The best rappers on the mic have never shied away from announcing their greatness. More than ever, G.O.A.T. status is being claimed by legends and newcomers alike.
Words: Luke Fox
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands in October 2021.
“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”—Muhammad Ali
Proclaiming to be the greatest of all time comes with a price. When multiplatinum-selling Chicago rapper Polo G copped a chain of sparkling goat heads last summer, his fans thought he sold his soul to the devil. The “Sabbatic goat” style of the blinged-out custom necklace from Icebox Diamonds and Watches harkened back to Baphomet, the goat-headed deity allegedly worshipped by the Knights of Templar. However, Polo wasn’t on the occult tip. He was simply channeling the same energy and imagery so many greats—and aspiring greats—have been doing with increasing frequency. Only to him, the goat, which his fans will find in emojis throughout the rapper’s social media accounts, serves a bit of a different purpose.
“When I named my  album The Goat, it wasn’t like to really deem myself as the greatest of all time ’cause I got too much respect for all the people before me,” Polo G explains in his The Goat documentary. “It was just really a play on my zodiac sign. Muhammad Ali, Capricorn. LeBron James a Capricorn. Denzel Washington, Capricorn. Tiger Woods a Capricorn. All of these people was great at what they did. Goat is the Capricorn zodiac sign.”
Before he was considered the “Greatest of All Time,” Muhammad Ali carried himself that way. A 7-to-1 underdog against heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston when the two combatants squared up one night in Miami on Feb. 25, 1964, the Nation of Islam convert stunned the champ and the world.
As the terrifying Liston tumbled in a six-round technical knockout, a triumphant Ali proclaimed, “I am the greatest! I am the greatest! I’m the king of the world.”
The new champion’s boast would not only become synonymous with the man himself, but later a trademark and, eventually, the confident blueprint for a widely spread acronym that transcends sport, dominates hip-hop and seeps into the daily social media discourse.
Muhammad Ali may have died the G.O.A.T.—Greatest of All Time—but he birthed an enduring term and the echoes of his supreme confidence reverberate today.
Lonnie Ali incorporated G.O.A.T. LLC in 1992, as the umbrella company for her husband’s commercially licensed intellectual properties and has since been used as a title for multiple Ali tributes. In 2006, Ali sold 80 percent of the interest of G.O.A.T. LLC, the controlling branch of his name and likeness, for $50 million in cash to CKX, the same firm that owns the rights to Elvis Presley’s image.
By 2018, G.O.A.T. had run so wild in popular culture that the editors at Merriam-Webster were compelled to include the four-letter word in the dictionary, just below goat.
The oldest quotation of the word, according to Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski in a 2018 Boston.com interview, was spotted in an Orlando Magic forum from 1996 in reference to all-star guard Penny Hardaway: “Penny is the GOAT (Greatest of All Time).”
G.O.A.T.’s current status would not have been possible were it not for LL Cool J shamelessly titling his 2000 album, G. O. A. T. Featuring James T. Smith: The Greatest Of All Time, and stirring another heated round of top 10 rappers debates. Fittingly enough, G.O.A.T. would hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. In promoting his crown-claiming project, the multiplatinum MC would give credit to Ali for coining the term as well as inspiring his 1990 boxing-themed smash “Mama Said Knock You Out.”
“Well, it’s better than saying, ‘LL Cool J: the pretty good rapper.’ I don’t think it’s arrogant,” LL Cool J told Pound magazine in 2000. “From the school of hip-hop I come from, it’s about being the best and saying you’re the best. So, why not say it? What should I do? Wait for someone else to say it? If I were to die tomorrow, they would say it. So, why not say it while I’m alive? If I died tomorrow, all of a sudden it would be ‘the unmatched longevity; the women; with the battling, incredible’—and they’d be calling me the greatest.”
Little did LL know, two decades after G.O.A.T., everyone and their goat would be using the phrase. In this hyperbolic age, folks will proclaim their six-inch tuna sandwich or the latest episode of Succession as the G.O.A.T. In hip-hop and sports, particularly, goats graze everywhere you look.
Gearing up for her participation in the Olympic Games in Tokyo earlier this year, superstar gymnast Simone Biles was spotted with goat heads bedazzled on her leotards with sandals to match. Best dressed. Biles wears the goat with pride, hoping kids will look up to her and realize it’s perfectly OK to acknowledge that you’re great at something.
