Any rap fan has probably had this conversation at one point in their lives. Subsequently, it turns out to be a contentious debate that evokes many emotions about West Coast and East Coast hip-hop. In line with this understanding, many believe that rap is a genre only for the strong-hearted due to its cultural influences and impact. However, regardless of the orientation, we can't avoid naming the best rappers of all time.
Ideally, rap is largely known for its lyrical rhyming and flavor. Subsequently, this article will recognize the all-time best rappers based on their impact and contribution to the rap industry and genre. So, without much ado, here are our most impactful rappers to have ever lived.
1. Tupac Shakur (2Pac)
Tupac Amaru Shakur, stagewise known as 2Pac or Makaveli, was an American rap/hip-hop artist. In hip-hop history, 2Pac played a central role in shaping rap and hip-hop culture as we know it today. As his music lives on, Tupac is one of those few rap figures who still trigger authentic rap emotions. But unfortunately, the rap industry was robbed of this legend through a drive-by shooting.
Subsequently, the culmination of 2Pac's popularity is credited to his passion in addressing the hardships and social issues experienced in the inner cities. Unlike other great rappers on our list, 2Pac doesn't really stand out in terms of punchlines, story mastery or double entendres. Nonetheless, no rapper came close to pouring out his heart as Tupac. As a result, 2Pac embodied social activism and thug life as a symbol of the struggle himself.
In terms of rap, 2Pac, to date, is a key figure in the rivalry between the East Coast and West Coast hip-hop factions. Subsequently, speculations about his death revolve around this rivalry. That said, the place of Tupac in rap history is very difficult to ignore, even for the generations to come.
Come back to the living, he is probably one of the undisputed fastest rappers of all time. Marshall Bruce Mathers III, commonly known as Eminem, has no match in his charisma and mastery. If there is a rapper who probably doesn't live for mass appeal or record sales, it's Eminem. Give this rapper any theme, and he will skillfully give you a record with next-level rhyming and complexity, despite little or no preparation.
As one of the best rappers of all time, Eminem began as a Detroit underground rapper battling among upcoming rappers in his time. It was during the 1997 Rap Olympics that he found his break despite coming in second. He then transitioned to recording rap music, with Dr. Dre being one of his major stepping stones.
To date, Eminem is considered the best-selling hip-hop artist of all time, with millions of records to his name. As we speak, Eminem is revered by his peers for his inhuman mastery and performance of rap. For instance, 50-cent at one point said Eminem could 'chew' any rapper alive if placed in the same room to rap. Of course, this was illustrative of Eminem's exceptional rapping skills.
3. The Notorious B.I.G.
Another rap legend who is no more is the Notorious B.I.G. To some, he was Biggie and other Biggie Smalls. Biggie is remembered for his flow, rhyme schemes and breath control in delivering some iconic rap masterpieces like “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems,”. But unfortunately, Biggie was a victim of the violent inner-cities culture.
Speaking of a violent culture, Biggie was the greatest rapper of East Coast hip-hop at the time when Tupac was king of West Coast hip-hop. At the time, violence was at the heart of preserving rap respect as music was closely tangled with thug life. Despite the tragic death of Biggie, it's remembered that his records realistically addressed the violence, among other social issues facing the Black American community at the time. To date, some rappers still pay homage to Biggie in his perpetual impact on the rap world.
Shawn Corey Carter is his formal name, but he is commonly known by his stage name Jay-Z. Besides being one of the best rappers of all time, Jay-Z is the quintessential rap billionaire with an empire solidly built on rapping. Jay-Z perfectly honed his rapping skills with his passion making him probably the wealthiest American musician and one of the most successful rap MCs with some of the largest gigs. Additionally, Jay-Z is also a successful entrepreneur.
As a rapper, Jay-Z is known to authentically share his message through a loose yet smooth style. As part of his technique, he is credited for his clever wordplay, which he can deliver in a fast or slow flow. Bottom line, Jay-Z has mastered the art of flow while keeping his audience immersed and entertained.
Jay-Z's knack has also won him numerous awards and recognition, from BET hip hop awards to accumulating over 20 Grammy Awards. Moreover, his inclusion in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and millions of albums and singles in sale further stamp his authority as a rap legend. Such accolades and his continued contribution to rap cement his place among rap greats.
5. Lil Wayne
Probably known for his many tattoos, Lil Wayne is totally worth a place on this list. Wayne began his rap career at 13 with the help of Birdman and Cash Money Records. He then moved on to join the Hot Boys, which further grew his career to selling millions of records. Despite his slump in consistent rap performances, he truly made a mark in his time with BET awards, Grammys and many more recognitions like the world's best-selling musician.
Wayne as a teen made his rap entry with hard-line Southern hip-hop, which he slowed refined to become his infamous lyrical wordplay. Even more, his wordplay has the trademark of metaphorical jokes, slow command of multisyllabic rhyming, and witty lines. Also, Wayne can be argued to use unique wordplay through the use of analogies, which is more complex than applying similes. Combining all these techniques contributes to his effective message delivery through rap.
