Nas proclaimed Hip Hop Is Dead 10 years ago. He had to raise the stakes on the album with a grandiose title and statement to start a conversation (and sell records). What he most likely meant, coming from the old-school ilk and seeing dance crazes take over the mid-aughts, is that lyricism is dead. If he was right, then every artist on this list is a zombie. From Chance’s exultant exuberance to André 3000’s unexpectedly busy 2016 to those old A Tribe Called Quest dogs learning spectacular new tricks to multiple actor/rappers, underground stalwarts, up-and-comers, and Godson himself, each person on this list takes the pen and pad seriously. Hip-hop is growing more diverse each and every year, and it’s still alive and thriving. Lyricism is just one facet among many — it is far from dead. Check out 25 pieces of evidence below.
25. Shia LaBeouf – “Zapruder”
When an actor can play characters named Stanley Yelnats IV and Louis Stevens, it’s usually safe to assume they have zero rhyme skills. Then again, not every actor has Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Missy Elliott, and Prince tattooed on his thighs.
Shia LaBeouf has been wilding out for quite some time now, but really went crazy over JayLib’s “The Heist” instrumental. Multis, similes, metaphors, disses, internals … you name it and LaBeouf did it. The verse sounds like old-school Canibus mixed with Asher Roth circa his I’m-going-down-in-history-for-my-love-of-college freakout, but it’s technically skillful as hell and LaBeouf has a little bit of undeniable swag to him (as much as a Yelnats can generate anyway). Lil Yachty said LaBeouf should “stick to acting,” but honestly this verse is a perfectly executed hit. LaBeouf can hide behind the I’m-not-a-rapper shield while he lets off rounds. If Yachty or anyone else he chose for target practice comes back at him wack, LaBeouf comes out looking like the next double threat à la Aubrey Graham. If he gets riddled with shots (which none of the rappers he aimed at are really capable of), then he can still come out unscathed, claiming rap as a hobby and superfan. Nice move, but please don’t make any more of them in the music world.
24. Jaden Smith – “Labor V2″
It seems Jaden Smith’s acting and rapping skills have an inverse relationship. His best performance on-screen remains Pursuit Of Happyness at 5 years old (he was pretty bad in The Get Down). Meanwhile, Smith turned in probably his best verse ever on his 18th birthday, ready to show everyone he had grown-man bars. Having two actor/rappers on this list that aren’t Aubrey Graham is weird (having him on this list would be weirder), but credit is due where it’s due. Smith packed so many thought-provoking lyrics into this verse that he had one of my fingers hovering over the scrub function on my iPhone at one point, and it’s been quite some time since I had to run any lines back for comprehension. The bars just seem above his cognition, based on anything he’s dropped before, but not only is he operating on a higher plane of thought, he’s expressing himself skillfully. Hence this nice group of bars toward the end:
Turned a lyricist into a soldier/ How many times have I told ya/ And how many times am I telling them/ just because you see the melanin doesn’t mean that I’m a felon/ I’m here to show you the intelligence/ What is the bullshit you’re selling them/ They just want us all in jail and then/ they can take away our right to vote and use the free labor/ Ay, I know you’re not a slave, bruh/ And I didn’t even need to say much/ Man, you knew since you was born there/ you were sent down here to save us/ But life just keeps throwing shit at you/ and you was looking for a break, huh?
OK Jaden, noted.
23. Riz MC – “Zayn Malik”
Riz MC has one of the best rap voices to come along in a while. He already has a timbre that’s hard to top, so when his flow and lyrics are on-point, and he’s firing on all cylinders, even a solid lyricist like Heems has trouble keeping up. Riz Ahmed has a tendency to turn to his Pakistani roots for depth in his verses, and that hits potently with him still being racially profiled in airports on the regular, but when he combines his heritage with technical skill and his unique delivery, he’s truly untouchable. This excellent Zayn Malik flip surrounded by multis has him leaving any kind of crutch far behind:
I pray for my nephew, I pray you’re not antagonized/ By all the hating and news and the shit they sanitize/ Look Zayn Malik’s got more than 80 virgins on him/ There’s more than one direction to get to paradise.
Sheesh. Don’t sleep on that Swet Shop Boys album.
