When people dismiss hip-hop as dance music, or racist music, or cheap music, or angry music, or idiotic music, or detached music, or lazy music, they clearly have no idea what the genre is about. Founded merely on someone talking quickly over disco beats, hip-hop’s essential element has always been its words, and those who believe otherwise need take their Toby Keith records and get the hell out of the room.
It’s fascinating, really, how introspective and confounding stories can be told through 64 bars of vivid imagery on top of chopped-up and rearranged grooves. But that’s why rap music has managed to not only survive, but thrive over decades. When done correctly, there may not be another genre in all of music that has more substance within its texture. Hip-hop’s most imperative element is its lyricism and the skill with which it is presented. From the type of honest and revealing storytelling that some have mastered to the wit-centric, mind-bending lines that ooze with double entendres and third, fourth, and fifth meanings, the best hip-hop will forever be contingent on the power of its lyrics. Here, PopMatters takes a look at some of the best to ever craft simple sentences and small stories within this particularly transcendent medium.
10. MC Lyte
You can argue until you’re blue in the face about how her lack of hit songs diminishes her place in hip-hop lore, but you’re clearly not paying attention to her sheer lyrical prowess if you do. And besides, since when did ever having a hit automatically make someone a great lyricist, anyway? “We had to pause for station identification / Now ya know my name here’s some more information / Well, let’s see, what you wanna know about me? / MC L-Y-T-E / 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”, she proclaims on 1988’s “I Am Woman”. Whoever said hip-hop was only a man’s game, anyway? The defense rests.
9. Andre 3000
When he wants to be, André Benjamin is one of the fiercest Southern wordsmiths of his day. Unfortunately, the whole “when he wants to be” part of that sentence holds more weight than one may hope. He’s essentially left hip-hop behind in recent years for entrepreneurial opportunities and a desire to become a movie star, but man, when that dude is on, that dude is on. Take the first part to his final verse in “Aquemini” as proof: “My mind warps and bends floats the wind count to ten / Meet the twin Andre Ben / Welcome to the lion’s den / Original skin many men comprehend / I extend myself so you go out and tell a friend / Sin all depends on what you believing in / Faith is what you make it, that’s the hardest shit since MC Ren”. East Coast, West Coast, South, or North, Andre 3000 sure knows how to bend some minds. Come back soon, Dre.
8. Talib Kweli
A socially conscious rapper who’s the son of an English teacher, and you can tell. His voice has always been respected, his flow has always been admired. Maybe his best moment on record came from his 1998 collaboration with Mos Def, Black Star, and his overtly passionate warning to his detractors: “It’s a Small Wonder, like Vicki, why I’m picky / These n—s suck like hickies / And still get the shit they slip in like Mickies / I’m sick of the hater-players, bring on the regulators / With the flavors like a farm team fucking with the majors / Like a river how I run through it, I do it so cold / Freezin’ up your bodily fluids, your style is old”. Goosebumps. That’s what he gives you. Goosebumps.
7. Ice Cube
From somebody who once named an entire record AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, he is as violent as he is influential, angry as he is poignant. The one thing you can’t say about Ice Cube is that he never knew how to properly tell a story. Sure, he’s made the bulk of his career in movies and television over the last decade or so, but before that, the N.W.A stalwart was a force to be reckoned with in the hip-hop world.
His crowning achievement, “It Was a Good Day”, was as vivid as a five-minute West Coast hip-hop jingle could get. “Just waking up in the morning gotta thank God / I don’t know but today seems kinda odd / No barking from the dogs, no smog / And Momma cooked a breakfast with no hog / I got my grub on, but didn’t pig out / Finally got a call from a girl wanna dig out”, he raps during the track’s first verse. It reads more like a novel than it does a pop song. But that’s what Ice Cube was so good at: blunt realism that helped illustrate Michelangelo-like paintings with mere words. His verses were colorful. His attitude was spiteful. And his talent was exceptional.
The quintessential West Coast hip-hop star, Tupac Shakur was more of a personality than he was a wordsmith, though that doesn’t mean he wasn’t able to step up his game whenever called upon. “They say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice / I say the darker the flesh, then the deeper the roots”, he spits on “Keep Ya Head Up”, his ode to African-American women. It’s a heartfelt rhyme in a heartfelt track that came from an artist whose heartfelt attributes often went overlooked. Then again, that’s Tupac in a nutshell — so great for so many reasons that so many people hardly ever even consider anymore. Forever a hip-hop legend.
When the only template for your success is a guy who shamelessly ripped off the Queen/David Bowie collaboration “Under Pressure” and had the word “vanilla” in his stage name, you better know your way around clever punchlines if you want to earn respect in a business fueled by wit and lyricism. Luckily for Marshall Mathers, he was able to do just that when he broke onto the scene in 1999 with The Slim Shady LP, a thrill of an album that essentially announced Eminem as a force the rap world would have to deal with — for better or for worse — for as long as he could put pen to paper.
What sets him apart from other MCs, however, is the emotion that runs through his verses like veins in an angry teenage boy. The storytelling is there, of course — see “8 Mile” from the soundtrack to his 2002 pseudo bio-pic or the absurdly brilliant Dido collaboration “Stan” from 2000 — but it’s the sound of his constantly broken heart that gives him a unique combination of angst and intelligence that is hard to find elsewhere. Whether it’s the inspiration of something like “Not Afraid” or the run-on, mad-as-hell tirade of “Monkey See, Monkey Do”, it’s simply impossible to not believe a word he’s ever rapped. He made it OK for white artists to exist in hip-hop again, and he was only able to do that by being as technically sound as he is. A word like transcending isn’t even the half of it.
