I AM A HUGE fan of rap music. So I have decided to list what I think are the dopest rap tunes ever because I like making lists. What makes a dope rap tune, I hear you ask? Well the combination of four – really five – things: lyrical content, flow, production and voice, with the fifth thing being quality of the chorus (something that not every rap song needs). When it comes to lyrics, I don’t expect nor want every rapper to try to be the GZA or, god forbid, Tech N9ne but if the song has simple or boring lyrics then the other stuff better be on point otherwise it is just a bad song. “Voice” is a bit more nebulous because there are some rappers, Jay Z for example, whose voice I just find horribly grating. So I find the majority of Jay Z songs, unless it has a feature, to be unlistenable despite his great ear for production and his obvious talent as a rapper.
So without further ado, on to the list:
10) Jay Z – 99 Problems
You may be thinking “wait, didn’t Joe just say he finds Jay Z unlistenable?” Well ’99 Problems’ is the exception to the rule. Literally everything about this song is fantastic, especially if you compare it to the crap Hov has pumped out recently. Jay Z rides a superb beat by the legendary Rick Rubin – a throwback to late 80s early 90s rap music which was loud and guitar driven – with an eagerness and aplomb that he seemingly has lost in the 12 years since this song. And the chorus, oh man, the chorus is so simple yet so effective. There is a reason why “if you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you son…” has lived on longer than anything Jay Z has done before or since.
9) Kanye West – Lost In The World (Feat. Bon Iver)
This was one of the more difficult choices for me to make. I love a hell of a lot of Kanye West songs. There is a reason why I consider him a musical genius through the way he very rarely puts a step wrong when it comes to:
a) making songs
b) making entire albums, a hard thing especially in this day and age and ESPECIALLY when it comes to rap music.
So I had to put something by him on here. Problem was, what to choose? Well it has to be ‘Lost In The World’. Yes, it is a glorified instrumental but for some reason it just really speaks to me. Kanye West transforms the Bon Iver sample of “I’m lost in the world, I’m down on my mind” from a rather scary premise, to something that should be lauded. Which is certainly a unique message when it comes to rap music and that is probably one of the reasons I love this song.
8) Talib Kweli – Get By
Talib Kweli, for those who don’t know, is/was a member of the New York rap duo Black Star with his friend Mos Def. They split their ways after one AMAZING album and Talib Kweli went on to make some fantastic songs. His rapping is predominately fast paced with a moralistic and intellectual bent – in other words, he is far more likely to rap about racism and the representation of black people than bitches, drugs and money. ‘Get By’ is his best song by far. Kweli raps about how black people are destroying themselves through their sins just to “get by.” And his rapping is superb. As soon as the beat drops Kweli goes off like a greyhound and doesn’t stop almost until the song ends.
It is awe-inspiring just hear him flow so effortlessly, it makes you wonder just when he gets time to breath. What really makes this song, and this isn’t just the massive Kanye West fan talking, is the beat. West’s Nina Simone sampling beat is top shelf with its sparkling keys, throbbing bass-line and powerful choir that appears near the end of the song. ‘Get By’ still feels modern even almost 15 years later and that is a testament to Kweli and West bringing their A-game.
7) Madvillain – Accordian
DOOM is an enigmatic producer/rapper who wears a mask when he performs and has multiple characters whose perspective he raps from. Madlib is an old school producer/rapper whose beats are characterised by their low-fi-ness and really odd samples. When those two join up, they become Madvillain: a duo that rivals other rapper + producer collaborations like Neptunes and Clipse, Jay-Z and Kanye West or Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. ‘Accordion’ epitomizes what is fantastic about both rappers. DOOM’s lyricism may seem goofy at first with his references to Freud, Dastardly and Muttley and Doritos, but just below the surface is a lyricist of startling skill: “slip like freudian/ your first and last step to playing yourself like an accordion” is my personal favourite little rhyming couplet. And the production is just so…weird. It is not often you hear an accordion in music these days, let alone rap music. And much like DOOM himself, the beat has a bit of hidden depth in it, like when the low synth appears roughly in the minute mark. ‘Accordion’ is a song that is hard to get into, but it is worth the effort.