22. Elzhi – “Egocentric” (First Verse)
Elzhi has been criminally slept on since his days in Slum Village. The original trio was already overshadowed by J Dilla’s genius, but coming in as the quasi-replacement for the irreplaceable Jay Dee would leave anyone irrelevant. That said, Elzhi is one of the best lyricists in the game today, and if you’ve been napping on his solo efforts, you’re missing on some the most finely worded verses on wax. Lead Poison is mostly concept-driven with vivid storytelling and imaginative scenes. “Egocentric” is fittingly where he takes some time to just flex some lyrical muscle, but he also uses that muscle to propel the concept of keeping your ego grounded, and that synergy makes this verse incredible. Hence the bars: “It will rip a room apart, to chew through your human heart/ You’re mystified from what exists inside, a Jekyll/ Is Mr. Hyde, bigger fish to fry, while our wrists were tied.” It’s a shame that El is continually looked over, but that’s what fuels him to be his best — and his best is better than most.
21. Topaz Jones – “Tropicana” (First Verse)
Topaz Jones is just at the base of a very high rise. His lineage has given him a great foundation. His mother is one of the first black women to attend an Ivy League school. His father was a funk bender in Slave and Aurra in the ’70s and ’80s. Jones combines these sensibilities to deliver the cleverest of rhymes over irresistible grooves with a personality that belies the art-school kid he’s supposed to be. On “Tropicana,” the lightest bit of funk, trap, and bounce are the perfect bed for Jones to kick slickness with an easy flow that’s incongruous to complicated rhyme schemes. The Montclair, New Jersey up-and-comer is ready to be Fetty Wap’s lyrical counterpart coming of out Jerz, but he has a charisma and energy that won’t keep him confined to his region for long.
20. Open Mike Eagle – “Check To Check” (Second Verse)
LA-based Open Mike Eagle had one hell of a 2016. His knack for displaying his lyrical dexterity and personality within the strictest of concepts without limiting himself is fascinating. “Check To Check” is like one long rolling verse that mirrors his compulsive desire to check his phone, and that marriage of the verse’s form and the song’s concept coalesces into some comedic, sharp commentary on how addicted we are to technology. These particular bars have superb storytelling, clever wordplay, and crazy concept adherence:
Battery getting low, but it’s not quite out yet/ So check, I’m in your house, now I’m checking for outlets/ I need to use Maps cause I don’t know the route yet/ I need to see an email, I don’t know when the sound check/ Yeah, I should’ve wrote it all down from the outset/ I’m all under your couch, I really got to figure this out/ Is this an outlet here on the ground? Yes!
Eagle can be overambitious trying to align so many different aspects of a song, but when it all comes together, it’s a sound to behold.
19. Ka – “Conflicted” (First Verse)
Kaseem Ryan, better known as Ka, has been spitting flames while protecting people from literal flames for almost a decade now. He got “exposed” this year in a hit piece in the Post for “projecting street cred and an anti-cop image” while working as a captain in the FDNY. Ummm, duh. Ryan still has black skin underneath that firefighter fit, and he happens to have the skill and authenticity to make powerful statements full of nuance and depth that everyone should hear. Unfortunately, he’s been tragically slept on for years, with people missing the point like the Post, but hopefully that hit piece will backfire (pun intended) and more people get to heed great verses like the pair he turns in on “Conflicted.”
Ka speaks on the conflicting messages he internalized growing up in a crime-ridden, drug-addled Brownsville, Brooklyn community. He captures his inward dissonance perfectly on the hook, “Mommy told me be a good boy/ Need you alive, please survive, you my hood joy/ Pops told me stay strapped son/ You need the shotty, be a body or catch one.” Then he waxes poetic to illustrate vivid pictures you can’t help but get immersed in: “The coke drought made it a cesspool/ What they ail is steel, need a fresh jewel/ Enthralled in crime not more but nah less cruel/ Attractive street where active eat the less drool.” It’s not enough to just rhyme nice to get noticed these days, and in Ka’s case he was even vilified for it, but for anyone who actually listens to a single verse from the MC and appreciates hip-hop culture, he’s impossible to ignore.