Overall, despite his occasional use of auto-tuned rapping in some of his singles, you cannot deny that he is a great lyricist. As a living legend, Wayne's discography continues to grow, with more mixtapes picking up his most recent accolades. For a taste of his flow, sample 'Tha Carter Series', which has garnered platinum recognitions.
6. 50 Cent
Also known by his professional name 50 Cent, Curtis James Jackson III is an American rapper with a significant impact on rap. He is also a drive-by shooting victim, but fortunately, he survived. 50 Cent is popular for his rap contribution in the 2000s with platinum recognition by RIAA due to the sale of 872,000 copies within four days. Worldwide, 50 Cent is credited for over 30 million album sales with several awards to his belt, including Billboard Awards, Grammy's, BET and many more.
As a rapper, he is credited for his captivating yet simple message delivery in slang. Similar to other great rappers who came before him, 50 Cent was frank in his delivery, drawing messages from his personal experiences. Progressively, 50 Cent has built a reputation around being one of the best hip hop songwriters of all time, with a peak period between 2002 and 2003.
However, 50 Cent's career has been marred by numerous controversies, most of them ending up in lawsuits. Subsequently, he ended up bankrupt at one point, but over time, he has moved away from controversies with a focus on business. Were it not for his chaotic career life, he would probably be sharing in the same ranks as Jay-Z in terms of wealth.
7. Snoop Dogg
Even if you don't know any of his songs, it's highly unlikely that you haven't heard of Snoop Dogg. Also known as Snoop Lion, he is an American rapper with a worldwide impact on rap. His major break came on Dr. Dre's debut 'Deep Cover'. Subsequently, Snoop proceeded to release Doggystyle, which ranked him as one of the pioneers of G-Funk.
By listening to his renditions, you will notice he is very simple in his approach, without any haste in his rhymes. Also, he is good at delivering laidback yet captivating rap lines with his good use of sparse pauses. Snoop Dogg effectively uses flow pauses to fill his melodic rhyming with rap flavor. At some point, one can describe Snoop as being a gangster rapper due to his controversial association and flaunting of the street gang and hustler culture.
Amazingly, Snoop Dogg hails from Tupac's era of West Coast hip hop and has continually evolved to deliver memorable rap moments. Accordingly, Snoop is indeed one of the greatest rappers of all time, with millions of sales in albums worldwide. To confirm his laconic rhyming is still a fan's favorite, watch his iconic performance during the Superbowl 56 HALFTIME SHOW.
8. Dr. Dre
Standing next to his protégé Snoop, Dr. Dre is indeed an influential force to reckon with in the rap world. Specifically, Dr. Dre is popular as a record producer and rapper who played a big role in popularizing West Coast G-funk. His primary style heavily involves slow but heavy beats with the foundation of a synthesizer.
As a producer, he has overseen and guided the careers of many rappers, including Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, Eminem, 50 Cent and, in recent years, Kendrick Lamar. As a rapper, he has released a few albums which have gone ahead to win awards and recognition, including six Grammys. Some of his internationally acclaimed albums include Compton: A Soundtrack, Let Me Ride and The Chronic.
9. Kanye West
Speaking of the most controversial rappers of all time, it's Kanye West. Ever heard of the joke, there's everyone, and then there's Kanye West? However, we are here to speak of Kanye as a great rapper of all time. In addition, he is credited for a cultural progression within the mainstream hip-hop and rap industry.
Besides having his music, Kanye has played a role in the rap/hip hop career of many artists, with a major highlight in producing for Jay-Z. In line with his progressive rap contribution, he moved from being a hip-hop beatmaker with a wider combination of musical elements such as guitars and piano to being a globally acclaimed and famous hitmaker. As a rapper, he has won numerous rap awards and recognitions, such as 21 Grammys.
Kanye isn't dexterous in his approach as a rapper, but we can refute that he is smart in his lyrical rap delivery. Ideally, he aims to rap messages in simple ways that appeal to his fans. Kanye raps about different societal issues, including some considered ridiculous but still managed to draw widespread rap appeal. Generally, he is provocative with a tinge of humor but never fails to touch on issues in a racially and gender-inclusive manner.
Speaking of dexterity in rap, Nas is one of the best living rappers and hip-hop artists with unmatched lyrical content. Also a songwriter, Nas is famous for producing platinum worth records with millions of record sales worldwide. Ever since his lyrically jaw-dropping debut album, he has never relented reminding rap fans of his place among rap's greatest.
Typically, Nas is less strict with the technical part of rap. Therefore, his approach is sort of loose, allowing him to fully exhibit his lyrical muscles. Within his music, Nas strikes a balance between rap rhyming and being casual and preachy. As such, Nas's rapping is densely packed with content without necessarily having rhyming words for the flow.
Therefore, Nas is a very dynamic rapper in terms of his guiding subjects. Additionally, Nas is a rare contemporary gem in rap innovation as a storyteller whose aim is you listen to the message rather than focus on the beats. In essence, he is more of a conversational rapper, with rhyming being a secondary objective. For this reason, he has at times been accused of rapping off-beat.
