Every time I stumble upon one of these Top 10 style blog-articles (or as I prefer calling them – “Blarticles”), I inevitably find that I only partially agree with the author’s selections. I’ve never found a Top 10 list (about ANYTHING) that I completely and whole-heartedly agreed with. And as much I would love to find one just like that, I don’t think it’ll ever happen. These things are based on opinion, not fact. Looking for a truly perfect “Top 10 Greatest” may be like chasing a dragon, or a unicorn; it simply might not exist. And now here I am, in front of my computer, with the tables essentially turned around. Now I’m in the writer’s chair, and the keyboard is mine, for now. But hopefully you and the other readers will feel as close to 100% as possible about my picks for the Top 10 Greatest Rappers of All Time.
But before we get down to business, I must admit that this was NOT an easy subject to tackle (rappers and rap music), nor was it an easy list to compose. Yes, there are certain obvious artists who will undoubtedly be mentioned (I can see your imagination working already). However, the most challenging aspect of this piece was deciding how to treat rap groups and duos, like Black Star or Slaughterhouse. Should I split the groups up and focus on individual MCs? Or should I treat the entire group as one artist on the list? I won’t give anything away here as I explain myself sufficiently as the list goes on, but I just wanted to air that in the open before proceeding, because it WAS indeed a challenge. But I had some fun writing it, so my hope is that you’ll have some fun reading it.
Number Ten: Lil Wayne.
Hopefully, I don’t lose half my audience with this first one. A big part of what makes Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr. so great (and interesting) is that he is perhaps simultaneously the most loved AND the most hated rapper of all time. For example, it took only one week for Tha Carter III (2008) to go platinum, yet he is still personified as the poster child for what people call “new rap,” suggesting that modern rap music is somehow inferior to the stuff from the good old days (which it is). But I believe Weezy is unfairly criticized and hated on in that regard. To deny his skills as a rapper would be like saying Shaq wasn’t good at basketball. Is he the “greatest rapper alive?” Hell no, and he’s #10 on this list for a reason, but he is Top 10 nonetheless.
His sound is white-hot, fast-paced, and instantly recognizable. He’s got the swagger of James Dean and the ink of Travis Barker (what more could you ask for?) But it came down to two things that ultimately sealed the deal for me on whether or not I liked the guy. The first was his album No Ceilings (2009), which I’ve come to see as the quintessential mix-tape. The second was the release of the documentary Tha Carter (2009) – an in-depth look at Lil Wayne, his recording process, and his lifestyle, among other things. You should be able to find it online somewhere if you haven’t seen it. Bottom line: the man is an icon, both overrated AND underrated, for good or ill.
Number Nine: Ludacris.
For those of you who are still reading (thank you), let’s head over to Atlanta and the Dirty South for some Christopher Brian Bridges. Ludacris stands out for many reasons, but what impresses me most about him is that he has successfully marketed himself as both a musical artist AND a legitimate film actor (I’m a HUGE movie buff, I can’t help it). Maybe I’m just thinking about Luda movies because the final Fast & Furious flick hit theaters this weekend. Either way, Luda’s clearly got screen presence in addition to his studio skills. But we’re talking about rappers here, so let’s talk a bit about the man’s music.
Ludacris’ early roots in rap are well documented by MTV interviews and whoever edits his Wikipedia page. He apparently recorded his first rap at age nine (I had no idea) and joined a rap group at age twelve (still clueless). I first heard of Ludacris in middle school in 2001-ish, right around the time of Word of Mouf (2001). That album is loaded with classics – “Coming 2 America”, “Rollout (My Business)” and “Move Bitch” to name a few. That was the most fun I had listening to rap music at a time when most of the stuff was just really angry and violent. Ludacris and his Def Jam record label, Disturbing tha Peace, reminded us (me) that rap was fun. He is also among the first of the Dirty South rappers to successfully infiltrate mainstream American music. I believe all of these factors combined make Ludacris one of the greatest rappers ever. Personal anecdote – I actually met Ludacris in Orlando in 2010 and saw him perform live at Bonnaroo in 2012. He is way shorter than you would think, but the dude is seriously jacked. Do not piss him off.
Number Eight: Big Pun.
