Crowning the best rapper alive each year has always been a contentious task. It’s been like that ever since the 1980s, with the likes of Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, Chuck D, LL Cool J and Kool G Rap all vying to be the dopest MC on the mic.
While talking about the greatest rapper of all time is one thing, the best rapper alive title is a constantly shifting conversation as names appear and drop off each year. Being the best rapper alive in one year doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be on the list the next year – it’s a relentless competition to stay at the top of the game.
But this also means that the competition is wide open for new talent. Unlike the GOAT list, which is reserved for more established acts who have at least a decade of rapping under their belt, a rookie can have a hot year and cement themselves in the running.
So let’s get into it. From Rakim, Kane and G Rap, to Nas, Jay-Z and Pac, to Kendrick, Cole and Drake, here is the best rapper alive, every year since 1987.
1987’s Best Rapper Alive: Rakim
Claim to fame: Paid in Full
Honourable mentions: Chuck D, KRS-One, MC Shan, Kool Moe Dee, LL Cool J
William Michael Griffin Jr. aka Rakim Allah aka The God MC aka the most influential rapper of all time kicked off his legendary recording career in 1986 when he, along with Eric B., dropped “Eric B. Is President” backed by “My Melody.” With those two records alone, Rakim changed the rap landscape entirely, elevating the art form from simpler rhyme patterns of the early ’80s, to complex, multisyllabic innovations inspired by jazz greats like John Coltrane. After setting the benchmark of rap moving forward, the rap duo released Paid in Full the next year and cemented their status as the most forward-thinking artists in the game. Hip hop was now divided into two distinct eras – before Rakim and after Rakim.
1988’s Best Rapper Alive: Big Daddy Kane
Claim to fame: Long Live the Kane
Honourable mentions: KRS-One, Rakim, Chuck D, Ice Cube, Slick Rick
While Rakim gets most of the credit for shaping much of the rapping standards in the ’80s and moving forward, Big Daddy Kane was right there with him bar-for-bar. Coming up in the game as a writer for the Juice Crew’s Biz Markie, the Brooklyn rapper would soon evolve into one of the most highly skilled MCs of his era. While Rakim dispensed his rhymes with a cool, laid-back demeanour, Kane was ferocious and relentless, with a penchant for unforgettable punchlines and imitable swagger. With timeless tracks like “Raw”, “Ain’t No Half-Steppin'”, “Set It Off” and plenty others, Kane’s debut album, Long Live the Kane, remains one of the most influential rap releases of all time, inspiring countless future greats like AZ, Big L, Elzhi, Phonte, Jeru the Damaja, and of course, The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z.
1989’s Best Rapper Alive: The D.O.C.
Claim to fame: No One Can Do It Better
Honourable mentions: Kool G Rap, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane
With Rakim, Kane, KRS-One, and Kool G Rap busy pioneering rhyming over on the East Coast, on the West Coast The D.O.C., along with Dr. Dre, was getting ready to make a splash with his debut album. Born in West Dallas, Texas, The D.O.C. started his rap career as a member of Fila Fresh Crew, before making his way over to L.A. to work with N.W.A. As one of the primary writers for Straight Outta Compton and Eazy-Duz-It, the Texas-born rapper boasted a lethal pen game that could slice through Dre’s layered funk production. No One Can Do It Better is exactly what you get when you combine the West Coast version of Big Daddy Kane and Dre’s production – a goddamn masterpiece.
1990’s Best Rapper Alive: Ice Cube
Claim to fame: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Kill at Will (EP)
Honourable mentions: Q-Tip, Chuck D, Rakim, LL Cool J, Kool G Rap
I will argue to the death with anyone that Ice Cube had the greatest 5-year run of any rapper in history. In between 1988 and 1992, the West Coast legend dropped Straight Outta Compton, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Kill at Will, Death Certificate and The Predator – that’s four classic albums and one classic EP over 5 years. No-one has ever done that before, or done it since. For his debut album, Cube linked up with the East Coast’s Bomb Squad to provide the chaotic funk symphony that he was previously getting from Dre. It was a match made in heaven, with the rapper’s uncompromising delivery and provocative lyrics being elevated by the Bomb Squad’s touch, resulting in one of the greatest debut rap albums of all time.
1991’s Best Rapper Alive: Treach
Claim to fame: Naughty by Nature
Honourable mentions: Scarface, Ice Cube, Q-Tip
There’s no reason for Treach not getting his dues as one of the greatest rappers of all time. Born in East Orange, New Jersey, the trend-setting, rapid-fire spitting MC was better than any other rapper, besides maybe LL Cool J, at balancing street records with crossover pop records. For every massive radio smash that Naughty by Nature put out – whether it was “O.P.P.” or “Hip Hop Hooray” – they had a deep cut like “Yoke the Joker” or “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” that appealed to the hardcore hip hop heads. Future commercial juggernauts like 50 Cent would follow Treach’s blueprint to a tee on their way to multiplatinum success.
