Recently, Billboard published a top ten greatest rappers ever list. Naturally, this sparked an uproar on the internet among hip-hop fans, critics, journalists, and actual rappers, who got upset at blatant omissions, problematic ranking, and some questionable entries. Honestly, I don’t think it was that bad, as for an objective list it did its job pretty well. (Although the Lil Wayne and Lauryn Hill placements were particularly eye-brow raising.) But that’s neither here nor there; the main point is that this list got the classic discussion rolling again: who are the greatest rappers of all time? I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I’ve compiled a list of my own. Keep in mind that this is a (mostly) objective list, and that this is about rapping ability, not overall artistry. The usual criteria is in effect here, including but not limited to: influence, technical ability, and lyrical content. Let’s begin.
His music can be about the people, the corners, love, hip-hop, anything, but it’s all truth. Common is a voice we’ve been willing to lend our ears to for twenty years now not because he’s a domineering mic presence, but because he’s one of hip-hop’s most thought-provoking lyricists. Com’s bars are poetic and metaphorical yet immediately affecting and straight-forward, and they’re vivid accounts of street-stories, spirituality, positivity, love, liberty, and whatever else crosses his mind. He deals with big, abstract subjects but makes them so relatable, emotional, and again, thought-provoking while other “conscious” rappers were barely scratching the surface of those realms. There’s a reason everybody wanted to write their own “I Used to Love H.E.R.” after Com dropped it in ’94: it was just poetically and intellectually a step ahead of basically all of his competition. Yet, Common has never come off as pretentious or as a know-it-all, even if his lyrics do display such next-level thought. All of that aside though, Com can flat out rap. He can string together immensely impressive rhyme schemes and spit a perfectly rhythmic flow, with always the right amount of bite and chill, to go along with his incredible lyricism. The rare rapper who makes us hang on to every word.
#9. Big L
Quite the change of pace from the largely mellow and positive Common, Big L is all bite. He’s angry, violent, viscous, dark, and is the single last person to fuck with. Admittedly, his subject matter wasn’t ground-breaking: guns, the streets, violence, women, the desire for wealth, etc., but his style and skill level absolutely were. He was arguably the first punch-line rapper, where pretty much every line and bar was set up for a resolution, or punch-line, which lead to not many story-telling songs, but individual lines that were just fucking crazy. (“I jumped out the Lincoln, left him stinkin/put his brains in the street/now you could see what he was just thinkin.”) He also possessed one of the greatest flows and mic presences ever. L was never off-time and he never stumbled over his words even though his flow tended to be more fast paced than most of his ’95 boom-bap contemporaries, and his voice, high pitched and deceptively non-threatening, was instantly recognizable. A freak on the mic.
Hip-Hop has really changed since Rakim and Eric B burst onto the scene in 1987 with “Paid in Full”. It’s evolved in many areas (and devolved in some) artistically, conceptually, lyrically, musically, and production wise. In fact, in hip-hop’s relatively young musical life, it has evolved the most rapidly out of any musical genre. Plenty of indie bands are still aping The Smiths and countless saxophonists want to be Coltrane, but nobody is releasing hip-hop that sounds like it comes from the 80’s. Just listen to Eric B & Rakim’s landmark debut, and then listen to how NWA changed everything just a year later, and then how Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg changed everything four years after that, and then how The Wu-Tang Clan changed everything one year after that, and then how Nas changed it all one year after that. And then arrive in 2010, where Kanye West drops the musical atomic bomb of the 21st Century, and then peep the stroke of genius Kendrick Lamar put together this year. And then fill in all of the game-changing gaps between all of that. Point is, we’ve really developed hip-hop past the simple beats and simple lyrics of “Paid in Full” and “Follow the Leader”. So, you might ask, why is Rakim on this list if there are admittedly more lyrically detailed and skilled rappers? Because those rappers wouldn’t be here if Rakim hadn’t came along. We wouldn’t have “Illmatic”, “Straight Outta Compton”, “Liquid Swords”, and all of the other classics without this man. Rakim changed MC’ing into a more expressive art form with his mind-blowing internal and multi-syllabic rhymes and his laid back, cool, confident demeanor. Just like there is no Sonic Youth, The Strokes, Sex Pistols, R.E.M., Death Cab for Cutie, etc. without The Velvet Underground, there is no Jay-Z, Nas, Big Pun, 2Pac, MF DOOM, etc. without Rakim. There is hip-hop pre-Rakim, and then hip-hop post-Rakim, and they’re remarkably different beasts. His lyrical style may sound a little out-dated today, but his rhyme schemes and flawless flow are still awe-inspiring in 2015. He is simply the godfather of hip-hop as we know and love it. One of the most influential musicians ever, period.
