WXTJ Writes! By Lily Egenrieder: Poetic Justice – Who Really Is “The Big Three?”

In case you missed it, Future and Metro Boomin dropped a new album, WE DON’T TRUST YOU, on March 22nd. What has been gaining a lot of the attention, though, is Kendrick Lamar’s feature on the sixth track of the album, “Like That.” Kendrick proceeds to diss Drake and J. Cole throughout the verse, flooding his lyrics with shots and references, most notably with the lines “motherf*ck the big three / it’s just big me.” If you want to look more into the rest of his lines, this video analyzes them quickly and decently in depth! 

The idea of the current “big three” being Drake, J. Cole, and Kendrick certainly isn’t a new concept, but was first verbalized in song on Drake and Cole’s “First Person Shooter” from Drake’s 2023 For All the Dogs album. On the song, Cole drops the lyrics “Love when they argue the hardest MC / Is it K. Dot? Is it Aubrey? Or me? / We the big three, like we started a league.” Despite Kendrick’s recent conviction that there simply is no big three, and while I’d argue that a majority would agree he is at least at the top as an artist, I decided to go through the past 30+ years of hip hop and rank who I believe is the big three of each decade (completely subjectively). I focused mainly on the depth of each artist’s music, lyricism, as well as how much they shaped the musical and cultural scene of the decade. 

The 90s

3. The Notorious B.I.G

Putting Biggie in third was a hard choice since him and Tupac were more or less the face of the nineties. His iconic career came to an end when he was murdered shortly after Tupac was, in an act of violence not unusual to what he conveyed so authentically in his music. Biggie’s lyrics are intensely real, and shows how intertwined the hip hop lifestyle was to its music. His successful debut album, Ready to Die, was followed by the release of his already made second album shortly after he passed away– chillingly titled Life After Death.

2. Nas

Nas’s cultural influence, his Illmatic album, and role as inspiration for future artists including both Cole and Kendrick are what validates his spot. Illmatic’s success as a debut album quickly pushed him to the front of the New York hip hop scene, where he was confident he belonged and stayed for a very long time. 

1. Tupac

On the topic of disses, Tupac has one of the best diss tracks of all time- “Hit ‘Em Up,” though Nas’s “Ether” against Jay-Z isn’t too far behind. “Hit ‘Em Up” is aimed toward Biggie and other East coast rappers and was the ultimate response to their rivalry. Biggie and his relationship soured when Tupac was shot in ‘94 in what he thought to be a set up by Biggie. “Hit ‘Em Up” was released only a few months before Tupac’s death in a drive-by shooting. Tupac’s legacy has carried on with the release of multiple hits posthumously, which shows just how committed he was to producing music while alive. I would say his lyricism is lacking in comparison to Nas, but at the end of the day Tupac IS nineties hip hop, though all three are at the very top of the genre.

Honorable mentions: MF DOOM (my personal favorite), A Tribe Called Quest (my second favorite)

The 2000s

3. Lil Wayne

Making his debut at just 12 years old, and going platinum at 17 with the Hot Boys, Wayne’s evolution through his career in terms of style and skill is really special. I considered putting 50 Cent here to play more into the collective “big three” vibe, as he worked closely with Eminem, but Wayne’s pure talent pushes him to the top. Fun fact: I listen to “6 Foot 7 Foot” literally every time I shower.

2. Eminem

Eminem was the first hip hop artist I listened to in my music-purchased-on-iTunes childhood, and he absolutely dominated the early 2000s with The Eminem Show. Inspired by Dr. Dre, his physical skill as a rapper helps deliver his lyrics in such a powerful way. He is also one of the most commercially successful artists of all time. 

1. Kanye

While Kanye may have peaked in success and popularity (and sanity) in the early 2010s, especially with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his depth in the 2000s, especially the latter half, warrants him the number one spot in this decade– and maybe top three of all time??? I feel like I don’t have to go too in depth on why his music is so great, but the range of pace, themes, and overall style between each of his albums is what I think makes him mainly stand out. The popularity of so many of his songs through today and I’m sure for years to come is something worth recognizing as well.

The 2010s

3. Drake

I don’t love Drake- only partly- but you can’t argue his success and popularity and that it is deserved. His music doesn’t fit in the hip hop category nearly as much as Cole’s and Kendrick’s, but it is also what works for him as more of a pop-rap artist. Drake misses a lot of the authenticity that naturally carries the other two in their lyrics and the stories they tell with their music.  

2. J. Cole

Cole has found a special way to convey so much emotion in the stories he tells with his music. From creating a song so nostalgic and real with “Wet Dreamz” to reaching the depth of a father’s relationship with his daughter in “4 Your Eyez Only,” he has an ability to capture beauty and feelings that many of us have experienced in one way or another. 

1. Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick is simply my favorite, and I think he has a right to declare that it is just him at the top. “Sing About Me I’m Dying of Thirst,” is twelve minutes of pure art and story (listen to it with “Keisha’s Song”), as of course is the rest of good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly plus so so much more of his work. He’s also the only non-classical or jazz artist to receive a Pulitzer Prize—  for his 2017 album DAMN. I believe he without a doubt deserves a top three spot of all time. And not three. Or two.

While Jay-Z didn’t exactly fit into one ranking, I think it is also important to realize his greatness across multiple decades of hip hop. As for the “big three” of this decade as a whole, we’ll have to wait and see, but I think that JID is promising with The Forever Story and a few strong features. Overall, I’m glad Kendrick put out his verse on “Like That.” Though it can be taken too far, as evidenced by Tupac and Biggie, healthy (and unhealthy) rivalry inspires better music and at the end of the day is a defining aspect of hip hop culture. Finally… if you disagree with my rankings message me! I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂

Lily Egenrieder is a second year from Sterling, VA. Despite having none herself, she appreciates a wide variety of music- ranging from rock to rap to indie and even a bit of country!

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