1992’s Best Rapper Alive: Redman
Claim to fame: Whut? Thee Album; Features – EPMD’s “Head Banger”
Honourable mentions: Snoop Dogg, Rakim, Kool G Rap, MC Eiht, Ice Cube
Kicking down the rap door in 1992 with his ultra-funky Whut? Thee Album was another New Jersey MC by the name of Redman. Actually, he had already kicked down the door in 1990 when he demolished his guest verse on EPMD’s “Hardcore” with renegade and rough rhymes like: “Punk, push a pen and pencil when I’m pissed / Pack pistol posse, flow some more pro shit.” As a rapper, Redman was aggressive and hardcore to go toe-to-toe with the best of them, but also light-hearted and funky enough to make his debut a classic party record. The rugged MC would establish his rap career with dominance and go on to become one of the best rappers of the ’90s.
1993’s Best Rapper Alive: Snoop Dogg
Claim to fame: Doggystyle; The Chronic singles – “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang”, “Fuck wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)”
Honourable mentions: Treach, Guru, Scarface, KRS-One, Q-Tip, Method Man
“One, two, three and to the four / Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the door.” You’re never going to mistake Snoop Dogg as a lyrical wordsmith like Nas or ferocious punchline spitter like Big Daddy Kane, but when he uttered those timeless opening lines on “Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang,” he was undoubtedly the best rapper alive. With a flow like hot butter and delivery that dripped charisma, the West Coast rapper instantly captured America’s attention and, with Dre’s undeniable G-Funk production, helped take hip hop culture to a new level during the early ’90s. At one point in history, Snoop Dogg was the biggest and best rapper in the world.
1994’s Best Rapper Alive: Nas
Claim to fame: Illmatic
Honourable mentions: Andre 3000, Big Boi, Jeru the Damaja, The Notorious B.I.G., Scarface, Method Man, Redman
If you drop an album as game-changing and brilliant as Illmatic, you’re automatically going to be the best rapper alive for that year. Even if the year we’re talking about is 1994, which saw incredible debuts from the likes of OutKast, Biggie, Jeru the Damaja, there really is no competition – Nas was by far the best MC leading the pack. The Queensbridge prodigy’s way of capturing vivid depictions of life in inner-city New York, combined with his flawless lyricism took the art of rapping to a new level. What Rakim established in 1986 with “Eric B. Is President,” Nas took and elevated on Illmatic. There’s no question about it, Nas was the best rapper alive in 1994.
1995’s Best Rapper Alive: The Notorious B.I.G.
Claim to fame: Conspiracy (with Junior M.A.F.I.A.); Ready to Die singles – “Big Poppa,” “One More Chance (Stay with Me Remix)”; “Who Shot Ya?”
Honourable mentions: 2Pac, Big L, Prodigy, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Krayzie Bone, AZ, Kool G Rap, Kurupt, Nas, GZA
Nas dropped Illmatic in April 1994 and he was the best rapper alive, no question about it. But the truth is, he had intense competition right out the gate from one Brooklyn MC by the name of Notorious B.I.G. By the time Biggie released his debut album in September and followed it up with singles like “Big Poppa” and “One More Chance (Stay with Me Remix),” it was very clear who was wearing the crown for the King of New York.
Not only that, but he was getting better. The Brooklyn rapper was already a strong spitter early in his career, but he was still raw as you could hear on “Party and Bullshit” and early Ready to Die tracks like “Gimme the Loot.” Once he found his groove and slowed down his flow, he was unstoppable. Not only did he have the hardcore hip hop heads in his pocket, Big had the clubs and radio on lock.
1996’s Best Rapper Alive: 2Pac
Claim to fame: All Eyez on Me, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory
Honourable mentions: Lauryn Hill, Nas, Jay-Z, Andre 3000, Prodigy, Redman, Ghostface Killah
If 2Pac hadn’t been murdered in Vegas on that tragic September night, no other rapper could have had a better year than he did in 1996. Leading up to his untimely death, the Death Row rapper was on a mission to put out as much music as possible – whether to get off his contract with the devil or perhaps because he sensed he didn’t have long left, we’ll never know.
During a year where hip hop saw big releases from superstars like Nas, Snoop Dogg, Fugees, Redman, and Busta Rhymes, Pac came through and crushed them all with the blockbuster All Eyez on Me. But that wasn’t even his best album he dropped that year; The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory is darker, bleaker, less polished, but a superior project on all levels.
1997’s Best Rapper Alive: The Notorious B.I.G.
Claim to fame: Life After Death; Features – Lil’ Kim – “Crush on You”, Puff Daddy – “Been Around the World” / “It’s All About the Benjamins” / “Victory” / “Young Gs”
Honourable mentions: Inspectah Deck, Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Mase, Krayzie Bone
By 1997, the Notorious B.I.G. wasn’t just the best rapper alive, he was making the closing arguments for his claim of being the greatest rapper of all time. While what Big did in 1994 with Ready to Die was already great and established him as one of the most talented wordsmiths to come out of New York, it was Life After Death that cemented the fact that he really was the best at this rhyming shit.
