When My Will came out in 2005, there was hope that a Lost Tapes II would soon follow. The song, although leaked last year and with ad-libs from Nas regarding his marriage and honeymoon, is really an unreleased track from the time of God's Son. To note this, just look at the nod to Ja Rule and them and remember that, for a moment back in 2002, Nas was rumored to be in the business with the Gotti brothers, "how could Murder Inc. not wanna fuck with the top hustler, Roc crusher." Also, as further proof, some media outlets were shipped early versions of that aforementioned '02 LP, and, accordingly, within these publications, there was indeed reference to My Will. Concerning the line where Nas demands, "never put me in the top 10", one such publication, Murder Dog, even asked Nas specifically about it. Clarifying himself, Nas responded, "A lot of people get caught up in being the best nigga, the best rapper nigga. You know, everybody's the best at what they do. I'm the best at what I do. And I'm happy about that." Despite how, at that particular moment, Nas might have argued himself on a top ten list, many would still insist otherwise.
It's almost become cliché, especially on the Internet, to construct a top ten list of the greatest rappers of all-time. And the arguments that follow are usually just as typical. However, I'm a fan of a good cliché, but we will switch it up a little for today. The following is a list of ten rappers who are, and have been over a significant stretch of years, my favorite ten. This is not an attempt to come up with a universal all-time roster, something that everyone can agree upon. It reflects my biases, my age, my location, what I've heard, when I heard it, personal connections with the music, and is no way meant as a proposal to say, "point blank period, these are the ten greatest, no others accepted." Also, just as another copout, I've decided to list them alphabetically. And, sorry, Nas, you made it. (If you all have similar lists of your own, g'head.)
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The Rebel To America Oh-So-Subjective Ten Favorite Rappers Of All-Time List
Boots Riley (Fat Cats, Bigga Fish)
If you first recognize the name, Boots Riley, of The Coup, you're likely to picture a political rapper. And while it's true that Boots is activist-minded, don't think of him as shallow as some guy yelling at CNN or yelling simply because it's trendy. There's a real depth to his lyrics, a challenge, a militancy even, to the mission he's been on for over a decade now. What's more, with a distinct voice he can mold any number of ways, from downtrodden to funky, Boots draws the listener in on both a substance and style tip. As a writer, he's known to inject humor into his politics, intricate details into his stories, and, more so recently, some grown man steez into his growl.
"The street light reflects off the piss on the ground / Which reflects off the hamburger sign that turns round / Which reflects off the chrome of the BMW / Which reflects off the fact that I'm broke / Now what the fuck is new?"
Devin the Dude (Do What You Wanna Do)
For a guy whose material often revolves around weed and girls, Devin the Dude's music is some of the most level-headed Hip-Hop out there. And although his long-term relationship with Rap-A-Lot has stifled his popularity and he came up before Houston really achieved its mainstream exposure, Devin's everyman persona, almost conversational voice and delivery, and open, often self-effacing lyrics have won him lifelong fans over the years. Then, because what he says is often rooted in a Just Tryin' Ta Live, honest, blue collar reality, every line becomes even more identifiable, especially memorable.
"The dollar you earn is the dollar you spend / Go get something for ya kids or buy a bottle of gin / Is it a sin? I don't know / We're X and O's in this game / Tryin' ta survive"
Ghostface Killah (Cobra Clutch)
Though his opening verse on Bring Da Ruckus was impressive, if you had told people back in '93 that, in 2006, Ghostface would be the one member of Wu-Tang to have maintained a consistent catalog and fan base, you would have been looked at strangely. However, with his patented surreal style now holding it down over a span of five solo albums, that's the case. Ghost's world is a frenetic cross between blaxploitation and comic adventure, where a hype verse or a heartfelt number both resonate just as well. He has the creativity for not only abstract imagery, but also enough to put him arguably amongst the top five storytellers of all-time.
"We dazzle off this, bloody version of Glaciers / Slang shot threw a gem in his mouth, swallowed his razor / Say no more, my back be parked against the wall / Trooper square holding, 'Face don't give a fuck about the law"
Ice Cube (We Had to Tear This Motherfucka Up)
With his mic replacing the sickle, for a time, Ice Cube was almost like Hip-Hop's own version of the grim reaper, plucking off anyone who marginalized his brand of blackness or rap music in general. Political and often brash, Cube articulated the anger of an entire city that grew to symbolize a generation. Responsible for at least three non-argument classic LPs, a flow that could switch between casual or intense with nothing lost, one of the most infamous diss records (No Vaseline), and one of the great guest verses of all-time (Grand Finale), Ice Cube changed the way people rapped, in a way only rivaled by Rakim.
