You’ve had this argument with your buddies a million times, “Who are your top 5 rappers?” You decide on some rules: “Are we talking most classics or biggest influence?” “New-school or old-school?” “Favourite or greatest?” You laugh, you talk, and it gets heated up with comments like “Big’s got nothing on Pac!” and “Top 3!? Kanye’s not even top 5!” It’s an intense back-and-forth before one of you rolls the window down and shuts things down with a “…that’s just like, your opinion, man…”
Truth is, the criteria for the greatest rapper of all time isn’t as easily defined as “most classic albums” or “most multi-platinum records.” The GOAT is all about embodying the medium. They have to live, bleed and breathe hip-hop. The candidates have to be so deep into the music that they have touched the outcome of the genre in one way or another. A rapper can’t call themselves great if they haven’t carved their own path and had others follow. It’s a matter of influence; trends aren’t born from mediocrity. The rappers on this list are not necessarily the most prolific, most technical or best-selling. The greatest rappers of all time all took the musical style they know and love and redefined an aspect of it. These are trailblazers, innovators and icons. Without further ado, here are the 12 Greatest Rappers Of All Time.
12. Kendrick Lamar
King Kendrick has come to be known as the new king of the West Coast, and with good reason. Since his underground classic mixtape Section.80 dropped in 2011, Kendrick’s gone nowhere but up. His blend of conscious lyrics with sounds moulded from the the streets of Compton make him an all around threat on the mic, not to mention he can rap his ass off.
When his major label debut good kid, m.a.a.d. city dropped, Kendrick was unstoppable (I mean who didn’t hear Swimming Pools at every single house party in 2012). Following that up with what is considered one of the greatest albums of the decade in any genre, To Pimp A Butterfly had him not only loved by fans but lauded by critics. Getting a cosign from Dr. Dre, and having West Coast legends The Game and Snoop Dogg say that they were passing the torch to him means that Kendrick is up and he’s not coming down for a long, long time. For being in the game roughly five years, Kendrick is headed closer to GOAT status by the day.
11. Lil Wayne
Love him or hate him, Wayne took the 2000s by storm, and the waves he made are still crashing into the scene today. Weezy gets flak for some of his more ridiculous lyrics but when he puts his mind to it the man can tear apart a mic. Although he’s been in the game with Hot Boys since ’96, the peak Wayne that we all know and love came with Tha Carter III in 2008. The hype leading up to that album was surreal. It started with Tha Carter II in 2005, followed by a string of projects that had the world calling Wayne the greatest rapper out. That 3 year period is still arguably the biggest hot streak any rapper has been on. When Tha Carter III dropped with 4 multi-platinum singles there was no question that Wayne was on top.
10. Lupe Fiasco
If I’m introducing a reluctant friend to hip-hop, Lupe Fiasco is my go-to. The man has so many styles while remaining accessible and has a razor-sharp flow that never slips out of pocket. He can switch up cadences like no other, and his catalogue shines because of it. Lu can make bangers, conscious ballads, tracks about skating and everything in between. His angles on life and society combined with his insane writing ability make his catalogue a trip to dive into. Lupe’s 2006 debut album Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor took a look at his hometown of Chicago in a way that explored new territory. He examined the thrills and ills of his city as a sort of prophetic fly on the wall. His calculated schemes and crazy wordplay are smooth on the surface but take many listens to get into. A real MC’s MC, Lupe takes spot number 12.
9. Talib Kweli
Talib Kweli embodies the underground. Although he’s stayed out of the spotlight for the most part, Talib has been quietly killing it outside of the mainstream, paving the way for many conscious rappers to get shine. The Brooklyn MC has a quick, steady flow; a waterfall of ideas and articulate imagery that feeds into a deep pool of low-key classics from over the years. His collaboration with Mos Def for their 1998 love letter to hip-hop Black Star is an absolute must-listen for anyone getting into underground rap. The two feed off of each other’s flows for an unstoppable lyrical force. When Talib hops on tracks with more mainstream artists he always brings it. Talib’s feature on Kanye West’s song “Get ‘Em High” brought Kanye fans from the underground before he was known, and Talib still arguably killed ‘Ye on his own track.
8. Dr. Dre
Dr. Dre is a hip-hop icon. From a legendary producer to a rock-solid MC to the world’s first hip-hop billionaire there is no doubt that Dre is one of the greats. Having been in the game for 30 years, there are few rappers that even come close to the longevity that Dre has had. Starting in ’85 with his first group, the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, then taking N.W.A. to the top and laying the foundations of gangsta rap with their debut Straight Outta Compton in 1988, Dr. Dre was a pioneer before his first solo album had even debuted. When his studio debut The Chronic dropped in 1992 the west coast rap scene was redefined. Dre had single handedly brought G-funk to the masses. By taking Eminem to the top with his beats and bringing another smash of a solo album, 2001, in the early 2000s, Dre cemented himself as a legend.
