For our Best Rappers Alive series, we take a look at the top five best rappers, year by year – ranking them on projects dropped, guest verses and overall impact.
If you ever wondered when Lil Wayne became a full-blown superstar, look no further than 2008. After years of grinding it out on the mixtape circuit and bodying his feature appearances, Lil Wayne finally got to the top of the rap game thanks to Tha Carter III.
Meanwhile, T.I. hits another level of commercial success with Paper Trail, Nas drops the ambitious Untitled, Jeezy gets all Presidential with his third album and even dropping the new wave 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye was still managing to spazz out on other rappers.
Here are the top five best rappers alive of 2008.
After leaving G-Unit in early 2005, all eyes were on The Game to see whether he’d fuck up his next move. The Documentary was a blockbuster album and one of the biggest hip-hop records of the year, selling over 500,000 copies in its first week.
Then again, Game did have 50 helping with the hooks, Dre on the beats and a feature from Eminem. Nobody could fuck that up. So when Game dropped the widely praised and strong selling Doctor’s Advocate the next year with no help from 50, Dre or Em, he showed he didn’t need anybody.
For LAX, once again all eyes were on him to see if he could sustain the momentum. And in a way, the West Coast torchbearer held strong. The album was a good balance of radio hits, sunny bangers and deep album cuts that showcased Game’s willingness to experiment.
2008 wouldn’t be close to the breakout year Ross had in 2006 when “Hustlin'” broke him into the mainstream, but in a way, Trilla would set the template for his consistent success later down the track.
As a another showcase of Rick Ross’ brilliant ear for production and his ability to curate A-list feature appearances, Trilla was a masterful display of the drug dealer kingpin dream. Jay-Z appears for “Maybach Music,” a debut in the series, Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy while J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League hold it down with their epic, trap-orchestral production.
Trilla became Ross’ second number one album, selling 198,000 in its first week, and was a crucial record that helped put him in the Bawse position he is in today.
Jay-Z can try and claim it but Q-Tip rightly takes the “Young Forever” title. Casual hip-hop listeners who stumbled across Q-Tip’s 2008 album, The Renaissance, probably thought he was a new hip-hop artist with his butter voice, vibrant lyrics and smooth production.
I couldn’t blame them though. It’s hard to believe this was the very same rapper who debuted on the Jungle Brothers’ 1988 “Black Is Black,” produced on Nas’ Illmatic and was the mastermind behind three classic Tribe albums.
After sorting out the dreaded label woes that plagued so many hip-hop artists during the mid to late-2000s, the Abstract regrouped and dropped another masterpiece. Recruiting the likes of Norah Jones, D’Angelo and Raphael Saadiq, Tip created an album that had the same feeling of A Tribe Called Quest, but slightly updated with a modern touch.
The Renaissance helped push Tip back into the spotlight, debuting at number 11 on the Billboard 200 chart and earned him a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rap Album.
Detroit’s Best Kept Secret, the Slum Village spitter, microphone killer, whatever you want to call him – just know that Elzhi is one of the best rappers of his generation. After years of grinding it out on the Detroit underground circuit and trading bars as part of Slum Village, Elzhi finally got a chance to drop his solo debut.
Half of the reason why The Preface is such a dope album is because of Black Milk’s incredible production skills that blended trunk-rattling drum loops with soulful layers. The other half, of course, is thanks to Elzhi’s relentless rhymes. The album is purely 60 minutes of him spitting that shit.
The brilliant “Colors” rivals GZA’s classic “Labels” for its creativity and wordplay while “Motown 25” is just Elzhi and Royce trading bar for bar – it’s just the best shit ever. Low key one of the best hip-hop records of 2008.
As The Roots steadily played their way through the 2000s, their music evolved and became darker. The group’s 2006 album Game Theory was rife with socio-political themes and gritty undertones but their 2008 follow-up, Rising Down, took it up a notch.
Questlove and friends eschew their trademark jazziness and layer the music with dense, industrial sounds. Meanwhile, Black Thought becomes a monster on the mic, dragging, not taking, dragging the listener down a hole with him.
Whether it was rhyming alongside Mos Def and Styles P about the tragic state of post 9-11 America, lifting up the people with Wale on “Rising Up” or just straight bodying shit on “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction),” Black Thought proved one thing – he was the most consistent and enduring rapper of all time.
The Top 5 Best Rappers of 2008
Notable releases: Untitled, The Ni**er Tape (mixtape)
Key guest appearances: Young Jeezy’s “My President,” Ludacris’ “I Do It for Hip Hop,” The Game’s “Letter to the King,” DJ Khaled’s “I’m On.”
Following his 2006 album, the strong but muddled Hip Hop Is Dead, Untitled was another overly ambitious project by Nas. One of the biggest problem Nas has had over his 20 year career is trying to cover too much in an album without a clear sense of direction or focus.
