Top 10 Rappers of All Time
Who's the king of hip hop? A question that many have wanted answered for years. Some say it's Tupac, some say it's Biggie, some say it's Jay-Z, some say it's Nas. Some even say Rakim. Basically, it's all subjective. I'm all about objective, and that's what this article is about. Objectivity. No bias, no axe to grind, nothing. Just my hardcore, honest, objective opinion on the subject. My criteria is based off flow, subject matter, longevity, and impact. You may have seen many greatest rappers of all-time lists in magazines, websites, and on television but you will never see one as thorough and persuasive as this one.
1. Tupac Amaru Shakur aka 2pac or Makavelli
You probably see Tupac #1 on most lists, but what you don't see is a thorough explanation why. I deliberated ambitiously on whether or not to put Tupac #1, but I had no choice but to. What rapper has had more impact than Tupac? He's been gone for a decade and a half and his music is still timeless. Tupac didn't always have the best lyrics or wordplay, but his flow was provocative, captivating, original, persuasive, unique. When you heard Pac, you immediately knew who it is. Nobody else could sound like him. He had that voice that could blend in so well even in R&B songs. His subject matter will never be matched. Nobody will ever be able to replicate Brenda's Got a Baby. No matter how hard they try. Brenda's Got a Baby illustrated that while Tupac was a menacing gangsta rapper, he had a soft side and could tell a beautiful story about the type of things that goes on in a world that nobody cared about, the ghetto. He spoke for the voiceless in the ghetto. He always looked out for his people and wanted America to know what was really going on in the streets. Dear Mama even surpasses that. Tupac captivated the hearts of mothers all around with his ode to mama. Not many rappers have ever been able to touch the hearts of so many people like Pac has.
Pac obviously couldn't be #1 on this list if he didn't make popular songs and classic CDs. All Eyez on Me was a classic displaying Pac's raw lyricism mixed in with songs displaying the jubilation of his freedom from jail. It was his most commercially successful album to date. The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory was arguably Tupac's greatest album. Only taking a mere seven days just to complete. The album was by far Tupac's darkest album, and showed a side of him nobody had ever heard before in his music. Taking raw shots at rival musicians, something that was not unordinary for him, but it was in the way he did it with raw lyricism, and bluntness with no remorse. The album was the first of many posthumous releases.
What really separates Pac from the rest of the pack is that he made hundreds of unreleased songs. He cared about his fans enough to record hundreds of unreleased songs in case something happened to him. His will and determination to succeed was unmatched by any rapper ever. Pac wasn't just a good rapper, he was a good person. An intelligent human being. Far more intelligent than anyone ever realized when he was alive. I still find myself today learning new things about Pac coded within his music. He also just happened to be a great actor as well. There weren't too many things Pac couldn't do, and he was truly a blessing for us hip hop heads. He shall forever be #1 of all-time in our hearts. Rest in peace.
2. Shawn Corey Carter aka Jay-Z
Much like Tupac, Jay-Z's impact on hip hop is immense. Jay-Z has everything you want in a rapper. You could never accuse him for lacking swag. That braggadocio, mafioso, smooth flow is why we all love him. If you are wondering why I have Jay-Z #2. It's simple, his resume. His resume is arguably greater than Pac's. His longevity will never be duplicated. His flow was always sick. His lyrics were always sick. He had classic albums. He's had his share of beefs. He's done it all. I think anything lower than #2 on a greatest rappers of all-time list is a disservice to Mr. Carter. Reasonable Doubt will be forever etched in our minds as one of the best albums of all-time. His terrific wordplay, smoothness, and lyrical intelligence was on full display. Even rivaling the late great, The Notorious B.I.G., in Brooklyn's Finest. In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 is his most underrated album, but where America took notice was in Vol 2... Hard Knock Life in which he won a Grammy for Best Rap Album. The Blueprint, while not as great as Reasonable Doubt, was classic in its own right. This is where the braggadocio really started to shine, and Renegade with Eminem is one of the best hip hop collaborations of all-time. Rivaling Brooklyn's Finest. And Jay-Z just wouldn't stop there.
