The 8 Ball 05.24.13: The Top 8 Rap Lyricists
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 05.25.2013
From Tupac Shakur and Eminem to Big Daddy Kane, Nas and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 rap lyricists of all time!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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I'll come clean; when it comes to music, I'm a lyrics guy at heart. I love a good melody and great production values and a beat can really get me going. But as a writer, I think I have a natural tendency to appreciate those who weave their art with words and so that's what first draws me to most songs. And in both rap and rock music, there are no shortage of skilled wordsmiths. For the next couple of weeks I thought we would take a look at the best lyricists, first in rap and next week in rock.
Caveat: Pretty self-explanatory here but just to spell it out; I qualified this list based on a lyricist's influence within the genre, writing ability and the ability to deliver said lyrics. Both innovation of lyrical conventions and actual content were considered. And as always, personal preference played a part...thus the "opinion" part of the opinion column!
Just Missing The Cut
• Slick Rick
• Kendrick Lamar
• Big Pun
• Aesop Rock
• Kool G Rap
#8: MC Lyte
There are many artists out there who have proven that while hip-hop is a male-dominated genre, women can be just as successful. From Lil Kim and Eve to Lauryn Hill, Nicki Minaj and more, there have been many women who made their mark in the rap game and left lasting impressions. While she is far from the best known, the most lyrically talented of them for my money was the one and only MC Lyte. Lyte released her first album Lyte as a Rock in September of 1988 as the first major studio full LP by a female solo rapper; the album regularly ranks among some of the greatest hip-hop albums ever recorded. Lyte never tore up the charts; her highest-ranked album on mainstream charts was 1996's Bad As I Wanna B at #59. However, in terms of lyricism there are few that can match her. Lyte didn't change herself for success and she didn't fall into the oversexed images that some of her contemporaries (and follow-ups) did. As she said on "I Am Woman," "The Queen, nah, that's too corny/the sexy, nah, that gets the guys too horny/the best, now that sounds conceited/but what is true is true, so it has to be repeated." Lyte hasn't recorded a new album since 2005 but she makes occasional guest appearances and unlike may featured artists she always adds to the tracks she contributes to.
#7: Andre 3000
Don't think that just because I'm including Andre 3000 that I don't have a world of respect for Big Boi's lyrical skills. It's simply a matter of Andre having the edge over his Outkast partner in terms of lyrical skills. When Andre is properly focused on music, there's no one in the Southern rap game that can keep up with him. Andre has the ability to paint such vivid picture with his lyrics that you don't need a lot of imagination to envision what he's rhyming. When he raps on "Aquemini," "Live from home of the brave with dirty dollars/And beauty parlors and baby bottles and bowling ball Impalas" you know exactly what he's talking about even if you've never been there. He hasn't released a full solo album since Outkast split in 2006 but he makes occasional appearances on other people's work. Andre is one of those guys who, as a rap fan, you just desperately want to make a full-fledged return to music so that the bar can be raised for hip-hop.
Scoff all you want, but Eminem isn't on this list just because he's popular. Mister Mathers commonly ranks among the greatest MCs and yet he's often referred to as overrated or past his prime. While he's admittedly never topped the artistry of The Marshall Mathers LP, even Eminem at 75% of his peak lyrical skill reigns supreme over most artists today. While Encore and Relapse saw addiction-fueled dips in quality, he made a creative comeback with 2010's Recovery. Em has an ability like few others to make his raps sound almost conversational; even when he's spitting out a vehement rant against one target or another he does so in a way that expertly flows and sounds eminently musical. This is why songs like "Kim" and "'97 Bonnie & Clyde" work so well; they come off like actual conversations set to a beat and production work. Sure, he's known to most for the pop culture references and shocking content but he's also an incredible in terms of his raw honesty and willingness to tackle subjects that hit close to home, making it all sound accessible and engaging. Eminem is a commercial brand without a doubt but he is also a true artist who is unstoppable when he's at his best.
