Since Sundjata and I were DJs at our college radio station (and actually long before that), we’ve had a penchant for categorizing, listing, and ranking our favorite rappers. While an exhaustive list of, well, anything, is difficult to compile, if you asked me who the most sonically enjoyable and lyrically consistent mc’s were, I’d have to go with those below.
Before I unveil my list, let’s talk criteria. I only have two: style and substance. Simply put, style is how you rap. Substance is what you rap about. By mentioning style, perhaps my golden era roots become apparent, as I actually remember when guys used to spit multiple bars detailing the intricacies of their style. Some of rap’s great style gurus have been Old Dirty Bastard, Busta Rhymes, and I’d even throw in Nicki Minaj. For me, a verbally ambidextrous rapper who makes an effort to reveal his/her own persona is better than someone whose songs and delivery sound like they could be easily switched out with those of Anonymous Radio MC #7. Clever and witty word and figurative language usage gets you points here as well. An English teacher could have a field day with the double entendres and symbolism in the lyrics of, say, Jay Z and Lupe Fiasco (which is why they both make the list).
As for substance, well, I’m sorry, but I was fortunate enough to go to college, I deeply enjoy reading, and I have kids. Therefore, I’m gonna need you to rap about something more than clubs, clothes, and hoes if you want to get knocked in my newfangled eight track player. However, that doesn’t mean that I want to hear preachy rappers. I don’t. While I respect and support Immortal Technique and Dead Prez, I actually tire of them rather quickly. For whatever reason, rarely am I in a mood for 12 straight songs about anti-capitalism and neo-colonialism.
So, without further adieux, here’s my elite 8 (in no order):
*Hov. Though I tire like everyone else of hearing him constantly trap rap, we still have to admit that he always does it in a new, creative, clever, sick ass way. His relation of being a hopeful, low-level drug dealer in New York to the hopfeul themes presented in the Declaration of Independence on the WTT track Made in America, for instance, is brilliant. He’s the only dude who’s content I often can’t stand, but still have to admit that on flow and style, he’s miles ahead. And yes, he gets points for winning in every Olympic event (e.g., cheddar, wifey, beat selection, sales, quality albums).
*Nas. Nas might be the Muhammad Ali of the game–controversial, “pretty,” and damn-near unbeatable. Like Ali, Nas has fallen several times (e.g., Nastrodamus and Hip Hop is Dead come to mind), but you never want to count dude out. He always comes back (I must admit, Life Is Good is bananas)! And content-wise, his catalogue is basically the template for dope emceeing and great songwriting. If this were a list of the best rap songs and lyrics of all time, Nas might have the most entries. I love conscious mc’s, but where Nas struggles is that he too often has conscious beats.
*Lupe. Again, if I were an English teacher, at least a handful of my lessons would revolve around reading, discussing, analyzing, and debating the themes and literary devices in Fiasco’s rhymes. This guy is a treasure trove of prose. He’s easily the best poet in the game right now. Check the video if you’re not up on this guy. As long as he doesn’t do anymore songs with Trey Songs or put out another album as un-Food & Liquor as Lasers (though All Black Everything and Words I Never Said were instant classics), I’m all in.
*3000. Mesmerizing. Someone recently said about Andre that he never spits a wack verse. Ever. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems like everything I hear from this dude is insane. He probably has the most rhythmic and melodic flow in hip hop right now, with an ability to ride the track that’s unmatched. He might also be the most under-rated, unsung mc in the game (paging TV One, we need an episode on this man). Asking him to feature on a track is also one of the worst mistakes a rapper could make. He’s going to be fresher than you, on your own song. Do you really want that?
*Black Thought. He’s literally in the same class with Nas, since “Do You Want More” came out the same year as “Illmatic.” And like 3000, Black has never spit a wack verse. While other rappers seem to fall off (e.g., Snoop) or at least fall out for a brief moment (e.g., Common, Nas), Black Thought and The Roots stay on point. I’ve never heard a bad Roots album. Honestly. I almost want to call him unsung as well, but the reality is that he’s done a great job of carving out a lane for he and his group. When you can go from appearances on Yo Gabba Gabba, to being the Jimmy Fallon and Jon Stewart House Band, you’ve pretty much made it.
*Phonte. If you don’t know, this man can spit! He’s sort of a Southern godchild of Andre 3000, because he also has an intricate, almost acrobatic flow that lends itself to splitting syllables in ways that most others wouldn’t creatively attempt. And dude can sing! Damn near the new Lauryn Hill. I won’t be another in a long line of Big Pooh bashers, but going solo was a good move for ‘te. You know how when you listen to one of your favorite groups, and there is one person who really stands out, and in every song you just want to hear him/her spit? Phonte was that person when he was in Little Brother.
*Locksmith. Remember earlier when I mentioned that I don’t always like Jay-Z’s content? Well, I can’t say the same for Lock. He’s what happens when you grow up listening to Dead Prez, Rass Kass, Ice Cube, and Eminem. His content is exactly what I want to hear dudes rap about: hood shit mixed with modern politics, social issues, pro-Blackness, and real life. Lyrically, he could probably ether at least a couple of dudes on this list. Locksmith would have made guys from the 90s, who argued that there weren’t enough “real mc’s” from the West Coast nervous. Go cop Embedded and you’ll see what I mean. Grade A freshness.
*Kendrick. When I heard Section .80 I was blown away. If you’re up on the late-80s/early 90s Los Angeles underground scene, then you know what I mean when I say Lamar sounds like he used to rap at The Good Life, or Project Blowed. But this is impossible, because dude was probably an infant or toddler when those spots were in their heyday. IMO, he and Locksmith (and maybe Murs and Crooked I) are carrying the West right now. As an Aceyalone fan, I’m glad the game now has Kendrick Lamar!
*Honorable Mentions: Common (all-around flow; 6th man of the team), Raekwon (master storyteller and team chef), and Drake (he’s Jay-Z junior, minus the crack raps and thug back story, which makes him the team backup point guard).