His ability to last in a changing environment, and adapt in an era where hip hop has lost so much steam is what separates him from any other rapper. When hip hop was losing steam, he latches on to R. Kelly, and makes two great collaborative albums with him. Even going as far as making an album with Linkin Park. Jay-Z is a true entrepreneur and I can't recall another rapper who has been able to sell his product better than Jay-Z. Hova even owns a professional basketball team. There is no limit to Jay's impact on hip hop and the world. He is what most rappers aspire to be. To this day he is still able to stay relevant and make successful albums such as the collaborative album, Watch the Throne with Kanye West. No rapper alive has been able to stay as relevant, as consistent and as successful as long as Jay-Z has, and that is why he is #2 on this list.
3. Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones aka Nas
Arguably the greatest lyricist of all-time. Only few can rival his wordplay, vocabulary, and delivery. The mastermind behind arguably the best album of all-time, Illmatic. To this day, it is still recognized as one of the best albums of all-time. If you can find a site that doesn't list Illmatic at least in the top-5 in any greatest rap albums of all-time list, I'd be shocked. Illmatic broke down barriers and unearthed lyricism on a level in which nobody had ever heard before after its release. Truly a classic and never to be duplicated, but there's more. It Was Written was another lyrical masterpiece. More mainstream than its predecessor, and more "gangsta," Nas showed his versatility and willingness to appeal to a broader audience. The height of his career came during the feud with Jay-Z. Two of history's greatest rappers would duel in a feud for the ages. It was this feud that sparked the creation of Stillmatic. Where Nas proceeded to make one of the greatest "diss" records of all time, Ether. Ether took jab after jab at Jay-Z and insulted him in a way no rapper has ever done before. There are constant debates as to who won the long since squashed beef between the two giants, but Nas' Ether is universally seen as one of the best diss tracks of all-time. What gets lost in the hype surrounding Ether, was just how great the album was as a whole. It established to the world that Nas still had it after a plethora of inconsistency. One of the things that holds Nas back is his inconsistency from album to album, and why Jay gets the nod over him. But that still is not enough to keep him out of the top-3. Nas' overall impact on music is still great even despite the inconsistency, because when he hit, he hit it 450 feet out of the park.
4. Christopher George Latore Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G.
"Your reign on the top was short like leprechauns as I crush so-called willies, thugs, and rapper-dons." A remarkably clever line like this unintentionally foreshadows what Biggie Smalls' career would end up being, unfortunately. But even despite that, Biggie cracks #4 on my list anyway. His overall impact on the game will never be forgotten, and he will be forever missed. Why I have him lower than the others is not for a lack of talent that's for sure. Biggie is arguably the most talented rapper of all-time, and could have been the best no question had he made more material. His lack of material is what holds him from being the king like Pac. Biggie is one of the few rappers who could rival the lyrical ability of Nas, the smoothness to match Jay-Z, and the tenacity to hang with Tupac. Biggie had it all. His debut album, Ready to Die, would introduce to the world a different type of raw, stylistic flow that immediately jumped on the cutting edge of East Coast rap. He made being paunchy cool. He never cared about what anyone thought of his looks. And the ladies didn't care either. Nobody did. He loved it when they called him Big Poppa. But it wasn't all about the ladies, Biggie let you know what was going on in the world with Things Done Changed. Gimme The Loot displayed Biggie's ability to play two different roles and tell a story within the same song. Showing Biggie's versatility and intelligence as not only a "rapper" but also showed that he could be a literary writer if he chose to be. As alarming as Suicidal Thoughts was, it still resonated deeply within the hip hop world. Like Tupac, Biggie could paint a vivid picture and really give us a deep glance into the type of person he really was within his music, and he could also be funny.
