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In no particular order. I’ve been waiting for a platform to discuss this for a while, and now I can finally spread the truth.
Before we begin, I gotta clear the air on Kendrick Lamar’s absence: I certainly considered his placement on this list, but for the article’s sake, I decided not to preach to the choir of college students who grew up listening to Kenny in his prime. Let’s begin.
Years active: 1994-2006, 2016-present
Place of origin: Atlanta, Georgia
Associated acts: Outkast
With a personality reminiscent of George Clinton’s Star Child, André 3000 is an exuberant and all-knowing being descended onto the microphone, delivering prophetic maxims disguised as mundane tales. What separates the better half of Outkast from other hip-hop greats is his ability to dissolve the barrier between artist and audience and deconstruct typical hip-hop conventions. His lyrics read like an emotional conversation between friends; André demands the empathy and close ear of the listener, pulling back the curtain on celebrity, youth and race. His perspective as an artist is devoid of the usual obsessions of a young rapper thrust into fame, but takes the form of a wise observer calmly reflecting on stardom from high above the clouds. With nearly biblical storytelling and imagery, it is no wonder Outkast call themselves the ATLiens: André 3000 is not from this planet.
Standout verses: “Elevators (Me & You),” “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” and “Solo (Reprise)”
Years active: 1995-present
Place of origin: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
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Associated acts: The Roots, The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon
Of course the greatest freestyler of all time gets a mention here. From spry jazz rapper to gruff-voiced, conscious hip-hop king, Tariq Trotter is the bearded rap behemoth behind The Roots’ brilliant discography. Thought’s style of essay rap leaves you frozen, mouth agape, staring upward at a monolith of wordplay and razor-sharp lines. His X-factor is his Lebron James-esque longevity. At 51, he is still in peak form, now a grizzled rap sage delivering dense poetry about Black plight in America, his origins and what sets him apart as an artist — all with the same fire in his heart as his “Things Fall Apart” days. Thought is as authentic as the instrumentals from the live band that backs him. A musical scholar with a fillerless catalog; when Black Thought speaks, you better listen.
Standout Verses: “Without a Doubt,” “What They Do” and “Funk Flex Freestyle”
The Notorious B.I.G.
Years active: 1993-1997
Place of origin: Brooklyn, New York
Associated acts: Junior M.A.F.I.A.
This is probably the pick that will get hip-hop heads the most upset — I know, I know. He dropped two albums while alive. But what Biggie did while on this Earth is nothing short of incredible. Big had the greatest flow of all time: not because of his impressive technical skills, but because of his unmatched swagger, effortless delivery and head-nod-inducing smoothness. With so much rhyming across bars, it was as if he would deliver all his verses in one breath, even saving some extra air to deliver a boisterous hook afterward. Big surpasses his gangsta rap peers with his humor and versatility. He could rap a conversation between characters with two distinct vocal inflections, borrow a West Coast beat and outdo any G-funker, or sing his heart out about robbing his haters just to get his licks in. While his contemporaries had too much pride to stray from the macho-man norm, Big embraced creativity and vulnerability, going as far as to include a rapped suicide note as the closer to his debut. A master storyteller, punchline deliverer and performer, there’s a reason why The Notorious B.I.G. is still synonymous with Brooklyn to this day.
Standout verses: “Going Back to Cali,” “Suicidal Thoguhts” and “Kick in the Door.”
Years active: 1993-present
Place of origin: Staten Island, New York
Associated acts: Wu-Tang Clan, Theodore Unit
Listening to Ghost is kind of like some dude from Staten Island sporting a bathrobe and smelling like Moët Rosé whispering sweet nothings into your ear. And by whispering sweet nothings I mean scream drunken somethings about exuberant delicacies, lavish relaxation and robberies gone wrong. The enigmatic slang that he invents makes it impossible to fully comprehend his verses with one listen, yet does not add any mystique to his character. Instead, Ghost inhabits a Tony Soprano-type role: he’s the loveable neighborhood mob boss that everyone knows is a killer behind the scenes. He’s oftentimes so ferocious in his yelpy delivery that it’s tough to tell if he's rambling or rapping, but once you get the hang of his style, jaws hit the floor. Despite this, Ghost isn’t always an animated oddball. His painstaking verses put you right beside him in the toughest moments in his life, with detail down to the letter. Never has there been a rapper so skilled and uniquely themselves as Ghostface, nor one with such extensive knowledge of fish.
Standout Verses: “Bring Da Ruckus,” “Shakey Dog” and “Impossible”
Years active: 1991-2020
Place of origin: Long Island, New York
Associated acts: KMD, Viktor Vaughn, King Geedorah, Danger Doom
There’s not a lot I can say about the villain that hasn’t been said before. The mask, the all-too-signature flow, the multiple rap personas. They’ve all blended together to create the folklore legend that is DOOM. The word clever incarnate; he is a god of rhyme, often having full lines coincide with the ones that follow. DOOM constantly leaves listeners four punchlines behind, tangling in them in a jungle of obscure references, layered entendre and raspy baritone. Honestly, you’re better off reading. From silly to sinister, meticulous to monstrous, it’s clear the hip-hop sorcerer stands above all — his raps like a bubbling cauldron sputtering bohemian limericks. Poking fun at the mortals who consume his sound, he jokes they “don’t know what he sayin’ but the words be funny.” Truer words have never been spit.
Standout verses: “Doomsday,” “CELLZ” and “Curls.”
I am open to any and all debates. Please message me on Instagram @theshowpart2 if you have any words. And if you come at me with anyone named “Aubrey” or “Marshall,” you’re getting dunked on. Respectfully. Ciao.
Listen to Cam and his buddy Brett talk about music at 8 p.m. Fridays at WDCE.net!
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