If any of you caught Chris Rock’s new comedy, Top Five this weekend (easily one of the best comedies of 2014), then there’s a good chance that you and your group of buddies left the theater asking each other the question, “who’s your top five?” Throughout the film, characters are playfully asked this and bring up their personal top five rappers, which certainly got me thinking of what my own list would look like. Hip-hop has always been my go-to genre of music. From hiding Eminem albums from parents during the early 2000s, to making a brief try-out as a rapper in my college days, I simply couldn’t get enough of the lifestyle. So who were the five artists that really did it for me?
In composing this list, I had to take a lot of things into consideration. I had to consider not just rappers I identified with, but ones who were also remarkably skilled wordsmiths and have continued to be so for the vast duration of their career. I avoided listing recent artists (as much I like to half-jokingly say that Danny Brown is my spirit-rapper), and went entirely with rappers that legitimized my love for the genre during my earlier years. Overall, you’ll probably notice a similar thread between my picks (they’re all hardcore gangsta rappers that came to prominence during the 90s), but I felt that this list was best rendered as opinionated and personally as possible. That said, here is my personal top five, presented in a rough sequential order.
Number Five: Ice Cube. It’s upsetting to me that someone reading this list might scoff that I would place the former N.W.A. member in my top-five. The days when Oliver Shea Jackson was considered one of hip-hop’s most dangerous emcees seem beyond a hip-hop lifetime ago now, as he’s more recognizable today for starring in crappy movies, and hosting the Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Awards. It’s a shame though, as when Cube was at his peak, he was more than just a gangsta rap pioneer, but the west coast’s very best emcee!
The thing about Ice Cube for me is that he’s a writer first-and-foremost. For N.W.A.’s legendary album, Straight Outta Compton, Ice Cube was clearly the lyrical backbone for the group as not only did he always spit the best verses, but he wrote material for the other members (including almost all of Eazy-E’s verses). Of course, a good writer writes about what he knows, which Jackson certainly did, and he primarily wrote about what he was pissed-off about. Right out the gate, Cube demonstrated himself as an intelligent and fierce rapper, who felt committed to talk about his outrage towards the conditions in urban environments, and it was only through leaving N.W.A. that he was able to reach his full potential.
His first solo record, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, was a huge leap forward for him as an artist. Enlisting the help of Public Enemy’s production team The Bomb Squad, Ice Cube certainly seemed to take some cues from Chuck D, as he made a politically-charged record that was a masterpiece from start to finish. Angry and profane, yet also humorous and energizing, the album became another platinum seller for the rapper, as well as another source of controversy. Many detractors saw Ice Cube as a violence-promoting hedonistic misogynist, which is certainly invalid as not only is Ice Cube rarely rapping about the materialistic, but he also makes a great self-critic. On the track “This is a Man’s World”, Ice Cube and female rapper Yo-Yo have a spirited debate about the roles women play in hip-hop, suggesting that Ice Cube doesn’t entirely like the woman-bashing stance his on-stage persona shows.
Ice Cube’s next three releases (the EP Kill at Will, and the LPs Death Certificate, and The Predator) continued the brilliance, before fizzing out with 1993’s Lethal Injection. The rapper has tried time-and-time again to regain the spark of his earlier records by still trying to be the angry political rapper, but more often than not his reach exceeds his grasp. In fact, I’d even say the only subsequent rapper to have such a balanced ratio towards gangsta posturing and social commentary is Killer Mike, which makes me wonder if the two have ever considered collaborating (Mike already had a song with Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha on Run the Jewels 2). Even if Ice Cube’s best days are behind him, we can still be proud that he gave 90s hip-hop no less than four unfiltered great albums.
Number Four: Nas. The thing is Nas only needed one album to make it on my top five. Illmatic, his 1994 debut, is still my favorite overall hip-hop album, and it only seems to grow more potent with each year. People who think hip-hop isn’t relatable for demographics outside of African-Americans really need to give this record a listen, as it’s essentially an album about remembering a troubled past, and hoping for a brighter future.