No culture wields the power to fuel American vocabulary like hip-hop, and the rap game is obsessed with G.O.A.T. status. Whenever a new argument is had over the best MC to clutch a mic, the bickering and case-building ensues.
“Man, as of right now, I can’t say who’s No. 1, but it’s between Lil Wayne, Nas and Biggie Smalls,” self-proclaimed G.O.A.T. Juicy J says of the label. “Biggie Smalls was a cold-wreckin’ muthafucker, man, I mean, you gotta admit. Every time the man open his mouth, every word makes sense. There wasn’t like one bar, like, ‘What’d he say?’ That shit was like crystal, crystal clear. That voice was touched by God, man. Look, André 3000 is dope, too. There’s so many, man.”
“You got your list, that’s your personal opinion,” he adds. “It’s crazy how the rap game, when they make a list, everybody gets touchy-feely. ‘Oh man. I ain’t make the list! I ain’t No. 2!’ You know, they argue with they numbers.”
Building hype for his Folarin 2 album, Wale felt it necessary to throw his own name in the G.O.A.T. conversation in June. “I understand you may feel how you feel for whatever [somebody] told you,” Wale tweeted, “but I just wanna reiterate that I’m one of the greatest of all time. Catalog. Consistency. Influence. Longevity…”
The Game dubs himself “The Goat” as the name on his Twitter account while Nas simply uses a black-and-white photo of Muhammad Ali as his avatar. The four-legged goat emoji pops up in the social media feeds of fans as their favorite rappers use it with regularity.
As for the word, Polo G is merely one of countless contemporary artists to incorporate it in an album or song title. G.O.A.T. Talk could refer to Boosie BadAzz’s album trilogy, T-Pain’s 2019 song featuring Lil Wayne or Hotboii and Polo G’s 2020 collab, which led to a sequel, “Goat Talk 2.” Lil Tjay recorded a song called “Goat.” So did Eminem, although it was a leak. E-40 has one, too.
And literal goat imagery—silly as it may seem—has been used on many an album cover. The see-it-to-believe-it cover of Kevo Muney’s 2019 mixtape Baby G.O.A.T. depicts the rapper being painfully birthed by a mother goat while the daddy goat holds her shoulders for support. Then there’s Polo G’s braids twisted into goat horns for his The Goat art.
For Rylo Rodriguez’s 2020 G.I.H.F. (Goat in Human Form) cover, his own image reflects a goat head in the mirror. But Atlanta’s Lil Gotit claims he jumped on the idea first for his 2019 mixtape, The Real Goat, the cover of which depicts his own shadow as the outline of the farm animal.
“My inner me is a goat," Lil Gotit, 22, affirms of the trend. “That’s why it’s a shadow. I came up with the concept before Rylo—he got the goat in the mirror. If you look at my cover, I did it way before him. The goat shadow shit, nobody was doing it.”
The Atlanta rapper, who dropped his Top Chef Gotit album in June and is currently working on a new one, explains how the title of his 2019 tape is a foreshadowing of what’s to come. “I’m really G.O.A.T.-ed. When I blow-blow, it’s gonna show why I dropped The Real Goat. All my albums gonna lead up to the one big album. There’s a point, they like, ‘He G.O.A.T.-ed.’ I’m doing stuff nobody else ain’t did. I was doin’ shit nobody else wasn’t doin’.”
Quality Control Music artist Lakeyah can say the same thing. In blood red and all caps, her name is spray-painted on the side of a live goat in the video for her breakout single, “Female Goat.” Speaking over the phone from L.A., where she’s recording her new project, Lakeyah chuckles at the concept.
“I definitely said I wanted a goat in the video,” recalls the Milwaukee-raised rhymer. “My name being on the goat, I didn’t say that. Keemotion came up with the treatment, and I feel like the whole concept is fire.” Her fans actually gave her the G.O.A.T. moniker. “‘Female Goat’ really came from my fans in my city. Like, everybody just started calling me female goat because I dropped a remix to somebody’s song, and it was called ‘Goat.’ They was like, ‘Damn, she the female goat,’ and I kind of just ran with it. And now, I’m just living up the name because I’m better than all the rappers.”
Lakeyah’s catalog is only a fraction of LL’s when he claimed G.O.A.T. status. Coming up, she looked at Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé as the women who are G.O.A.T.s. Now, she’s striving to be in that class. So, she’ll create posts with goat emojis, custom order an iced-out female goat chain and splash the goat icon on her Crocs. Speak about it, be about it.
