From the birth of hip-hop in the concrete jungles of the Bronx, the art of lyricism has been the cornerstone of the culture. It’s the essence of what it means to be an MC: to weave words, metaphors, and stories in ways that provoke thought, stir emotion, and inspire action.
When you think of titans in the game, minds drift to cats like Nas, who painted Queensbridge with every bar of Illmatic, or the enigmatic MF DOOM, who concocted intricate rhyme schemes while hiding behind his metal face. You can’t talk dexterity without giving props to Lupe’s layered storytelling, or the haunting poeticism of Earl Sweatshirt.
The South’s lyrical genius, Andre 3000, blessed us with verses that felt like a blend of spoken word and raw hip-hop, while Big L’s punchlines reverberated from Harlem to all corners of the map. Aesop Rock’s dense lyricism redefines complexity, and Jadakiss’s gritty, street-smart bars serve as a constant reminder of the essence of East Coast rap.
So let’s get into it. From the intricate rhymes of Eminem and the slick wordplay of Jay-Z to the dense, metaphor-laden rhymes of MF DOOM and cryptic verses of Aesop Rock, here are the top 100 best rap lyricists of all time.
Essential listening: When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold (2008)
An essential pillar of the independent hip-hop duo Atmosphere, Slug, aka Sean Daley, has made a name for himself as one of the most relatable and introspective lyricists in the game. From the cold streets of Minneapolis, Slug’s poetry is raw, honest, and at times, incredibly intimate. He marries the grit of street life with introspective reflections on relationships, mental health, and social issues, crafting narratives that resonate with a wide audience. His masterful wordplay and unique storytelling ability have made him a stalwart of the underground hip-hop scene and earned him recognition as one of rap’s most gifted lyricists.
99. MC Ren
Essential listening: Shock of the Hour (1993)
On the flip side of the lyrical spectrum, we find MC Ren, an essential piece of the revolutionary rap group N.W.A. Known for his ruthless, no-nonsense lyrical style, MC Ren’s pen game played a significant role in shaping the hard-hitting, confrontational lyrics that made N.W.A. one of the most influential groups in hip-hop history. Despite often being overshadowed by Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, MC Ren’s contribution to the golden era of gangsta rap and his ability to capture the harsh realities of street life through his lyrics cannot be underestimated. Ren is a testament to the power of raw, unfiltered lyricism in painting evocative pictures of life on the mean L.A. streets.
98. Immortal Technique
Essential listening: Revolutionary Vol. 1 (2001)
In an industry often accused of valuing style over substance, Immortal Technique stands as a stark rebuttal. The Harlem-raised MC has never shied away from confronting societal ills, lacing his tracks with hard-hitting, politically charged rhymes. While his storytelling ability is unquestionable, it’s his uncompromising social commentary that has left a lasting mark on the culture. With albums like “Revolutionary Vol. 2,” Technique forces listeners to acknowledge the systemic injustices that pervade our world, making him an essential voice in conscious rap.
97. Vinnie Paz
Essential listening: Servants in Heaven, Kings in Hell (2006)
Meanwhile, Philly-native Vinnie Paz carves his own path through the annals of rap lyricism with a gritty, braggadocio style reminiscent of early East Coast pioneers. As the frontman of Jedi Mind Tricks and one of the founding members of the supergroup Army of the Pharaohs, Paz’s lyrics often explore themes of spirituality, politics, and mental health. However, what makes him particularly noteworthy is his aggressive delivery and intricate rhyme schemes, with lyrics that hit as hard as his namesake boxer, Vinny Pazienza. Whether he’s trading bars with his fellow AOTP members or spitting venom on a solo joint, Paz’s prowess as a lyricist can’t be denied.
96. Tragedy Khadafi
Essential listening: Tragedy: Saga of a Hoodlum (1993)
Tragedy Khadafi, also known as the Intelligent Hoodlum, is a testament to the adage that true lyricists never die; they simply mature like fine wine. Hailing from Queensbridge, the same fertile ground that birthed Nas and Mobb Deep, Khadafi’s lyrical prowess has been a consistent force since the late ’80s. His deft wordplay, coupled with a profound street wisdom, brings an authentic and intellectual voice to the hustle narrative.
95. Bizzy Bone
Essential listening: E. 1999 Eternal (1995)
Bizzy Bone of the legendary Bone Thugs-N-Harmony brings a unique vocal dynamism to the table. Known for his rapid-fire, melodic flow and often introspective lyrics, Bizzy stands out even in a group renowned for their innovative style. His verse on the group’s breakout hit “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” introduced the world to his dizzying delivery and raw, emotive lyrics. Whether harmonizing about life on the streets or dropping heartfelt verses on solo projects like “Heaven’z Movie,” Bizzy’s distinctive lyrical flavor is a vital component in the Bone Thugs’ recipe for success.
94. Kool Moe Dee
Essential listening: How Ya Like Me Now (1987)
Before rap battles were reduced to online diss tracks, there was Kool Moe Dee. After destroyed Busy Bee Starski at Harlem World in 1981 — one of the first rap battles ever — Moe Dee went toe-to-toe with the up-and-coming LL Cool J in a legendary beef that pushed both MCs to elevate their lyricism. As one of the pioneers of complex internal rhymes and metaphoric wordplay, Kool Moe Dee’s contribution to hip-hop lyricism cannot be overstated. His braggadocious style on tracks like “How Ya Like Me Now” and cerebral dissection of hip-hop on “I Go to Work” underline his sharp, thought-provoking lyrical talent.
