There’s no use denying it; rap fans love lists. Almost as much as they love rap. Stuff enough rap fans in a room together and in no time at all they’ll be at each other’s throats defending their top 5. Top 5 emcees, top 5 producers, top 5 crews, top 5 albums, top 5 mixtapes, top 5 diss tracks, so on and so forth until you find yourself waiting for Jack Black and John Cusack to show up and join the debate. And the fact that they typically don’t watch movies like High Fidelity is one of the top 5 reasons most rap fans won’t get that reference.
I tend to steer clear of most rap lists for two reasons (here I go already making a list): they’re almost always the same and they’re almost always bullshit. I won’t go into that because I have my own list to get to, but I’d like to clarify a few things before I do. Notice I use the word favorite and not the word best. Best is too strong a word as it implies a certain degree of objectivity which has no real place in art, as much as you want Biggie’s being the g.o.a.t. to be accepted as fact. Sure, there are measurable facts one could bring into a rap argument e.g. album sales, years active, cultural impact, etc., but that’s already been done more than enough times and is usually only successful in making any list, book, or discussion about rap music not only predictable but, for lack of a better term, boring as fuck.
No conventional rap debate is complete until someone with an angry face says something to the effect of, “You can’t possibly rate [rapper’s name] so high, [rapper’s album] was trash.” Therefor, let it be noted that my opinion of a rapper’s album(s) as a whole is more or less irrelevant to them being one of my favorite rappers. Nas is one of my favorite rappers of all time and a lot of his albums are so bad I think I’d actually get less high if I were to snort cocaine off of their jewel cases. So to clarify, this list is about rappers, not about albums. I know what I like in a rapper, and these ones meet the criteria either because I find them relatable, they’re innovative while still managing to be fundamentally sound, or they just have crazy word play and off-the-charts steeze.
So without further ado, and in no particular order, these are some of my favorite rappers of the last decade:
1. Chance the Rapper
If Lil’ Wayne is a Martian, Chance the Rapper is a Plutonian. On acid. It’s important to realize how crucial it is that someone with such an audacious delivery NOT be wack. In fact, it really only works if you’re amazing. He couldn’t have been certain it would work out for him as well as it has, and the level of disregard for potential backlash one would have to possess in order to take such a risk is insurmountable. Think of a so-so rapper – a rapper you consider to be of average dexterity. Now imagine that rapper rapping his verses in a Chance the Rapper voice. See how it’s automatically a lot shittier? Hell, imagine Jay-Z doing all of Reasonable Doubt with a Chance the Rapper voice-modulator strapped to his huge mouth and suddenly Mary J. Blige is no longer the worst part of the album. Chance the Rapper is the only rapper with any chance of rapping like Chance the Rapper (say that 5 times fast).
In the game of style, Chance wins. In no way, however, should his style be perceived as a crutch upon which he leans. It’s not a gimmick. Of this we can be certain. How? Because even if you stripped away the crazy voice and adlibs, you’d still be left with a lyrical virtuoso. Dude is so nasty it’s damn near insulting to your intelligence. And he can sing, which isn’t a gimmick either. He’s just melodic enough to let you know that he could probably put out an R&B album if he wanted to, and it would be more Bilal than Drake. I didn’t even know they made people like Chance the Rapper, and what I like most about him is that he literally expands the spectrum of what is and what is not.
2. Earl Sweatshirt
Very few times have we seen such a prominent paradox in rap music. My first exposure to Earl Sweatshirt was the Earl video back when it only had a few hundred-thousand plays, and to say I was immediately won over would be a gross understatement. When he came out, Earl was to kid rappers what Eminem was to white rappers, and what Drake is to female rappers. What I mean is, he wasn’t just good for a kid rapper, he was good for a rapper, and any one of his contemporaries, no matter their age, would’ve been either dishonest or delusional to say they wanted any problems with him.
Earl is that rare kid in high school who smokes cigarettes, curses at adults, defaces school property, and burns shit for fun, but whose intelligence far surpasses that of his teachers. He’s the kid whose collection of reading material contains as much porn as it does Dickens. He’ll use college words to describe how he raped your mother and murdered a police officer, then he’ll call you a bitch, and you’ll actually feel like one. Frankly, that shit’s tight to me. Where Chance the Rapper is gimmick-less, Earl is essentially a self-proclaimed gimmick, a gimmick of a gimmick, which is itself a gimmick, and that’s also tight to me. He’s in on his own joke. As with Chance, it’s really only charming if you can rap your ass off, and as far as I’m concerned, no other rapper’s syllable game is fucking with Earl’s.