His sophomore album, Life After Death, which would be actually released after his death(scary I know), he would take his lyricism to new levels. In this album, he took a much more mafioso and mainstream approach, and displayed the calm and smoothness of Jay-Z while also showing that he could be just as lyrical as Nas. His ability to tell stories unbelievably improved(not that he wasn't already great in the first place) even more. As if Biggie had not already proven enough that he was a versatile rapper, there came Notorious Thugs. A song into which Biggie adapted to the fast-paced style of his counterparts, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony; Biggie seemed to outshine them using their own style. Just further solidifying just how talented Biggie was. Much like his debut album, Life After Death would end with a somber feeling which also frighteningly foreshadows his death and given he actually died before the album was released.
Biggie's death left many people in a state of shock much like after the death of Tupac. What was so disappointing about Biggie's death is the fact that he never was able to realize his full potential. After giving us back-to-back classic albums, something that has been rarely done in hip hop, he was gone in a flash. Biggie displayed a unique ability not seen from any other rapper in history. He had a little Tupac in him, a little Nas in him, a little Jay-Z in him, and a little Ice Cube in him. It was as if all of the greatest rappers ever were combined into one portly body. He possessed the talent to be the best ever, and it's a shame he was taken away far too soon. Leaving us all feeling cheated. Without the death of Biggie who knows what could have happened. Would Jay-Z have ever become this popular if Biggie lived? Jay-Z seemed to be in Biggie's shadow when he was still alive.
So many rappers used Biggie-lines in their songs, including Jay-Z, who used many on his classic, The Blueprint. There is no doubt Jay-Z would be lower than Biggie on this list had Biggie never passed away. No rapper was able to outshine him in a song. He could seemingly take over every song as just a feature like in songs such as Flavor in Ya Ear, and Can't You See w/ Total. For as good as Jay-Z was on the classic Reasonable Doubt, he still managed to be upstaged by Biggie slightly in Brooklyn's Finest. His impact in the hip hop world with just a mere two albums just shows how good he really was. He is probably the most talented individual to ever grace the mic, but his lack of albums and unfortunate death make him lower on an all-time list than he should be. When we are talking about the greatest rappers of all-time, resume matters. If we were just talking about the most talented rappers ever, Biggie would be #1 on many lists. It's a shame.
5. Marshall Bruce Mathers III aka Eminem
This might come as a shock to some, but it's really not that debatable for me. Eminem is one of the few rappers that can match Nas from a lyrical and vocabulary standpoint. His complex wordplay, impeccable delivery, and raw lyricism are why Eminem cracks the top-5. In a genre dominated by African-Americans, Eminem was not afraid to break down that barrier, and he broke it down in a big way. After not getting the credit he deserved underground early in his career, all it took was Dr. Dre to put him on the map, and he hasn't looked back since. He took gruesome and unorthodox to new heights. It's easy to criticize something you don't quite understand. Nobody knows this more than Eminem. But that's part of what makes him brilliant. He's someone you'll never understand. He embellishes the hate, the criticism, the skepticism, and the shock value of his subject matter and became a household name.
He turned many heads when he dropped The Slim Shady LP. A controversial, lyrical phenomenon, and a classic. If you didn't know what his name was after that album, I don't know what to tell you. Guilty Conscience is one of the most brilliant songs ever written. Often criticized for its subject matter, it had a deeper message. Like many of Eminem's songs. Many critics often couldn't see past the excessive profanity and the misogyny of a minor. Beyond the profanity, was always a deep message. Many took too much offense to the things he said. It's entertainment, and that's what Em was aiming at. It's no different from a violent scary movie. Nobody seems to have a problem with violence on tv and in movies, but they seemed to have a problem with a rapper talking about it. In Guilty Conscience, Em and Dre are actually emulating the shoulder angel and shoulder devil. Dre is the voice of reason, and Em is like the devil. But Em doesn't want you to actually do those things. He's emulating what we all actually think sometimes. You mean to tell me you've never thought about doing something really bad? We all have. It all depends on what part of your conscience you listen to. Bad Meets Evil is a lyrical masterpiece featuring Royce da 5'9 highlighting metaphorical excellence with astounding wordplay. Overall, it was a brilliant, dark album and a great way to put himself on the map with Dr. Dre.