93. Myka 9
Essential listening: To Whom It May Concern… (1991)
Switching coasts to the West, we find Myka 9 – a lyricist who personifies the experimental ethos of the LA alternative rap scene. As a founding member of Freestyle Fellowship, Myka’s intricate rhyme schemes and jazz-influenced flows were pushing boundaries in the early ’90s, while the gangsta rap narrative dominated the mainstream. His improvisational delivery—challenging the rhythm and shape of words—marked tracks like “Park Bench People” and albums like “1969” as seminal moments in the evolution of lyrical creativity.
92. MC Eiht
Essential listening: We Come Strapped (1994)
Few rappers can capture the raw essence of West Coast gangsta rap quite like MC Eiht. Hailing from Compton, Eiht’s lyricism is as authentic as it gets, his rhymes painting heartbreaking portraits of his neighborhood’s grittiness. From his groundbreaking work with Compton’s Most Wanted to his solo efforts, Eiht’s storytelling ability stands out. He masterfully builds narratives with a distinctive cadence that hits as hard as his unflinching lyrics, evident in classics like “Streiht Up Menace.”
Essential listening: Word of Mouf (2001)
Down in Atlanta, Ludacris brings a whole different energy to the table. Bursting out of the Dirty South with a flamboyant, animated style, Ludacris took the late ’90s and early ’00s by storm. His humor-infused, yet potent, lyrical prowess sets him apart. His sharp wordplay and pun-laden verses are refreshingly entertaining and undeniably skillful. Tracks like “Southern Hospitality” and “Stand Up” show Luda’s ability to blend lyrical sophistication with mainstream appeal, earning him a rightful place among rap’s greatest lyricists.
Essential listening: Stakes Is High (1996)
Posdnuos, one-third of the legendary De La Soul, has always been a testament to the power of thoughtful, introspective lyricism. As part of a group that dared to be different in the rugged era of ’90s hip hop, Posdnuos penned verses that balanced social commentary with abstract metaphors, navigating complex themes with grace. His lyrical brilliance on classics like “Stakes Is High” and “Me, Myself and I” added depth to De La Soul’s vibrant sonic landscapes, and his distinct voice only heightens the impact.
89. Tech N9ne
Essential listening: All 6’s and 7’s (2011)
Tech N9ne has been a workhorse in the rap industry for decades, repping the Midwestern underground with relentless energy. Known for his rapid-fire, chopper-style flow, Tech’s prowess as a lyricist isn’t defined by speed alone; it’s the dense, multilayered narratives and complex rhyme schemes that set him apart. Whether exploring personal traumas, societal critiques, or supernatural themes, Tech N9ne’s lyrics always present a rich tapestry of emotion and intellect. His unique style has influenced a generation of rappers, painting a blueprint for independent success.
88. Joell Ortiz
Essential listening: Free Agent (2011)
In contrast, Joell Ortiz, a member of the respected lyrical quartet Slaughterhouse, hails from the boroughs of New York City, where hip-hop’s roots run deep. His lyrics reflect the grit, hustle, and complexity of life in the Big Apple. Ortiz is a master storyteller, threading vivid narratives with intricate rhymes. His poignant tales of street life, combined with profound insights and emotional vulnerability, all manifest into hard-hitting bars that pack a punch. If Tech N9ne’s lyrics are a rapid-fire barrage, Ortiz’s are measured, powerful jabs — each one landing with precision and potency.
87. Freddie Gibbs
Essential listening: Bandana (2019)
Freddie Gibbs’ rhymes are filled with intricate street narratives that speak of his experiences growing up amidst violence and poverty. His flow is a lethal weapon – rapid, dexterous, and relentless. With albums like “Pinata” and “Bandana” alongside producer Madlib, the Gary, Indiana MC has demonstrated a knack for weaving complex stories within his bars, blending bravado and vulnerability in equal measure. Whether it’s hard-knock lessons, political commentary, or gritty hood tales, Gibbs attacks each verse like he’s got something to prove. He’s a rapper’s rapper – unfiltered, uncompromising, and undeniably gifted.
Essential listening: Music for My Friends (2015)
Skyzoo’s pen game represents the cream of Brooklyn’s tradition of elite lyricists. His strength lies not only in his witty wordplay but in the depth of his storytelling, weaving intricate tales of inner-city life that bridge the gap between aspirational dreams and harsh realities. Skyzoo’s skillful narratives, delivered with a cool, laid-back flow, contain layers of social commentary and personal introspection, providing listeners with a nuanced perspective of the world. This level of sophistication and authenticity in Skyzoo’s lyricism solidifies his place among hip-hop’s most adept wordsmiths.
85. Killah Priest
Essential listening: Heavy Mental (1998)
Killah Priest, a core affiliate of the Wu-Tang Clan, has a penchant for creating lyrical tapestries that delve into mysticism, spirituality, and the human condition. His esoteric lyricism stands as a pillar in the realm of conscious rap, with verses that often read like philosophical treatises or epic poems. Infused with a deep sense of spirituality, Killah Priest’s rhymes transcend the norm, taking listeners on a journey through the metaphysical and tangible world alike.
Essential listening: The S.O.U.L. Tape 2 (2012)
Now let’s take it to Brooklyn with Fabolous. Fab is renowned for his slick punchlines and effortless ability to craft catchy yet thought-provoking verses. His rhymes exude a kind of cool that’s hard to duplicate, often characterized by clever metaphors and a laid-back delivery. Despite his penchant for crafting club hits, Fabolous never shies away from showcasing his lyrical prowess, proving that mainstream success and high-caliber lyricism are not mutually exclusive.