#7. Kool G Rap
Breathless, intricate flow, next-level rhyme schemes, vivid and detailed storytelling, and an unmistakable voice: G Rap in his prime had it all. From his more old-school collaborations with DJ Polo, culminating in the fantastic “Live and Let Die,” to his later solo works, G was always a next-level lyricist. By the time ’98 hit and he released “Roots of Evil,” lyrical inspiration was flowing uncontrollably from every pore and he pretty much gave up on constructing songs; instead, G just chose to spit one long, detail orientated verse after another telling stories of crime, violence, wealth, and luxury, all from a mafia standpoint. On songs like “A Thug’s Love Story” G crafts movies in your head, and though the focus is on the lyrics, his rhyme schemes and flow rival the Big Puns of the world. There’s a reason legends like Raekwon, Jay-Z, and Nas are so clearly influenced by him: G could just rap circles around everybody.
There’s a weird stigma about 2Pac. Everybody and their grandmother will tell you how great he was, but when it comes time for more technical and skill based lists like this, 2Pac is sometimes left out. Billboard omitted him, citing his great songwriting but non-dominant bars, which makes literally no sense, and generally it is accepted that Pac was a great artist, but wasn’t a great rapper and lyricist. Well, hate to break it to you, but 2Pac was a fucking great rapper. True, his counterpart, The Notorious B.I.G., was the better lyricist, but Pac more than holds his own on the mic. His influence goes without saying, as he is possibly the most iconic musician of all time, his voice was unmistakable, his flow was always on point, and his lyricism was stunning, and versatile. On one song he could be repping his famous “Thug Life” motto, and on another he could be asking for peace. We have “So Many Tears” and “Dear Mama” but also “Ambitionz Az a Ridah” because he was convincing in whatever he wanted to portray, whether socially conscious or hardcore. Nothing new can really be said about him anymore. A legend.
Jay-Z is the embodiment of the American Dream. He came from nothing, turned to selling drugs, and then made himself into possibly the world’s most ubiquitous entertainer off of rap. But for all of his ubiquity and celebrity, people sometimes forget just how deadly Jay was on the mic in his prime. A vivid storyteller, a witty and clever wordsmith, and the most infectiously confident man to ever hold a mic. Just take a look at his résumé: multiple classic albums (“Reasonable Doubt,” “The Blueprint,” and “The Black Album”), taking Kanye West under his wing, starting up Rocafella Records, and writing some of the most iconic songs and lines in rap history. (“I’ve seen hoop dreams deflate like a true fiend’s weight.”) Like 2Pac, not much more can be said about Jay; he’s an icon known and loved across genres and cultures, possessing as much talent as he does influence.
#4. The Notorious B.I.G.
The blueprint for all street-rap. Biggie is the standard that all major rappers are held to. You’re expected to have a commanding flow, clever wordplay, hardcore tracks, more meaningful tracks, memorable hooks, songs for the ladies, and stories, and if you don’t meet those standards, people will criticize you. Big created all of that. In many ways, he’s the rapper. But take all of his immense importance out of the equation and he’s still an awe-inspiring MC. His husky voice instantly stands out, as does his original flow that is often imitated but never equaled. His lyricism is nearly unmatched, whether he’s giving you a detailed story or just spitting some of the most convincing brags there has ever been. A figure whose shadow will continue to be cast over hip-hop for as long as people pick up microphones.