Following The Slim Shady LP, Em hit a homerun with The Marshall Mathers LP. Arguably his most successful album. Displaying once again his dark, raw, exceptional, and brilliant skills. What better way to start an album than to tell America that you couldn't care less what they think? There are many alarming songs on the album based on the content of them, but that is how Eminem felt. He chose to express himself in his own way, and that's what makes him one of the greatest. Let's be honest here, every mother in the world isn't good. There are some bad mothers in this world, and Eminem wanted us to know that. There are some bad wives in the world as well. I'm not condoning Eminem's way of addressing it, I'm just saying I don't have too much of a problem with it. He says things that sometimes a lot of people want to say. It's not as if Eminem actually did any physical harm to his wife or mother. They are just words and entertainment. And something that many people failed to mention is Eminem's unconditional love for his daughter, Hailie. The only thing people seemed to talk about was Em's hatred for his mother and wife, but nobody ever gave him credit for showing so much love to his daughter. Proving that Em isn't a heartless person. He also showed on this album that he can kick some knowledge in The Way I Am. He doesn't care what anyone thinks of him, and he's gonna be himself no matter. That is a lesson we could all learn.
Far too often, Eminem has been criticized for not having a classic album. If you don't think Em has a classic album to his resume, then you aren't being fair to him. The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP are classics. And much like Jay-Z, Eminem has been able to find a way to stay relevant, and be consistent from album to album. The Eminem Show is a very solid album with hits such as Superman, Without Me, and Cleaning Out My Closet. Not really a classic, but a great showing to say the least. Encore, while not great like The Eminem Show, was still a solid showing, and showed a lighter side to Eminem. After disappearing for five years, Em returned with Relapse. In this album, like Jay-Z, Eminem showed the ability to adapt to changing times in a dying hip hop era. Changing his style somewhat, Eminem still showed the lyrical ability that we hadn't seen since the Marshall Mathers LP. It wasn't a classic album, but it was a great album, and much better than it's given credit for. In Recovery, Em returned more back to his roots. A good album, not a classic or great one, but it shows once again Em's consistency. Staying consistent, making classics, adapting to his environment, and being one of the most original innovators of all-time, Em is definitely a top-5 rapper all-time. Regardless of what the critics say.
6. William Michael Griffin Jr. aka Rakim
Trust me, it was very hard finding a place for Rakim on this list. He's like the original gangsta of the list. All of the rappers before him and after him on this list wouldn't have done what they did without Rakim opening the door. So you can understand that it was very tough for me to put him too low on this list. He's a pioneer, a lyrical genius. Ushering in what would be the foundation for many rappers that would follow him. Simply, nobody rapped like Rakim when he hit the scene. He was original, cool, collected, intelligent, and not many rappers could rival him in his time, and he wanted them to know it. Breaking down lyrical barrier after lyrical barrier in the then Golden Age of Hip Hop.
There really aren't many negative things you can say about Rakim. Paid In Full is an absolute classic. It's hard to believe it was made in 1987, given how the lyrics were so advanced and well before their time. Just a timeless classic that weaved in a beautiful flow and new rhyme scheme never heard before. After following Paid In Full with a great sophomore album, Follow The Leader, he would spawn another classic in Let The Rhythm Hit 'Em. And I have to be honest, it was my favorite of the three. It saw Rakim break down even more barriers and got more serious. Not as much braggadocio as Paid In Full, and had a more earthly feel to it. It is one of my favorite albums of all-time and often one of the most overlooked albums ever.
If there is any criticism of Rakim, and why I have him lower than most would is because frankly, he didn't make enough music when he's had every opportunity to do so. At the end of the day, he really hasn't made a groundbreaking album since splitting with Eric B. When Hip Hop really became popular in the 90s, Rakim wasn't a big part of it as he saw his innovative style emulated and done better. He hasn't really done anything since his days with Eric B. and that's hurt his legacy. There is no question the immense impact Rakim has had on the hip hop world. I'm not trying to slight him in the least, because he is the pioneer of sick flow, and will always be universally seen as a top-5 or top-10 rapper of all-time.