83. Slick Rick
Essential listening: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick (1988)
Slick Rick is the most influential storyteller in hip hop history, period. As part of Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew, he captured the rap world with hits like “The Show” and “La Di Da Di,” which remains the most sampled rap song of all time. With his unmistakable British accent and smooth flow, Slick Rick spun cinematic tales through his rhymes that transported listeners to the gritty streets of his youth. He could paint a picture with his words like no one else, and was a major influence to future storytelling greats like Nas and Biggie.
82. Krayzie Bone
Essential listening: Creepin on ah Come Up (1994)
If ever there was an MC who could harmonize as fluently as they could spit, it’s Krayzie Bone. As a critical component of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Krayzie brought a uniquely melodic flow and rapid-fire delivery that shattered the norms of 90’s hip-hop. Hailing from Cleveland, his lyricism was steeped in tales of Midwestern street life, unflinchingly detailing struggles with poverty, violence, and substance abuse. His lightning-fast delivery and intricate rhyme schemes, paired with an ability to create catchy harmonies, cemented his status as a masterful lyricist.
Essential listening: Midnight Marauders (1993)
Smooth and abstract, Q-Tip, the frontman of A Tribe Called Quest, has crafted some of the most innovative rhymes in the genre. His signature flows that dance around jazz-infused beats coupled with his philosophical and introspective lyricism have set him apart as a poet of the culture. Tracks like “Check the Rhime” and “Can I Kick It?” showcase his gift for weaving intricate stories that speak to the human condition, using his unique brand of wordplay that is both complex and catchy.
Essential listening: Trap Muzik (2003)
This Atlanta wordsmith, with his distinctive cadence and swaggering confidence, has been a pivotal figure in popularizing trap music. But T.I.’s lyrical excellence extends beyond his knack for crafting catchy hooks and club anthems. His lyrics often blend street-savvy narratives with introspective thoughts, all delivered with a cocksure attitude that’s infectious. From the aggressive swagger of “Bring Em Out” to the introspective wisdom of “Live in the Sky,” Tip remains a lyricist who can command both the streets and the charts with his pen game.
79. Killer Mike
Essential listening: R.A.P. Music (2012)
From his days with OutKast to his solo career and Run The Jewels partnership with El-P, Mike’s ferocity and political commentary are undeniably potent. Whether he’s discussing systemic oppression on “Reagan” or exploring the realities of street life in “Big Beast”, Mike’s delivery is as relentless as it is masterful, echoing the raw and unapologetic voices of hip-hop’s originators while forging his own path in lyrical excellence.
78. Phife Dawg
Essential listening: The Low End Theory (1991)
Phife Dawg, the five-foot assassin of A Tribe Called Quest, wasn’t just a rapper; he was a culture icon. His verses on classics like “Buggin’ Out” and “Check the Rhime” were a perfect blend of braggadocio and wisdom, laced with sports references and a cheeky sense of humor. Despite his small stature, Phife’s wordplay packed a mighty punch. His insightful, often humorous lyricism helped set A Tribe Called Quest apart and paved the way for a more introspective, socially conscious form of hip-hop.
Essential listening: Wu-Tang Forever (1997)
RZA, the architect of the Wu-Tang Clan, occupies a special place in hip-hop’s lyrical landscape. As a rapper, he’s as complex and layered as the gritty beats he meticulously crafts. His rhymes, infused with Five-Percent Nation theology, martial arts metaphors, and street lore, embody the essence of Wu-Tang’s ‘knowledge of self’ philosophy. Whether he’s speaking from the perspective of Bobby Digital or Prince Rakeem, RZA’s lyricism is always shrouded in mystery and esoteric wisdom that requires multiple listens to fully decipher.
Essential listening: Cancer 4 Cure (2012)
El-P, one-half of the dynamic duo Run the Jewels and founder of the underground Definitive Jux label, has been a mainstay in the world of underground hip-hop for decades. His lyrical arsenal is packed with complex wordplay, dystopian imagery, and socio-political commentary that resonates in a world constantly teetering on the edge of chaos. His verses are dense, requiring multiple listens to fully grasp the intricacies of his thoughts. Yet, beneath the apocalyptic rhetoric and intricate rhymes, there’s an undercurrent of humanity that makes El-P’s lyricism relatable and poignant.
75. Jean Grae
Essential listening: Attack of the Attacking Things (2002)
As for Jean Grae, she’s an unapologetically authentic lyricist who’s spent her career in the trenches of the underground scene, honing her craft and solidifying her reputation as one of hip-hop’s most skilled MCs. Her razor-sharp wordplay, quick wit, and brutally honest content distinguish her in a male-dominated landscape. Grae’s lyricism goes beyond the typical hip-hop bravado; she explores themes of femininity, identity, and societal expectations with a critical eye and unfiltered honesty. Her discography, loaded with clever metaphors and thought-provoking narratives, is a testament to her skill as a storyteller and her dedication to keeping the art of lyricism alive.