We leave Atlanta to go both South (Puerto Rico) and North (the Bronx). This is also where the list gets a little somber, as Christopher Lee Rios is sadly no longer with us; but get used to that, because we have at least two more rappers to get to who have also passed on (you probably know who they are). Big Pun, AKA Big Punisher if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, is on this list for a few specific reasons. Are there other MC’s that are maybe better than Big Pun that won’t be on this list? Probably. But I felt he belonged in the Top 10, and I’ll explain why.
First and most importantly, Big Pun’s style and technique are nearly flawless. He is hailed as one of the greatest lyricists of all time (rightfully so) and his flow is basically unparalleled. He’s got the kind of sound that you know right away and you ALWAYS listen to if it comes on. Secondly, but still very important, Big Pun’s Capital Punishment (1998) was the first Latin rap record to go Platinum (sold a million copies). I’m big on firsts, so that’s a huge achievement in my eyes. Unfortunately, Big Pun suffered from chronic obesity, and in early 2000, he suffered from a massive heart attack and respiratory failure. Rios’ career may have been short-lived, but his influential impact in only a few years is the sign of a true legend. Top 10 material in my book for sure.
Number Seven: Jay Z.
This was where the list really got challenging for me. I’m guessing most people would put Shawn Corey Carter higher in the Top 10 Greatest Rappers than a measly little #7, but I arrived at this order after a tremendous amount of careful and painstaking thought. Jay Z is by far one of the best to ever step into the booth, no doubt about it. His cultural impact is immeasurable – “99 Problems,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” – these songs and lyrics are so heavily engrained in our popular culture that not only have they have become colloquialisms in our language, but the “dirt off your shoulder” hand swipe is an almost instantly recognizable pantomime. Some say he picks up where Biggie left off (others say he stole all of Biggie’s rhymes). I’m not going to pretend to know what happened there. What I do know is that Jay Z’s music is only the tip of the iceberg.
This is part of the reason that Jay Z can only (for me) reach #7 on this list. I don’t really feel like Jay Z is much of a rapper anymore. Technically, this shouldn’t really matter; a man should have the freedom to pursue a career in hip-hop for nearly two decades and then move on to other things, but something about that just kind of waters Jay Z down for me. He is now more of a business tycoon, political spokesperson and community activist than he is an MC. But these aren’t bad things; he’s just doing other stuff. He’s also a father and husband (SO many bonus points for locking down Beyoncé). I’m not saying the man has lost touch with his roots or anything (although he is worth over $500 million). I just feel like he’s involved in too many other things now, which could ultimately define his legacy as less of a rapper and more of an entrepreneur. Bottom line though – he’s a superstar and he always will be.
Number Six: Snoop Dogg.
This is killing me. Calvin Cordozar Broadus, Jr. is one rapper that I really wish I could rank higher, but my top five are set, so Snoop will have to settle as the Sixth Man. I will even go so far as to say that Snoop Dogg may be the easiest rapper for me to listen to. No matter what kind of mood or setting I’m in (partying vs. working vs. relaxing), I am ALWAYS down for some Doggystyle (1993) or Doggfather (1996). His flow is (still) exploding with funk and originality. He basically invented his own sub-genre of slang (fo shizzle), which has propelled him to far more than just a rapper. Snoop Dogg has an extensive career in film and TV, sometimes even playing himself (what rapper doesn’t?). AND his musical reach goes beyond hip-hop (as Snoop Lion, he successfully infiltrated my favorite musical genre – reggae).
Snoop is an innovator, an icon, and his imprint on popular culture may even out-weigh Jay Z (that’s why he’s at 6 and Jigga’s at 7). But I think Snoop Dogg has been unfairly criticized over the years. He caught a lot of the initial backlash from the “establishment” during the early 90’s when rap was undergoing a massive transformation, in both East and West Coast scenes. He was labeled as a violent gangster who sang about drugs and objectifying women, which may be partially true, but there’s no way that sums him up in one sentence. He is a family man. He has three children with his high school sweetheart. If you’re not a fan of Snoop Dogg, I recommend giving him another chance. And for those who don’t know, we have one man to thank for discovering Snoop Dogg, and he’s up next.
Number Five: Dr. Dre.
