The Day I Wrote
Last night a slightly inebriated Casey asked me what made an MC great in my opinion. It wasn't a random question. It followed my enthusiastic reception of the DJ's choice of playing Mobb Deep's Drop A Gem On 'Em, from when Mobb Deep was still excellent. I am a Hip Hop Connaisseur, a long time fan and it was my first musical love (aside from my Wham tape) as a genre. I exclusively listened to Hip Hop until my early twenties when I started to broaden my horizons.
To get back to the original question of what makes an MC great. In no particular order (and with the example rappers/songs picked not necessarily being limited to or being the best/only examples their category):
Which words an MC chooses to use and the complexity of his thoughts and sentences. Her/his intelligence will shine if done well. This is where words turn into poetry.
For an example of rappers with great lyricism listen to:
Nas - It Ain't Hard To Tell (DangerMouse Remix) (MP3) (Via PalmsOut)
Eric B. & Rakim - Follow The Leader (MP3) (Via ABlogSoup)
The way words are used. The ability to manipulate words and sentences in creative ways so that they resemble the motion characteristic of fluids.
For an example of a great flow listen to:
Eminem - Monkey See, Monkey Do (MP3) (Via BerkeleyPlace)
Lyricism and flow don't mean much without a larger than life personality. This is where an MC's personal charisma, credibility and sense of humor come in. He/she has to make you believe in the words.
For an example of MC's with great presence listen to:
Redman - How To Roll A Blunt (MP3) (Via WFMU)
Beanie Siegel & Freeway - Roc The Mic (MP3) (Via CallMeMickey)
4. Songwriting Ability
You can flow all you want to but if all you can do is drop a hot 16 bars here and there, you're still not a real 'rapper'. Songwriting ability in rap is much like songwriting ability in rock/pop. It takes good structures, the ability to tell a story that draws people in, and a knowledge of music to be a great MC.
To listen to an example of rapper with great songwriting ability listen to:
Public Enemy - By The Time I Get To Arizona (MP3) (Via TreesLounge)
Slick Rick - It's A Boy (MP3) (Via PalmsOut)
Both in topic matter and style. A true MC must be able to battle, tell great stories, do a club record, rock a crowd live and on record, and more.
For an example of diverse MC's listen to:
Jay-Z - Can I Get A...(MP3) (Via ScatterOLight)
Common - I Used to Love H.E.R. (MP3) (Via SweetNothing)
An MC's voice needs to be instantly recognizable, distinct, able to bring across emotion and full of soul. It's like the great Guru said: "It's mostly the voice.".
For an example of MC's with a great voice listen to:
2Pac - Young Niggaz (MP3) (Via AlTrap
The Notorious BIG - Machine Gun Funk (Primo rmx) (MP3) (Via MoistWorks)
7. Beat-picking Ability
Underrated and underestimated! Being able to pick the right beat is vital. Just think of how great Nas's albums post It Was Written could've been with great beats to match with his amazing lyrics. Nas is the posterchild for bad beat choices to the point where some are putting out mixtapes of nas vocals with replaced beats. Same thing goes for Eminem to a certain degree.
For an example of an MC that knows how to pick the right beat check listen to:
Jay-Z - Dead Presidents II (Snippet) (MP3) (Via UltraGraphik)
So who does that make the best rapper ever? Opinions? I say Jay-Z is the highest scoring rapper if all categories are combined.