Essential listening: Innercity Griots (1993)
Aceyalone, a founding member of the influential Freestyle Fellowship crew, has been pushing the boundaries of hip-hop lyricism since the early ’90s. He’s a rapper’s rapper, a pioneer of the West Coast’s alternative rap scene whose innovative flows and abstract wordplay inspired a generation of emcees. His lyrics dart and weave like a seasoned boxer, effortlessly moving between different topics and delivering clever punchlines with rhythmic precision. Aceyalone’s influence reverberates throughout hip-hop, proving that lyrical prowess can defy time and trends.
73. King Los
Essential listening: God, Money, War (2015)
On the other side of the spectrum, King Los brings a youthful energy and technical brilliance to the art of lyricism. Known for his off-the-cuff freestyles and meticulous wordplay, Los is a testament to the continued vitality of complex lyricism in contemporary hip-hop. He’s a torchbearer for the traditions of the genre, using his rhymes to wrestle with themes of spirituality, identity, and social struggles. His lyrical skill is unquestionable, combining a rapid-fire delivery with metaphors and similes that leave listeners unpacking his verses long after the song ends. With King Los, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.
Essential listening: Control System (2012)
Ab-Soul’s lyricism is often hailed as some of the most intricate and thought-provoking in the game. With a penchant for weaving complex wordplay, double entendres, and multi-syllabic rhymes into his verses, he is a true wordsmith in every sense of the word. On his classic 2012 album Control System, the TDE rapper showcased his lyrical prowess on tracks like “Double Standards,” where he critiques misogyny in hip hop with biting lines like “I can’t even say she’s a whore, she gon’ be somebody’s mother.” On “Terrorist Threats,” he paints a vivid picture of societal issues in America, rapping “Illuminati trying to read my mind with a eagle eye/And the haze got me thinking why we even try/I can’t lie, sometimes I wanna just get high.” Ab-Soul’s verses are not only complex and dense, but they often tackle weighty subjects with a deftness and nuance that is rare in hip hop. He has a unique ability to use his words to explore the intricacies of his own life and the world around him, while still keeping listeners engaged and entertained with his masterful flow and clever wordplay.
71. Planet Asia
Essential listening: Pain Language (2008)
Planet Asia, a rapper who flies under the radar yet sits on the throne in the underground scene, has been a stalwart of lyrical sophistication since the late 90s. A representative of the Golden State, Asia’s rhyme schemes are layered with insight, intellect, and intricate narratives that demand multiple listens. His verses are marked by a honed precision and an ageless approach to hip-hop; Planet Asia has essentially become a timeless artifact in a rapidly evolving culture.
70. Pusha T
Essential listening: It’s Almost Dry (2022)
Pusha T has carved out a unique place in rap history as one of the greatest coke rap artists of all time. From his beginnings as one half of Clipse to his solo career, he has consistently delivered hard-hitting verses that capture the gritty realities of the drug game. Pusha’s signature flow and delivery, combined with his ability to stick to his niche topic for over 20 years, make him a true master of his craft. In the 2010s, Pusha T emerged as one of the best rappers in the game, dropping a series of classic albums and standout features. He even emerged victorious in a high-profile rap beef with Drake, solidifying his place as one of the top artists of the decade. And with his most recent release, It’s Almost Dry, he proved that he’s still at the top of his game, pushing forward with fresh material that showcases his incredible lyrical talents.
69. Del the Funky Homosapien
Essential listening: I Wish My Brother George Was Here (1991)
In the same vein of innovative lyricism, we gotta talk about Del the Funky Homosapien. This man is a genuine linguistic architect, constructing verses that are wildly creative and quintessentially unique. A standout member of the Hieroglyphics crew and cousin to Ice Cube, Del has consistently pushed the envelope with funky, otherworldly, and sci-fi inspired lyricism. His work, most notably on ‘Deltron 3030’, reads like a futuristic novel, filled with rich details, complex storylines, and oddball humor that are all uniquely his own. With Del, hip-hop ventured into unexplored territories, proving it could be as strange as it was street.
Essential listening: Hell on Earth (1996)
Mobb Deep’s very own Prodigy was a master of precision in his writing and a pioneer in the grimy, sinister sound of boom-bap that defined 90s New York. He may not have had the crackling wit of Biggie or the poetic lyricism of Nas, but what he lacked in those areas he made up for with killer quotables and an icy, dead-eyed delivery that was uniquely his own. His slow, methodical flow allowed him to craft each bar as a standalone work of art, delivered with his unforgettable voice that has since become one of the most sampled in hip hop history.
67. Joe Budden
Essential listening: Mood Muzik 3: The Album (2008)
Joe Budden is one of the more polarizing figures in the hip-hop industry, but no one can deny his lyrical prowess. Before his transition into media, Budden was the embodiment of lyrical introspection. His content was a deep dive into the psyche of a flawed, complex man grappling with mental health, addiction, and interpersonal relationships. “Mood Muzik,” his series of mixtapes, were like therapy sessions laid over boom-bap beats, filled with honesty and raw emotion rarely seen in mainstream hip-hop. He poured every ounce of his being into his lyrics, drawing listeners into his struggle and providing a cathartic experience for those facing similar demons.
66. Boldy James
Essential listening: The Price of Tea in China (2020)
With Boldy James we encounter a lyricist whose narratives are raw, grimy, and incredibly vivid. With a laid-back, almost monotone flow, Boldy spins tales of the streets of Detroit, infusing them with a cold, harsh realism that’s impossible to ignore. His lyrics are filled with deep introspection, exploring themes of addiction, crime, and survival. What makes Boldy James remarkable is his ability to deliver these grim narratives with an effortless coolness, making even the most brutal tales palatable with his unique lyrical dexterity.