It didn’t matter whether you wanted radio spins, storytelling joints, battle raps, tunnel bangers, introspective cuts or whatever – Big did it all on Life After Death and he did it better than anyone else. Don’t even get me started on what he did with his features that year, especially the Puff Daddy holy trinity – “It’s All About the Benjamins,” “Victory” and “Young Gs.”
1998’s Best Rapper Alive: DMX
Claim to fame: It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood; Features – The LOX’s “Money, Power & Respect”, Onyx’s “Shut ’em Down”, DJ Clue’s “It’s On”
Honourable mentions: Guru, Big Pun, Jay-Z, N.O.R.E., Lauryn Hill, Andre 3000, Big Boi, Kurupt, Redman, Busta Rhymes
After the past few years of New York hip hop being run by Puffy in his ivory tower of champagne parties and shiny suits, it was only a matter of time before the streets bit back. Coming straight out of Yonkers was a gruff voiced MC who had a penchant for armed robbery and barking on tracks.
DMX was the perfect antidote for a rap audience who was getting tired of Puffy’s over commercialised production, watered down sampling and safe raps. So when he dropped It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot and then Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, both within the same year, it was like a tsunami had hit New York and a changing of the guard was happening. In 1998, DMX wasn’t just the best rapper alive, he was the biggest rapper alive.
1999’s Best Rapper Alive: Jay-Z
Claim to fame: Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter; Vol. 2 singles – “Money, Cash, Hoes” / “Ni**a What, Ni**a Who (Originator 99)”; Features – Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker”, Timbaland’s “Lobster & Scrimp”, Ja Rule’s “It’s Murda, Ruff Ryders’ “Jigga My Ni**a”
Honourable mentions: Eminem, Black Thought, Mos Def, Nas, DMX, Prodigy, Pharoahe Monch, Kurupt
Jay-Z was the best rapper alive in 1999 mainly due to the fact that the Brooklyn hustler-turned rapper was the best at embodying both worlds. On one hand, he could throw lavish yacht parties to go against the best of Puffy’s, on the other hand, you could also find him backstage after a show freestyling with DMX.
With each year of Big’s passing, Jay-Z grew closer to securing the throne for himself, and by the time 1999 rolled around, it was all his for the taking. Sure, Nas was still in the cut presenting a major threat to the Roc-A-Fella empire, but for all intents and purposes, Jay-Z was now the King of New York.
2000’s Best Rapper Alive: Eminem
Claim to fame: The Marshall Mathers LP, Features – Redman’s “Off the Wall”, DJ Clue’s “What the Beat”
Honourable mentions: Ghostface Killah, Andre 3000, Common, Nelly, Jay-Z
It still bugs me out when I remember that Eminem is actually older than Nas. For two rappers who feel separated by an entire generation of hip hop music, they’re only one year apart (Em was born in 1972, Nas in 1973). People tend to forget that Em dropped his first album back in 1996, and the Slim Shady EP in 1997 – that’s how long the Detroit spitter had been grinding away before Dre put him on.
But once he was on, he was on. No other rapper before him, and after him, has managed to fuse mouth-dropping technical abilities with a strong songwriting prowess to yield the sort of unprecedented commercial and cultural impact that Eminem was able to do. With his 2000 magnum opus, The Marshall Mathers LP, Em proved that he was the best rapper alive.
2001’s Best Rapper Alive: Jay-Z
Claim to fame: The Blueprint; Features – Memphis Bleek’s “Do My…”, R. Kelly’s “Fiesta (Remix)”, Beanie Sigel’s “Think It’s a Game, Missy Elliott’s “One Minute Man”
Honourable mentions: Nas, Beanie Sigel, Jadakiss, Ludacris, Eminem
In 2001, Jay-Z was sitting firmly atop the New York rap throne. Almost a decade removed from hustling copies of Reasonable Doubt out of the trunk of his car, the Roc-A-Fella co-founder was now calling all the shots. Even with disgruntled rappers like Jadakiss and LL Cool J, as well as his nemesis, Nas, firing bullets at the throne, Hov was seemingly impenetrable.
Not even September 11 could stop Jay-Z from moving close to half a million units of The Blueprint and topping the Billboard charts. Backed by the soulful production of Kanye West, Just Blaze and Bink, Hov took the opportunity to address everyone and everything, making sure to let the fans know who was running this town.
2002’s Best Rapper Alive: Eminem
Claim to fame: The Eminem Show, 8 Mile soundtrack, first number one song with “Lose Yourself”
Honourable mentions: Nas, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Scarface, Cam’ron, El-P, Missy Elliott, Black Thought
With the release of The Eminem Show as well as his semi-autobiographical film, 8 Mile, Eminem managed to occupy a rare space of being the biggest and best rapper alive in 2002. If The Slim Shady LP established the Detroit MC as one of the most exciting new talents in the game, and The Marshall Mathers LP showcased his commercial prowess, The Eminem Show was the album that took him to the moon.