18. Daveed Diggs – “Air ‘Em Out” (Third Verse)
It’s rare you hear cats come with three 16s on a track anymore, but that verbosity feels limiting and much too short when Daveed Diggs is spitting. There isn’t a wack verse from Diggs on Splendor & Misery or Wriggle, and it’s easy to see why he left Hamilton to help push clipping. forward. “Air ‘Em Out” stands out because he swags the shit out of some sci-fi references that are going way over the average head’s head, but still makes them accessible. Who knows what the hell Oankali, Panshekara, the Kefahuchi tract, ansibles, or the Ekumen is without looking it up? Kudos if you did, but I certainly had to, and it made me realize how much I miss the days where I had to look things up or rewind for comprehension. It felt good. What makes this verse truly excel though, is that none of it feels forced. It’s just Diggs being the art-school nerd that he is over a dope beat. Diggs being himself on any platform is welcomed and appreciated.
17. Young M.A – “Eat”
Still think Young M.A is a Bobby Shmurda clone? She’s bodied too many beats and exuded far too much charisma for that comparison now. She dives into her deep wealth of personality skillfully on “Eat.” M.A has that old-school New York swagger about her, with her tendency to be long-winded, but the energy rarely dips, and her nuances keep things interesting. She’s brazen, unabashed, and ready to take on all comers. Hence bars like:
I swear to god I ain’t scared of these niggas? Damn, I’m must really put fear in these niggas? Because they call me a dyke, a faggot, a gay bitch? I ain’t shit, that hate shit, that hatred, goddamn/ That just make them look less of a man, fam/ And to sit on y’all is part of the damn plan/ They just mad cause I beat the pussy like bam bam.
There are so many facets of her persona that she glides through so easily. The unmerciful gangster, the bully, the bullied lesbian, the proud, promiscuous lesbian, the introspective hood philosopher, the drug dealer, the flosser, you name it, and it all feels authentic. Let’s just call her Young Renaissance and call it day.
16. Joey Purp – “Godbody” (Second Verse)
Joey Purp raps like he’ll flatline if he doesn’t. He has an unparalleled urgency in his tone that adds heft to his unrelenting barrage of similes, metaphors, and daggers on “Godbody.” The verses are lengthy at 24 bars, but it damn sure doesn’t drag, with multis bouncing off of each other and the beat. You can count the number of one-syllable rhymes on one hand, and though he’s speaking abstractly, he’s still saying something. He doesn’t arrange words in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing just for the sake of doing it. Purp builds tension until it’s ready to burst, and he comes with the three-line coup de grâce: “I’m good with that yay [‘Ye] like Mike Dean/ Killers turn police for that break, Ice-T/ Desperate niggas turn on they own people, Spike Lee.” Those bars are oh so cold, vicious, and calculating. He’s got that #2 spot in SaveMoney locked if you ask me. Sorry not sorry, Vic.
15. Ab-Soul – “Huey Knew”
Where has this Ab-Soul been? An MC that overthinks his bars is rare nowadays, and it seems like that’s what Soulo was doing to a fault on These Days. He’s always been the lefty conspiracy theory lyricist in TDE, but he was forcing the wit in his bars a couple years ago. The first few showings from Do What Though Wilt have been triumphant returns to form, but none as nice as the first, “Huey Knew.” Peep these lines:
I’ma act an ass and have a donkey to pin it on/ I’m winning no matter what the decision’s depending on/ I’m sinister, picture a ticking bomb in the Pentagon/ The typical shit I’ve been on, remember the pen is gone/ Your pinnacle’s penny pinching, I’m getting nickels for my thoughts.
Not only does he almost make entire bars rhyme with each other, he demands respect for his “pen” carrying some form of the word along through each line. It’s still overthought, but that type of intention and execution isn’t topped by many rappers these days. Soul Brother #2 is in his prime again, and that’s a scary, exciting thing.
14. Jadakiss – “Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane”
Jadakiss and the Lox never totally left the game, but they’re back with a forthcoming album and still spitting that classic hard-nosed lyricism that they’re known for. Jadakiss in particular, mister “top five dead or alive,” has been considered the best of the trio over the years, though none of them are slouches with the bars. At ScHoolboy Q’s album-listening party, Shia LaBeouf’s arch nemesis Peter Rosenburg asked him why he put Kiss on his album. Q simply replied: “Why the fuck not? Everybody knows Jadakiss is dope. What kind of question is that?”