That’s right. Andre Romelle Young is the one who saw Snoop Dogg and knew the guy had something. This is what Dre does. His ability to produce, in many ways, is what truly makes him one of the all-time greats. I’ll get to his actual rap music in another hundred or so words, but first, I need to put his non-rap career under the microscope. They don’t call him the doctor for no reason. He has the eye and he has the ear. He has produced some of the best top-selling beats of all time (no pun intended). He founded his own record label, Aftermath Entertainment, and has gone on to become one of the top, if not THE top name in headphones and other audio products. He brought us Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, The Game, and (more recently) Kendrick Lamar. Forbes has him ranked as the top earner in hip-hop. The man is literally a living legend.
Now on to his music – I tossed and turned for days trying to figure out whether I should write about Dre or the N.W.A. As it turns out, we’re talking about Dre. His career as a solo artist is simply too prolific, whether you measure it by Grammy’s or record sales. The Chronic (1992) is cited by many as one of the greatest rap albums of all time, if not THE greatest. His collaborative works as a solo artist (separate from the N.W.A.) are beyond extensive as well. “The Next Episode”, “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” and “California Love” are timeless classics that will never fail to get the party started. His rhymes and lyrics on some of his harder tracks are loud and strong, hitting you with as much punch as a Tyson uppercut. My personal favorite effort of his was his work on the soundtrack for the classic “life in the hood” movie Friday (1995). If you haven’t ever heard “Keep Their Heads Ringin’,” then you need to go to Pandora, YouTube, Spotify or whatever and give it a shot.
Number Four: Nas.
I think this one comes down to personal preference for me (some people might not rank Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones this high at #4), but I see him as one of the very best. Very few debut albums have been as well received as Nas’ Illmatic (1994). According to whoever updates Nas’ Wikipedia page, he apparently recorded “N.Y. State of Mind” in one take. Many rank him as one of the greatest MC’s of all time, and he is undoubtedly one of the most gifted lyricists ever. He embodies the New York flow while staying strangely unique in his own right. I have come to love Nas’ fusion of lyrical technique and ambient beats, a style truly all his own. If I’m thinking of one song that instantly comes to mind, “Rewind” is one of my favorites. He raps a story backwards in a way that is simply masterful.
I feel the need to make one final comment on Nas before we move in to the stratosphere with our top three greatest. In 2011, Nas released a collaboration album alongside Damian Marley called Distant Relatives. I can’t assume you’ve heard of it, because rap and reggae are somewhat niche musical genres, but it was and still is wildly popular. Every track on the album is almost an INSTANT CLASSIC. “Nah Mean”, “Patience”, “My Generation” feat. Lil Wayne and “Africa Must Wake Up” speak to me on a very intimate level. Prevalent themes in the album include ancestry, history, world poverty and Pan-Africanism. Packed with thought-provoking lyrics that blend perfectly with reggae, Distant Relatives is guaranteed to stand the test of time and remain one of the greatest rap collaborations ever.
Number Three: 2Pac.
Now we’re really getting controversial. From here on out, these next three rappers, Tupac Amaru Shakur included, are essentially interchangeable amongst the rap and hip hop community. Some will place 2Pac at #1, some will place him at #2, and as it turns out, I have him at #3, but there’s no way he should EVER be ranked any lower. With worldwide record sales over 75 million, 2Pac is clearly a rap god. I can only write so much about him here in two paragraphs, but entire books have been written about Tupac Shakur’s revolutionary career and tragic untimely death. Nearly every album he recorded before his death has (easily) gone either double or multi platinum, not to mention his posthumous works. Am I the only one who is crazy confused by the amount of 2Pac music that still comes out? Maybe the rumors are true – he’s living on a hidden island somewhere with Bob Marley and other “alleged dead” celebrities. I doubt it though.
More importantly, 2Pac is so much more than just a rapper and hip hop artist. Many people don’t know that a book of his poetry, The Rose that Grew from Concrete, was posthumously released by his family and loved ones. The book featured photocopies of hand-written poems and lyrics by Tupac, alongside an actual typed transcript of his words (he uses a lot of slang and drawings in his poems, so my guess is they included a transcript to reach a wider audience). His poems are unbelievably raw – full of passion, love and despair. The man is quite possibly the most recognizable name in the genre, and he was only active for less than ten years. Imagine what kind of discography he would’ve produced if he were still with us today.
