In an area perennially known for underground rappers, inner-city griots, and ghetto savants representing a wide stylistic range, there's as much competition for this designation as there are grains of sand on the beach. Nevertheless, the criteria can be boiled down to a few simple areas of excellence: flow and lyrical content. It helps MCs when they have something to say and are able to say it in an arresting manner. Originality is important, too. Here in the E-Bay, not all rap artists sound alike, which isn't necessarily the case elsewhere. Personality is a must, both on record and onstage. To be among the best, you have to be able to rip it on wax and rip it even harder live, all the while displaying an appealing lyrical persona. Longevity is also a factor: Artists' body of work and the dues they've paid reflect their ties to the community and to the scene. A short list of contestants who excel at all the above might include Balance, Deuce Eclipse, Prozack Turner, Keak da Sneak, Mistah F.A.B., EyeCue, the Gift of Gab, and Jahi, but this year, the title goes to Azeem. Oakland's metaphysical poet laureate has earned the stripes on his Adidas Superstars several times over in the last decade, and fattened his laces in 2004 with Mayhem Mystics
, his devastatingly funky CD with Variable Unit -- the first of three albums on which he'll be appearing this year. He's also witty, and a complete terror live, as he proved recently at a West Oakland warehouse party, aptly called "Otherworld."