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Are you really a rapper if you haven’t said that you’re the best that ever did it? It’s a rhetorical question as apparently humans can’t hold the mic and drop two or three bars without one of them being “I’m the greatest”. While it’s probably a thing of confidence, truly needed for performing in front of an unforgiving audience, nobody but these 10 best rappers of all time should even think about saying it.
It’s the sad fate of rap music that the first four MCs on this list aren’t with us anymore, yet they have achieved immortality with their songs and timeless messages in them. What’s in a way even sadder is that none of the living rappers are in the prime of the career, and only one active rapper can maybe break onto the list in the future. A little hint – he’s got the clock set on it.
Defining track: 99 Problems
The 47-year-old has been on the scene forever, and he hasn’t been slacking, making 12 solo studio albums and selling more than 100 million records! Brooklyn rapper received 21 Grammy Awards, and three of his albums – Reasonable Doubt (1996), The Blueprint (2001), and The Black Album (2003) are highly critically acclaimed and beloved by the wide audience. What is perhaps the most impressive about Jay-Z is his ability to remain true to himself but still keep up with the changing flow of the genre. From the concrete shaking beats of 99 Problems to the elegant piano tunes of Empire State of Mind Jay-Z has been making hip hop anthems, all with his authentic, deep imprint.
9. 50 Cent
Defining track: In Da Club
Photo: Mindy Small(Getty Images)
Props have to be given for a man that awaken the slumbering hip-hop genre in the 2000s. It’s not that there weren’t good rappers at the start of the century, but the genre fell back in its own bubble, and 50 Cent put it back on the global map one hanging sit up at a time. The second single from his second album – In da Club, peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming a party starter worldwide and rekindling the world’s love towards rap. For a few years, 50 cent was the undisputed king of rap music, becoming a global household name with his band and brand G-Unit. New York rapper shifted his focus towards other endeavors too soon in the eyes of many rap fans, but for about four years since 2002, he had a streak of hits, overshadowing even the man that brought him to the big league – Eminem.
Defining track: The Message
Another representative of New York, but stylistically a drastic turn from the two predecessors as Nas is all about the lyrics and message. Of course in his rich – 10 solo and two collaboration albums – career he has a few upbeat, party songs, but Nas is recognized and beloved because of the deep cuts his bars make in the mind of the listener. A poet first, a rapper second but that doesn’t mean that Nas doesn’t have the technical prowess of the other men on the list, as all of his flows are smooth and stream through the listener’s ears down to the chest. A confrontational person that he is, Nas delivered on one of the coolest collabs in recent hip-hop as he made an album with Damian Marley, son of legendary Bob, out of which track Patience is a true piece of art.
Defining track: Ruff Ryders Anthem
Pure energy, Vince Carter of rapping, a dog off a leash, DMX is truly a unique phenomenon in the world of rap, and not just because he can for sure communicate with dogs by barking. Another member of the New York university of rapping, DMX has a particular style of high-intensity delivery, making the majority of his song have the same volume, but the thing that makes Earl Simmons deserving of this list is that he manages to keep them quite distinct with subtle flow alterations. And barking, always barking. Yet when DMX decides to give his vocal chords a break he makes more mellow classics like Damien, Slippin’, I Can Feel It, and the worthy iteration of Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine.
6. Snoop Dogg
Defining track: Gin and Juice
A man that would’ve been even higher on this list if he hadn’t put the bitter taste in our mouths by making some strange career choices and collabs late in his career. That aside, Snoop Dogg is the longest constant in the world of hip-hop, from throwing a Gangsta Party with Tupac to Drop it Like It’s Hot with Pharrell. Snoop has the best debut album out of the bunch as Doggystyle is one great track after another, and the young Dogg merges himself with the rolling West coast beats. There is also no one smoother on the track than the big dog, regardless of it’s a gangsta track like Deep Cover or a timeless party anthem like The Next Episode.