Packed full of radio smashes and super-lyrical tracks that cemented Em’s incredible technical skills and songwriting abilities, the release sold over 1.3 million copies in its first week. To add even more icing to the cake, Em also scored his first number one hit song ever with “Lose Yourself,” an instant classic of a track that has now transcended hip hop and ingrained itself into pop culture forever.
2003’s Best Rapper Alive: 50 Cent
Claim to fame: Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Beg for Mercy (with G-Unit)
Honourable mentions: Jay-Z, Big Boi, Ludacris, Fabolous
In a 2013 interview with the Breakfast Club, Jay-Z recalled warning the whole Roc-A-Fella roster that 50 Cent was on his way up and they had a small window of opportunity to flood the market. Even Hov himself admitted that once “In da Club” hit, it was all over and everyone just had to sit on the sidelines and wait this tidal wave out. 2003 50 Cent was another type of beast. We’ve seen monster stars before him – Snoop, Pac, Em – and after him – Wayne, Kanye, Drake – but what the G-Unit boss did during his legendary reign was different.
After developing a strong fanbase off the back of mixtapes like Guess Who’s Back? and 50 Cent Is the Future, the Queens rapper got with Dr. Dre and Eminem and put out his debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’. A unique blend of some of the hardest gangsta rap songs ever recorded with some of the best melodies ever sung by a rapper, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was an instant hit and catapulted 50 Cent to the top of the rap game.
2004’s Best Rapper Alive: MF DOOM
Claim to fame: Madvillainy, Special Herbs + Spices Volume 1 (with MF Grimm), Mm..Food
Honourable mentions: Kanye West, Jadakiss, Lloyd Banks, Cam’ron, T.I.
When Daniel Dumile emerged from his self-imposed exile in 1999 with Operation: Doomsday, he was unrecognisable as the masked villain. Five years later, he ended up having one of the best years a rapper could possibly have. First off the ranks was Madvillainy, produced entirely by Madvillain, which went down as an instant classic for fans of warped lofi samples and esoteric, hyper-kinetic rhyming. Then he followed it up with Mm..Food, one of the best concept rap albums of all time. It was what MF DOOM did in 2004 that cemented him as one of the greatest underground rappers of all time.
2005’s Best Rapper Alive: Common
Claim to fame: Be; Features – Malik Yusef’s “Wouldn’t You Like to Ride”, Kanye West’s “My Way Home”
Honourable mentions: The Game, 50 Cent, Young Jeezy, Paul Wall, Kanye West, Lil Wayne
2005 was a landmark year for hip hop. We had huge debuts from The Game and Young Jeezy, 50 Cent was running the game with G-Unit, Kanye was proving to be the most exciting artist alive with his sophomore album and Lil Wayne was making as very strong case for being the best MC in the world. But out of every rapper who dropped that year, it was Chicago’s very own Common who was the best rapper alive.
It had been over a decade since the Chi-town MC had debuted with Can I Borrow a Dollar?, and every subsequent album – from Resurrection to Like Water for Chocolate helped move him up the hip hop ladder. Common’s affiliations with J Dilla and the Soulquarians certainly helped as well. But it wasn’t until 2005, bolstered by the success of his fellow Chicago rapper (and now label boss), that Common was able to drop his biggest and best album to date. Backed by the warm soul samples of Kanye and J Dilla, the Chi-town MC flexed his effortless poetry skills and dropped rhymes flawlessly over the course of the 11-track album.
2006’s Best Rapper Alive: T.I.
Claim to fame: King; Features – Young Dro’s “Shoulder Lean”, Justin Timberlake’s “My Love”, The Game’s “One Blood (Remix)”
Honourable mentions: Young Jeezy, Nas, Pusha T, Ghostface Killah, Black Thought, Lupe Fiasco, Rick Ross
The Southern takeover was in full swing by 2006. What started in 2004 with the Houston movement blossomed into the ATL and New Orleans with rappers like Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane, Rick Ross, and Lil Wayne. Around this time, one rapper amongst them had the audacity, and credentials to call himself the King of the South. T.I. had been rolling around in the rap game for a few years now, making his debut in 2001 with I’m Serious and levelling up with each subsequent release – Trap Muzik in 2003 and Urban Legend in 2004. But in 2006, he was ready to break-out and stake his claim for the throne. Kicking it all off with his coronation anthem, “What You Know,” the aptly-titled King was the Atlanta MC making it very clear who the number one rapper from the South was.
