Welcome to part two of my top 20 rappers list. Last week in part one, I covered slots 11 to 20. You can check it out here in case you missed it. I’m going to be covering slots 1 through 10 this week, if it wasn’t already obvious. Sorry in advance.
Favorite album: The Fix
Favorite song: “It’s Not A Game”
Scarface has my favorite voice in hip hop. Aside from it being exquisitely deep, it conveys layers and layers of pain and frustration in a way not many others in hip hop do. The soul that Face puts behind his voice is almost overwhelming at times. Face’s music (both solo and as part of the Geto Boys) was quite different from what most rappers were doing at the time. While tons of rappers went around trying to make you believe that they were crazy because they killed people, Face was dealing with psychosis and bipolar disorder, successfully convincing the listener that he was indeed unwell. Not to mention, he is one of the most consistent rappers as far as his albums go. Album to album (as far as his actual LPs go, not the My Homies projects) he doesn’t have any that are really glaringly bad. His solo career spans over 25 years, so to be an artist with that sort of longevity where more often than not a listener already knows any album that comes out is going to be good is a hell of an achievement.
9. Sean Price
Favorite album: Mic Tyson
Favorite song: “Jail Shit” (featuring Rock)
I don’t really know what I can say about P that hasn’t been said in excess in the last 2 years. I got into him through Random Axe, as I was (and still am, of course) really into Black Milk. Immediately Sean stood out to me, which is already an impressive feat, given the fact that he was rapping next to Guilty Simpson. It took me until the summer months of 2015 immediately preceeding his death to actually get out of my rut and listen to his solo discography and the first Heltah Skeltah album.
Sean was a skilled rhymer but he wasn’t a “rappity rapper” and never once pretended to be. He relied on the content of what he was saying, and how he said it. Everything that Sean said sounded tough, especially as he aged and his voice got rougher. He had a vibrant sense of humor, but he always kept his lyrics grounded by being able to sound threatening when saying something hilarious. This skill really developed when he started his solo career. As Ruck he would often have standout verses but when he started rapping under his government name, it was like he became himself to the fullest, and it created something special. He saved Duck Down nearly single handedly, and once you listen to Monkey Barz there is no confusion as to how he did it.
8. Ice Cube
Favorite album: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted
Favorite song: “Hello” (featuring MC Ren & Dr. Dre)
I really wanted to start this off with a very dated “Are We There Yet” joke but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Anyways, Cube is arguably the most essential “political” rapper. While what he rapped about wasn’t strictly about politics, he included a ton of social commentary in his music that brought to light the struggles of living in Compton. He spoke about street life in an incredibly descriptively. Not in a typical story-telling way, mind you. It was more in how he said what he was saying. His delivery was aggressive and he generally wrote from a point of view perspective, so his stories were more like his inner thoughts during his experiences rather than him just recounting what he’s been through. It was a revolutionary style, as (to my knowledge) most storytelling in hip hop was based on rappers speaking on past experiences rather than acting out events as though they were currently happening. Cube was also one of the first ultra-aggressive rappers that I can think of. He took the aggression displayed by acts like Public Enemy and elevated it to a whole new level, often shouting at the top of his lungs. He channeled passion and anger into his music like no one before him, being a clear influence on other passionate rappers such as 2Pac, Eminem, and Killer Mike.
Favorite album: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…
Favorite song: “Criminology” (featuring Ghostface Killah)
Raekwon arguably has the greatest solo debut album in all of hip hop history. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is a beautifully done concept album. It established himself as one of the greatest storytellers to grace hip hop, which is something that has not changed in the entirety of his career. He is with a raspy delivery that makes him sound like a grizzled vet telling stories of his war days, and the ability to make anything sound dramatic via hyperbolic analogy and unheard-of slang. In addition, with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, he managed to do what no other rapper has been able to do by
getting good post-Wu-Tang Forever RZA beats pulling off the “sequel to a classic” that so many try but ultimately come up short on.
While he has struggled with a few of his non-Cuban Linx albums, albums such as Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang and The Wild, have managed to be very enjoyable releases. The thing about Rae is that his skills have never shown any sign of declining. While some of his albums have been underwhelming, his rapping has never been the weak point of any project he’s been involved in. To this day he is perhaps the only person who can say some of the ridiculous stuff he says and have it sound carelessly, luxuriously cool.
Favorite album: Don’t Sweat The Technique (with Eric B.)
Favorite song: “When I B On The Mic”
There is not a single rapper in this day and age who doesn’t have Rakim in his or her DNA. His influence on hip hop very often taken for granted these days. I don’t think most in my generation even give it a second though. However, if anybody cares about hip hop in the slightest, they need to always keep in mind: Rakim completely changed the writing style in hip hop. Before Rakim, rap music was NOT the writing-driven genre that it is now. He broke past the simplistic rhythms and rhymes, and brought the concept of the multi-syllabic rhyme, complex vocabulary, and laid-back delivery (used to put the main focus on listening to words rather than vibing to the mood) to the table.
There’s really not much else for me to say. Aside from the originators, Rakim is hands-down the most important figure in hip hop for his essentially ubiquitous influence on the genre.