Number Two: Notorious B.I.G.
Flow, flow, and more flow. That’s Biggie Smalls, period. No, obviously Christopher George Latore Wallace is more than just a bunch of flow, A LOT MORE. But that is Biggie. The greatest flow of all time. What is flow? It’s a tough thing to describe, although most people know what it is. Is it a fair criterion to have for a rapper? Rhetorical question. Of course it is. In my humble opinion, B.I.G. is the king of New York rap. The pacemaker. He sets the bar. He is the bar. I do think Jay Z picks up where Biggie left off, a passing of the torch as it were. Like 2Pac, he met his demise far before his time. Also like 2Pac, he has had several posthumous works released, including one of my favorite rap collaborations, Duets: The Final Chapter (2005). His lyrical technique is entirely ONE OF A KIND. No one sounds like Big. No one.
Biggie is another one whose influence on our popular culture is gargantuan. He has had books written about him. There’s a movie about him. Several of the rappers I’ve mentioned (and haven’t mentioned) cite Biggie Smalls as one of their biggest inspirations. He is a source of nearly infinite talent and wisdom, with lyrics and beats that were simultaneously right on time and a bit ahead of the curve as well. The world wasn’t ready, but he was. The songs “Big Poppa,” “Hypnotize,” and “Juicy” are certified immortal, if you ask me. They will never die. Although controversial in his own right (he was at the forefront of the East Coast/West Coast feuds), he is an important figure in music, not just rap or hip hop. I went back and forth for days deciding whether or not he belonged at #1. I obviously felt he didn’t, and I have my reasons. Some people may even place him lower than top 2. Haters gonna hate. That may just come down to a West Cost, East Coast thing. Some people like the California flow. I like the New York. So be it.
Number One: Eminem.
And yet the greatest rapper of all time isn’t from the East OR the West Coast. He is a white guy from the Midwest. You gotta love it. Only in America right? Marshall Bruce Mathers III has (rightfully) been proclaimed the King of Hip-Hop, which essentially makes him the King of Rap. Not the Grandfather or the Father of it, because so many paved the way for him, but he’s like the Michael Jordan of rap. And he’s still going. I could never write enough about Slim Shady. And I can never get enough of his music. He is the be all and end all. Without building him up too much, I must pay tribute to the number one spot.
Like I said, I was trying to decide if Biggie belonged in this spot. But I realized that Eminem has done what no one else has ever done. And by that, I mean he has sold over 155 MILLION albums and singles worldwide (God-damn!), which makes him the best-selling hip-hop artist. But I also mean something else. Eminem has more than one rap persona. Like a split personality, or a writer of characters, Eminem has separated himself with (at least) two distinct voices and sounds. There’s Marshall (deeper voice, harder lyrics) and then there’s Shady (higher-pitched, goofier lyrics). Both co-exist perfectly, and Eminem is a mastermind at using this technique.
A lot of people didn’t like Relapse (2009). It was basically an entire album of Shady, with very little Marshall. People were used to the opposite. More Marshall, less Shady. I will admit that I like Marshall more, too, and Relapse is probably one of his weaker albums – but his weakest album is infinitely better than dozens if not hundreds of (good) rappers. Give that album another go, and if you still don’t like it, then agree to disagree. But there’s no denying the quality of The Slim Shady LP (1999), The Marshall Mathers LP (2000), The Eminem Show (2002), and Recovery (2010). He is a genius. He’s got a successful career in film and TV. Yes, he’s controversial. Hated. But he’s also a family man (I’ve heard that Haley is beautiful). I’ll wrap this up here, because I don’t want to over sell. But he’s the best. Bottom line.
Honorable mentions: Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, DMX and Fat Joe. These five didn’t make the cut, but that’s why we have honorable mentions. These five rappers are amazing. But are they Top 10? Diddy is the closest one maybe, but I just couldn’t find it in me to put them ahead of my ten. If it were Top 20 Greatest Rappers, they’d be on there. The End.
Stay tuned for my next piece, which is currently in the works – The Top 10 Greatest Rap Groups and Duos of All Time. If you’re wondering where the Wu-Tang Clan is, now you know. Thanks again for reading!