Defining track: Lose Yourself
Photo: Catherine McGann (Getty Images)
Eminem has come a really great way, from being the “weird white guy” of rap to becoming arguably the best rapper alive. Marshall Matters is a reason why so many people have gotten into rap, as he was quite appealing to younger people due to his wacky, funny tracks in the beginning of the career. And in that sense Without Me is probably the better choice for a defining track of Eminem’s career, but there’s no denying the power and importance of Lose Yourself, as it has been a number one track on the Billboard 100 list for twelve weeks. But more importantly, it made the hairs on the back of millions of people stand up. The variety of Eminem tracks is what makes him legendary, from the mentioned funny ones, over party starters, empowering tracks, to deeply emotional and personal tunes.
4. Eazy E
Defining track: Real Muth*******in’ G’S
NWA is one of the most influential hip-hop entities, and not to include one of its representatives would be ludicrous. But unlike probably most of this list, we’re not going for the mostly producer Dr. Dre or the now actor-celebrity Ice Cube, but for the third best-known part of the group. Arguably the most authentic representative of the West Coast rap, Eazy E goes hard and while he has been a pivotal member of NWA, it was his solo and the second best diss track (behind Hit ‘Em Up) Real Muth*******in’ G’S that make him stand out on his own. Eazy went against the 90’s establishment of Death Row records and held his own. One album, two EP’s, one posthumous album and a single posthumous Ep make for a very rich legacy in which diversity is the main weapon as Eazy goes the gangsta and the humorous route, bouncing off the beats along the way.
3. Notorious B.I.G.
Defining track: Juicy
The biggest East Coast legend and Notorious B.I.G. managed to become that by focusing on quality, not on quantity. He, unfortunately, didn’t have the chance to even do the second as he was shot at the age of 24. But during his few years in the business Biggie showed that he is the master of bars, brutally devouring the flow, making you nod your head in as little as five words. Out of the notorious big trio of Biggie Smalls songs – Juicy, Big Poppa, and Hypnotize, the crown of the defining track has to go to the one that speaks about his life in Brooklyn, New York. Like his eternal rival, albums of tracks were published after his death, yet the volume of quality songs wasn’t as great as when he was there. Biggie mostly focused on uplifting, feel good tracks, brilliant story-telling Gimme the Loot being one of the exceptions, and the world was genuinely robbed of a great musician on that sad day in 1997.
2. Guru (Gang Starr)
Defining track: Skills
Admittedly Guru has some tremendous help in getting on this list from his lifelong partner in crime and the greatest commander of old school beats DJ Premier, but it’s still more than deserved. Guru is arguably the most technically adept rapper, but the fact that it’s not style over substance for another Brooklyn rapper is what makes him one of the best rappers that ever lived. The vocal part of Gang Starr educates minds with his sharp rhymes, without being too imposing or high brow with Discipline, Work, and Moment of Truth. It was hard deciding on the determining track between the final choice and Mass Appeal, as both of them are the essence of what Guru and Gang Starr is – real.
Defining track: Changes
Photo: Al Pereira (Getty Images)
With all respect to the other amazing artists on the list, but there should be a big gap between the no.1 spot and the rest, and it’s likely to stay until the end of time. The fact is that Tupac’s hologram evokes more emotions than today’s rappers in their prime. The best rapper of all time was a one man ghetto gospel, urging the world to make the necessary changes, giving out strength to the listener so you can keep ya head up knowing that life goes on. Regardless if the listeners are lil homies or thugs. Besides being deeply insightful and messianic in his nature, Tupac also hit ’em up with the best diss track of all times and announced to the competition – you can’t c me. Whether you look at the sheer volume of great tracks he made, or just the very best songs that are the main points of his legacy.
In the end, for Tupac it truly was me against the world. And the world lost.
We’re interested in seeing how our readers would shape the best rappers of all time list. Would Kanye be on your list? He certainly has the hits to back it up.