65. Beanie Sigel
Essential listening: The Truth (2000)
Beanie Sigel emerged in the late ’90s as a standout member of Roc-A-Fella Records, earning critical acclaim for his debut album, The Truth, but it was his sophomore release that cemented the Philly rapper’s status as one of the best lyricists in the game. Beanie’s ability to paint vivid pictures of the harsh realities of street life is what sets him apart from his peers. His delivery is effortless, with a commanding presence and a deep, menacing voice that demands attention. His flow is impeccable, weaving complex rhymes with ease and delivering hard-hitting punchlines that hit like a freight train. While he may not have achieved the same level of success as some of his peers, Beanie’s uncompromising approach to rhyming has earned him a place among the greatest rappers of all time.
Essential listening: Poverty’s Paradise (1995)
Treach, of Naughty By Nature fame, is a titan when it comes to lyricism. His rapid-fire flow and venomous delivery marked a distinctive style that set him apart from his contemporaries in the ’90s and beyond. Treach’s knack for penning both gritty street narratives and massive crossover hits like “O.P.P.” and “Hip Hop Hooray” shows the breadth of his lyrical prowess. His verses often contain a potent mixture of street wisdom, social consciousness, and raw emotion, all wrapped up in complex rhyme schemes and delivered with a flow that can feel like a verbal barrage. Even when operating in a pop-friendly space, Treach never sacrificed the quality of his lyrics, making him a rare breed in the annals of hip-hop history. His influence can be seen in many MCs who attempt to walk the fine line between commercial success and critical acclaim, proving that Treach remains one of the greatest to ever do it.
63. Ras Kass
Essential listening: Soul on Ice (1996)
Hailing from the streets of Watts, Ras Kass has spent over three decades crafting complex lyrics that dive deep into social and political issues. His intricate wordplay, dense metaphorical references and insightful social commentary make him one of the most underrated rappers in the game. Tracks like “Nature of the Threat” showcase his unparalleled skill at weaving historical and political events into his rhymes, creating a vivid and thought-provoking picture of the world around us. Ras Kass’ lyrics are so complex and dense that they demand multiple listens to fully appreciate. From his clever wordplay to his insightful social commentary, he leaves no stone unturned, and while his contributions to hip-hop may not be as widely recognized as they should be, his impact on the art of rap is undeniable.
62. Bun B
Essential listening: Ridin’ Dirty (1996)
From their humble beginnings in Port Arthur, Texas, to their breakthrough success in the late ’90s, UGK’s rise to fame was built, in part, on Bun B’s technical ability on the mic and unforgettable Southern tales. Bun’s flow and nimble delivery grounded the duo, making them relatable superheroes to the everyday listener. The Texas rapper’s verse on “Murder” is considered one of the greatest of all time, and his contribution to “International Players Anthem (I Choose You)” helped make it a Grammy-nominated hit. Whether it’s on UGK classics or his solo work, Bun B’s pen game is as hard-hitting as his delivery. He may not be the flashiest lyricist, but his words have an impact that reverberates far beyond the boundaries of the Lone Star State.
Essential listening: Heavy Is the Head (2021)
From street tales to intricate storytelling, Ransom’s pen game is nothing short of superb. This Brooklyn-born MC’s gritty lyrics paint a vivid picture of his struggle and perseverance. Ransom’s raps don’t pull punches. They’re raw, they’re real, and they’re filled with a deep understanding of the streets he came from. His album “Director’s Cut” is a testament to his lyricism, where his metaphors and similes take center stage, hitting listeners with the hard truth about life in the concrete jungle. Ransom’s rhyme schemes are intricate, his flow is relentless, and his delivery is potent, securing his spot among the great lyricists in hip-hop.
Essential listening: Eve (2019)
Rapsody, a North Carolina native, has established herself as a lyrical powerhouse. She’s been dropping gems for more than a decade, steadily building a strong reputation with her intricate wordplay and profound messages. Her album “Eve,” a concept album dedicated to celebrating black women, was a stunning display of her skill as a lyricist. Each song is named after an influential black woman, and Rapsody weaves their stories into her own with clever lyricism and heartfelt honesty.
Essential listening: Tha Streetz Iz a Mutha (1999)
Kurupt’s Philly upbringing and West Coast sensibilities gave him a unique edge that has made him a formidable force in the rap game. From his electrifying verses on Dr. Dre’s “Stranded on Death Row” to his iconic collaborations with Snoop Dogg on Doggystyle, the Kurupt’s lyrical prowess and aggressive delivery have made him a household name. His contributions to the West Coast rap scene as part of Tha Dogg Pound and as a solo artist have further solidified his status as one of L.A.’s greatest MCs. With a career spanning over three decades, Kurupt’s legacy as a hip hop legend continues to grow.
Essential listening: Charity Starts at Home (2011)
Phonte, one-half of the legendary North Carolina duo Little Brother, and one-third of the eclectic group The Foreign Exchange, has been a stalwart on the independent scene for the better part of two decades. His verses are embedded with a rare mix of wit, vulnerability, and everyday wisdom that speaks to the common man’s experience. Albums like “The Minstrel Show” and his solo effort “Charity Starts at Home” are drenched in clever wordplay, insightful commentary, and emotive storytelling. Phonte’s lyricism is the sort that doesn’t just entertain but enlightens and educates.
