Forget your ranking of the 50 Best Rappers Ever-hip-hop is a continuum, not a fixed list. PhotoCredit: (iStock)
One time for hip-hop.
You're influential. You're in politics, technology and sports. You run pop culture, and you're talking about ownership. You're in the ears of folks: young, old and older. You're the most popular genre of music in the United States, and you're still growing.
I'm going to tell you if no one else has: hip-hop, ya doin' good, baby.
A quick recap of some of the headlines from the past week or two in hip-hop: Freddie Gibbs spat fire while holding his son, Tyler The Creator laid down some bars about having sex with men, simultaneously challenging homophobia in the rap game and causing Funkmaster Flex to nearly have a conniption. A slew of people dropped their list of Top 50 rappers ever, leaving old heads to argue about the importance of KRS-One and MC Lyte. Meanwhile, younger artists continued to put out new heat, like YBN Cordae, who dropped his debut album The Lost Boy, a well-polished project that even hip-hop heads stuck in the '90s can appreciate.
A broader review of this year in rap has seen Lil Nas X blur the lines between country music and hip-hop, and in doing so, break the record for the most consecutive weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. Megan Thee Stallion caught folks' attention, and made 'em change their entire 2019 agenda; "hot girl summer" is so real that she's even reportedly trademarking the phrase. And the late Nipsey Hussle's legacy of longevity through self-sufficiency continues to grow: despite a longstanding investigation into Hussle's business empire, last week it was announced that a tower would be erected in the late MC's honor. The marathon continues.
Hip-hop is in a good state.
And I love it. I really do love it. The rebellious culture. The stories. The clever wordplay. The beats. I'm married to this music and the culture from which it emanates.
I know that now, after an on-and-off relationship with hip-hop since the early '90s.
It started off as thug passion: I stole a tape of Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony's E. 1999 Eternal from the Tower Records in Emeryville when I was seven or eight years old. I had the Friday soundtrack, listened to it on my sister's Discman. I loved Mac Mall's "Get Right," Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day," Snoop and Dre's "Nuthin' But A G Thang." The Luniz asked, "Why you wanna playa hate on me?" Dru Down asked, "Can you feel me?" And Tupac asked, "Does heaven have a ghetto?"
And then Pac was taken from us. I was hurt.
Biggie was taken from us. I was hurt again.
That was the first time the music I loved hurt me. And you know, the first cut is the deepest.
I almost fell out of love with hip-hop before we even really got started. But the deaths of the two legendary rappers actually motivated me to drop my west coast bias; I realized the east coast had some dope MCs.
DMX made me bark. Foxy Brown was the flyest, and she had bars. And Big Pun was spectacular with the wordplay. Ma$e had me wearing my hat backwards. I was probably the only kid on AC Transit blasting Big L through my taped-up Sony headphones. I got my writing style from literally taking Nas' verses and flipping the words to fit my life's story.
That was the honeymoon phase of my prepubescent romance with hip-hop. I considered getting a gold grill as a sign of our holy matrimony, but my momma wasn't going to have it.
The fairytale ended around the time the hormones kicked in, my voice got deep and other forms of love caught my attention. At the same time, the music got weird: big bright clothes, "snap rap" and ringtone beats in the early 2000s pushed rap to the back.
There were certain aspects that kept me attracted to the music. The Jay-Z vs. Nas beef. Folks like Nelly, Eminem and Missy were making noise, and the south was running things: Gucci Mane had a movement. Free Boosie was more than a saying. Young Jeezy, Ludacris, and T.I. were dropping classics. And Lil Wayne was on another planet with the flow.
At the same time, the Town had this new thing brewing, something about "goin' 18 dummy." It was a spirit that jumped up from the soil and got into my people; it bled into the music and became a movement. "The Hyphy Movement," they called it. We called it life.
Too $hort left Atlanta, moved back to the Town and brought a whistle. Mistah F.A.B. drove the yellow bus to the front of the class. And Goapele, oh Goapele. Her hit "Closer" was officially R&B, but to me-to us-it was simply slappin'. When the video for "Tell Me When To Go" dropped, the world stopped. I can't tell you how happy I was that Keak Da Sneak was getting recognition, and that 40 Water had caught his second wind, pimp. Man. RIP Mac Dre.