7. Kanye West
By now Kanye is not only a rapper but a producer, a fashion designer and nothing less than a pop culture icon. The thing that sets him apart from the pack is not only that he’s a jack of all trades, but that he kills it in every category. Having broken onto the scene after producing classics like Jay-Z’s Heart Of The City, Kanye turned old-school soul sampling into his own lane. With classic album after classic album like The College Dropout, Graduation and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye is able to transcend styles and even genres without losing the feeling of a Yeezy track. His attitude is polarizing, his antics are ranted and raved about, but none of that would be happening if Kanye wasn’t an absolute trailblazer in the rap game, regardless of what you thought of Yeezus.
6. Andre 3000
When Andre 3k is on the mic, the result is something like poetry. The southern legend and one half of Outkast shook up the sound of the south alongside Big Boi in the mid 90s. When the duo dropped their debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik in ’94 they were quick to blow up peoples radars for up-and-coming rappers. The album ended up going platinum by the end of the year. The way that Andre flows is reminiscent of a stream of consciousness, painting pictures and drawing scenes. The south wouldn’t be the same without Outkast, and Andre pioneered that influence. With three undeniable classic albums: Outkast: ATLiens, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and Stankonia, and a growing catalog of amazing features, Andre easily earns spot number 6.
Simply put, there’s no one that does it like Marshall Mathers. Coming from one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Detroit, Em rose from adversity, struggling to be taken seriously despite his race. What defined Slim was not only his villainous, explicit style, but his incredible lyrical dexterity. Ask any rapper that considers themselves a lyricist and Eminem is one of their biggest inspirations. What sets Em apart is his huge level of mass appeal. At the height of his popularity he had two 10x diamond certified albums with The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show. Few rappers have gained such insane mainstream popularity without compromising their technical ability. Eminem stays lyrically top tier and has such a unique persona that he can’t be passed up in any top five.
Nas is arguably the most influential rapper on this list. In 1994, Nas dropped his debut album Illmatic and changed hip-hop, full stop. The album, nearly universally lauded as the greatest hip-hop album of all time, is an exploration and documentary of the streets in the Queensbridge projects in New York City. Its cold, grimy production paired with Nas’ smooth, but complex flow gives an unmatched immersive feeling of a New York winter night. Illmatic was the beginning of a lot of street rap as well as some of the rhyme styles that we see everywhere in the rap scene today. There isn’t a rapper currently in the game that hasn’t been influenced by Nas and Illmatic, it’s the definition of a classic. If it weren’t for Nas’ inconsistency in the letter half of his career he’d be number one, but expecting him to continue to innovate at that level considering what an asteroid Illmatic was to the landscape of rap would be too much to ask.
Pac was a gangster rapper on the surface, but left listeners with layers to peel back to get to his complex core. He gave the people something that they couldn’t find in anyone else. When his debut album 2Pacalypse Now dropped in ’91 he was only 20 years old, and people knew that he was to become a legend. Pac had lyrical ability that allowed his ideas to flourish on the mic, but above all he had emotional versatility that led to a legendary persona and an untouchable discography. He spoke on topics like police brutality, poverty, teenage pregnancy, then turned around and gave praise to his mother. With the 20th anniversary of his death in recent weeks people still feel the impact that he had on hip-hop today. Kendrick Lamar’s new-school masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly showcases an interview with Pac that proves that his message lives beyond his death. Pac was a gangster, a scholar, a poet, a son, and the third greatest rapper of all time.
2. Notorious B.I.G.
Biggie Smalls, The Notorious, Big Poppa, or Christopher Wallace had a persona like no other and an unmistakable flow. When you hear Biggie’s voice on a track, you know your ears are in for a treat. His thick, relaxed style paired with his deep, commanding voice gripped tracks and took total control. He used his unique voice to tell tales of struggle and violence juxtaposed on the same album with celebrations of wealth, weed and women. Big made the bad sound awful and the good sound life-changing. He had such conviction in his voice and his messages that there was never any doubt about what he was saying. Had his life not been tragically cut short in 1997 at the age of 24, we would no doubt have gotten a better glimpse into the life of a legend, but during his short life Smalls gave us unmatched verses and tracks that live on to this day.
1. Jay Z
Jay is at the top of this list because more than anyone else he is so unequivocally hip-hop. Start with his classics. Albums like Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint and The Black Album contain more style, storytelling ability and raw lyrical prowess than most rappers pack in their entire discographies. His signature style blends ruggedness with class; refinement with braggadocio in a way that no other rapper has been able to copy, although many have tried. In interviews Hov is always the coolest one in the room, with an air of experience reflected in his rhymes. With an astonishingly diverse flow and vivid stories of coming up the streets of Brooklyn, Jigga is unstoppable at what he does. His status in the rap game comes not only from his music but his empire, with an estimated net worth of $610 million, he’s an MC-turned-mogul that’s still a legend on the mic.
Sources: forbes.com, therichest.com, newsweek.com, xxlmag.com, riaa.com, mtv.com