7. O'Shea Jackson aka Ice Cube
You can't have a top-10 list without Ice Cube, and once again, it was tough to put him this low. He's arguably top-5, just as Rakim is. Ice Cube told it like it was. He never bit his tongue for anybody. He told you what was going on in the streets. He told you what he thought about the police. He told it all. After making the classic, Straight Outta Compton, with the iconic group, NWA, Cube really made a name for himself going solo. The jaw-dropping and riveting Ameri***a's Most Wanted. Ice Cube's hardcore voice and flow coupled with banging beats made this album a phenomenon. The album illustrates what made Cube so great. He wanted people to know the ills of the ghettos, and wanted America to listen to problems within our own country. If that wasn't enough, Death Certificate was just as good, if not better. Displaying once again his raw effectiveness as a rapper.
Cube's subject matter is what truly makes him one of the best rappers ever. Cube wasn't just a rapper, he was a father figure. For many kids in the ghetto who grew up without fathers, when they popped in a Cube CD, Cube became their father. Cube is one of the most influential and outspoken members of the hip hop community. He never backed down from what he believed in, and that's why he got the respect that he did. And it wasn't just his rapping that had an impact in hip hop, it was also his acting. Like Tupac, Cube is a brilliant actor. His breakthrough role of Doughboy in Boyz n the Hood is one of the most unforgettable and relatable characters of all-time. Cube was also the mastermind behind Friday, one of the most hilarious movies of all-time. Cube would go on to make many more movies and become an entrepreneur and inspiration for many young African-American males.
Cube's impact in hip hop wasn't just in music, but also in films. He is one of the most inspirational human beings to grace the planet, and one of the most insightful rappers to ever rock the mic.
8. Brad Terrence Jordan aka Scarface and Akshun
The "King of the South." A name proclaimed by many, but a name that should only belong to one individual. He started as a Geto Boy. His raunchy rhymes would quickly catch the attention of the hip hop world. Underrated by many. "Your favorite rapper's favorite rapper." The one and only, Scarface. The true "King of the South." Much like Ice Cube, you could feel Scarface's presence on the mic all around you when you heard him utter the first words of his opus. A Minute to Pray and a Second to Die is my favorite song of his, and one of the most underrated songs of all-time. You just have to wonder, if Scarface were more popular, this record probably would have gotten a lot more respect. It exemplified how Scarface could paint a picture so vividly with his powerful words. No, he didn't have the best flow or voice, but he told great stories, had great lyrics, and made you listen. That was evident in the classic, The Diary. Mind Playin' Tricks '94, nuff said. Another one of the most underrated songs of all-time. The Diary is a raw classic with hardly a skip on it. Despite how great this album was, it still didn't get much recognition outside of the hip hop world.
Smile ft. Tupac would be Scarface's biggest success on the charts on his album, The Untouchable. That shows just how little respect Scarface had received. It took four albums for one of his songs to finally be really noticed. Scarface wouldn't stop. Despite not getting the fame he deserved, he kept making good albums, and would spawn another classic called The Fix. Which would feature prominent rappers such as Jay-Z and Nas in songs in which Scarface more than held his own.
Overall, Scarface's impact wasn't as gargantuan as most others on this list, but there is no doubt he's had a great impact on. Especially in the south. You have to really question where south music would be without Scarface. You also have to really question why a rapper as great as Scarface couldn't get the love that he really deserved. He had everything you needed to be successful. He had the rhymes, the classic albums, and the subject matter. He didn't have the best flow, but it was still good. I for one will definitely give Face the respect he deserves. The respect as a top-10 rapper of all-time.