As glorious as those times were, honestly, I wasn't in love with hip-hop. Both hyphy and crunk sometimes tap-danced the line of being gimmicky. I couldn't do the D4L or the Soulja Boy thing, and that's what was dominating the airwaves. Plus, around that time I started getting deeper into journalism. I didn't want to be another "black hip-hop journalist," so I didn't write about it much.
But you know how it goes. The music and I stayed in touch.
I took note when Kanye West outsold 50 Cent. Word was that physical album sales were down, and the industry was declining; only half true. That decline in physical sales was real, and continues, but now, artists have the ability to count streams and downloads from digital albums and mixtapes. That, coupled with the ability to interact with fans on social media, results in revenue via merchandise and touring, and an ability to operate independently. It opened the doors to a next generation of hip-hop.
It was far removed from my early experience of rap, you know, "thug passion"-this was more like computer love.
J. Cole and Wiz Khalifa were cold. Freddie Gibbs was the first musician I heard from Gary, Indiana who didn't have the last name Jackson. Big K.R.I.T. was the first rapper I heard from Mississippi aside from David Banner. Curren$y emerged from lackluster experiences at Ca$h Money and No Limit to create Jet Life, and I was on board with the movement. And around that same time, I heard about this kid named Kendrick.
In the Bay, the Mekanix and DJ Fresh were dropping joints like Jordan dropped retros. Beeda Weeda and J. Stalin put out a few bangers. Man, RIP The Jacka.
The highlight of that post-Kanye/50 Cent early mixtape era was how the best rappers weren't exactly gangstas or gimmicks, they were people. Many even used their real names. That was appealing. Music was relatable, and it kept hip-hop very much alive, despite Nas' claim that hip-hop was dead.
The relationship has stood well since then, gone through some ups and downs, but the marriage has survived.
There were times when I didn't care for the whole singing/rapping thing. Autotune was death. Drake kind of made me want to revert to the gangsta tunes of the mid-'90s. Jay-Z dropped some real mediocre albums. The idea of Tupac's hologram being at Coachella was disgusting.
But at the same time, Nicki Minaj's combination of punchlines and wild voices hit me over the head. I found whole universes in the music that Future and Travis Scott put out. While Chicago as a whole needs to be mentioned for artists like Chance the Rapper and Saba Pivot, it's Noname that stands out to me the most-her delivery and wordplay are so cold.
Music has evolved. Popular artists now explicitly write about mental health, unrequited love and depression, all wrapped in dope samples and 808 kicks.
Can't lie, I don't understand all of it. Kodak Black doesn't hit for me. Blueface isn't on beat. And rest easy XXXTentacion, but I listened, and didn't get it.
I've been following the paths of Rapsody, Isaiah Rashad and Little Simz. Appreciating what I've recently heard from Benny the Butcher, Tierra Whack, DaBaby and more. I even like that singing-rapping stuff that Anderson .Paak, Smino and GoldLink do.
Around the Bay, there's a long list. Larry June, Kamaiyah, ALLBLACK, and that "My Type" song by Saweetie. Rexx Life Raj is also creative as hell, he dropped a little something on Twitter recently that speaks to his creativity.
And for my stuck-in-the-'90s head-ass folks: Pusha T is still rapping about dope, Busta Rhymes dropped a track this month, and it's not bad. My favorite rapper, Nas, dropped an album this summer; it's extra lukewarm, but I'm happy he's still rocking. Hell, even Common put out "HER Love," a sort of follow-up to "I Used to Love H.E.R.," although honestly, it's kind of corny. (When it comes to older rappers making lyrical odes to the rap game, I prefer Suga Free's recently released "TMZ.")
Scarface is running for political office, Kanye and Kim Kardashian are fighting for prison reform (go figure?) and Andre 3000 is walking around with a frickin' flute.
Look, this relationship started in the aftermath of "Fuck tha Police," grew to "My President is Black," and came back again to "FDT." It's gone through baggy jeans and bling bling. From underground counterculture to a feast for culture vultures.
And despite everything, it's still going. Still growing. Still gaining momentum.