I was thinking sometime in mid-January about how I didn’t yet have a top 10 rappers list, like most other hip hop bloggers do. Naturally, upon realizing this, I decided to make a list and got very carried away with it. I ended up with a top 20 list, and we decided to split up to make it easier to sit through. Here’s the first part of my top 20 list, where I’ll be covering slots 11 through 20.
Trigger warning: There will be rappers whose inclusion (or lack thereof) and placement may be deemed blasphemous by some. Viewer discretion advised.
20. Big Pun
Favorite album: Capital Punishment
Favorite song: “Fast Money”
In Pun’s short run, he was arguably the best lyricist doing it. He was pushing boundaries in rhyme that few had done by then. He was capable of making entire lines rhyme, and he seldom compromised content while doing so. His rhymes would come one after another nonstop; there are rappers a third of Big Pun’s size who don’t have nearly the breath control that he had. All of this isn’t to say that Pun was just an exceptional battle rapper making songs. He was full to the brim with charisma, which set him apart from many other rappers. His mic presence reminds me of a more energetic, livelier Biggie. His style on Capital Punishment would prove that he was as capable of making a horrorcore street tale or a smooth radio hit as he was making a typical lyrical song. By being able to do this, he managed the rare feat of making an album as long as 24 tracks that didn’t feel like it was too bloated, while still keeping a cohesive feel to it. His career was far too short and it would have been interesting to see him develop even more as an artist.
Favorite album: It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot
Favorite song: “Stop Being Greedy”
DMX prays a lot, and barks even more.
But in his early career, there was a hell of a lot of good material in between all of that. He somehow managed to release two arguable classic late-90s hardcore rap (borderline horrorcore) albums in the same year — during a time when Puffy was dancing around and stealing samples that would end up forcing him to pay an obscene amount in royalties — and have them each go multi-platinum. DMX’s music was completely raw and animalistic, which I think was part of the allure. He appealed to the side that most of us hide under our inhibitions; the side that contains the pure rage that most of us are forced to stuff down due to social norms and/or the risk of being put on Worldstar, as well as the wounds that we tend to cover up. Everything about his music was completely genuine. Unfortunately, it seemed like this ran dry by X’s fourth or fifth album, and well-documented drug and legal problems started to get in the way of X’s career. He hasn’t been able to fully recover since, however, that doesn’t diminish the brilliance of his first three albums.
18. Killer Mike
Favorite album: R.A.P. Music
Favorite song: “Reagan”
Mike is essentially the modern-day Ice Cube. His delivery, style of social commentary, and even artistic sound (at least on R.A.P. Music, produced by El-P) is reminiscent of those in Cube’s early career. However, Mike does actually go deeper into politics than Cube ever really did. Given his real-life experience working in elections since his youth, Mike has true insight into the political system that he so often tears to shreds, both in the booth and out. This sets a clear distinction between him and other political rappers, as many just tend to rap about conspiracy theories that they think their audiences want to hear about. Aside from just that, Mike actually knows how to make good music, again differentiating him from most other political rappers. He mixes wisdom with attitude and passion, and creates art that compels you to listen, as opposed to dull lectures over Snowgoons beats. His passion bleeds through his music, and creates one of the more powerful deliveries in hip hop currently. I do feel like he didn’t fully realize his potential until he met El-P, but once he did, he was finally able to take part in something special, both R.A.P. Music, and Run The Jewels (possibly my favorite duo).
17. Method Man
Favorite album: Tical
Favorite song: “The Purple Tape” (featuring Raekwon & Inspectah Deck)
Arguably the standout member of the Wu-Tang Clan on Enter The Wu-Tang, Method Man has had a very distinct mic presence from the beginning of his career. The duality of his delivery, where it’s chill and laid back yet at the same time menacingly raspy, has always been compelling to me. He can rap softly into the mic so he may seem relaxed but it’ll sound like he’s growling at you. That hazy, blunted-out growly style is the perfect complement to Redman’s ADHD. His style is best heard in a group setting where he can just sit back and steal the show on a song, however, as a solo artist, he has had difficulty being able to translate that into full albums. Tical was a classic, and while his other LPs are decent for the most part, they have not lived up to his potential. However, he has remained very consistent as an emcee, with no real declines in his skill to be noted. He can still handily take a track like it’s nothing.
16. Big L
Favorite album: Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous
Favorite song: “Danger Zone” (featuring Herb McGruff)
I don’t generally like the idea of listing rappers with such a small body of work on top artist lists, but I really couldn’t help myself with L (and Pun, for that matter). Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous is nuts. There’s really not any more to say about it. It’s one of my favorite albums. While there wasn’t much to it beyond just straight emceeing, his raw skill was at least a decade advanced. He sounded so effortless the way he slaughtered every verse and his punchlines were hilariously ruthless. If he was allowed to grow, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he would have been a LOT higher up on this list. Big L was the dictionary definition of emcee to the highest degree.