9. Lawrence Krisna Parker aka KRS-One
There's not enough words to describe KRS-One. He's a walking, breathing, personification of hip hop. I couldn't sit here and tell you everything he's meant to hip hop. It's better if you just listen to him:
10. Lamont Coleman aka Big L
It was hard to come to this conclusion. So many great rappers could have been chosen for this spot, but I went with Big L. Why? It's simple. He's the greatest underground rapper of all-time. And nobody really comes close. You could also make a case he's the greatest "freestyler" of all-time. He's also one of the few rappers that I mentioned earlier when describing Eminem, as someone who could rival Nas' lyrical ability and vocab. I have to show some love to underground rappers. Without them, hip hop wouldn't have a leg to stand on. Many don't get the respect. Many have put in the work for years and never got noticed. Many to this day have yet to be noticed. It's a tough grind for underground guys. Big L was one of the few who got noticed and respected. No rapper has had the impact underground like Big L has. Big L has some of the sickest flows ever heard with jaw-dropping metaphors, punchlines, and wordplay. Many have considered Big L as one of the top-5 best pure rappers ever. There seemed to be no end to L's talent. He was born to rap, and unfortunately, he was taken away way too soon.
Many have often criticized Big L for the lack of a classic album. Many have him much lower than I do on their greatest rappers of all-time lists because of it. I happen to disagree. His one and only album that he released while he was alive, Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous, was a classic. No, the production wasn't classic, but it didn't really matter because Big L was that good. Frankly, mostly every punchline or metaphor from Big L was classic. He has so many memorable lines. He didn't need a classic album. Everything he said was classic. He doesn't have the resume of the other rappers on this list, but he's the personification of underground hip hop. That is why he is on this list. Underground rappers are the foundation of hip hop. The glue. The linchpin. They deserve respect. Every rapper on this list started off in the depths of the underground at some point. Nobody will forget Big L, and his legacy has grown even a decade after his death. He was really all-time great, and it is unfortunate that he never had the chance to become a household name.
Which one is just the better rapper
Take away legacy and impact, who is the better rapper between these two?
This list will be subject to much criticism. Many Biggie fans might disagree and think he's too low. Many might think I have Rakim and Ice Cube too low. Some will question why I have Big L on this list. It was tough, and it took a lot of thinking, researching, and listening, but here you have it.
I love hip hop, and I enjoyed making this list. It has had one of the biggest impacts on my life, and I wouldn't be the man I am today without it. It traces back all the way to the 70s, when a man named Clive Campbell would become DJ Kool Herc, and spark this movement called hip hop. Hip hop isn't just about music, it's a way of life. It's a movement. What each of these rappers have provided for hip hop has been infinitesimal. They have helped make it a global phenomenon. They have helped us as human beings get through tough times and uplift us. They have been fathers to kids when they didn't have fathers growing up. When they didn't have anybody to tell or teach them right from wrong. They have had an enormous impact on the world. It's a beautiful thing when you can see Tupac and Biggie murals in other countries. While there has been so much good attributed to hip hop, there's also been bad.
Hip hop has often been criticized for misogyny, violence, profanity, and obscenity. And rightfully so. When many people think of hip hop, they think of those things. Hip hop is more than that. It's not always about that, and it's often misunderstood. Many often overlook and miss the messages within the music. Just because of what they say on a track doesn't mean they actually do or did those things. At the end of the day, it is entertainment. Sometimes it is taken too far, but not all rappers are that way. And even when rappers such as Tupac would say vulgar things, they also had messages, and tried to keep listeners from committing violent acts or treating others wrongfully.
Everyone wasn't brought up in a loving household with both parents like I have been so fortunate to be blessed with. Many rappers have had it tough, and all they wanted was their voices heard. It was not about promoting violence, misogyny, or using profanity profusely. It was about expressing themselves, teaching us how to live with the choices we make in life, telling a story, or telling us what was going on in their world around them. Of course, also to make money. Before you judge hip hop, at least give it a chance. Try to see past the profanity. Try to see past the misogyny. Try to see past the materialism and braggadocio. Most rappers have a message. Hip hop is more than what you think it is.
Other top rappers of all time lists
- The 50 Greatest Rappers of All Time | HipHop365.com
The 50 Greatest MC's of All Time: Voted on by a panel of industry DJ's, journalists and the HH365 staff.
- MTV.com: The Greatest MCs Of All Time
MTV News is your source for the latest Music, Movies and Entertainment News and Information. Find Artist Photos, Exclusive Interviews and Features.
- The 10 best hip-hop artists - in pictures | Culture | The Observer
DJ Tim Westwood's pick of the greatest MCs