I have put a lot of work into this list, with a thought-process that has spanned several years. I think that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but please realize that if you disagree with me that you are probably wrong.
The criteria for this list are as follows: rap ability (flow, originality, story-telling, lyrics); as well as their influence and importance to the history of Hip-Hop as a general culture.
My credentials: I am an overall music enthusiast and avid hip-hop head since I bought DMX’s …And Then There Was X in 1999 (of course, my parents made me get the edited version). Shout out to my highschool English teacher Adam Carpenter for opening my mind to the underground and old school, and to Hip-Hop as a societal movement.
Rappers often talk about “son’ing” styles and that other rappers imitate their music. This is no more true then with Rakim (of Eric B. and Rakim), and he is one hundred percent right. I couldn’t make this list without including one of the fathers of modern rap. Slick Rick, Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane could’ve been put in this spot, as well. They all deserve to be mentioned for no other reason the each one of the following musicians on this list will candidly claim that without the music of these founding fathers, they would likely not be where they are today, and hip hop would be incredibly different. I chose Rakim because his braggadocio lyrics were the basis for so many rappers that followed him. He had an ability to maneuver his words with precision and swagger over the turn tables of Eric B., producing a type of lyricism that is emulated by almost every modern rapper. A true pioneer.
See: I Ain’t No Joke; Don’t Sweat the Technique
9. Method man
Raw. That’s the best word to describe this Staten Island gangster. The most prominent member of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan has been in the industry since the early 90′s. His raspy, rugged voice is unmistakable. Yet, despite his thug past, Method Man has shown he can grow and has taken a range of roles in Hip-Hop culture. From his epic love ballad with Mary J. Blige, to his albums with fellow legend, Redman, and his infamous showmanship (an ability to rock a crowd is the ultimate sign of a true emcee), Meth helped create a raw type of gangster rap that is still evident in music today.
See: Bring the Pain; M.E.T.H.O.D. Man
8. Kanye West
Braggadocio is a big part of hip-hop history, back to the origins of rap battles, and in that aspect Kanye takes the cake. Creatively, I don’t think anyone can touch Kanye, and he’s the first to let you know that. Going back to his days when he was an up-and-coming producer for Roc-A-Fella, rappers have constantly looked to ‘Ye for beats and creative inspiration. Clever rhymes, radical ideas and epic instrumentals are Kanye’s signatures. He can paint a picture in your mind of beauty, or make you cringe with his grotesque humor. Is Kanye the most overlooked? Yessir. Is Kanye the most overbooked? Yessir.
See: Through the Wire; Devil in a New Dress; Crack Music
7. Lil’ Wayne
Definitely the most controversial pick on here, and for good reason. Lil’ Wayne has an undeniable talent, but his usage of this talent has always, especially in recent years, been in question. No rapper has been deemed “pop” or a “sell-out” more than Weezy F., but when you begin your rap career when you are eight years old and drop out of school when you’re 14, decision-making is probably not going to be your strong suit. What cannot be diminished, is his profound impact on the Hip-Hop industry. He brought southern rap into the mainstream with his raspy, bluesy voice. Later, he turned into a drug-loving and womenizing rap king who completely redefined the mix-tape game. The Drought 3. Dedication 2. No Ceilings. Three of the best mix-tapes ever. All four of Tha Carter albums are legendary within their own right (Tha Carter 4 to a much lesser degree). In addition, he has made the dance floor shake like no one else, with hits like A Milli and Lollipop. Lil’ Wayne has over 1000 songs in his discography and as the leader of the Young Money Crew he has been responsible for giving the limelight to some of the biggest names in rap today. A metaphor master and a club-hit making machine. However, despite what he often claims he is not the best rapper alive. But, he is damn near close.
See: Hustler Musik; Upgrade U Freestyle; Tha Mobb
6. Andre 3000
I’ll admit it, of all the rappers on this list, I know the least about Andre 3000. But here’s what I do know: he is the lyrical talent in the most influential rap duo in hip-hop history; he has been called the male Lauryn Hill; and his musical IQ is through the roof. He can rap about the struggles of the ghetto, the beauty of a women, and can still get the club poppin’ among the best of them. Twenty years after being formed, an Outkast reunion is set to occur at Coachella in April, and if I wasn’t on another continent you bet your ass I’d be there. No worries, however, as rumors of a new Outkast album have been buzzing around the Internet.