5. Black Thought
Favorite album: How I Got Over (by The Roots)
Favorite song: “When The People Cheer”
Black Thought is one of maybe 3 rappers I can think of who have gotten consistently better with each passing year of their career without exception. There’s really not much more that I can say past that, either. He started out as a good emcee, but nothing really special, and matured like scotch in a barrel for the next decade and a half until he became someone whose verses were jaw-dropping. His delivery got more powerful as his voice changed with age, his flow got more impressive, his pen got sharper…he took his time and became something special. He had room to grow and he took full advantage of it, then burst past it. And this is a smooth curve upwards. There has been no discrepancies whatsoever. He’s become the rapper where it’s almost annoying how you already know he’s going to steal the show on a song with someone else and it won’t even be a contest. It’s awesome.
4. Pharoahe Monch
Favorite album: Desire
Favorite song: “Agent Orange”
As half of Organized Konfusion, Pharoahe Monch was vastly ahead of his time. He was using flows that I don’t think anybody else at the time had even conceived. To this day, they sound fresh, and some of them actually still sound ahead of our time now. He broke his flow up, fell into non-traditional pockets, rhymed like a maniac, and told very creative stories alongside Prince Po, such as speaking from the point of view about a fetus that is about to be aborted on “Invetro” and of course, speaking as a bullet on “Stray Bullet” (the beginning of the trilogy that would also include “When The Gun Draws” and “Damage”, both solo Pharoahe songs). As a solo artist he unfortunately suffered from Rawkus’ complete inability to function as a label with even C-grade management, with uncleared samples in “Simon Says” halting the production of Internal Affairs (making it a very expensive album to buy these days, one that will probably be my most treasured CD when I can afford to buy it). He has since recovered, however, and has released several great projects since then. He continues his own personal innovation, both conceptually and musically. To my recollection he’s looking to start a band. If it ends up happening, I’m very interested to see where he goes next.
Favorite album: Dare Iz A Darkside
Favorite song: “Noorotic”
Redman is potentially the most charismatic emcee that I have ever heard. Since his appearance on the Hit Squad song “Headbanger,” Red has had an infectious delivery, off-kilter flow, and ridiculously funny lyrical style that immediately made him stand out. His flow, along with that of fellow Hit Squad members Das EFX, seemed to signal the end of the stereotypical simple ‘80s flow and rigid delivery, as he played with different patterns and sounded much looser, yet more dynamic. He threw one-liners out like they were nothing, and spent no time on letting them sit before moving on to the next one to keep the listener engaged and entertained the entire time one of his songs was being played. Being that he was a student of EPMD, he has always had a funky sound to his music. Whut? Thee Album is quite possibly the funkiest east coast album ever made; it sounded almost like the east’s response to the growing popularity of g-funk in the west, done with a rougher edge that tends to come with the east sound.
Red’s charisma has allowed him to do what lots of other boom bap-heavy rappers from the early ‘90s hasn’t been able to, and he has made his sound still feel fresh, even while doing very little to change his overall vibe; Due to his utterly buoyant personality, he can make beats that could be classified as dated sound current, and these days he’s begun to feel like that stoner uncle who relentlessly cracks jokes every time you see him..
2. Ghostface Killah
Favorite album: Supreme Clientele
Favorite song: “Mighty Healthy”
Album for album, Ghostface Killah is the most consistent rapper of all time. Out of 12 albums, he’s released only one that I didn’t feel a majority of tracks on, that being Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry.
Since the beginning of his career, Ghost has had a way with words that nobody else from Wu-Tang Clan has, besides maybe Raekwon. The way Ghost writes, it’s almost like he can’t help himself but tell stories and paint pictures. It’s almost like his default, which is something I don’t think I can say for any other rapper. He’s absurdly descriptive, and the dynamic nature of his delivery just adds to it. His delivery is just so powerful; it’s part of what separated him from the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan. It’s a lot more soulful than that of any of the other members, and it allows him to express vulnerability and passion just as easily as it does anger and toughness like the rest of the group. This ability serves to further engage the listener in the stories that he tells by making it more relatable and playing our sympathies, as well as exhibit a huge amount of diversity in his music.
The way his artistry has matured is very commendable too. He has matured far better than how most other rappers do, because he’s allowed his style to grow more thoughtful the same way a person should as they age. His albums since Twelve Reasons To Die have all displayed an evolution into a more cinematic style, done as though the producers aren’t just producing albums, but rather scoring movies, and he’s reciting scripts rather than lyrics. While they may not match his classics Ironman, Supreme Clientele, and Fishscale, it is the perfect direction for him to go in.
Favorite album: The Marshall Mathers LP
Favorite song: “The Way I Am”
Everyone knows Em. There’s no need to go in depth. In his prime he was the sharpest, wittiest rapper I have ever heard. I don’t think another rapper has ever had a run like he did from 1999-2002. Since returning from a mid-to-late ‘00s slump due to opiate abuse, he managed to once again make good albums like Recovery, Hell: The Sequel with Royce, and The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (which does not deserve its title, no matter how much I love the music). There is absolutely no telling where he’s going next, which is both exciting and terrifying.
And that’s that. You probably could have guessed most of those, based off what I’ve written in the past, but now my top 20 list is official…at least for the next couple of days before it changes, like it did even during the process of writing these pieces.