57. Brother Ali
Essential listening: Shadows on the Sun (2003)
Minneapolis’s own Brother Ali is another luminary from the independent rap scene. This Rhymesayers stalwart is one of the most eloquent and powerful voices in hip-hop, unafraid to tackle social issues head-on. Brother Ali’s lyrics are full of righteous anger, empathy, and deep introspection. From tackling racial inequality in “Uncle Sam Goddamn” to his heartfelt ode to his son in “Faheem,” Ali’s pen game is not just heavy with sophisticated rhymes but also laden with profound sentiments. Brother Ali is a testament to the transformative power of rap lyricism.
56. Crooked I
Essential listening: Apex Predator (2013)
Crooked I, or KXNG Crooked as he’s also known, hailing from Long Beach, California, has spent decades proving himself as an elite lyricist. A prominent figure in the West Coast hip-hop scene, his intricate wordplay and complex rhyming schemes set him apart. As a member of the hip-hop supergroup Slaughterhouse, he’s continuously displayed his lyrical prowess, arguably out-rapping his esteemed peers on several occasions. His solo work is equally compelling, from his “Hip Hop Weekly” series to albums like “Apex Predator,” Crooked I never takes a bar off, always delivering high-caliber, thought-provoking rhymes.
55. Talib Kweli
Essential listening: Train of Thought (2000)
Talib Kweli’s name is synonymous with conscious hip hop, a genre where lyricism reigns supreme, and he’s one of the most celebrated and skilled MCs in that space. Starting with his debut in 1997 as one half of Black Star alongside Mos Def, Kweli has consistently delivered powerful verses filled with politically charged commentary and deep introspection. His smooth delivery and technical ability on the mic make him a true wordsmith, and his albums, mixtapes, and collaborations have solidified his place as one of the greatest lyricists to come out of Brooklyn.
54. Inspectah Deck
Essential listening: Wu-Tang Forever (1997)
When every single hip hop head can recite your greatest verse top to bottom, you’re automatically going to be included on a list of the best rap lyricists. While Deck’s solo career didn’t take off in the ’90s like it should have, he’s been having an incredible resurgence as part of Czarface, teaming up with underground Boston rap duo 7L & Esoteric to breathe new life into his rap life. The Wu Tang MC is legendary legendary for his complex rhyme schemes, strong wordplay, and storytelling abilities, making him one of Shaolin’s finest lyricists. As a feature artist and group member, Deck is absolutely one of the best to ever do it.
Essential listening: The Realness (2001)
Cormega, a stalwart of the NYC rap scene, has made a career out of painting gritty portraits of street life with a pen that drips honesty and authenticity. This is a man who embodies the essence of Queensbridge hip-hop – raw, uncompromising, and deeply connected to the projects from which he hails. From his early days associated with Nas and The Firm to his standout solo career, ‘Mega’s penchant for street poetry is unmistakable. His debut, “The Realness”, is considered a classic of the underground rap world, and brilliant showcases his ability to craft narratives that touch on the harsh realities of street life without glamorizing it.
52. Lauryn Hill
Essential listening: The Score (1996)
In the male-dominated world of hip hop, Lauryn Hill has managed to carve out a niche for herself as one of the greatest lyricists in the genre’s history. With only three albums to her name, including one solo project, the New Jersey artist has managed to make a bigger impact than 99% of her contemporaries. On The Scoreand The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn’s triple threat talents as an MC, singer, and producer were showcased to perfection. Her lyrical prowess can be seen in songs like “Lost Ones” where she takes on the music industry and its greed and in “To Zion” where she celebrates motherhood and the joys of raising a child. Despite only releasing a handful of albums over the course of her career, Lauryn Hill is undoubtedly the the undisputed queen of hip hop lyricism.
Essential listening: Miles: From an Interlude Called Life (2020)
Now, let’s take a trip over to the West Coast where we find Blu, an unsung hero of the rap game. Hailing from Los Angeles, Blu’s soulful, introspective lyricism, often paired with the jazzy, lo-fi beats of producer Exile, has made him a darling of underground hip-hop. His debut album, “Below the Heavens,” is a timeless rap classic, offering deeply personal storytelling over Exile’s lush production. Blu’s deft lyricism is unpretentious yet profound, an everyman’s poet navigating the complexities of life, love, and the struggle of being an artist in a commercial world.
50. J. Cole
Essential listening: The Off-Season (2021)
Straight outta Fayetteville, J. Cole burst into the hip-hop scene with a blend of introspective lyricism and socially conscious themes that echo the golden era of rap. His ability to narrate personal experiences with vivid detail, as seen in tracks like “Lights Please” and “Lost Ones”, displays a penchant for storytelling that hits right in the feels. Simultaneously, he doesn’t shy away from addressing wider societal issues, tackling racial inequality, mental health, and the cost of fame with raw and unflinching honesty. J. Cole’s knack for capturing the intricacies of life with lyrical depth has earned him a spot among the genre’s greats.
Essential listening: Rip the Jacker (2003)
Known for his sharp lyricism and impressive freestyle abilities, Canibus made a name for himself in the early ‘90s as one of the hottest up-and-coming rappers in the game. While his ill-fated beef with LL Cool J stalled his mainstream success, the MC remained dedicated to his craft, releasing a string of underground albums and gaining recognition as a talented battle rapper. Despite setbacks, Canibus’ fifth album, Rip the Jacker, stands out as a testament to his lyrical prowess. Recorded entirely with Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind of Jedi Mind Tricks while Canibus was serving in the military, the album features some of his most cohesive and impressive work. Tracks like “Poet Laureate II” showcase Canibus’ ability to craft intricate, complex rhymes and cement his place as one of the greatest rappers of all time. While his career may have had its ups and downs, there’s no denying Canibus’ skill as one of the best lyricists to grip a mic.
