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Has T.I. Had a Top-Tier Rap Career? A Discussion

Illustration for article titled Is T.I.s Rap Career On The Same Level as Jay Z, Kanye West and Lil Wayne? A Discussion

Photo: Ethan Miller (Getty Images)

On the heels of a social media back and forth between T.I. and 50 Cent about who would win in a Verzuz battle—probably a more even matchup than either of them wants to admit; neither has made much music worth listening to in the past decade—T.I. went on Big Boy’s L.A.-based radio show and proclaimed, in a nutshell, that when speaking of his career, he belongs in the top tier of iconic rappers. He named Jay-Z, Kanye and Lil Wayne, though really he said folks should ask them where he belongs which served two purposes: 1) he’s saying to ask the folks others would consider greats; and 2) he’s also claiming that they’re greats so their opinions should matter because presumably, they’d put him on their same level. It also helps that those are the three people on the song “Swagga Like Us.” Mayhaps that’s who T.I. feels like were his peers in success at the time.

This begs the question, of course, that folks who argue about such things might ponder: as stellar as his career is, just where does T.I.’s career belong, and more importantly, does it belong in the top tier? I’m pretty sure that the knee-jerk reaction is to say, “no, it doesn’t belong in the top tier.” I am also inclined to say no. But is that right? Let’s investigate.

In order to have this discussion, we have to set the parameters for what makes a top-tier career. Also, because writing the piece that truly digs into this would take about 5,000 words and discussions about people like LL Cool J and Snoop and Queen Latifah and because you aren’t about to read all that I’m going to limit it to just the four rappers in question: are all three that he named top-tier (yes)? And if so, does T.I. belong with them (eh…maybe?).

So what keeps them at the top? What constitutes a great career? For one, longevity: who has been able to make a sustained living and put out music that was consumed. Also, resonance: does their music still hit the charts, as well as hearts and minds and not just your cousin’s Spotify playlist that he swears is full of that hot shit? While we pretend that charts and accolades don’t matter, they impact (at least somewhat) the ability to have a long career doing it on somebody else’s dime, which is where most people do it. Third, accolades: less important—like the number of inquiries on your credit report—but if you have none, it’s hard to put you at the top? And lastly, how have they spun that music career into other shit that was also successful.

I think Jay and Kanye are indisputable here. We don’t even really need to dig in. Political leanings and idiosyncrasies aside, Kanye stays winning outside of music, and he’s won so many times at music it’s not even fair. And Jay-Z is the gold standard. I think Lil Wayne is arguable, but probably not worth the argument if that makes sense. He checks off every box musically (shit, he even hit #1 on the Billboard charts this year), moonlights on ESPN…

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