“My first album had no famous guest appearances / The outcome, I was crowned the best lyricist”, Nasty Nas boasted on 2001’s “Got Ur Self a Gun”, and the man born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones isn’t entirely wrong. He’s earned a spot near the top of every hip-hop head’s list for best wordsmith, and his consistently excellent output has made it virtually impossible to argue against him being placed in such celebrated company. Yeah, he may have never reclaimed the brilliance of 1994’s Illmatic, but as far as depth goes, you can’t find a more gifted artist who runs deeper with his rhymes.
Some of his most memorable moments have come when he’s beefin’ with his contemporaries — his back-and-forth with Jay-Z in the early ’00s was legendary, and if you polled a hundred people on who actually got the better of the other, about 56 of them would more than likely side with Nas, with no disrespect to Mr. Carter, of course. That said, he’s at his best when he’s at his most introspective and intense. “There’s 33 shots / From twin Glocks / There’s 16 apiece / That’s 32 / Which means, one of my guns was holdin’ 17 / Twenty-seven hit your crew, six went into you”, he raps on one of his more recognizable singles, “One Mic”, while on 2004’s “Thief’s Theme” he simply asserts, “I take summers off ’cause I love winter beef”. Intense. Introspective.
Jay-Z is the Woody Allen of rap. The breadth of his work is extraordinary and only rarely is its quality justifiably called into question. Much like his filmmaker counterpart, we often take his genius for granted because of how common it is to find greatness in what he does. Both have three flashpoint pieces of lauded work — Annie Hall was Reasonable Doubt, Manhattan was The Blueprint, and Midnight In Paris was The Black Album — and both seem to always be ignored when these exact type of lists are compiled for reasons that nobody can ever quite explain.
In Jay-Z’s case, it’s become baffling to think of how taste-makers, critics, and fans are always so quick to put others ahead of him lyrically when he has been masterfully crafting verses for more than two decades now. From “Can I Live”‘s “While I’m watchin every ni–a watchin me closely / My shit is butter for the bread they wanna toast me”, to “Empire State of Mind”‘s “Me, I got a plug, Special Ed ‘I Got It Made’ / If Jeezy’s payin’ LeBron, I’m payin’ Dwyane Wade”, this guy has stacks upon stacks of slick phrases that often get dismissed because of his commercial success. He’s a rapper’s rapper, much like Allen is a writer’s writer. Oh, and he’s also the most important hip-hop artist in a generation. Nas even said it himself last year: “Hip-hop has to thank God for Jay-Z.” Indeed.
The original G.O.D. MC, Rakim is peerless in his influence throughout the genre. Along with Eric B., the man born William Michael Griffin Jr. released some of the most acclaimed records in the history of rap, from the classic debut Paid in Full with such timeless tracks as “I Ain’t No Joke” and “Eric B. Is President”, all the way to 2009’s The Seventh Seal and its interwoven religious undertones that take on more meaning than most other artists even dream about concocting.
“And I’ll break, when I’m through breakin’ I’ll leave you broke / Drop the mic when I’m finished and watch it smoke”, he raps on “My Melody”, one of the many early tracks he helped craft for hip-hop’s golden age. No matter what publication you read, he’s near the top each time the best lyricists are compiled and there’s a reason for that: Nearly 30 years after he first put his voice on wax, Rakim still reigns tall over almost every other artist who’s ever picked up a mic to offer up 16 bars. He’s a living legend and that’s an understatement.
1. The Notorious B.I.G.
There hasn’t been a single hip-hop figure who embodied everything the premise of the idiom portrays more than Christopher Wallace. Like all great art, rap was founded on contradiction, a constant display of provocative punchlines. Nobody was better at taking that stereotypical hip-hop persona and redefining it with each line, each verse, each song. For as unassuming or awkward as B.I.G. was one minute, he was just as confident and confrontational the next. While the words that came from his mouth constantly echoed bravado, they were never overshadowed by the sensitivity that crept its way into each one of his utterances on wax.
Take 1994’s “Warning”. “Who the fuck is this? / Pagin’ me at 5:46 in the mornin’ / Crack a dawnin’ / Now I’m yawnin’ / Wipe the cold out my eye / See who’s this pagin’ me and why”, he proclaims during the track’s first few seconds. At first glance, it may seem fairly simple, but alas the simplicity is where the brilliance truly lies — B.I.G. knew precisely how to set the tone and the scenery for a story that would be woven into and subsequently told over a sample of Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on By”, which, in hindsight, was a pretty clever move in and of itself.
But that was B.I.G.’s genius — he knew how to create scenery so vividly with words that one has to think he would have had a great second career as a novelist if he would have stuck around long enough. That’s not to say his wordplay wasn’t top notch — just give a listen to the second verse of his Jay-Z collaboration, “Whatchu Want”, released years after his death, or his classic records “Juicy” or “Hypnotize”, and you’ll quickly be reminded that he could also turn phrases on their head to prove his point — but even so, what sets him above others was his ability to create atmosphere with his detail. Lyrically, Christopher Wallace embodied all of what continues to make hip-hop as great as it is today. He was vivid. He was honest. He was contradictory. He was sensitive. He was smart. And most of all, he was poetic.
You can argue that others have made better crossover tracks. You can argue that others have made more complex tracks. You can argue that others have made more provocative tracks. But the one thing you can’t argue is that when it comes to what makes rap music so transcending, so revolutionary, so inspiring, there is only one guy who ever laid it out in front of you as poignantly and as epitomized as anyone who ever spit 16 bars on record could. And that guy was Notorious.