When Kiss’ raspiest-of-the-raspy voice dropped in out of nowhere on the Groovy Tony portion of “Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane,” I got more hyped than I’m willing to admit. His unique timbre is a treat on any track, but here he sounds more twisted and maniacal than he has since his early Lox days, when he would name internal organs and detail exactly what gun he would use to knock them out of a body. Anytime someone recalls Tupac Shakur’s Bishop in Juice, hugging the mother of his friend he killed as he looks coldly over her shoulder at the rest of his homies, you know they’re in a rare mindset. I would be remiss to not mention this multilayered couplet right here as well: “Runnin’ with the rebels/ The three-man weave with the Lord and the Devil.” Sheesh. UNLV nostalgia, and the complications of the gangster lifestyle “weaved” together? He killed it. Muah, indeed.
13. Nas – “Nas Album Done”
Nas album announcements don’t carry the weight they used to, but when he raises awareness this smoothly and loudly, it’s hard to ignore it. DJ Khaled has a star-studded lineup on Major Key, but no one did more with their space than Nas. Godson was looking more like the Godfather asking for hand kisses. Competition fuels him like no other rapper, but he would never let you know it. If you doubt that statement, look up why “ethered” is a widely used word now. He reminded everyone who felt like Pablo first (“Now everywhere all I see is Pablo, Esco/ Last time I checked I was still breathin'”) and who had the childhood photo on his album cover first (“To every baby on the album cover existin’/ This trend I was settin’, it came to fruition”). Escobar also finds the time to be pro-black, anti-Trump (sorry, that was redundant), a sex symbol, education advocate, and smooth shit popper, all in the same verse. The only problem with knowing the album is done, after a verse like this, is waiting for said album. If this verse is any indication, Queensbridge’s finest is going to come correct on his next full-length.
12. Noname – “Casket Pretty” (First Verse)
On “Casket Pretty,” Noname tenderly but compellingly addresses the issue of police violence. There have been many anthems, appeals, pleas, and indictments in rap that speak on the degradation, criminalization, and senseless killing of black people, but very few do it so softly and manage to have it register so loudly. The incongruity between the beat and the subject matter creates a tension that is never resolved, mirroring the complexity of the problems between black skin and blue uniforms. The beat has a little sample of a baby’s laughter in it, but Noname is expounding on the melancholy and despair of those affected by unjust deaths:
And we watch the news/ And we see him die tonight/ Tonight the night his baby said goodbye/ Roses in the road, teddy bear outside/ Bullet there on the right/ Where’s love when you need it/ Too many babies in suits/ Too many babies in suits.
By focusing on the people that surround the martyrs and hashtags of the Black Lives Matter movement, communicating their grief and perseverance, she humanizes the deceased in a way that righteous anger couldn’t. So she rarely inflects her voice, but it comes across like she’s screaming. The saying goes, “bullets have no name,” but Noname pierces like bullets without ever having to pull a trigger.
11. Vince Staples – “Little Bit Of This” (First Verse)
Vince Staples has the most intricacy of any rapper that hails from the gangster tradition. He slides into the pocket on beats with plenty of negative space to operate in on his own projects, but can also machete through thick layers that blend electro and hip-hop. He does the latter on GTA’s “Little Bit Of This.” He pulls out whatever the gangster’s equivalent of a Swiss Army knife is and goes to work, using each and every tool in the arsenal that is his personality. He can talk about how rap is simply a means of income to add more scopes to his guns, how he keeps it real enough to stay in his hood, and how he carries on the Long Beach torch in just a few quick bars. Then there’s just a drug-pushing line to style on ‘em à la Pusha T: “Where we get new wheels from rocks like cavemen.” Lawd. Staples is a rare breed of rapper where the standard 16-bar verse feels limiting, and even when he stretches out a bit, the many different facets of his persona seem constrained. Many rappers use way too many words without saying anything of substance, but Staples is one that deserves infinite space.
10. Vince Staples – “Pimp Hand” (First Verse)
“Pimp Hand” Vince Staples is different than “Little Bit Of This” Vince Staples. Not to say that the rapper is schizophrenic; it’s another testament to his seemingly unending versatility. On “Pimp Hand” he’s locked into the gangster mentality: flipping food stamps to eat, repping his region and set to the death with no mercy toward his enemies, and refusing advice from older generations. But even when he’s at his most hard-headed and cold-hearted, he’s intelligent and astute, never replicating the gangsters before him. Staples is a special breed of the gangster ilk — there’s never been anyone out of the West quite like him.