3. Tyler, the Creator
Since we’re on the topic of Odd Future, let’s talk about this maniac. I hated Tyler, the Creator for a literal 12 seconds before I suddenly, almost abruptly, as if I had all along, loved the shit out of him. Tyler’s the punchline of a lot of jokes, and I believe the hate he receives is merely a byproduct of the shame many grown men feel toward their inability to resist being fascinated with a nineteen-year-old black kid who eats bugs and has seizures in music videos. I feel no such shame. Call it immature, call it shock tactics, call it whatever KRS-One tells you to call it; the shit is very, very entertaining. I think we all wish we were Tyler, the Creator in a sense. Who hasn’t fantasized at one time or another about how it would feel to lead an army of shit talking, weed smoking, bitch slapping delinquents, all of whom lack any fraction of a fuck-to-give and ride skateboards even though they can afford Ferraris. Let us not forget, Tyler even made Kanye bring out the ski-mask.
In spite of what any hapless backpack mentality leftover from the 90‘s may have you believe, I personally feel the world of Hip Hop is a better place with Odd Future as permanent residents of it. Tyler made it cool to talk about your feelings, wether those feelings are I’m sad that daddy left me or I wanna tie this bitch up and drown her in the lake. For those of us who get it, being an unapologetic fan of OFWGKTA is just about the most fun we’ve had with rap music since Eminem was all chainsaws and Jason masks, and many of you are missing out. Hip Hop prides itself on keeping it real, but Tyler may be too real for Hip Hop.
4. Open Mike Eagle
Now, I’m not saying you’re dumb if you can’t feel Open Mike Eagle, I’m just saying that if you’re already dumb, you probably won’t feel Open Mike Eagle. I’ll admit he had to grow on me a bit, but once he had, it was impossible for me to take him out of my regular rotation. Mike strikes me as someone who keeps mostly to himself at social gatherings, not because he’s shy, I just doubt he meets very many people who know what the hell he’s talking about. People of his nature can easily go from being the hero at one party to the creeper at the next, it all depends on the setting. And if someone like him can manage to find his audience, I believe just about anyone can.
If you’ve ever wondered what it might sound like if your therapist got really good at rapping, throw on an Open Mike Eagle record and wonder no more. He’s not only obviously intelligent, he’s also extremely soft-spoken. In a perfect world, any book I opened would automatically start reading itself aloud in Mike’s voice. And whenever tragic events occur, Mike would always be the one to break the news to me. He’d be all, “Hey, your family’s dead,” and I’d be all, “Hey, your voice is fucking awesome.” He rarely gets excited and he’s not at all concerned with showing you how well he can rap. His delivery is similar to the way my brain functions in that there’s hardly ever any connective tissue between topics. He’s fully capable of writing a traditional song, but why limit yourself to the confines of a single subject in a world filled with so many cool things to talk about? To draw parallels between rap music and stand-up comedy (of which he’s a big fan), I think of Mike Eagle as rap’s Mitch Hedberg minus the heroin. His style might not be for everyone, but he’s very clearly mastered it. (peep: this & this)
I’m probably getting too old to idolize people, particularly underground rappers, but I’m also getting too old to be insecure about the fact that I idolize people, even underground rappers, so I fully admit that I idolize Lee Shaner, an underground rapper. I first caught wind of his name back in 2010 via Mac Lethal, and the first thing I noticed while reviewing the tracklist of his then freshly released sophomore album was that the last track featured Slug of Atmosphere. Being a devout follower of all things Rhymesayers – especially back then – I decided to go ahead and press play, and it’s more or less the best thing I’ve ever done with my life. I’m not exaggerating when I say Intuition has never put out a bad song. Ever. He’s either very skilled in his decision making, or he just really is that good. Of all the rappers on this list, pound for pound, his albums are my favorite.