11. Kendrick Lamar
A more contemporary rapper with a worthy place among the greatest of all time is Kendrick Lamar. Despite lacking a flashy moniker, Kendrick Lamar is highly studded with acclamations, awards and recognitions. From his generation, Lamar has been consistently successful in releasing hits in the rap genre. In addition, Lamar is a record producer and songwriter for other rap hits released by other rappers.
Specifically, Kendrick is a technical rapper with a complex yet anti-flamboyant to his content. His nimble and sprightly approach to rap makes him one of the most successful hip-hop artists of his age and of all time due to his ability to capture his audience's attention. Notably, his origins are rooted in gangsta rap and West Coast hip-hop as he seeks to address racism, social injustices and black empowerment. Overall, his rapping style is often labeled confessional and controversial due to his focus on content and message.
At some point, he has labeled himself king of New York, but this notwithstanding, he has worked hard enough and proven he rightly deserves on this list. Rightfully, he has garnered numerous awards and recognitions, including the treasures of 13 Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize. Also, as a highly rated MC, Lamar, at some point, was considered one of the most influential figures.
Another rap great of all time is DMX, who was popular in the 1990s. Formally known as Earl Simmons, DMX has inspired many contemporary rappers, including Kendrick Lamar. As a gem of his generation, DMX rose to fame after the passing on of 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G. Subsequently, he took the opportunity to cement his place as the undisputed king of hardcore hip-hop.
As a rap powerhouse, DMX used his street credibility and rap prowess to build his commercial portfolio. Besides his hardcore rapping, DMX's approach is highly regarded as intense, including gangsta rap obsession through a barking delivery as well as a muscular and tattooed physique. Also, his lyrical content was highlighted by a dog obsession, which was literally his rap trademark.
Consequently, his prime rapping years were in the 1990s, with millions in record sales. Of course, his deep-rooted street culture pitted him against rappers like Ja Rule and Jay-Z, but he maintained relevance in his hardcore rap lane. Overall, his hardcore approach greatly appealed to his fans, with potential immortalization through his hits even after his demise.
13. LL Cool J
Ladies Love Cool James (LL Cool J) is a unique mention who gave rap the tender and soft touch of love. In most cases, he identifies as a rapper even in his beats, but his renditions are close to pop, making him a forefather of pop rap. LL's longevity and consistency as a romantic and sappy rapper put him ahead of many rappers alive and dead. Since his mainstream breakthrough, LL has epitomized his alternate style for over 30 years of rapping.
Furthermore, he has a unique track record of working with fellow big wigs in the industry, including DMX, Ice-T, EPMD, Redman, Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C. and Jennifer Lopez. Such an achievement is definitely worth his accolades, including Grammys and induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite his slump in rapping, his place is already sealed as one of rap's greats, and he is further recognized as a record producer helping upcoming rappers and an actor.
14. Busta Rhymes
Bullish in appearance with the traditional hoarse rap voice, Busta Rhymes is indeed worth recognizing on this compilation. His physical appearance aside, Busta Rhymes is known for his exceptional high rapping speed with a consistent rhyming technique. Specifically, Busta greatly applies half-rhymes and internal rhymes to captivate his audience.
Moreover, Busta resembles a ragga rapper who frequently uses humor, complexity and invention in his renditions. His rising popularity boosted his releases to become hits, subsequently winning him awards, guest artist invitations and recognitions. Accordingly, we have picked Busta Rhymes for this list of all-time great rappers due to his consistency in the rap game with longevity that a few great rappers can only match. Generally, even if he performs today, Busta will give you a crazy flow backed with hot beats and unrelenting energy.
15. Ice Cube
As an honourary mention, Ice Cube gained recognition as a great rapper when he was part of C.I.A (a hip-hop group). Ice Cube has probably grown to become a renowned actor, but we can't forget that he stood out among other greats like Dr. Dre. As part of N.W.A, Ice Cube was the group's primary performer and songwriter, with the credit of being one of the pioneers of gangsta rap.
As a mainstream rapper, Ice Cube was known for his exceptional emphasis on lyrical content with visual imagery in his performances. He is also largely credited for the Straight Outta Compton album, which is considered a major force behind spreading gangsta rap. As such, Cube's lyrics often took a hostile rhyme but with frank and direct message delivery.
16. Big Daddy Kane
Another honorary mention is Big Daddy Kane, who greatly impacted rap lyricism and creativity like other rappers like Kool-G Rap and Slick Rick. This rapper is behind lyrical masterpieces with vicious punch lines, which mostly stood out during battle raps. In mainstream rap, his classics like 'Ain't No Half-Steppin' have gained significant rankings on global charts. However, despite his inadequate mainstream breakthrough, we can never forget Kane's penmanship and verbal dexterity as a rapper.
Generally, ranking some rappers as the best of all time is indisputable, while some depend on your musical taste. Accordingly, there are more rappers that we haven't mentioned who some considered to be all-time greats. In the end, any rap all-time great should be measured against their contribution to the rap industry and the subsequent accolades and recognitions for their work.