"I told you it would happen and you heard it, read it / But all you can call me was anti-Semitic / Regret it? Nope, said it? Yep / Listen to my big black boots as I step"
Jay-Z (This Life Forever)
Jay-Z's greatest strength is his ability to sound at home in multiple arenas. Whether in a straightforward flow or doing double time, on stage or in the corporate board room, on a club-friendly track or bubbling over some dark Primo keys, he's found success again and again. As the modern archetype for a rap career, unfortunately those who have followed in Jay's path most often don't possess half his energy, an ounce of his wordplay, or a hint of the smarts that took him to hall of fame status. He's slayed MCs in a single line, elevated the status of producers, and maintained a work ethic that ensured that a deep catalog would be the best kind of self-promotion.
"I blind with the bezel / I'm in line with the ghetto /What y'all niggas afraid of: my mind or the metal?"
Kool G Rap (Men at Work)
Sometimes with older MCs you may get caught up on what they used to be able to do, but Kool G Rap is perhaps the one old school rapper who can still do it today just as yesterday and put fear into any up-and-comer with a new mixtape. And while back in the day he did set standards for thug stories and sex raps, literally etching out the blueprint of a dozen important 90's rappers, that he's been able to outlast any number of trends is truly evidence of his gift. G Rap's rapid delivery, unique voice, dark belly of the beast scenes, and unapologetic and unrelentless approach to lyrics have seen him brutalize tracks for two decades now, and he's not done yet.
"I'm alone but my tone is a sharp tune / Developing pictures in your brain like a darkroom / Rappers are captured and tortured with rapture / In 3-D, it's a G coming at'cha"
Kurupt (New York, New York)
An important piece of both The Chronic and Doggystyle, although it took Kurupt until 1998 to officially release his solo debut, the ballsy, bi-costal double album Kuruption! proved to be one of the few 2xLP to really justify its extra-long length. As the consummate gangster scholar, behind Kurupt's eye glasses and skinny frame lurk a glaring charisma and a flow that was even neighboring Snoop's for a second. The Philadelphia-born MC combines an East Coast style with a West Coast sensibility, equally able to attack a song and do it laid back just as easily. Moreover, his work on the first Dogg Pound album best showcases the smooth, sniper-like lyrical focus he brings to the mic.
"I'm all ready to put work in / Take ten steps then turn to shoot the first nigga smirkin' / Give a fuck what's your name, what you claim / Or why you came, motherfucker, don't explain"
Nas (My Will)
While Illmatic is religion to some, that Nas flipped the script and flow with two classics out the gate served notice that he was not a one-album rapper. In the mid-90's, he advanced the use of polysyllabic rhymes and added a very visual sense to lyrics that captured details with clarity. As Nas' career progressed, although his ability to produce cohesive albums became less certain, his unreleased material became especially noteworthy. Additionally, distinct periods of musical growth have demonstrated a maturation in sound, showing that Hip-Hop can grow successfully into its third decade. Overall, Nas' catalog remains one of the most extensive in terms of range of subject matter.
"Similar to anybody you know / Oh, I created, cremated, bodied that flow / Anyone you thinks fucking with me better be vets"
Pharoahe Monch (Thirteen)
As one half of the severely slept-on Organized Konfusion duo, though his partner was no slouch by any means, that Pharoahe Monch routinely overshadowed Prince Poetry is testament to Pharoahe's otherworldly ability. His soulful, pulpit-authoritative voice seems to simply bend over tracks, finding not only new rhymes but inventing new rhythms along the way. Monch can make a club song with verbal flips, a love song a tongue-twister, and his delivery come off like it's possessed. In this way, he's one of the most conceptually challenging MCs, not only regarding what he says but how he makes it sound.
"You can't steer it / Face the bass; crumb you run when you hear it / It's the most incredible rap individual style / Piles up - like drug cases in Queens Country Criminal Court"
Rakim (In The Ghetto)
To trace Rakim's influence is really to look at all of Hip-Hop after he first came on the scene. With a great four-album stretch, from the 80's until the early 90's, primarily, Ra was the blueprint of flow, responsible for the most important lyrical shift in rap music, literally making legends go back to the lab. Bringing an almost scientific complexity to his rhymes, he became the quintessential poetic rapper, forcing listeners to get involved with lyrics. Next, his aggressive, I Ain't No Joke persona established a new mold for the game. A strong vocal presence, effortless delivery, and verses that are as long as they are quotable give further reason why many refer to Rakim simply as The God MC.
"I learn to relax in my room and escape from New York / And return through the womb of the world as a thought / Thinking how hard it was to be born / Me being cream with no physical form"
Nas: My Will
Rebel To America: Two Through Ten