I consider Intuition the Vonnegut of the LA rap scene (he actually cites Vonnegut as one of his influences, which is why he’d probably cringe at my occasional use of the semi-colon). As a fan, I find his sheer aptitude for song writing utterly astounding, and, as a rapper, absolutely discouraging. He’s written songs for each of his parents, and we all know real G’s don’t cry, so we’ll just say both songs made me tear up a lot (here & here). Someone who can manage to be so emotionally transparent yet still so effortlessly “cool” has the makings of a definitive artist, and that person should not be slept on. At this point in my life, he’s the only rapper I give any shits about when it comes to sappy songs concerning relationships-gone-awry, and his name deserves a place amongst the greats in the category of kind-of-emo-but-pretty-much-perfect. Talents aside, he’s just an awesome dude and has been nothing but a sweetheart the few times we’ve met. He even recognized me when he played Paid Dues and called me out amid a crowd of fans, which obviously made me look and feel cool as fuck. I’ve seen this guy go from the opener at empty dive bars and hipster parties to headlining the Troubadour, and it’s a strange feeling to actually be proud of someone you don’t even know.
6. Danny Brown
No homo, Danny Brown is lowkey adorable to me. Not like puppies or babies are adorable, but like homeless people and schizophrenics are adorable. He smiles bigger with every tooth he loses and he’s as fond of hairbrushes as he is 12-step programs. His hobbies include smoking blunts, swallowing copious amounts of ecstasy, eating pussy, and getting his dick sucked on stage without even trying and in spite of pretty much everything about himself. I’m inherently obligated to be a fan of someone like that. Danny may look like the textbook crackhead, mostly because he’s the textbook crackhead, but he has one of the coldest styles in rap music, and I’d rather hang out with him than any one of my friends. The first song I heard was Monopoly and I basically sold my soul to the devil immediately after. I’m not implying there’s any correlation between the devil and Danny Brown, it just kind of felt like the proper thing to do in that situation. If you can sit through Dope Song and not feel the slightest urge to pump your fist, even if you don’t give into that urge, be assured that you’re completely dead inside.
It’s not easy to admit you’ve been out-rapped by a cartoon character, which I believe is a big reason other rappers tend to leave Danny out of the conversation. And where people like Earl and Chance have styles not many others could successfully pull off, I think just about anyone’s cool-points would increase exponentially in adopting a style like Danny’s. He knows that, which is exactly why he raps that way. You know how half the songs on his albums are rapped in his crazy crackhead voice, and the other half in his normal voice, and how all the songs he raps in his crazy crackhead voice are badass while the ones he raps in his normal voice suck? Case and point.
7. Kendrick Lamar
It’s not like he’s suffered any shortage of praise, and the shit’s actually getting pretty redundant at this point, but it still stands to reason that Kendrick Lamar is probably the most important thing to happen to Hip Hop in its recent history, the significance of which might not be fully realized until at least a decade from now. At this point it’s almost silly for me to sit here and try to support that theory because, again, the word’s long been out.
To be honest, I didn’t even like Kendrick Lamar at first. I not only didn’t like him, I actually kind of disliked him. With very few exceptions, hype has always been a big deterrent for me. Granted, the first song I heard was Rigamortis, which is far from a bad song but falls pretty short of a good first impression when, thus far, everything you’ve heard about an artist strongly suggests their being the one to step in and save Hip Hop. That’s a hell of a rep to uphold, and him telling me he’d “crack the egg in my basket” was hardly convincing. So my attitude was more or less, “Oh really, Kendrick? Crack the egg in my basket, will you? Oh, you’re Marilyn Manson, Kendrick? Wow, Kendrick, that is just fascinating.” Dude’s name alone pissed me off. Like, your rap name is Kendrick? You’re telling me some kid from Compton named Kendrick is gonna crack the egg in my basket and then save Hip Hop? Totally.
Well, while the proverbial egg in my basket still has yet to be cracked, a kid from Compton named Kendrick sure as shit did step in and save Hip Hop. And let’s not be overly dramatic here – all that really means is that he made it cool to be conscious again. He also made it cool again to rap your ass off, and to write songs with a message. That happens every handful of years; someone will come along, amidst the YOLO party, and remind us of what’s important, all the while managing to refrain from being a gigantic bummer. KRS-One did it. Kanye did it. Even Lupe had a moment. But Kendrick Lamar is doing it in a way that’s never been done before. How? He’s essentially a gangster rapper in that he’s always talking about gangster shit. While 2pac couldn’t seem to decide if he was pro or anti, Kendrick just acknowledges its presence and the reality of it. He doesn’t glorify it (the way 2pac did), nor does he necessarily discourage it (the way 2pac did); he just keeps it ingrained in our psyche. And frankly, he does it better than anyone before him.
I had a list of honorable mentions but it kept growing as time passed, so I decided to save them for a second list that I’ll put together sometime in the near future.