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2012 was one of the landmark years in hip-hop. Not only did it announce the arrival of one of rap’s new kings, in the form of Kendrick Lamar, 2012 was a year where we saw a range of artists achieve incredible success through different techniques.

From building their fan base independently to signing with major labels off the strength of their momentum – it was the year where we finally saw the critical, the respected and the commercially successful merge closer together.

If there’s any doubts, hip-hop heads just need to take a look at the best rappers of 2012. From the chef-turned-MC from Queens, Action Bronson, to the MMG empire of Rick Ross, to the incredibly hot run 2 Chainz is currently on to Nas’ Life Is Good to Kendrick Lamar’s coronation, 2012 was an awesome year for hip-hop.

Here are the top five best rappers alive of 2012.

5. 2 Chainz

Notable releases: Based on a T.R.U. Story

Key guest appearances: GOOD Music’s “Mercy,“ Nicki Minaj’s “Beez in the Trap,” DJ Drama’s “My Moment,” Juicy J’s “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” Tyga’s “Do My Dance,” ASAP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems,” T.I.’s “Loud Mouth,” Rick Ross’ “Fuck Em,” Gucci Mane’s “Okay with Me,” Jadakiss’ “Count It,” Meek Mill’s “Str8 Like That,” Currensy’s “Capitol,” Plies’ “See Nann,” DJ Khaled’s “I Don’t See ‘Em,” Waka Flocka Flame’s “Rooster in My Rari (Remix),” Wiz Khalifa’s “It’s Nothin’,” Game’s “Ali Bomaye,” Wale’s “Get Me Doe.”

2 Chainz is the epitome of what hard work will achieve for you. After the Playaz Circle debut album, Supply & Demand, failed to make any substantial impact, despite having the Lil Wayne-featured hit single “Duffle Bag Boy,” Tity Boi as he was known back in the day, went back into the studio to regroup, rebrand and record.

After releasing mixtape after mixtape, Tity Boi emerged as 2 Chainz in early 2011 and dropped his breakthrough project, T.R.U. REALigion. The mixtape was downloaded more than 500,000 times on DatPiff and featured guest appearances from rappers like Meek Mill, T.I., Birdman, Young Jeezy, Jadakiss and Raekwon.

2 Chainz parlayed that momentum into a deal with Def Jam and went on a features run so crazy it hadn’t been seen since the days of Lil Wayne was bodying guest appearances during that ’06 – ’07 period. With his endless supply of hilarious punchlines, he jumped from feature to feature with ease.

Name a hot song in 2012, chances are 2 Chainz was on it. “Bandz a Make Her Dance”? Yeap. “Beez in the Trap”? Yeap. “Fuckin’ Problems”? Yeap. Oh, and how about the hottest song of the entire year, “Mercy”? Yeah, 2 Chainz killed that shit and was the most hyped part of the fucking song.

And that’s not even including his debut solo album, Based on a T.R.U. Story. With features from Lil Wayne, Drake, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Scarface as well as production from Southside, Mike Will Made It, Sonny Digital, The-Dream, the album moved a respectable 147,000 units in its first week, making it one of the biggest first week album sales of 2012.

From being a virtually unknown rapper to one of the industry’s hottest commodities with a Grammy-nominated album, 2 Chainz combined his relentless work ethic and a little bit of luck to become one of the best rappers of 2012.

4. Kanye West

Notable releases: Cruel Summer (with GOOD Music), Watch the Throne singles – “No Church in the Wild.”

Key guest appearances: 2 Chainz’s “Birthday Song,” Rihanna’s “Diamonds (Remix),” DJ Khaled’s “I Wish You Would,” Fat Joe’s “Pride N Joy.”

Ever since his 2010 comeback album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye has become increasingly aggressive with his rhymes. The happy, humble Kanye from The College Dropoutdays was long gone. What was left in his place was an irritated and frustrated artist, venting his anger at any opportunity given.

 And boy did he spazz. On Rihanna’s “Diamonds (Remix) with an epic verse. On 2 Chainz’s “Birthday Song” with a scene-stealing appearance. On DJ Khaled’s “I Wish You Would” with a taunts and sneers.

Then on Cruel Summer, Kanye played quarterback for some of the biggest songs of the year – “Clique,” “Mercy” – spazzed out on “Cold” and battled for the best verse against Pusha T on “New God Flow” and “Don’t Like.”

But even with all his achievements in 2012, Kanye didn’t seem to get the accolades he deserved. MTV’s Hottest MC in the Game for 2012 actually put Big Sean and Rick Ross in front of him, which is ridiculous. Maybe it was because people were expecting Kanye to deliver another My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Watch the Throne, but they’re acting like Cruel Summer isn’t one of the best crew albums of all time.

Kanye West will always be held to a higher standard than other rappers. He’s accomplished more in the past 10 years than most artists have accomplished in their entire career. Needless to say, Kanye was definitely one of the best rappers of 2012, you can’t tell me nothing.

3. Drake

Notable releases: Take Care singles – “Take Care,” “HYFR (Hell Ya Fucking Right),” “Crew Love,” “Lord Knows.”

Key guest appearances: Rick Ross’ “Stay Schemin’,” 2 Chainz’s “No Lie,” French Montana’s “Pop That,” Meek Mill’s “Amen,” A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice.”

While 2011 was Drake’s landmark year with the release of his sophomore album, Take Care, it was in 2012 that proved just how talented and successful a hit-maker he really was.