“Self-proclamation, for sure,” Lakeyah maintains. “You know, if you don’t believe it, nobody else will. And I’m just trying to turn the whole world into believers.” Her reasoning for adopting the phrase is in alignment with Muhammad Ali’s aspirational claims. “The greatest of all time. Just being up there with the best. Like, Nicki, Drake and Jay-Z, those types. I’m 20. So, I’m young right now, but I’ve got so many years to kill the game. I’m going to be one of the best.”
More seasoned acts truly believe they already are the best. With a resume three decades deep and an Oscar on the shelf, Juicy J believes he and his pioneering group Three 6 Mafia have already achieved G.O.A.T. prestige. On the 46-year-old’s latest album, The Hustle Still Continues, he claims, “Juicy J the G.O.A.T.” on “Load It Up” featuring NLE Choppa and asserts the same for his collective on the self-explanatory “Best Group.”
“As I was doing my thing, I just noticed people was coming up to me, and it was like, ‘You the G.O.A.T., man. Three 6 Mafia, dadadada…’” explains Juicy J. “Once I performed at the Grammys and won these awards and we’ve got a No. 1 record, then everybody’s considered me the G.O.A.T. I ran with it.”
“Man, Three 6 Mafia has been relevant forever, since we started,” Juicy J continues. “And we more relevant than ever now, because people are resampling our music, putting it in movies, it’s everywhere. Now, we do shows and 10,000 to 15,000 people show up. I mean like, man, like this is like, later on in our career, when we thinking like, Oh, it’s over. It’s not over. I clear like, two, three samples a day. It’s through the roof. It’s like James Brown back in the day. If you check back in like, the late ’80s, early ’90s, everybody was sampling James Brown. It was sickening. But that’s G.O.A.T. status, man. And that’s why Three 6 Mafia is the greatest of all time. Listen to all the flows. Lis- ten to the all the beats we made. Everybody beats, everybody flows sounds like Three 6 Mafia.”
Juicy sees the G.O.A.T. mantle as an honor and responsibility that supersedes the studio. The producer-rapper-entrepreneur likens him embracing the wave of artists who came after him, like Wiz Khalifa—for whom Juicy is producing an entire upcoming album—and Megan Thee Stallion, to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan’s ability to not only master their craft but spread knowledge and inspiration to their teammates and communities.
“LeBron James is another person; he bought a whole school for his community,” Juicy exclaims. “Now, don’t get me wrong: LeBron James is a cold-ass basketball player, but when I seen he bought that school for his community, I was like, man, that man is a G.O.A.T. He took that money, invested in his city to uplift people. That’s G.O.A.T status.”
If hip-hop and sports weren’t already competitive enough, the craving for social media clout is a driving force in the great G.O.A.T. race of 2021.The trick is striking a balance. There’s certainly nothing wrong with grand aspirations and striving to climb the peak of the mountain with a strong sense of self-belief. Muhammad Ali proved that long ago. At the same time, the famed boxer knew that the greatest among us lift others up along the ride.
“You should want to be a G.O.A.T.,” Juicy J expresses. “You should want to be the greatest of all time. There’s so much negativity. Just make it positive. Do your music. Make investments. Help out your neighborhood.”
Real G.O.A.T. talk.
Check out more from XXL magazine's Fall 2021 issue, on stands now, including our cover story with Tyler, The Creator, Lil Nas X's battle for respect in hip-hop, Wale talks about his new album, Folarin 2, find out more about Maxo Kream in Doin' Lines, Bia reflects on how far she's come in her career after "Whole Lotta Money" success, BMF actor Da'Vinchi talks rap music in Hip-Hop Junkie, Isaiah Rashad keeps it real about his faith, SoFaygo discusses signing to Travis Scott's Cactus Jack label, CupcakKe's fresh outlook on life with new album on the way, OhGeesy's new solo career and goals, Blueface embraces the good and bad of going viral, Vory is hip-hop's rarely seen, always heard new voice, President of Asylum Records Dallas Austin explains how to develop trust with artists, Baby Tate wants Black women to get all the respect, Denzel Curry shares his train of thought when creating his song "The Game," producer Turbo tells the stories behind working with Lil Baby and his producer tag and more.