Even in an era when rappers rarely share studios with their collaborators, emailing in their contributions instead, the art of the guest verse is alive and well. It’s still a point of pride for one rapper to swoop in and steal a track’s spotlight away from another. And that sense of friendly competition is still one of the things that makes rap so fun to talk about; we rarely agree on who won what. So here’s one man’s opinion on 2011’s 10 greatest examples of track thievery. Leave your own favorites in the comments section below.
1. Busta Rhymes on Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now”
There are still plenty of reasons to hate Chris Brown, he’s still vaguely responsible for one of the year’s most thrilling musical moments: Busta Rhymes stepping onto his prim club banger, politely offering to show Breezy how it’s done, and then delivering a breathless triple-time rant that doubled as a mind-boggling technical-virtuosity display and a ferocious act of stylistic one-upmanship. When Lil Wayne follows that verse with one of his own finest 2011 performances, it simply feels like the comedown.
2. Nicki Minaj on Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$) Remix”
Nicki was a dominant guest-appearance champion in 2010, but 2011 was the year she actually got famous, so she didn’t really need to spend as much time making her name by ripping other people’s tracks to shreds. One notable exception: When she snarled through Big Sean’s simplistically butt-obsessed, Hammer-sampling club track to declare her own transcendent sexiness in some of the nastiest possible ways: “Kiss my ass and my anus, ’cause it’s finally famous,” etc. A command performance.
3. Danny Brown on A-Trak’s “Ray Ban Vision Remix”
CyHi Da Prince, the guy who dominated the original “Ray Ban Vision,” is not a great rapper. Neither are chirpy fashion-rapper Donnis and technically sound personality void Pill, the other two guys on the remix. So it’s not like a born firebreather like Danny Brown really had to work overtime to completely steal the track. But he did it anyway, with a demented extended rant. And for those of us who’d previously found his electro-shock yelp annoying, this was the moment where it started to make sense.
4. El-P on Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire’s “The Last Huzzah”
There was no shortage of great rapping on eXquire’s posse-cut remix of his breakout track, but New York skronk-rap godfather really stole it with his arrhythmic numerological assault. El’s pipe-bomb delivery was so tough and blustery that it was easy to mix how dense and complicated his actual words were, at least until he posted those lyrics on his blog. A rare case where it’s worth reading the lyrics to a rap verse.
5. Lil Wayne on Ace Hood’s “Hustle Hard Remix”
Lyrically, Wayne’s delivered a few hundred verses more lyrically resonant than this one, and maybe it’s not a great idea to jump on an anthem about grinding through adversity just so you can brag about your two private jets. But on this one, Wayne got over on voice and delivery and simple straight-up charisma. He just sounded cool, and he pronounced the word “hustle” better than anyone ever has before.
6. Freddie Gibbs on Curren$y’s “Scottie Pippen”
Freddie Gibbs’s forthcoming collaborative album with Madlib should be a monster, since, for whatever reason, Gibbs’s relentlessly gruff tough-guy double-time always sounds amazing on diffuse, spaced-out production. And here’s another example of that: Gibbs, with the permanently weed-dazzled Curren$y as his foil, vengefully rips through this dizzy Alchemist track.
7. Pharrell on T.I.’s “Here Ye, Hear Ye”
It’s not easy to share a track with a returning-on-fire T.I., but Pharrell, all prim-but-snarly style, walked away with this track with his sniffy hauteur: “It’s fecal, fam / Yeah, it’s the shit / Zip ya face up when Skateboard is on the script.”
8. Rick Ross on Lil Wayne’s “John”
This one is almost unfair, since the song, with its repurposing of “I’m Not A Star,” was basically already a Lil Wayne song. But Ross’s magnetic bellow was still strong enough to hang with Wayne, and he gets extra points for the ridiculously badass wheelchair-assisted video appearance.
9. Andre 3000 on Drake’s “The Real Her”
It’s now been more than five years since the last OutKast album. Andre makes more guest appearances than he did a few years ago, but every one that he does still feels like an event, even if he’s weirdly likely to devote his energy to random stuff like Ke$ha’s “Sleazy” remix. So it was fun to hear Andre on an actual important rap record, and it was even more fun to hear him go into the sort of emotionally nuanced thing on a record that actually demands that sort of thing. Drake’s song is silky, regretful R&B, and Andre’s verse is stuttery reaching-for-connection emotional fare, with an oddly on-point NCAA football reference.
10. Cam’ron on Uncle Murda’s “Warning Remix”
For this and this alone: “Smack the shit out ya neighbor / Smack the shit out the mayor / Smack the shit out ya pregnant baby moms while she in labor.”