9. Daveed Diggs – “Shooter” (First Verse)
This verse is just nuts. A locked-in cadence punctuated by a metaphor with witty double entendre at the end of every line. Never mind the fact that Daveed Diggs carries this on for the entire song — just unpacking the first verse is a task. Some puns and double meanings are tighter than others, but each is undeniably creative in rapid succession. Let’s go through three of the better ones. “No donation on computers, move on” references MoveOn.org, a site that collects donations and starts petitions for number of causes, but the shooter needs cash on the spot so online transactions clearly won’t do. “Shooter read the face real quick, CliffsNotes” probably induces some nostalgia for anyone who looked to shortcut their high school reading list, and is an inventive tie-in with the shooter’s ability to read the clerk’s face quickly and deduce that he won’t cooperate with his demands with some threatening. Hence “Kissed the shoe with the .45, mistletoe,” a triple pun with kissing underneath holiday mistletoe, the bullet heading for the toe like a missile, and said toe shooting off the foot like a missile. Diggs was on another level here, if some of the wordplay weren’t utterly corny in the verses to follow, this would be a perfect song instead of just a perfect verse.
8. André 3000 – “Decemba (Remix)”
André 3000 was busy this year, moving away from his one-incredible-verse-a-year quota for features on A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, Frank Ocean’s Blonde, and Divine Council’s “Decemba (Remix).” We know which one was his best, but his role in giving “Decemba” the remix treatment is pivotal. The song is really nothing more than more than sexual prowess mixed in with some dopeboy talk, but 3 Stacks never does anything simply. He proceeds to weave a loose but vivid criminal-escape narrative into a romance that any screenwriter would kill for. Even a simple bedroom romp in the hands of Mr. Benjamin turns into something endlessly intriguing.
7. Killer Mike – “Talk To Me” (First Verse)
The way Killer Mike glides through the political and other facets of his personal life is pure poetry. Dude goes from roasting Donald Trump within four bars to rapping about smoking weed throughout Thailand, 9/11 conspiracy theories, getting caught with tree in the airport, his inimitable rhyme skills, and All Lives Matter-ass white folk, pretty much coming full circle. He certainly says a lot outside of the booth, and that all makes it into the booth with him. He’s an intelligent man, but there’s magic in the way he distills his shrewdness into its most potent form through rhyme. Killer Kill has been doing this for quite some time and it shows, but to still be one of the best rappers after so much time in the game is more a testament to how his personality evolves, because he’s always been able to rap his ass off. RTJ3 can’t come soon enough.
6. Earl Sweatshirt – “Really Doe”
Posse cuts automatically become a competition. The track is usually enjoyable as a whole, but we can’t but help pick apart each individual verse and compare them. Ego, competition, and rap all go hand-in-hand, and we as fans eat it up. There was no way you could get reigning king Kendrick Lamar, the technical tactician Earl Sweatshirt, a rejuvenated Ab-Soul, and zany Danny Brown in his prime, and have there not be a debate. Sweatshirt won this thing outright, though there were strong showings from everyone, and K Dot is rarely bested on a track. Keeping the same rhyme scheme throughout damn near an entire verse — and having it make sense — is extremely hard to do, but Early does it with ease and manages to pack wildly inventive similes in along the way. “I keep it dirty as a spliff my uncle Alchemist puff?” “Well it’s the left-handed shooter, Kyle Lowry the pump?” Seriously? And that kicker: “I’m at your house like, ‘Why you got your couch on my Chucks?'” Hopefully Earl rides the momentum from this victory into his next album. Happy, braggadocios Earl could give sad, depressed Earl a run for his money.