2007’s Best Rapper Alive: Kanye West
Claim to fame: Graduation, Can’t Tell Me Nothing (mixtape)
Honourable mentions: Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, El-P, Lupe Fiasco, Blu
Kanye had been building up to this moment for a long time. After becoming one of the industry’s most beloved producers after crafting beats for The Blueprint, the Chi-town rapper-producer continued to scream at the world to take him seriously as an MC. Even after dropping The College Dropout – which helped shift the rap game away from G-Unit’s gangsta dominance – then following it up with Late Registration, Kanye was still seen as a producer first, then a rapper.
It wasn’t until 2007 that he proved himself to be the best rapper alive. Kicking everything off with “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” which gave Kanye his first certified street anthem, he proceeded to prove with tracks like “Good Morning” and “Everything I Am”, that he might not be the most technically proficient MC in the game, but his heartfelt passion more than makes up for it. There’s also the case of “Barry Bonds” where Kanye arguably out-raps the “other” best rapper alive at the time, Lil Wayne.
2008’s Best Rapper Alive: Lil Wayne
Claim to fame: Tha Carter III, Dedication 3
Honourable mentions: T.I., Nas, Kanye, Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, Q-Tip, Black Thought, Bun B
Speaking of Lil Wayne, here’s another rapper who had been grinding towards this moment for a long time. After making his debut in the late ’90s as part of the Hot Boys, the Louisiana native would go on to kick off his solo career with 1999’s Tha Block Is Hot. While the debut showed promise and highlighted Wayne as the most exciting rapper on Cash Money, it took a few years for the rapper to find his groove. It wasn’t until 2004’s Tha Carter that the rap game started to take notice of his abilities as an MC.
From that point on, Weezy locked his sights on being the best rapper alive, going on a legendary tear that would yield classic mixtapes like Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3 as well as legendary performances on tracks like “Hollywood Divorce,” “We Takin’ Over” and “Duffle Bag Boy.” By 2008, the stars were aligned and hip hop was ready for Lil Wayne to ascend to the throne. With the one-two punch of “Lollipop” and “A Milli,” the Cash Money rapper had the radio and streets on lock, and was officially the best rapper alive.
2009’s Best Rapper Alive: Raekwon
Claim to fame: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, Cuban Revolution, Blood on Chef’s Apron, Staten Go Hard Vol. 1; Features – Method Man & Redman’s “Four Minutes to Lock Down,” Fat Joe’s “Ice Cream,” Warren G’s “100 Miles and Runnin’,” Jadakiss’ “Cartel Gathering,” U-God’s “Coke”
Honourable mentions: Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Kanye West, Gucci Mane, Mos Def, Drake
If you would have told me at the beginning of 2009 that would be crowning Raekwon the Chef the best rapper alive by the end of the year, I wouldn’t have believed you. The road to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II was a long, winding and frustrating one. After dropping the first Purple Tape back in 1995, Raekwon became a staple of East Coast hip hop, even though his solo output – 1999’s Immobilarity and 2003’s The Lex Diamond Story – was severely lacking. Over the next few years, Rae would continue to announce and repeatedly push back the sequel. It got to the point where Pt. II was becoming the next Detox.
But then it happened. The sequel to The Purple Tape, the holy grail of street rap, dropped on September 8, 2009, and it was everything fans were waiting for. With a stacked production roster that included RZA, Dre, J Dilla, Pete Rock, Marley Marl, Erick Sermon, and Alchemist, Raekwon had the fitting backdrop he needed to continue telling the story he began in the ’90s. While Chef’s flow and delivery may have been more subdued than his more aggressive younger self, his vivd storytelling was impeccable as always and his writing never more potent. With the benefit of accumulated life experience, Raekwon elevated himself to become one of hip hop’s elder statesman, and with that, the best rapper alive in 2009.
2010’s Best Rapper Alive: Kanye West
Claim to fame: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, GOOD Friday cuts – “Power (remix),” “Runaway Love (remix),” “Good Friday,” “Lord Lord Lord,” “Christian Dior Denim Flow,” “Don’t Stop!” (with Lupe Fiasco and Pharrell Williams as Child Rebel Soldier), “Take One for the Team,” “Don’t Look Down,” “The Joy,” “Looking for Trouble,” “Chain Heavy,” “Christmas in Harlem”; Features – Rick Ross’ “Live Fast, Die Young,” Kid Cudi’s “Erase Me,” Chris Brown’s “Deuces (Remix),” Lloyd Banks’ “Start It Up,” T.I.’s “Welcome to the World,” Nicki Minaj’s “Blazin’.”
Honourable mentions: Eminem, Big Boi, Drake, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Lloyd Banks
Kanye West wasn’t just the best rapper alive in 2010, he was the culture’s hardest working artist. After the debacle that was the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Kanye was determined to win back the public, although not without his usual defiant style. Holing up in Honolulu’s Avex Recording Studio, the GOOD Music boss flew in a murderers row of rappers and producers, including Jay-Z, Pusha T, RZA, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and Kid Cudi. It was on Hawaii that Kanye would seek his redemption.