#5: Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur was one of those artists who could bring the realities of the streets to a world that had no concept of such. Sure, he relied more on his charisma than your average lyrical genius but that didn't mean that he couldn't bring the game when he wanted to. His writing abilities have long since been overshadowed by the East Coast/West Coast feud and his untimely death; the latter, of course, has given rise to the inevitable claim that he's only so well-regarded because of his death. I consider that incredibly unfair, especially in the case of Shakur who was as good at delivering wicked jabs at his enemies as he was with describing the world that he inhabited, with lines like "They say pussy and paper is poetry power and pistols/plotting on murdering motherfuckers 'fore they get you/picturing pitiful punk n***as copping pleas/puffin weed as I position myself to clock G's." And it wasn't just his diss tracks and songs about the hood where he excelled; look at "Keep Ya Head Up" where he delivers his ode to African-American women. It's quite the statement that Tupac is underrated in the wake of his other skills and the events of his life, because it shows how important he was to the genre.
I recently covered the Nas vs. Jay-Z feud in my Top 8 Rap Feuds list and said I wouldn't even try to touch who won that feud. The reason for that is because while Jay came out the more commercially successful rapper and even delivered some better blows ("Super Ugly," everyone?), Nas proved himself the better wordsmith. But this shouldn't really be news. Nas has consistently earned his position as one of the greatest lyricists in hip-hop history from album to album. The biggest slam that anyone can say against him is that he's never topped Illmatic, and if that's the bar for quality rap lyrics than we must really hate the genre. Nas can do it all in terms of wordsmithing; he can deliver blistering diss tracks, turn that pen toward himself and go deeply introspective or anything in-between. Last year's Life Is Good delivered yet another great album full of fantastic, memorable tracks. Nas has stood the test of time and by all indications will continue to do so for a long time.
#3: Big Daddy Kane
Big Daddy Kane is, without a doubt in my mind, one of the most gifted rappers to ever put rhyme to paper. The rapper who started off in the Juice Crew was one of the most influential MCs to ever get his hands on a microphone and ruled Brooklyn well before Jay-Z and Biggie were ready to rhyme. "Ain't No Half Steppin'" is one of the greatest rap songs of all time and set the that's just one track off the watershed album that was Long Live the Kane. You can hear BRK's groundwork in just about every rapper today, but few of them can match him when he was at his peak. He had swagger and style to spare and could do just about anything he wanted in terms of style. People remember him as much for his flattop as his rhyme skills at this point but he was well ahead of his time and considering how much he was loved during his time, that's saying something.
#2: The Notorious B.I.G.
I will admit that personal preference comes into this a little bit, but Biggie was the first rapper I personally heard that spoke to me in a way that made me treat rap like more than a fad. Christopher Wallace is recognized as one of the great rappers for his ability to tell a story and relate himself to a greater audience. While his resume is somewhat limited in comparison to other rappers due to his death, just about every track he delivered was top-notch and made you hungry for more. Biggie told stories with his rhymes, weaving skillfully in and out of metaphors left and right while he displayed both an unshakable bravado but also a certain sense of vulnerability. That's a rare combo. Few people could set the tone of a song quite as effectively as he could; he was like an architect, building the structure of his songs with an economy of words designed for maximum effect. Biggie was the first guy I ever thought of as poetic in terms of hip-hop and for my money he's very nearly the best.
Born William Michael Griffin Jr., Rakim was half of one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time alongside Eric B. Between 1987 and 1992 the duo put out classic album after classic album, starting with the seminal Paid in Full which is considered one of the most important albums from hip-hop's golden days. Rakim's lines rhymes raised the game to an entirely new level and while their partnership would end due to a lawsuit with MCA Records over money, Rakim maintains his position as one of the all-time greats (just as much as Eric remains one of the all-time great hip-hop DJs). Rakim emerged from the end of his partnership and went on a solo career that saw four masterful albums, with a fifth set to be released later this year. He essentially created the multiple-syllable rhyme scheme that is so prevalent today and did it with an ease that modern rappers often fail to achieve. He part of one the few rap acts to make it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and deservedly so.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
Unfortunately no nerdcore rappers made it onto the list, but I wanted to give the subgenre a spotlight. As such, check out one of the godfathers of nerdcore, MC Frontalot, with "Nerd Life":
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.