5. Black Thought – “Making A Murderer”
Black Thought going insane over some 9th Wonder production? Yes, a million times. It’s a shame Thought is forced to freestyle to earn his living on The Tonight Show. There’s a generation coming up now that knows the Roots solely as Jimmy Fallon’s band, which is even more shameful. Those two realizations would make me a murderer, too. If you ever come across a sorry person who doesn’t know what the unmistakable, raspy voice of the Legendary Roots Crew is capable of, sit them down and play them this verse. Black Thought is probably the most underrated rapper of all time. He rarely gets a spot in anyone’s top 5 because he’s one of many in the crew, but this guy has been destroying beats live and on wax for over two decades now, and he deserves his due. Going in for over two minutes is nothing new for Thought, but I’m sure he just needed to remind people his pen is still “smoking like a rude boy from Jamaica,” and even that is an understatement.
4. Kendrick Lamar – “THat Part (Black Hippy Remix)”
K Dot went off on this for no reason. None of Kanye West’s or ScHoolboy Q’s verses on the original were anything special, and the song was already a lighthearted chart-invader that didn’t need a boost. Black Hippy tracks have always brought the best out of Lamar, though. He’s clearly the best rapper out of the quartet, but if he slips, Q, Jay Rock, or Ab-Soul have the potential to hand him an L with the quickness. He didn’t have to do what he did on this remix, though. Not one line is simply stated, and there are so many allusions, flips, and lines to decode that it’s damn near impossible to get them all without reading the lyrics while listening. No matter how many times you listen to this verse it seems there’s something new to learn. It’s a good thing Kendrick doesn’t operate in this mode all the time, because it would be exhausting trying to keep up, but it’s a marvel to hear him flex on this joint just because he wanted to.
3. Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, Jarobi White – “Dis Generation” (First Verse)
Hearing Phife, Q-Tip, and Jarobi smoothly execute multiple baton-passes on this is true poetry in musical motion. The group dynamic has fallen to the wayside in rap, and there’s nobody better to bring it back and update it than A Tribe Called Quest. Run The Jewels’ pick-and-roll is the most unstoppable in the game, but ATCQ are out here running the triangle offense on beats. They cut each other off, step on the beginning and end of each other’s flourishes, and punch in and out at odd times, but it’s all done with impeccable timing and a fluidity that is unmatched. The nostalgia and energy of the three-piece dynamic alone is enough to make this verse amazing, but the rhymes themselves are top notch, too. Phife’s “Been waiting for a Jets title since last…,” Jarobi’s “Chem trails, droppin’ poisonous vapors/ Have you shaking like Gator/ Been trill, nigga, process the data/ Blu-ray, wave file, or a Beta, I’ll DVR it for later,” and Q-Tips’s “Talk to Joey, Earl, Kendrick, and Cole, gatekeepers of flow/ They are extensions of instinctual soul” all recall the Tribe of old while raising the bar literally and figuratively.
2. André 3000 – “Solo (Reprise)”
André 3000’s ability to deliver again and again when the expectations for his verses are unreasonably high is incredible. We usually don’t get multiple 3 Stacks verses to compare in any given year, but in a busy 2016 for the ATLien’s standards, this was his best verse. 3 Stacks’ best is better than almost everyone’s best these days, and that’s why it’s so high on this list. But it’s also Mr. Benjamin’s 2016 address. He glides through police violence, feminism, frugality, honesty in romantic relationships, and how he feels about other rappers not writing their own lyrics, with unparalleled wit, skill, and precision. Where’s the album already? Enough is enough with these spectacular drop-ins. He has more than enough bars and original concepts to drive an exceptional album up the charts, and we need his progressive thinking in rap now more than ever.
1. Chance The Rapper – “Ultralight Beam”
No one understands how to maximize the magnitude of a moment like Chance The Rapper, and that’s really saying something, because it seems like he’s had all the moments this year. Festivals, late-night television spots, concerts, other artist’s concerts, it doesn’t matter: Chance will take it over. The thing that launched his incredible year was his impeccable “Ultralight Beam” verse. Not only did this verse build an undeniable buzz for Coloring Book, it also played an integral role in getting the Grammys to make stream-only full-lengths eligible and earn his project multiple nominations based on streams only. Chano overload may have set in for a lot of people in 2016, but this verse is a classic to be revisited for years to come. The aforementioned lobbying subtly mixed in with exultant gospel vibes, exceptional rhymes, and that Sodom and Gomorrah flip on the “pillar of salt” line (best line of the year) add lift to the already undeniable exuberance of the song. “Ultralight Beam” is a shining beacon of light in dark year, and there’s no way it would be what it is without Lil Chano From 79th.