Enough has been written about the greatness of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that we don’t need to spend time rehashing it here. It’s what Kanye did outside of his masterpiece that cemented his standing as the best rapper of the year. Whether it was on Rick Ross’ “Live Fast, Die Young,” Chris Brown’s “Deuces (Remix)” or Lloyd Banks’ “Start It Up,” Kanye proved that he had dope bars and unforgettable verses for days, and he couldn’t be stopped.
2011’s Best Rapper Alive: Drake
Claim to fame: Take Care, Non-album singles – “Dreams Money Can Buy,” “Club Paradise”; Features – T.I.’s “Poppin Bottles,” DJ Khaled’s “I’m on One,” Lil Wayne’s “She Will” & “It’s Good,” Waka Flocka Flame’s “Round of Applause,” J. Cole’s “In the Morning,” Game’s “Good Girls Go Bad”
Honourable mentions: Jay-Z, Kanye West, Eminem, Tech N9ne, Common, Royce da 5’9″
When Drake came up in the game during the late-2000s, he came under the guise of a humble young Canadian rapper eager to show his love for the culture. But once by the time 2011 rolled around, the Young Money rapper was feeling himself and wanted to start calling the shots. Boosted by the success of his debut album and backed by Birdman and Lil Wayne, Drake went straight for the kings Jay-Z and Kanye, making it clear on Khaled’s “I’m on One” that he feels “the throne is for the taking.” It was a strong first shot in its own regard, but Drake followed it up with Take Care, one of the best releases of the year, and combined with his run off features, the Toronto superstar proved that he was the best rapper alive in 2011.
2012’s Best Rapper Alive: Kendrick Lamar
Claim to fame: good kid, m.A.A.d city; Non-album singles – “Look Out For Detox,” “Cartoon & Cereal,” “Westside, Right On Time”; Features – A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems,” Schoolboy Q’s “Blessed,” Meek Mill’s “A1 Everything,” Maybach Music Group’s “Power Circle,” Mac Miller’s “Fight The Feeling,” Ab-Soul’s “Illuminate,” DJ Drama’s “My Way,” The Game’s “See No Evil”
Honourable mentions: Nas, 2 Chainz, Rick Ross, Drake, Kanye West, Killer Mike, El-P, Meek Mill, Big Sean
In many years throughout rap history, the crown for best rapper alive has always been in tough contention. It’s very rare for one rapper to unite public opinion on who the top dog of the year is. In 2012, Kendrick Lamar did just that. The Compton rapper’s road to the top seemed predestined to happen. A dream where 2Pac visited him in a vision, a chance encounter with Dre who was filming “California Love”, then later signing to the Aftermath head honcho – everything seemed set up for Kendrick to become who he became in 2012.
After a year of building up immense hype following the well-received Section.80, Kendrick delivered his long-awaited major label debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. The album was everything we had been expecting from the Top Dawg MC – superb storytelling, an autobiographical element of his time growing up in Compton, vivid lyricism and numerous flows. Not to mention, the album did well commercially, selling close to a quarter million copies in its first week, which pretty much cemented Kendrick as one of the top rappers in the game – artistically and sales-wise.
2013’s Best Rapper Alive: Pusha T
Claim to fame: My Name Is My Name, Wrath of Caine; Features – N.O.R.E.’s “Tadow,” Gunplay’s “Bet That,” The-Dream’s “Pussy,” Ludacris’ “Mad Fo,” No Malice’s “Shame The Devil,” Troy Ave’s “Everything,” Young Jeezy’s “Pure,” MMG’s “Know You Better”
Honourable mentions: Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Kanye West, J. Cole, A$AP Rocky, Chance the Rapper
There were rappers who dropped bigger albums in 2013 (Drake, J. Cole, A$AP Rocky), there were rappers were higher up in the topic of conversation (Kendrick Lamar), and there were rappers who released better albums (Kanye). But when it comes to purely the rapping side of things, the beats and rhymes side of things, then Pusha T was the best rapper of 2013.
After giving his fanbase a teaser with Wrath of Caine earlier in the year, which featured some vicious bars in itself, Pusha dropped the highly anticipated My Name Is My Name. Over skeletal, nightmarish soundscapes, the former Clipse rapper stuck to his guns as the single best coke rapper to ever touch a mic. While the album could have done with some further editing (the middle drags a bit), Pusha T has never sounded as good as he did on tracks like “King Push”, “Numbers on the Boards”, “Nosetalgia” and “Pain.”
2014’s Best Rapper Alive: J. Cole
Claim to fame: 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Revenge of the Dreamers (with Dreamville Records)
Honourable mentions: Freddie Gibbs, Run the Jewels, Drake, Young Thug, Kevin Gates, Logic, Big K.R.I.T., Schoolboy Q
It took J. Cole a few years to truly find his voice in the rap game. While the North Carolina MC made a huge impact on the mixtape circuit with tapes like The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights, his actual debut left much to be desired, especially considering his vast skillset and promise. Cole’s sophomore album Born Sinner was a big improvement on his first album, but it still felt like he was being left to catch up with Kendrick and Drake.