See: Git Up, Git Out (Last verse, starts at 5:30); Int’l Players Anthem
Tupac is many things. A rapper primarily, but he is also a poet, a thug, a spiritual leader and a role model to many. Although, I am not his intended audience per say (white, jewish, suburban, etc.), there are points of relatability and I can understand his importance to the African-American community. Tupac was the prodigal son of a post black-power/civil rights generation. All of his guardians growing up were high-ranking members of black-power groups (including wanted criminals, at the time), and he was proudly raised with a good education, studying theatre and literature throughout his childhood. Yet, he was a product of the ghetto (moving from Harlem to Baltimore to Oakland), and had a mother who was addicted to drugs. All of these elements of his childhood are apparent in his music. He embodied the struggle of living through hardships, while at the same time he knew the vast potential the black community had to better themselves. He motivated; he educated; he knew the street life; and he rapped. He made five albums while he was alive, and five more were released posthumously. All of them included the greatness and complexity that was Tupac.
See: Dear Mama; All Eyez On Me; Starin’ Through My Rearview
Point blank, Nas’ Illmatic is the best rap album of all time. He painted the perfect picture of the ghetto struggle. Nas vividly and candidly describes life in Queensbridge, NY, an early birth site of Hip-Hop (after the Bronx projects). A master of eloquence and multi-syllable rhyme schemes, Nas has an intense and thoughtful sound that shines through on each of his songs. His influence on rap and music in general is so profound that a Harvard fellowship was set up in his name. He was never able to match the incredible magnitude of his first album, but he consistently put out great music on each of his next nine albums (five of which peaked at the top spot on the US charts) . He has a discography that spans 20 years, a win in a rap beef with the great HOV (Jay-Z), and continues to be a presence in the rap industry.
See: NY State of Mind; One Mic; If I Ruled the World
3. Notorious B.I.G.
Biggie is the ultimate “what if” story in hip hop. Even more so than Tupac, as Notorious’ three albums (one was posthumous) pales in comparison to the 10 albums that Tupac has (5 posthumously). Biggie turned the industry on his head with his materialistic passions, dangerous braggadocio and cleverly told stories. He was at the forefront of a movement that brought in a new school of rappers; one that was obsessed with women, blunts, and a lavish lifestyle. But Biggie never forgot his roots of poverty, and the desparity between his two lives is told beautifully in Juicy, a song that represents one of the strongest themes in hip hop history. An epic story teller and the epitome of swagger, Notorious B.I.G.’s lyrics are among the most quoted and emulated in Hip-Hop history.
See: Hypnotize; Suicidal Thoughts ; Warning
You’ll never hear another rapper spit over an Em instrumental. Rappers know their song would be compared to the original, and that their product simply cannot compete. No one has flow like eminem; his ability to tell a story and seize your attention with his grotesquely captivating words has made him one of the most original performers in the last 20 years. His passion for music (along with his love for the first amendment) is legendary and transparent. Marshall Mathers needed music to get through his rough upbringing, and he creates music to help those who are in a similar position as he was.
For anyone who’s ever been through shit in they lives
So they sit and they cry at night wishing they’d die
’til they throw on a rap record and they sit and they vibe
We’re nothing to you, but we’re the fucking shit in they eyes
There are definitely legitimate arguments to say he is the best ever, but his inability to match the passion and genius of his first few albums after his battle with addiction and long absence from the game has pushed him from the top spot.
See: Lose Yourself; Marshall Mathers; Legacy
I used to say that HOV couldn’t be number one. How could he, when he spit one of his best verses on Renegade, and Eminem’s lyrics still overshadowed him? What about the almost unanimous opinion that Nas won out in their epic beef? However, what Jay-Z has undoubtably proved in the last three years with Watch the Throne and Magna Carta Holy Grail, is that his longevity, consistency and influence is unparalleled (not to mention his mogul endeavors have affected almost all facets of the entertainment world). From club anthems, to sentimental stories, to braggadocio of the highest caliber, Jay-Z does it all. He is responsible for three of, arguably, the best ten rap albums in history (Reasonable Doubt, Black Album, and The Blueprint). He has classics from two decades ago, and can still match up with some of the best rappers of today (songs with both Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole). He has inspired an entire generation of rappers and has an international legion of religiously devoted fans, making him Jay-Z a true immortal in the world of Hip-Hop, and securing him the top spot in rap history.
I let the wheels give a glimpse of hope of one’s grind
Some said: “Hov, how you get so fly?”
I said: “from not being afraid to fall out the sky”
My physical’s a shell so when I say farewell
My soul will find an even higher plane to dwell
See: What More Can I Say; D’evils; Forever Young
For Jay-Z’s musical recount of the important figures in hip hop history, as well as a verse from a potential future top-ten rapper, listen here.
Honorable Mentions: Common, Lauryn Hill, Big L, Jadakiss, Snoop Dogg/Lion, Krs-1, Mos Def and JWonder
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed, and I would love to hear any thoughts or critiques.