There are not enough words, in my humble opinoion, to describe my love for American Hip-Hop. The likes of Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G,. and Ma$e spurred me to start writing verses. And even if I don’t listen as much as I used, American Hip-Hop will always have a special place in my heart. Previously, I argued my rankings of French rappers and Cameroonian urban artists. I felt compelled to do the same excercise for the most elite American rappers.
First of all, I would like to point out that deceased rappers have been excluded from this list because it is difficult to remain objective when talking about the dearly departed. For the below ranking, I chose three selection criteria: talent, commercial success and influence (i.e. the ability to set trends). I also thought it would be wise to include rappers of all generations in the list for two reasons:
- Narrowing the list down to the presently active rappers would amount to a lack of respect for the elders who paved the way for the new generations.
- Conversely, if I only stuck to the lore of the golden era, I’d be suggesting that rap was better before, but that’s not really true: Rap was just different.
So without further ado, here are my ten best American rappers of all time.
- J. Cole
The North Carolina rapper is super talented and doesn’t need to have prestigious guests to feature on his albums to drive up record sales. His last albums 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014), 4 Your Eyez Only (2016) and KOD (2018) had no such cameos, yet they were certified platinum.
Rakim’s career was at its peak in the 1980s, so most millennials don’t know him and would strongly contest his place in this list. What they (wilfully?) ignore is that, for a very long time, Rakim was considered the ultimate rap maestro (hence his nickname The God MC). He influenced so many New Yorkers, including Nas who penned “U.B.R. (Unauthorized biography of Rakim)” to pay tribute to this American rap legend. In the early 2000s, Rakim was preparing his return with Dr. Dre. In that period, he drummed up our eagerness and excitement with a string of remarkable appearances alongside the likes of Jay-Z and Truth Hurts. We were so looking forward to the album. Unfortunately, it never materialized.
- Kanye West
Few rappers have a better discography than Kanye West. Yeezy has had three missteps in his exceptional career: 808s & Heartbreaks (2008), Yeezus (2013) and Ye (2018). All the other albums are classics. I know that many people can’t stand him because of his public persona, but I’m not here to judge his personality, but his music. Whether we love him or not, we are forced to acknowledge Kanye West’s talent: this guy is a genius.
- Lil’ Wayne
Are you a Hip-Hop fan today? Then you have Lil’ Wayne to thank. Have you given up on Hip-Hop today? Then you have Lil’ Wayne to blame. Weezy has had a huge influence on contemporary rappers. They’ve adopted his look, his affinity for drugs, his flows and his punchlines. In the early 2000s, Lil’ Wayne was the undisputed “best rapper alive”. Unfortunately, a jail stint and a prolonged legal issues with his record label have put a damper on his domination. Will he be able to return to the top? We all hope so.
At this stage of his career, Drake is a bit like junk food and soft drinks: constantly criticized, yet joyfully consumed. I know scores of purists that will remark that Drake is a singer and has no place in the rap hall of fame. I will simply retort then that rap stalwarts Common and Meek Mill were “bodied by a singing nigga”.
“Name one rapper that I ain’t influenced!”, dares Nas in his song “Ether“. The Queensbridge rapper has influenced numerous artists. We vividly recall “Let Nas Down” where the rapper J. Cole reveals his admiration for Nasir Jones, one of the greatest lyricists of all time.
- Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar is the complete rapper. Try as I might, I can’t find any flaws with him. Even with his assured rap standing and financial wealth, Kendrick refuses to give into complacency and keeps working on his craft like his life depended on it. The Compton rapper is constantly improving and, with each project he releases, he manages to dazzle us anew. Kendrick never needed any marketing gimmicks to succeed. He has moved up to fourth place in this all-time thanks to his impressive talent and growing skillset. We shouldn’t be surprised if he is in first place in the coming years.
- André 3000
I’m aware that many will challenge his position in the ranking because André 3000 is not a very active rapper. Certainly, he is not very prolific, but let’s not forget that 3 Stacks is one of the most respected artists in the game. Your favorite rappers are always eager to secure a verse from André Benjamin. While most artists flood us with material to stay relevant, André 3000 has a different approach. He’s discreet and as such each appearance on a record becomes a grandiose event. His absence from music could have been detrimental to his career, but, on the contrary, the scarcity of new work has served to reinforce rating. André 3000 has proven that rare is valuable. What do I like most about 3 Stacks? His non-conformism. He has kept it real and has never been afraid to take risks.
The man needs no introduction. Everybody knows Beyoncé’s husband and his story. We all know that he is a reformed drug dealer who successfully turned to rap and leveraged that success to become a billionaire. Trying to make a list of Jay-Z’s exploits would be a long and tedious exercise. Hov’, the most constant rapper of all time, has been ruling the rap game for the past twenty years. However, despite all his achievements, I decided not to award him the crown because I chose to award it to…
He is not my favorite rapper, but I have to admit that Eminem is the best rapper if we stick strictly to the aforementioned criteria. The reason I am awarding the trophy to Eminem today is simply because every time he has rapped with his peers on the same song, he has always managed to demonstrate his superiority. Songs like “Renegade” and “Forever” are the most notorious examples. Marshall Mathers is the king!
What about you? What is your top 10?
The original opinion piece can be found on ‘Un lion parmi les hommes‘