That is, until his third album 2014 Forest Hills Drive. It was the first album in his catalogue where it felt like Cole didn’t have to make any compromises with his sound or trying to force hit singles; just 13-tracks of the Dreamville MC spitting at the highest level about whatever he wanted to rap about. 2014 Forest Hills Drive was the album that put Cole on the track to become, not just the best rapper in 2014, but currently the best rapper alive.
2015’s Best Rapper Alive: Drake
Claim to fame: If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, What a Time to Be Alive (with Future); Non-album singles – “Charged Up,” “Back to Back”; Features – Big Sean’s “Blessings,” Meek Mill’s “R.I.C.O.,” Game’s “100,” Future’s “Where Ya At,” Fetty Wap’s “My Way (Remix)”
Honourable mentions: Kendrick Lamar, Future, Lupe Fiasco, Young Thug, A$AP Rocky, Pusha T, Big Sean, Meek Mill
Kendrick fans are going to drag me for this one, but I really do believe wholeheartedly that Drake had the better year in 2015 than the Top Dawg rapper. Of course, there’s no argument that Kendrick had the better album – no rap fan in the world is going to dispute that To Pimp a Butterfly was a stronger release than If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late or What a Time to Be Alive. But being the best rapper alive doesn’t just mean you drop the best album of the year, although it certainly helps.
From Drake’s side, he dropped one of the best albums of his career as a surprise release no less; he got into it with Meek and came out on top; he connected with Future for a victory lap mixtape, and to top it all off, the Toronto rapper had the audacity to put out a song like “Hotline Bling” while all this was going on and totally dominate the summer. Kendrick may have had the better album in 2015, but Drake was the best rapper alive that year.
2016’s Best Rapper Alive: Schoolboy Q
Claim to fame: Blank Face LP; Features – Ab-Soul’s “Beat the Case /// Straight Crooked”, A$AP Ferg’s “Let It Bang”
Honourable mentions: Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Q-Tip, J. Cole, Kevin Gates, Danny Brown
You know how I said earlier that dropping the best rap album of the year doesn’t necessarily meant you’re the best rapper alive? Well, for Schoolboy Q, it totally does. In a year where we saw strong releases from Chance the Rapper, Kanye, J. Cole, A Tribe Called Quest, Drake, and Kendrick, Q stood tall with his fourth album, Blank Face LP. A dark, sprawling epic set in the heart of gangland L.A., Q is the album’s shining torch as he guides the listener through the swirling psychedelia. As an MC, Q is in total control here, his delivery aggressive but fluid, his wordplay deft and his storytelling subtle yet potent. With Blank Face LP, Q managed to drop the best hip hop album of 2016 and prove that he’s the best rapper alive of that year.
2017’s Best Rapper Alive: Kendrick Lamar
Claim to fame: DAMN.; Features – Mike Will Made It’s “Perfect Pint,” Rich The Kid’s “New Freezer,” U2’s “Get Out of Your Own Way,” Thundercat’s “Walk on By,” Future’s “Mask Off,” Vince Staples’ “Yeah Right,” Rapsody’s “Power”
Honourable mentions: Jay-Z, Joey Badass, Future, Offset, Young Thug, Rapsody, Vince Staples, Tyler, the Creator
If Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was Kendrick Lamar’s West Coast version of Ready to Die – a cinematic major label debut that incorporated a strong autobiographical element – then his 2017 album DAMN. is his Life After Death. Just like Big proved that he could do everything better than everyone on his sophomore album, the Compton rapper did the same in 2017.
You want a global smash hit? He gave you “Humble.” You want a radio banger? He gave you “Loyalty.” You want a storytelling track? How’s “Duckworth” for you? You want battle rap? Tell me what rap song was more confrontational than “The Heart Part 4”? From the top to the bottom of the year, Kendrick proved undisputedly that he was the best rapper alive.
2018’s Best Rapper Alive: Pusha T
Claim to fame: Daytona; Non-album singles – “The Story of Adidon”; Features – Kids See Ghosts’ “Feel the Love”
Honourable mentions: J. Cole, Drake, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Nipsey Hussle, Lil Baby
When you drop an album of the year contender, as well as also get into it with the biggest rapper in the world and walk away from it relatively unscathed, it’s kind of an automatic that you’re going to be crowned the best rapper alive. Pusha T is going to be telling stories about his run in 2018 to his grandchildren.
Firstly, dropping Daytona alone was already going to put him in the conversation for the year, the album was a hard-hitting 7-track masterpiece that showcased Pusha’s strengths as an MC in all their glory. But then to follow it up with the Drake beef and drop “The Story of Adidon” – a diss track so vicious that it made the Toronto superstar tap out – well, that was just the icing on the cake. Ever since he came in the game almost two decades ago, rappers knew Pusha wasn’t to be fucked with lyrically, and he keeps proving it time and time again.