48. Sean Price
Essential listening: Mic Tyson (2012)
Sean Price, the “brokest rapper you know,” was a giant in the world of hardcore hip-hop. Price’s work with Heltah Skeltah and Boot Camp Clik established him as a force to be reckoned with, but his solo albums truly showcased his raw, unfiltered lyricism. Price was never one for mincing words. His rhymes were gritty, brutal, and often laced with a dark sense of humor, providing an unflinching look at street life. Albums like “Monkey Barz” and “Mic Tyson” are filled with Price’s complex rhymes and punchlines, his gravelly voice lending weight to his every word. Even after his untimely passing, Sean P’s legacy as a lyricist continues to reverberate through the hip-hop community.
47. Gift of Gab
Essential listening: Blazing Arrow (2002)
When it comes to lyricism, few can rival the Gift of Gab from Blackalicious. Gab’s rhymes are a high-speed rollercoaster ride, full of complex wordplay, multisyllabic rhymes, and thought-provoking themes. He’s a master of tongue-twisting dexterity, capable of delivering lines with speed and precision that few MCs can match. His signature track, “Alphabet Aerobics,” has become a benchmark for rapid-fire, alliterative rhyming. However, Gab’s skills go beyond just fast rapping. His thoughtful lyrics often delve into social and spiritual themes, making listeners reflect as much as they bob their heads. Gift of Gab’s work, whether solo or as part of Blackalicious, is a masterclass in hip-hop lyricism.
Essential listening: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995)
Straight out of Shaolin, Raekwon the Chef has been serving up top-tier lyrical meals since Wu-Tang Clan first entered the scene. Rae’s vivid storytelling and gritty street narratives on “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” is a benchmark for mafioso rap. The chef’s pen game is like a master chef’s knife work, precise and cutting deep, dissecting the realities of street life with an unflinching gaze. His ability to paint detailed pictures with his rhymes, combined with a distinctive slang and vernacular, places him among the greatest lyricists in hip-hop.
45. Busta Rhymes
Essential listening: Extinction Level Event: The Final World Front (1998)
With a career spanning over 25 years, Busta Rhymes is a true veteran of the rap game. Known for his energetic delivery and animated persona, the Long Island MChas been a force to be reckoned with since the early ’90s. However, what often goes unnoticed is his exceptional lyricism. Busta’s intricate wordplay and clever lyricism set him apart from his peers. He has a talent for using multisyllabic rhymes and complex rhyme schemes to create unforgettable verses that demand repeated listens. From his early days in Leaders of the New School to his solo hits like “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check” and “Break Ya Neck,” Busta has consistently shown dedication to the art of MCing. His ability to adapt to different beats and styles while maintaining his signature flow is a testament to his skills as a true rapper’s rapper.
Essential listening: Moment of Truth (1998)
With a calm delivery and a flow so steady that listeners would hang on to every word he dropped, Guru cemented his legacy as one of the greatest lyricists in hip hop history long before he passed away. And with DJ Premier by his side as part of Gang Starr, he was responsible for some of the greatest New York boom-bap albums, from Step in the Arena to Hard to Earn. Outside of Gang Starr, Guru’s influence on hip hop can also be seen in his ground-breaking Jazzmatazz series, which helped to push jazz-rap forward and showcased his thoughtful approach to music. The Boston-born MC was a legend who always kicked knowledge in his rhymes, addressing social and political issues with eloquence and precision.
Essential listening: Doe or Die (1995)
With his immaculate flow, golden voice, and timeless delivery, AZ has consistently earned himself a spot in the upper echelon of lyricists, year after year. From his impressive debut on Nas’ “Life’s a Bitch” to his acclaimed solo albums, AZ’s lyrical prowess has never wavered throughout his over 20-year career. A master of internal rhymes and multisyllabic rhyme schemes, the Brooklyn rapper effortlessly weaves together intricate wordplay without sacrificing the flow or cohesiveness of his verses. With his butter smooth flow and laid-back delivery that belies the complexity of his rhymes, AZ’s legacy as one of the greatest lyricists in hip hop history is undeniable.
42. Ghostface Killah
Essential listening: Supreme Clientele (2000)
When listening to Wu-Tang, you go to Deck for the bars, to Meth for the flow, to GZA for the science, to Raekwon for the fly luxurious shit, and to Ghostface for the stories. While his early appearances on Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album showcased his raw talent, it was on Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… that Ghostface had his true coming out party. With his high energy delivery and captivating storytelling, Ghost emerged as Wu’s most exciting rapper in 1995. From “Tearz” to “Impossible” to “The Heart Gently Weeps” to “Gihad,” Ghost consistently painted colourful pictures of gritty street life, full of twists, turns, and dark humor. Over the years, he’s woven tales about sleeping in a crowded bedroom with his cousins, shipped keys upon keys of cocaine, put out hits, been shot, been a Don, and even been a mummy’s boy. Rap’s greatest storyteller? Ghost is definitely in the running for that crown.