#3. Ghostface Killah
When the Ghost raps, you listen. With his frantic, rushed flow, unfailingly interesting lyricism, and loud, hyped up delivery, Starks is the most commanding mic presence there has ever been. Like the rest of his Clan members, he’s not overly technical; he’s more focused on immersive lyrics and personality, but that’s one of the reasons he’s so great. His presence is undeniable and unmistakable, and his lyrics, whether completely coded and surreal, or detailed stories, never disappoint. There’s no fluff to Ghostface, if you will; he’s not pulling out any technicalities to distract from his wholly original delivery and poetry. What’s also great is that while most of his contemporaries have passed away or aren’t still putting worthwhile music, Ghost is still putting solid projects even though he’s over 20 years into his career. He’s not as good as he was in his prime, but then again, nearly nobody was as good as Ghost in his prime.
Like Jay-Z, Nas has went through rough patches in his career, with fans arguing that he “sold out” after making his name with gritty street level hip-hop. (Although he has since regained fan favor with 2001’s “Stillmatic.”) However, all of the bumps and rises and falls of Nas’s career are cast aside when you consider the fact that he created hip-hop’s, and possibly all of music’s, greatest work: “Illmatic.” Now, the production on that album is fantastic, but the fact that it is the hip-hop album is due to one man. On “Illmatic” Nas gives the greatest album-length rapping performance there has ever been, showing off an impeccable flow, perfect breath control, and genre defining lyricism. Prior to ’94 when Nas dropped this album, rappers were still imitating the comparatively rudimentary rhymes and flows of Rakim and Ice Cube. In ’93 the Wu began to take things higher, but Nas came out of the gate (at just 19 years old) as clearly the best rapper and lyricist around and made the rest of the rap game follow suit. His flows were more intricate and involving and his rhymes were more packed and complex than any of his contemporaries. However, for all of his unprecedented technical excellence, the lyricism is still the draw here. Nas paints pictures of dark streets, crime, drug dealing, and despair, however, for all of “Illmatic”‘s lyrical bleakness, Nas offers glimmers of hope, and that is what makes it stand so tall over the rest of the genre. On the third verse of “One Love,” the single greatest verse in hip-hop history, Nas tells the story of a twelve year old child who has already turned to drugs and crime, a sad picture, but ends the verse by offering up inspiration for the child. (“Try to rise up above, keep an eye out for Jakes Shorty Wop one love.”) “The World is Yours” still features lyrics about black clouds and ghetto poverty, but the song represents a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dark situation. An inspiration.
#1. Andre 3000
3 Stacks doesn’t have solo work like the other rappers on this list do, as all of his output is as one-half of Outkast, but that doesn’t matter. Andre’s rapping on those classic Outkast albums represents some sort of peak for the art form. So many of his verses, on songs like “Synthesizer,” “Aquemini,” “The Return of the ‘G’,” “Gasoline Dreams,” and especially “B.O.B.” and “Da Art of Storytellin’ Pt. 1,” are high up among the greatest ever written. He was capable of throwing out more lyrical gems in one 45 second verse than most rappers can do for a whole album. His verses on “B.O.B.” and “Synthesizer” are wide-reaching summations of a fast-moving modern world that still ring completely true today, over 15 years later. In fact, all of his rhymes will remain unscathed by time because he’s not tied to any era or anything any rapper has done before. He certainly has an influence (one listen to Kendrick Lamar and the shades of 3000 are instantly apparent), but his poetic lyrics touched on issues and explored themes rap had never gone before, and most likely will never go again. It’s a bit hard to explain why I placed him here as he simply has to be experienced. His mic skills go without saying; his flow could be really speedy but always perfectly on time and never sacrificial of meaningful lyricism, his rhyme schemes could be complex but never distracting, and his delivery was totally unique, with his quirky and high-pitched voice that always perfectly represented the sentiment of his lyrics. But it’s his poetry, that brings on comparisons of a rap-game Bob Dylan (at least for me), that pushes him over the edge. An explosion of otherness.