2019’s Best Rapper Alive: Benny the Butcher
Claim to fame: The Plugs I Met, WWCD (with Griselda), Statue of Limitations(with Smoke DZA); Features – The Alchemist’s “Sand Castles”, Conway the Machine’s “Tito’s Back”, Westside Gunn’s “Sensational Sherri”
Honourable mentions: Freddie Gibbs, J. Cole, Pusha T, Rapsody, Denzel Curry, Young Thug
There wasn’t a rapper in the world who was more determined to prove that he was the best rapper alive than Benny the Butcher in 2019. Fresh off dropping his career magnum opus, Tana Talk 3, the year prior, the Griselda MC double down on his efforts to prove to hip hop who the illest on the mic was.
Starting off with The Plugs I Met where he went toe-to-toe with lyrical heavyweights like Black Thought, Jadakiss and Pusha T, Benny sounded self-assured and confident in his abilities to hang with the best of them. Then there were his highlight performances on Griselda’s WWCD (his “Chef Dreds” and “Dr. Bird’s” verses are all-time best), as well as his feature appearances. All in all, Benny the Butcher left no doubt in any rap fan’s mind who the best rapper alive in 2019 was.
2020’s Best Rapper Alive: Freddie Gibbs
Claim to fame: Alfredo (with The Alchemist); Features – Boldy James’ “S.N.O.R.T.”, Westside Gunn’s “$500 Ounces”, Conway the Machine’s “Seen Everything but Jesus”, Benny the Butcher’s “One Way Flight”
Honourable mentions: Lil Baby, Conway the Machine, Benny the Butcher, Nas, Stove God Cooks, Black Thought, Royce da 5’9″, Boldy James
Ever since experiencing a career resurgence with 2014’s Piñata, Freddie Gibbs has consistently been in the conversation for best rapper alive. Whether it was the underrated Shadow of a Doubt in 2016, his comeback album You Only Live 2wice in 2017 (after being acquitted of charges), his amazing output in 2018 – Freddie and Fetti – or 2019’s Bandana, Gibbs was smoking up every track put in front of him. In 2020, he had become undeniable.
Barely a year had gone by since Bandana dropped but the Indiana rapper was back rhyming as crazy as ever with the Alchemist-helmed Alfredo. A pure showcase of his incredible rapping talents, Alfredo is Gibbs at his MCing peak, the UGK/Bone Thugs-inspired flow paired with his hardcore bars delivered over smoky Alchemist production proved that he had no competition amongst his rap peers.
2021’s Best Rapper Alive: Tyler, the Creator
Claim to fame: Call Me If You Get Lost; Features – Snoh Aalegra’s “Neon Peach”, Snoh Aalegra’s “In the Moment”, Brent Faiyaz’s “Gravity”
Honourable mentions: Nas, J. Cole, Lil Wayne, Mach-Hommy, Rome Streetz, Ransom, Benny the Butcher, Boldy James
No-one could have predicted Tyler, the Creator’s artistic trajectory 10 years ago when he debuted with “Yonkers” as the leader of Odd Future. He just might have had the greatest rapper evolution over the past decade. After pretty abandoning rap altogether on his 2019 album, Igor, Tyler re-discovered his love for rhyming again.
Inspired by Westside Gunn, along with Lil Wayne, Clipse, Lupe, Jay-Z, and Andre 3000, Tyler was back to dropping dope bars. Linking up with DJ Drama for his own version of a Gangsta Grillz tape, Tyler proceeded to lyrically body tracks over the entire course of Call Me If You Get Lost. Not only can you hear Tyler’s precise rhyming and warped delivery, you can also hear his passion and enthusiasm for the art of rapping. That’s why in 2021 Tyler, the Creator was the best rapper alive.
2022’s Best Rapper Alive: Kendrick Lamar
Claim to fame: Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
Honourable mentions: JID, Pusha T, Denzel Curry, Benny the Butcher, J. Cole, Nas, Rome Streetz
2022 might have been one of the dopest years we’ve had in recent history. We had huge releases from Drake, Future, Lil Baby, and Lil Durk; acclaimed releases from Denzel Curry, Nas, Black Thought, Saba, Vince Staples; and long-awaited projects from Pusha T, JID, and of course Kendrick Lamar. In fact, the last time the Compton rapper dropped an album, XXXTentacion was just blowing up, Nipsey Hussle was getting ready to release Victory Lap and Pop Smoke was still trying to get in the rap game.
How things have changed these past five years. But then again, some things just stay the same. Like the fact that Kendrick didn’t lose a step with his rhyming, storytelling and soul-baring introspection. Even as the Top Dawg rapper’s most dense and complex listen to date, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers still features his rapping talents to their fullest here. With his superb lyricism combined with his ability to switch up his flow and vocal cadences, Kendrick made sure everyone in the rap world knew who was back, and who the best rapper alive of 2022 was.