6) Raekwon – Wu-Gambinos (Feat. Method Man, RZA, Ghostface Killah & Masta Killah)
No one does posse cuts like members of the Wu Tang Clan and this is the best one they have ever done. The beat is pure 90s RZA with its disturbing string section and threatening keys. It is simple but effective and really lets the various members of the Wu Tang Clan to shine. The entire song is basically each rapper rapping for roughly a minute each about how hardcore they are, like the best posse cuts, with Method Man chiming in with a sort of chorus and…Jesus Christ it is fantastic. Who has the best verse in a song filled with 10/10 verses? Surprisingly, it is the RZA, Wu Tang Clan’s producer and occasional rapper. He raps like a machine gun and says so much in such a shot amount of time that you need to open rapgenius to work it all out.
5) OutKast – B.O.B.
For those of you who live under a rock, OutKast is the rap duo that consists of Big Boi and Andre 3000 – two of the greatest rappers ever. They are both accomplished rappers who have sublime flows, clever lyrics and a versatility that leaves the competition in the dust. B.O.B. is the best example of this and is just an incredible song. It is a song that has everything and the kitchen sink in it, but doesn’t sound crowded or overblown. Catchy chorus? check. Brilliant verses that are both sublime flow and great lyrics? Of course. A crazy ass beat? ‘B.O.B.’ has a beat so weird and wonderful that it has a guitar solo, a choir, and Drum & Bass drums. It is a song that gets you PUMPED and makes you think at the same time.
4) Dr. Dre – Nuthin But a G Thang (Feat. Snoop Doggy Dogg)
Peak Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg flowing off of one another over a chilled out P-funk beat is utter perfection. Never has Snoop Doggy Dogg’s drawl so indelible or Dre’s beats felt so effortless – before he became an unbearably anal ‘perfectionist.’ ‘Nuthin’ But a G Thang’ is a song I have to blast out every once in a while during the summer.
3) Eminem – Stan (Feat. Dido)
This may come at a surprise to some people. I am VERY vocal in my dislike for Eminem. But I only loath his post-Encore output. Before then, I can quite comfortably consider him one of the best rappers of all time. ‘Stan’ is such a crazy song because one doesn’t expect someone so popular like Eminem to drop a song that tells a story, especially one from such a unique perspective of an obsessed fan, that is usually the realm of Slick Rick, Ghostface Killah or to a lesser extent, DOOM. I just love ‘Stan’ so much, the entire concept is so ambitious and Eminem just knocks it out of the park and into the stratosphere. It is easily one of the best rap songs ever written.
2) Nas – Life’s a Bitch (Feat. AZ)
I have to be honest here, as much as I like ‘Life’s A Bitch’ it is really here for one reason and one reason only: AZ’s verse. Nas is great of course and the production – by Nas no less – is hazy and makes me imagine New York on a cold, misty night. But AZ…he is only on for a minute (and does the chorus) but within that minute he raps, in my opinion, the greatest hip-hop verse of all time. According to Rapgenius, one of the reasons why it sounds so good is because it has “multisyllabic and internal rhymes” and THAT, along with AZ’s voice and the beat, is why it sounds so Goddamn good. And looking at the lyrics, they aren’t wrong in how technical it is and how amazing it sounds. Phenomenal song.
1) Wu Tang Clan – C.R.E.A.M.
Pathos. Pathos, pathos pathos. That is the magical word when it comes to some of the best rap songs. If you can make the listen empathise with your predicament or point of view then you have succeeded as a rapper – note, it isn’t always needed, but it is a very useful tool to have in your rap toolbox. ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ by the Wu Tang Clan is the perfect example of that. The production by The RZA alone, especially the creepy keys, says so much but when you add Raekwon and Inspector Deck rapping about their hard lives before they found each other it is hard to not feel something at their plight. Inspector Deck’s life is the most heartfelt since he was arrested, “chose to smoke sess” in a failed attempt to overcome depression and that New York has “stickup kids, corrupt cops and crack rocks and stray shots.” I will never truly understand what it was like to live in an area like the poor parts of New York… but ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ is probably the closest I will ever get to understanding.
Honourable Mentions: 4th Chamber (Feat. Ghostface Killah, RZA & Killah Priest) by GZA the Genius, Definition by Black Star, Renegade (Feat. Eminem) by Jay Z, Ether by Nas, POWER by Kanye West, The Next Episode (Feat. Snoop Dogg, Kurupt & Nate Dogg) by Dr. Dre, Lose Yourself by Eminem, Gimme the Loot by Notorious B.I.G., Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos by Public Enemy, Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A., Jazz (We’ve Got) by A Tribe Called Quest, Apollo Kids (Feat. Raekwon) by Ghostface Killah, Rosa Parks by OutKast & Ain’t No Fun (Feat. Nate Dogg, Warren G & Kurupt) by Snoop Doggy Dogg