Favorite album: Restless
Favorite song: “Losin’ Your Mind” (featuring Snoop Dogg)
Xzibit is one of the first rappers I started listening to once I started listening to hip hop. From the first time I listened to him, I found myself drawn to his voice; since I was just starting out with hip hop, I had never heard a voice on a song as gritty and raspy as his. Xzibit was always one of the edgier west coast rappers that I’ve heard. It was almost like he was an east coast rapper who just happened to rap over
Mel-Man’s Dr. Dre’s style of production rather than boom bap. Xzibit very rarely spits a weak verse. He always comes with a raw power and conviction in his voice, and he’s got a great knack for hilariously aggressive one-liners. His choice of production tended to be a bit spotty; while he would end up with plenty of songs over killer beats, his albums would always have several songs that came up short with their production. Regardless of the fact that he never did that classic that he was very well capable of making, he is a great and far-too-underrated emcee.
Favorite album: I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
Favorite song: “The Full Retard”
Since this is just about rappers, I won’t talk too much about El’s production (at least not yet…*wink* [or not]). However, I will say that El’s diversity as a producer is directly reflected in his rapping. He is an immensely creative emcee. His lyrical style is such that a listener can hear what he says and take a different meaning from it than the next person who hears it. He keeps things open-ended and words his lyrics in very unique ways. The progression of his style from his days in Company Flow to the Def Jux days was interesting to see, as he went from someone who was very influenced by EPMD’s style of rapping (particularly Parrish) to someone who started ignoring conventional pockets and just rapped the way he wanted to. That style got too chaotic at times on Fantastic Damage (if there’s a pun there it wasn’t intended), but he refined it and perfected it by the time I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was released.
As El’s career progressed with Run The Jewels, his mic presence started to change. Perhaps it was a result of recording with Mike, who has the dynamic voice he has, but by their second album he had developed a tangible cockiness in his voice that makes it almost impossible to not enjoy any of his verses on their brag tracks, and it’s only becoming more prevalent.
Favorite album: Illmatic (shockingly)
Favorite song: “Represent”
There isn’t very much that needs to be said about Nas, honestly. He started his career out with what a great number of people would argue is the most legendary and essential hip hop album of all time. Even if he had released terribly weak albums like I Am… and Nastradamus for the rest of his career, that would still be enough for him to be comfortably placed in top 25 lists at the minimum. However, he has still released a handful of great albums aside from Illmatic, and to this day sounds hungry when he pops up on guest spots. His work speaks for itself.
12. Busta Rhymes
Favorite album: When Disaster Strikes
Favorite song: “So Hardcore”
From the start of his career, as early as “Scenario”, Busta Rhymes has been a legendary guest artist. It seems like every year he’s featured and throws everybody for a loop over how easily he makes taking over a track seem. He’s got an off-the-wall charisma and a delivery that can go from wacky, to smooth and carelessly confident, to as big and powerful as his gut arms at the drop of a dime. And that’s not even mentioning his wide variety of flows that never fail to catch listeners off guard. As an emcee there are not many who can out-rap Busta Rhymes.
Busta is one of the greatest rappers without a top-to-bottom classic to his name. For somebody who has a reputation for stealing the show every time he’s on someone else’s song effortlessly, he tends to be unable to translate that to full-length solo albums. They generally have a lot of great songs interspersed with dull, meandering songs, which leads to albums that are overlong and bogged down by filler. However, that’s not to say that all of his albums are bad; his first three in particular are fun listens and generally embody everything that people love about him. With a bit a tweaking, each of them had potential to be a classic album.
11. Kool G Rap
Favorite album: 4,5,6
Favorite song: “Blowin’ Up In The World”
I wasn’t alive during Kool G Rap’s prime, while he was recording with DJ Polo and even his first solo album, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was considered the best rapper ever at that point. He had studied the quintessential lyricists at the time like Rakim and Big Daddy Kane, and upgraded basically everything to become a whole new monster. The tricks he was pulling with his lyricism and his flows in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were so intricate that in 2017, the age of the underground rappity rapper overcompensating for mumble rap, I can feel more astounded by what he was doing than what is going on now in many cases. His gritty, soulful delivery is what sets him apart. He’s got a deep voice and it very much added to his presence, especially on the mafiaso rap he started delving into as a solo artist. His commanding presence made it incredibly easy to believe that crime lord character.
Speaking of his which, G Rap wasn’t just an innovator as far as flow went. He is essentially the originator of mafiaso rap. He was the one who opened the flood gates for rappers like Raekwon and Biggie to come and start telling the sort of crime stories that they told. I feel like, just because he has slowed down his output, he doesn’t get much of the credit that he deserves among people my age, which is ridiculous. Kool G Rap is in the styles of more rappers than you would think.
That’s it for now. Stay tuned for the rest of the list, coming in a week or so (depending on when Dustin decides the site could use another fluff piece out of me that contributes nothing to our growth).