On this striking debut record (released when he was only 20), Nas proves that he’s that all-too-rare emcee that’s as thoughtful as he is gritty, on the song’s nine flawless songs that touch on violence, friendship, drugs, sex, youth, music, and ultimately optimism even in the face of such ugly truths. Working with a slew of some of the best producers in the business, Illmatic has some of the best and most singular beats to appear on any hip-hop album, with particular notice being giving to Q-Tip’s work on “One Love”. Honestly, that’s a track that almost always elicits this thought it my mind: “Wow. Why can’t all rap songs be this good?”
As for his career post-Illmatic…well, it hasn’t been too shabby either. Sure, his sophomore album It Was Written was held down by overly-commercial production, but it still had plenty of great songs, and for better-or-worse it set Nas on his new career directory. He’s remained one of the best rappers since he came out the gates, and particular album highlights of his include God’s Son, Hip-Hop is Dead, and Life is Good.
Number Three: GZA. The thing about GZA is that he makes rapping seem so effortless. The oldest member of the Wu-Tang Clan, Gary Grice is more reminiscent of older rappers than the rest of his Wu-colleagues, particularly old-school greats like Rakim and Big Daddy Kane. Still, GZA’s cadence is all very much his own, and he just drips sage-like wisdom in every verse. His 1995 album Liquid Swords is one of the best hip-hop albums of the 90s, and essentially it’s cause he turned the campy aesthetic of Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers into a harrowing rap odyssey filled with grotesque imagery and unexpected creepiness. He pretty much legitimized the course dark underground hip-hop would go in, from Dr. Octagon to MF Doom. He’s also evolved quite a bit with age, and one might make a double-take when they hear that the rapper no longer uses profanity in his raps.
Number Two: The Notorious B.I.G. In my response to the age-old Tupac Vs. Biggie debate, I always have to go with Big Poppa. As much as I respect Tupac as an artist, I just feel that his albums were often uneven, while Christopher Wallace granted us two classic hip-hop albums in his tragically short life. While his second album, Life After Death, is one of the few great double-albums in rap history, his debut is certainly the more fluid and entertaining of the two.
Biggie’s first record, Ready to Die, is often considered the album that returned hip-hop prominence back to the east coast, and the reason for this is precisely because it’s just so damn New York. The Brooklynite just had the attitude of Lou Reed, with the wisdom of Woody Allen (albeit a Woody Allen that totes gats and sells drugs), all while spitting verse-after-verse of accessible and fully comprehensible raps. Not once during the record will you find yourself checking the lyrics sheet, as his rhyming is so lucid and clear that you pick up every thing he says perfectly the first time around.
It’s a dark record for sure, with all the talk of death, hookers and moral ambiguity (the last track “Suicidal Thoughts” is particularly devastating), but there’s enough humor and fun rhyming on the record to keep it from being a total downer. In fact, it’s the moments of humanity on Ready to Die that truly make it special. Whether talking about concern for his mother, the women he loves, or his plagued conscious, you can tell Biggie was closer to being a friendly dad than the hard-edged criminal his rap persona embodied. It’s a dire shame we didn’t get to see him evolve more.
Number One: Ghostface Killah. For me, Ghostface will always be a rapper’s rapper. While clearly a vital component for the Wu-Tang Clan, Ghost also separates himself from his brothers by having a degree of individuality. Ghost has his own distinct lingo and aesthetic that has only evolved throughout his career, as he’s expanded outside of the RZA’s sphere of influence. His best work has actually come from producers that were quite distant from that of the RZA actually, even if his influences in soul are still so pre-dominant in his fixture.
What’s more, he’s versatile like few others rappers. Ghostface is the type of emcee that can go from rapping sleazy-yet-hilarious sex rhymes (“Wildflower), to Scorsese-esque crime narratives (“Shaky Dog”), to absurdist and surreal pieces (“Underwater”), to songs that are serenely heartfelt (“All That I Got is You”). It’s also so gifting to see his progression as an emcee, starting out as an abrasive young emcee on Ironman, evolving into a mature street disciple for Fishscale, and finally coming into his own as the definitive “intelligent thug” with his recent experiments like Apollo Kids and Twelve Reasons to Die. To think that he’s still putting out quality work after 20 years in the game is almost unheard of, and he really is one of those artists who finds his voice more-and-more over the years. Simply put, he’s the one rapper who can do anything, and do it better than the rest.