2012 was also the first year Drake fired back. While famous for replying to shots from other rappers, Drake was sick of disses from everyone and their mother and took the opportunity on Rick Ross’ menacing “Stay Schemin’” to deliver arguably his best verse of all time.

Within that 16-bar verse, Drake fired quotable after quotable at his haters, particularly Common, with many of his venomous lines now engrained in pop culture.

Fresh off the release of Take Care at the end of 2011, Drake juggled the album’s massive hit singles – “Take Care” and “HYFR (Hell Ya Fucking Right)” with scene-stealing guest appearances on records with 2 Chainz, French Montana, Kendrick Lamar, Meek  Mill and more.

With a midas touch unmatched by anyone else in the rap game, Drake showed veterans and up-and-comers how it was done. While 2 Chainz was known for getting on the hottest songs of 2012, Drake automatically made any song he appeared on hot. Can you imagine “No Lie,” “Pop That” or “Amen” without Drake’s verse or hook? Those cuts wouldn’t be the same.

With the release of Take Care, Drake cemented himself as a powerful commercial force in hip hop and by showing just how easily he could make and give away hits to his peers, Drake proved himself the rap game kingmaker and as one of the best rappers of 2012.

2. Nas

Notable releases: Life Is Good.

Key guest appearances: DJ Khaled’s “Hip Hop,” DJ Premier & Bumpy Knuckles’ “Turn Up The Mic,” Maybach Music Group’s “This Thing Of Ours,” Meek Mill’s “Maybach Curtains,” Nicki Minaj’s “Champion,” Rick Ross’ “Triple Beam Dreams,” Tyga’s “King And Queens.”

Nearly 20 years removed from his 1994 debut, Illmatic, who would have expected Nas to drop an album as good as Life Is Good? Nas fans all around the world were waiting nervously, hoping for the best but knowing not to expect too much. Who can blame them though?

While he’s unarguably one of the greatest rappers of all time, Nas’ discography has had some very patchy moments. But starting from 2011, Nas started on a guest appearance blitz – bodying feature after feature on records with Lil Wayne, Common, Raekwon and Mobb Deep.

Then at the start of 2012, he jumped on Rick Ross’ “Triple Beam Dreams” and delivered perhaps one of his greatest verses of all time, building up fans’ hopes for Life Is Good.

After that the cuts started leaking – “Nasty,” “The Don,” “Loco-Motive,” “Accident Murderers,” “Daughters,” – and fans were pleasantly surprised. Where was the cheesy pop single? Where was the muddled-message track that had Nas preaching to hip-hop? It seemed like for the first time in years, Nas was back in his creative zone.

Life Is Good finally dropped in July and fans began quietly whispering – is this the best Nas album since God’s SonStillmaticIt Was Written? Fuck yeah.

Nas’ rhyming abilities have never gone anywhere ever since his debut in ’91, but on Life Is Good, Nas was super-focused, balancing his trademark, irreverent braggadocio with nostalgic memories of hip-hop’s golden age and Queensbridge.

Tracks like “Stay” and “The Don” and “Daughters” confirmed the legend’s incredible range and proved that when he’s in his zone, no one can touch Nas lyrically. Not Jay-Z, not Kanye West. No one.

The greatest thing about all this is the fact that Nas dropped Illmatic in 1994, nearly 20 years before Life Is Good and he’s still up there amongst the best rappers alive today.

1. Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar attends the BET Hip-Hop Honors at Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, in Atlanta. (Photo by John Amis/Invision/AP)

Notable releases: good kid, m.A.A.d city; “Look Out For Detox,” “Cartoon & Cereal,” “Westside, Right On Time.”

Key guest appearances: 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.”

Was there really any surprise here? Hip-hop has been hyping up Kendrick as one of the best rappers of his generation since Section.80 was released and with the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city, the Team Kendrick train is just unstoppable now.

Is Kendrick the best rapper of 2012 because his album was an amazingly crafted concept album that gave us this generation’s Illmatic. Or because he’s touted by Dr. Dre and other West Coast artists as one of the best new rappers to come from the West side? Or because good kid, m.A.A.d city managed to move nearly 250,000 units in its first week without a traditional hit single?

No. Kendrick Lamar was the best rapper of 2012 because he truly is the best rapper of the year.

The art of rapping has evolved drastically since the Kool Moe Dee / Busy Bee era. It started out as who can rock the crowd the best – in this era, the best party MC was the best rapper. Then it evolved into the Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One and Kool G Rap phase. This was all about who can rap the best, with the most rhymes, with the nicest punchlines and illest metaphors. This phase pretty much continued into the Nas, Jay-Z, Biggie, Tupac, Wu-Tang era, with slight derivations.

It wasn’t until 50 Cent came through as the full package – rapper, hook-writer, song-writer, hit-make – that rappers began to step up their other skills. Then Kanye dropped 808s and Heartbreak and showed the world just how much rapping could encompass.

We’re now in that era. If we only judge who the best rapper is by how many rhymes they have, then we need to bring people like Papoose and other underground, super lyrical rappers into the conversation. But it’s not about that anymore. That’s why Kendrick is the best rapper of 2012.

good kid, m.A.A.d city was a masterful display of everything that makes hip-hop great these days. It featured Kendrick’s incredible rapping skills – his relentless flow, use of multiple voices, unique rhyme schemes – his singsong hooks on “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and his amazing grasp of narrative and skits to further the story.

It’s hard to determine how successful an artist will be given the fickle nature of the music industry and even more so, the rap game. But what Kendrick has shown us on good kid, m.A.A.d city, and to a lesser extent on Section.80, the TDE has the potential to truly become one of the greatest rappers of all time.

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