Where does Black Thought rank in the greatest-of-all-time conversation? And why does he continue to fly under the radar?
In this series, we'll be making the case for specific rappers to be included in "greatest of all-time" discussions. The more obvious choices (such as André 3000, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, 2Pac) will be ignored in favor of artists who tend to get overlooked these days, for one reason or another. Previously, our writers have made cases for Pusha T, Ice Cube, DJ Quik, Big Boi, DMX, Ghostface Killah, Busta Rhymes, Dr. Dre and 50 Cent.
By the time that Black Thought, born Tariq Trotter, had closed out his one take, ten-minute, “pre-Kardashian Kanye” freestyle at Hot 97, he was dripping with sweat. The “Talented Mr. Trotter” had just shut down the Mobb Deep “Burn” instrumental with a flawless performance from start to finish. He was an “apex predator,” a raging cyclone of rhyming complexity and mesmerizing delivery. When asked about the lyrical demolition derby during a recent appearance on Genius Verified, Trotter wasted no time with his answer: “It was absolutely another day at the office for me.”
It’s near impossible to keep up with Black Thought’s breakneck pace on the mic. There’s no sudden starting or stopping, no wasted breath, no slip-ups or stumbles. He gathers steam with each passing word, making it tricky for even the most attuned listener to catch every quotable line. He’s a living, breathing embodiment of hip hop’s purest form, a realization of its unbound imagination as well as its potential for political awareness and social consciousness. For the five-million plus viewers who have tuned in to watch his freestyle on YouTube, the viral exhibition reignited a heated discussion that has made its rounds in the hip hop community: Where does Black Thought rank in the greatest-of-all-time conversation? Though the top five and extended top ten banter lies at the core of the competitive nature of the genre, it is understandably plagued by inconsistent, subjective criteria. Online forums and comment sections are chock-full of users rattling off names at will in the hopes of putting an end to the debate. As it turns out, Black Thought typically gets left off a lot of lists, even though he’s just as talented, if not more so, than the classic contenders.
Black Thought is an elite emcee, a rapper’s rapper who’s been consistently dedicated to honing his craft in the 25-years since 1993’s Organix. If one were to ask other emcees who their top emcees are, Black Thought’s name would likely pop up. To quote producer 9th Wonder: “[Black] Thought is your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. He’s the favorite rapper that nobody likes to say out loud. Of course you’re going to hear rappers say the Nas’ and the Jays, your usual suspects. It’s just a different air when he walks in the room around rappers, bruh. The air changes because everybody knows, ‘If I gotta get on a record with this dude, it’s a possibility I’m gonna get chewed.’ I think he’s a samurai when it comes to that. He’s highly respected… It’s one thing to be respected. It’s another thing to be respected and also feared.” Not only is he respected and feared by his peers, but he’s a tried and true student of the game who has mastered the fundamentals. Authentic and adaptable, he’s perfected control of his voice through circular breathing, capable of simplifying or stuffing bars into a particular rhythmic order with ease and then subsequently reconstructing them all over again. The timeworn “fine wine” cliche remains as applicable as ever.
This begs the question: Why does Black Thought continue to fly under the radar? There are a few relevant reasons. For starters, he often gets lost in the mix as part of The Roots. One would think that as the first hip hop band and one of the most recognizable acts in the industry, The Roots would get the rightful credit that they deserve from a wider audience. The beloved collective has a number of heralded platinum and gold albums under its belt, and is now the house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Yet even though Black Thought is primarily a solo emcee for The Roots, average consumers don’t think of him as a solo artist so much as they see him as one member of a large group. In other words, they don’t think of him in isolated terms. It’s an unfortunate truth: lumping together members creates artistic distance, leading many to gloss over the individual talent on display. Had Black Thought chosen to branch out as a legitimate solo artist, then perhaps listeners would have paid him more attention and the dialogue would be different. Furthermore, while The Roots do have plaques to their name, they are considerably less commercially successful than other top five candidates. Sales and streams may not be everything, but they remain a valuable measure of consumer awareness, and Black Thought falls short in this category.
Second, Black Thought doesn’t have the razzle-dazzle of other rappers. He gets the job done at an extremely high level but without the fireworks or theatrics of mainstream top five picks. It’s not a lack of charisma so much as it is an absence of glitzy bravado. He tends to avoid interviews, and when he does make appearances, he hides behind signature black shades that augment his low profile. He’s bewilderingly humble, free from the overwhelming dosage of rap personality that has long been a key selling point for prospective emcees. “I don’t think there’s any rapper out that’s more street than me,” he asserted during an in-depth interview with Sway. “Both my parents are murder victims. I done lived it. I feel like I can talk about it, but I don’t need to. That’s not what defines me. I’d rather wear my intelligence and my artistry on my sleeve.” Unlike most emcees, who would parade around with this tragedy “emblazoned across their everything all the time like a Jesus piece,” Black Thought treats it as nothing more than a footnote.
Perhaps the most significant factor hindering Black Thought’s case is his lack of a highly publicized, rags-to-riches storyline, the kind that hip hop loves to reward in droves. In maintaining his air of mystery, he has forgone personal vulnerability, making it difficult for listeners to connect with his unique story; his art and life are purposefully set apart. As a result, he hasn’t had the distinct cultural imprint of those who fall squarely into the mythological narrative touted by fans: Nas is the descendent of the God emcee Rakim and the Queensbridge poet who gave the world Illmatic at the age of twenty; Jay-Z pulled himself up by his bootstraps to run the game summer after summer; and 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. ingrained themselves in music lore following their fatal bi-coastal feud. Black Thought is missing that “mythos” component that is widely considered to be an essential ingredient of an artist’s legacy.
For those familiar with The Roots, Black Thought’s freestyle wasn’t a revelation so much as it was a resounding reminder. His impact may not be directly felt or recognized by those beyond the realm of hip hop, but he remains universally respected by those that are aware of what he brings to the table. Nobody disputes Black Thought’s skill. But skills alone don’t cut it. Perhaps it’s because his career has been confined to his work with The Roots. Maybe it’s simply a matter of listeners growing so accustomed to his expertise that they now take for granted that they’re witnessing one of the greatest to ever step to a mic. The bottom line is that Black Thought doesn’t get his due. He may not have an impressive resume compared to his rivals, nor does he convincingly tick the boxes when it comes to influence and lasting impact. But he indisputably belongs in the greatest-of-all-time conversation.