Untitled, along with his 2004’s double album, Street’s Disciple, is one of the prime examples. An admirable attempt by Nas to dissect the word and analyse the socio-political themes surrounding it, the Queensbridge rapper doesn’t end up achieving much.
Still, as a pure rapper, Nas is still one of the top lyricists in the game. When he’s in the zone with fitting production, he’s simply untouchable. Case in point: “Queens Get the Money.” Jay Electronica provides the brooding piano production with no drums and Nas enters god-level with his rhymes:
They pray "Please God, let him spit that 'Uzi in the army lining' That 'shorty doo-wop rolling oo-wops in the park reclining'" Take 27 emcees, put 'em in a line and they're out of alignment
4. Young Jeezy
Notable releases: The Recession, The Prime Minister
Key guest appearances: Usher’s “Love in This Club,” DJ Khaled’s “Out Here Grindin,” Akon’s “I’m So Paid,” Kanye West’s “Amazing,” Mariah Carey’s “Side Effects,” Rick Ross’ “Luxury Tax.”
Young Jeezy stormed the game in the mid-00s on the strength of his classic mixtape, Trap or Die, and his landmark debut Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 which has inspired a generation of trappers and hustlers.
The 2006 follow up The Inspiration: Thug Motivation 102 was a smash commercially, earning Jeezy his first number one album, but it was 2008’s The Recession that gave him his biggest year ever.
Jeezy’s gritty flow and raspy voice made him a favourite for R&B superstars who wanted to added some edge to their hits. In addition to feature appearances for Mariah Carey and Ciara, Jeezy also jumped on Usher’s smash single “Love in This Club” which became his first number one hit.
For the album The Recession, Jeezy stuck to his lane, doing what he does best – crafting motivational bangers and trap anthems over DJ Toomp and Drumma Boy production. He took some time to rep his city with Kanye for the Grammy-nominated “Put On” as well as putting his differences with Nas aside for the uplifting “My President.”
3. Kanye West
Notable releases: 808s & Heartbreak
Key guest appearances: Estelle’s “American Boy,” Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop (Remix),” Young Jeezy’s “Put On,” Fonzworth Bentley’s “Everybody,” T.I.’s “Swagga Like Us,” DJ Khaled’s “Go Hard.”
2008 was a weird year for Kanye. After having arguably the biggest year of his life in 2007, selling close to a million copies with Graduation straight out the gate and dropping classic records like “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Stronger,” Kanye suffered the devastating loss of his mother and parted ways with his longtime fiancee.
So, as Kanye would do, he turned to music as his only salvation.
808s & Heartbreak was maligned by half of Kanye’s fans when it first dropped but that didn’t stop him from scoring 2 Billboard top 10s with “Heartless” and “Love Lockdown” and another number one album. Outside of his album, he jumped on records with T.I., Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy to keep his rhymes sharp – blacking out on tracks like “Go Hard and “Lollipop (Remix).”
Notable releases: Paper Trail
Key guest appearances: Mariah Carey’s “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time,” Ludacris’ “Wish You Would,” Jamie Foxx’s “Just Like Me,” Yung L.A.’s “Ain’t I.”
After he broke through into the industry’s A-list with his 2006 album, King, T.I. encountered a couple stumbling blocks that stopped him from continuing his momentum.
Amid legal problems, the self-declared King of the South dropped a disappointing follow up to King – despite selling well, T.I. vs. T.I.P. lacked the punch and and cohesiveness of previous releases.
For Paper Trail, he decided to change shit up and everything clicked into place. The album’s second single “Whatever You Like” became T.I.’s first number one hit while tracks like “Swagga Like Us” and “56 Bars (Intro)” proved to listeners he was still a monster with his bars.
1. Lil Wayne
Notable releases: Tha Carter III, Dedication 3
Key guest appearances: Kanye West’s “See You in My Nightmares,” Usher’s “Love in This Club Part II,” Birdman’s “I Run This,” The Game’s “My Life,” T-Pain’s “Can’t Believe It,” Kevin Rudolf’s “Let It Rock,” T.I.’s “Swagga like Us,” Akon’s “I’m So Paid.”
All the work leading up to 2008; all the albums, endless guest appearances and barrage of mixtapes were leading up to this very moment for Lil Wayne. It’s not enough for an artist to make it big – their journey or narrative, whatever you want to call it, has to be compelling.
In Lil Wayne’s case, he went from a teenage rapper in the ’90s to the biggest hip-hop artist in the world by way of sheer determination and work ethic. No other rapper has had a run like Wayne from 2005 to 2008. Every feature, every mixtape, every fucking verse was pure heat. It was incredible to see someone sustain that volume of quality music for that amount of time.
It paid off in the end.
Lil Wayne scored his first number one hit with “Lollipop” and followed it up with the unbelievable “A Milli.” With that one-two punch combo, he had the charts, radio, clubs and streets on lock. So when he finally dropped Tha Carter III and it sold over a million copies in the first week, there was really no surprise.