and linguistic dexterity is actually one of the more skilful rappers. It’s fair to characterise his style more closely aligned to the emotionally driven vein of 2pac when compared with the ice cold Jay-z, but in fairness, his range of storytelling and picture-like detail put him closer to the Biggie-Jay camp.

50 Cent vs Kanye West

Following this line of succession from 1997 takes us to around 2003/04. Enter 50 Cent and Kanye West.

Jay-z’s retirement in ’03 and the phenomenal rise of Kanye under Jay-z’s label and tutelage in ’04 makes for the perfect passage from one generation to the next. Kanye was clearly a Jay-z fan who emulated his hero in many ways. 

50 cent accepted the mantle from Nas, one of the early 50 Cent supporters when he bought 50 out on his Nastradamus tour in 1999. Although 50 Cent is extremely hesitant to give credit to any who’ve provided him inspiration, clues he dropped in interviews suggest he was a big fan of Nas, more so than Jay-z, even though stylistically (and to 50’s ire)Columbia record execs in the early days compared him to Jay-z and Mase.

The torch pass from Nas to 50 is admittedly a lot less clearly defined than of that from Jay-z to Kanye, but nonetheless, it makes sense, and 50 Cent’s style is arguably much more aligned to the straight-forward, gut punching lyrics of 2pac.

There lies further ambiguity around which side of the divide the ascension of either rapper should take. For example, even though Kanye West started out with witty, wordplay-heavy lyrics, his overall style is much more identifiable with straightforward, no-nonsense, and emotionally driven style characteristic of 2pac’s lineage.

50 Cent, on the other hand, makes cold, logical music that emphasises money and gain over warmth or feeling. In line with this way of thinking, 50 Cent is much more suited to the Biggie-Jay-Z lineage.

Whichever camp you ascribe for West or 50, their famous 2007 sales confrontation suitably reinforces the notion that these two were both kings of a respective throne and lineage, and like the rappers before them, faced off in battle.

Kendrick Lamar vs Drake

The natural successor to Kanye West is of course Drake, who took so much influence and guidance from West, and ultimately the respect was mutual to begin with as West added production credits to Drake’s ‘freshman floater’.

The line from 50 Cent to the next heir, Kendrick Lamar, is a lot more tenuous. The argument for this particular accession is that Dre owned the label, Death Row, that signed 2pac, Dre produced Nas as part of ‘The Firm’, Dre signed and produced records for 50 Cent, and ultimately Kendrick was the next major rapper with whom Dre worked.

The fact Kendrick is a West Coast artist, heavily inspired and influenced by 2pac and again came at odds with Drake as the two challenged each other for the title of greatest rapper helps to clarify the line of ascension. While a clear a line of passage from 50 to K dot doesn’t exist, the line from ‘Ye to Drizzy is undeniable, and ultimately it would be Kendrick and Drake who battles it out for critical success in the 20 teens.