Top 10 Rappers of All Time (Part 1)
By Austin Prim
Any group of friends who listen to rap have argued, debated, and possibly fought over who the top 10 rappers of all time are. At the very least, they’ve discussed the order of the Top 5. Regardless if you’ve created a Top 5 list, Top 10 or even a Top 50, ranking music & music artists at its core remains subjective and heavily influenced by personal preference. Because of this, most lists people tend to share usually reflect their favorite rappers, as opposed to being an objective inventory ordered by factually-based criteria. I believe the disconnect exists due to a lack of universal benchmarks in which we judge. But that’s what I’m here for!
Before we dive into what I feel are the minimum standards for creating an arranged Rapper list, we should clarify what we mean by “rapper”. The three nuanced connotations of the word “rapper” one could reference. When someone mentions an artist is the best “Rapper” they could mean lyrically, influentially, monetarily or several other personal iterations of the word. I’ve narrowed it down to these separate identifiers: Rappers, Lyricists, & Hip-Hop Artists. The categorization of an artist ultimately determines where they would rank on any given list. One rapper may be #7 on a top 10 Lyricist grading, while being #37 on a Hip-Hop Artist list.
This is self-explanatory. It’s simply based on the rhyming ability one has. Rhyme-scheme, metaphors, wordplay, entendres etc. When we’re grading someone solely on their lyricism, we’re asking “Who will out-rap who?” Does Lil Wayne have better punchlines than Fabolous? Is Big L’s rhyme scheme better than Biggie’s? Record sales, longevity, awards, none of those things matter. The standings are purely built on lyrics; nothing more, nothing less.
Rappers (as a profession)
The term “rapper,” as I’d classify it for positioning artists on a Top 10 list, is broad. Basically, if the music you aim to make is rap, then you’re a rapper. If you say words with minimal melody, have rhyming phrases, whether it’s over a pop beat or boom-bap, you could be considered a rapper. This includes anyone from Prodigy to Flo Rida. The rapper label embodies all aspects of what makes someone a dope rapper or rap artist. This is the broadest way, usually the easiest approach and generally the most referred-to association of the word.
This last grouping gauges the quality of music and influential impact on the culture by an artist whose music is grounded in Hip-Hop. Sorting via Hip-Hop Artist standards funnels out the outliers in the Rappers group who truthfully identify as Pop Artists and just happen to use rap as their musical style. However, it’s more inclusive of artists who are known for their overall musical influence. The production, style, and artistic integrity hold more weight when judging rather than their lyrical ability or who actually wrote the song. Artists like Dr. Dre & Pharrell would have opportunities to be ranked higher in this category than they would as a Lyricist or as Rappers since they do much more than just rap.
With that being said, when creating my Top 10 Rappers All-Time list, I’m using the “Rappers” meaning. It includes all aspects of being a rapper. Because there are so many facets to being a rapper, I’ve condensed those characteristics into 5 decisive factors that help take personal preference out of the equation:
Album Quality – Does this rapper have (certified) classic albums? Does this rapper have albums that are critically acclaimed, universally enjoyed and touted as great bodies of work by both critics and fans? Does this rapper have multiple good-to-great albums?
Longevity – How long has this rapper been in the game? How long were they on top of the game, and how relevant were they at their peak? Does their music still get played and do their albums still hold up?
Cultural Impact – Did they influence Hip-Hop culture in any way? Did they influence new artists, the way the listeners view rap, or change the way the music industry works? Did they change how the Hip-Hop culture views itself?
Lyricism – Can this artist rap? Is there a message in what they’re saying, and are they saying it in a interesting and clever way? Does this rapper write their own lyrics?
Sales/Awards – (More of a tie breaking category) How many albums has this artist sold? Do they have number one singles and/or albums? Have they been recognized for their music?
These 5 tests can help detach bias/opinions, and help create a generally accurate ranking based on facts or measures that have provable evidence. It’s easier to claim that Lil Kim should be ranked higher than Lil Yachty when Kim has a critically favored album, impacted almost every female rapper in Hip-Hop and has bars. You can still have your individual inclination to listen to Lil Boat 2 over The Naked Truth, but there’s no real footing to place Yachty over her on the Best Rappers List.
I know what you’re thinking: “Where’s the list?” It will be in Part 2. I wanted to preface the actual list with the qualifications and criteria that list will be based upon. Everyone has their own opinions. Everyone creates their own lists. Although I’d never be able to remove all personal bias and influences from my rankings, the above information is what allows me to create a truer list - one that I feel should be universally placed as the standard. We can adjust it as rappers come and go. You can agree with it, you can disregard it, but I’m sure you’ll respect it. Part 2 coming soon.