The BET Hip-Hop Awards are a fairly meaningless annual event, except for one thing: They’re where we get to see the Cyphers, the video series where a random assortment of rappers — some stars, some has-beens, some up-and-comers, some legacy figures, some complete unknowns — go in over the same rickety old-school beats. The 2016 Cyphers were nothing much to write home about, even though the Lil Wayne/Kevin Hart bit was fun. But as an institution, it’s always been consistently entertaining even when it’s been terrible.
The first BET Cypher, 10 years ago, featured Lupe Fiasco pretending to claw at Styles P’s face and Papoose rapping, “When we say ‘BET,’ we ain’t tryna spell ‘bet’ / Black Entertainment, Papoose is the best.” For a while, they made sure to include people rapping in foreign languages, which was always weird. I can never tell how they decided to group these people together, what they might have to do with one another, who might’ve said no. But in a week with no real big rap stories — I’d planned to write about the Swet Shop Boys album, but I couldn’t think of much to say beyond “it’s good, you should hear it” — I instead spent my Tuesday afternoon digging through the history of the Cypher, picking the 10 performances that left the deepest impression on me.
10. Nicki Minaj (2009)
Nicki was a known quantity at this point, but we were still collectively trying to figure out whether all her weird voices and accents were cool or annoying. (The “Monster” verse was still a year away.) But this vicious drama-nerd attack made a strong case for its power, and she definitely made all the other dudes in her Cypher sound crustier than they already were.
9. Kanye West (2010)
We don’t tend to think of West as a great pure rapper, but he came with more force and personality than anyone else in his G.O.O.D. Music crew Cypher, debuted his “too many Urkels” line, and turned what could’ve been a throwaway performance (in the midst of an otherworldly hot streak) into an intense and emotionally driven showcase.
8. Vince Staples (2015)
One of the great things about Staples is the way he can participate in a dog-and-pony show like this — how he can kill it — while at the same time seeming absolutely contemptuous of it. When other rappers are rapping, he doesn’t cheerlead; he just stands stock-still and stares holes in the backs of their heads. I love how he kept rapping after the beat dropped out here, and how he made Raury look like a tiny and helpless little baby. (Watch it here.)
7. Eminem (2009)
Em’s performance at his 2011 Shady Records Cypher was probably better than this, and Black Thought probably honestly outrapped him in this Cypher. This has all the shitty excesses of latter-day Eminem: The wordplay for the sake of it, the twitchy delivery, the rape joke that wasn’t funny at the time and has just become more cringeworthy in the years since. But what stirs me about this one is the crowd. Eminem had been missing in action for a few years at that point, and you can just hear how excited they are to have him back, how they’re willing him to return to greatness. It’s not just a “hey, look, a famous person” reaction. It’s a “please come back, we need you” reaction. And for good or ill, he really did come back after that. I think the Cypher, and its reaction, might’ve had a lot to do with that.
6. Kendrick Lamar (2012)
In a circle full of West Coast legends (and a baby YG), Kendrick went all stuttery nonchalant motormouth, giving a head-spinning technical display that still seems a lot more sleepy and conversational than Kendrick’s other Cypher performances. (Watch it here.)
5. E-40 (2012)
The only man ever to outrap Kendrick Lamar in one of these things, 40 Water does his irrepressible, inimitable fast-rapping goofball thing. It’s a style that still hasn’t gotten old after a quarter of a century. (Watch it here.)
4. Royce Da 5’9″ (2011)
The 2012 Eminem/Slaughterhouse/Yelawolf Cypher, which lasted a ridiculous 10 minutes, was probably the most all-out insane technical-rapping display in Cypher history. But there’s a joylessness to a lot of it, and Royce, one of the best pure rappers in the group, still got by on charm and silliness. He turned “hi, Rihanna” into a catchphrase, the only time anyone’s managed to make one of those things happen during a Cypher.
3. Kendrick Lamar (2011)
In a Cypher full of young try-hards, Kendrick seems to rap in a voice that’s bubbling up from somewhere deep in his subconscious — going into a trancelike state, speaking in tongues, making weird noises, barely ever looking up long enough to make eye contact with the camera lens. Anyone who saw this immediately knew that Kendrick was something special, and this was right after Section.80, when most of us were still figuring that out. It was downright cruel to make B.o.B. rap after this.
2. Juelz Santana, Fabolous, & Jadakiss (2008)
It’s pointless to pick a winner among these three, even though Fab might get a slight edge for that of-the-moment Sarah Palin line. They were all needling and pushing each other, existing on some goofy-fun New York goon level that they only occasionally hit on their respective solo records. This Cypher was one of my favorite songs of that fall, and I watched this grainy-ass YouTube video more times than I care to admit. Also, Ace Hood was there.
1. Kendrick Lamar (2013)
The single greatest performer in Cypher history — like, by a lot — goes absolutely fucking nuclear, rapping for what feels like hours, starting up again after about a half-dozen perfectly good final lines, getting his best-ever digs in on Drake in the process. Kendrick was always ridiculous in this context. But in this one, he was a man possessed. And maybe the best thing I can say about the Cyphers, which always force you to sit through five nothing verses for every one great line, is that they can serve as a delivery system for something like this. BET can keep doing this show for the next 50 years; I don’t think anyone’s ever going to top this one. (Watch it here.)
1. SremmLife Crew – “Ball Out The Lot” (Feat. Swae Lee & BoBo Swae)
Rae Sremmurd’s new album may be a flop compared to the last SremmLife, but I could hear these effortless zooted singsong Swae Lee party-raps every day for the rest of my life. He is in a zone right now.
2. Lil Yachty – “Bentley Coupe” (Feat. Gucci Mane)
Are we going through a Minnie Riperton renaissance? First, Solange names her as a key influence on A Seat At The Table, and now Yachty and Gucci have a new antic banger where they both go in over a loop from “Loving You”? I’ll take it. Also, I have a much easier time handling Yachty’s day-glo cartoon style when Gucci is in there with him.
3. White Gzus – “G Is For Green” (Feat. GLC)
I absolutely love it when rappers build beats from the Nancy Sinatra/Buffy Saint-Marie ethereal ’60s drug-folk style. It always sounds cool. (See also: Curren$y and French Montana’s “So High.”)
4. Jeezy – “All There” (Feat. Bankroll Fresh)
In which Jeezy ditches the churchy old-man style he’s been working lately to return to that Thug Motivation 101 gothic-stomp style, with a late Atlanta hero along for the ride.
5. Country Cousins – “Trap House Jumpin” (Feat. Freddie Gibbs)
How great is it to hear a new Gibbs verse and not have to feel uncomfortable about it?
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
"I uh…just want to apologize. Whether it's true or not, Joe shouldn't have yelled 'you ain't real hip-hop, bitch'. He's just passionate." pic.twitter.com/aUbZS0VrwX
— Ol' QWERTY Bastard (@TheDiLLon1) October 10, 2016