41. Styles P
Essential listening: The World’s Most Hardest MC Project (2012)
For over two decades, Styles P has been grinding out album after album, mixtape after mixtape, and collaboration after collaboration. And while his work with The LOX may have put him on the mainstream stage and given him global recognition, it’s the Yonkers rapper’s more low-key releases that have cemented his place as one of the greatest lyricists ever. With a style that thrives on gritty, hard-hitting production, Styles has a cool and collected way of rapping that bounces off the more aggressive delivery of his brothers Jada and Sheek. His lyrics are raw and honest, often delving into personal struggles with mental health and the harsh realities of growing up in the streets. For the LOX MC, it’s not about chasing fame or fortune. It’s about the love of the game and the passion for the art form.
40. Method Man
Essential listening: Tical (1994)
Whether he’s holding it down for the Wu-Tang Clan or teaming up with other artists for unforgettable collaborations, you can always trust Method Man to deliver lyrically. With his effortlessly smooth flow, commanding voice, and undeniable charisma, Meth’s versatility is one of his greatest strengths as a rapper. He can spit gritty, hard-hitting verses with the best of them, but he’s equally capable of delivering smooth, melodic flows that get stuck in your head for days. His raspy voice is instantly recognizable, and his effortless ability to switch up his cadence and delivery make him a true master of his craft.
39. LL Cool J
Essential listening: Mama Said Knock You Out (1990)
LL Cool J, known as Ladies Love Cool James, was an early pioneer of the rap game and has always been a lyrical force to be reckoned with. Bursting onto the scene at just 16 years old with “Radio,” his dynamic flow and audacious lyrics quickly earned him respect. Tracks like “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “I’m Bad” showcased his boastful, aggressive lyrical prowess, while “I Need Love” proved his ability to master the softer, more vulnerable side of rap. Over three decades in the game, and LL’s longevity is proof that his lyricism has stood the test of time.
38. Big Boi
Essential listening: Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (2010)
Big Boi often gets overshadowed by the more eccentric Andre 3000, but make no mistake, Daddy Fat Sax is a lyricist of the highest order. He has a knack for fusing Southern drawl-infused rhymes with thought-provoking content. His verse on “Aquemini” speaks volumes about his lyrical prowess, his words sliding over the beat with a slick, assured coolness. His solo work further showcases his lyricism, blending personal narratives, social commentary, and fun-loving energy. Big Boi’s pen game proves that he’s more than just the yin to Three Stacks’ yang – he’s a stand-alone giant in the world of hip-hop lyricism.
Essential listening: Kiss tha Game Goodbye (2001)
When it comes to New York rap, few MCs embody the essence of the genre quite like Jadakiss. With his raspy flow, memorable adlibs, confrontational bars, and Yonkers swagger, the LOX MC has been strutting around these New York streets for the past 20 years, swapping rhymes with fellow legends like Hov, DMX, Big and Nas while always holding his own. Jada’s performance at Verzuz, where he almost singlehandedly crushed Dipset at Madison Square Garden, was the perfect showcase of his magnetic stage presence and deft lyrical precision. In between performing anthems like “New York” and dropping bars from his “Who Shot Ya (Freestyle),” Kiss more than cemented his place as one of the rightful kings of New York.
36. Kool Keith
Essential listening: Dr. Octagonecologyst (1996)
When it comes to pure lyrical talent, Kool Keith is undoubtedly one of the most creative and innovative MCs of all time. His lyrics are often described as profane, bizarre, and nonsensical, but upon closer inspection, they reveal a brilliant mind at work, with intricate wordplay and metaphors that are unlike anything else in hip hop. Whether he’s rapping as Dr. Octagon, Dr. Dooom, or any of his other alter egos, Kool Keith’s lyrical abilities are always on full display. The Bronx-born MC’s delivery is manic and unpredictable, and his lyrics are packed with double entendres, clever wordplay, and obscure references that reward repeat listens. From his early work with Ultramagnetic MCs to his solo career as an underground icon, Kool Keith has always been a master of pushing the boundaries of rap lyricism.
35. Roc Marciano
Essential listening: Reloaded (2012)
After starting his career out as a member of Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad, Long Island’s Roc Marciano broke out on his own and began carving out his own lane in the underground rap space. Over the next two decades, he would quietly create some of the influential music in the game that would provide the blueprint for later acts like Griselda. Roc Marci’s lyricism dwells in a lane where opulence meets the gutter, where luxury fashion name-drops meet tales of street warfare, and where old school cadence meets avant-garde imagery. Since his debut, Marcberg, dropped, he’s continued to navigate the rap game like a noir film anti-hero, penning verses as crisp as they are cryptic, always stylishly opaque. With his dense rhyme schemes, ultra-relaxed delivery and hyper-kinetic wordplay, Roc’s incredible lyricism has transformed him into an underground icon.
Essential listening: Adrenaline Rush (1997)
On the other end of the tempo spectrum is Twista, a hip-hop figure who flipped the script on what flow could be. Famous for his dizzying speed and tongue-twisting delivery, the Chicago native was once recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s fastest rapper. But speed is only part of the story. Twista’s superb lyrical technique lies in his ability to maintain clarity and complexity at high velocity, diving into tales of street life and struggle with precision and visceral imagery.
33. Earl Sweatshirt
Essential listening: I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (2015)
Earl Sweatshirt’s raw and unfiltered approach to rap is what makes him stand out as one of the most naturally gifted lyricists of our time. With a style that pays homage to the legendary MF DOOM, Earl’s minimalist beats and hard-hitting bars showcase his profound talents as a rapper, songwriter, and producer. His discography may be smaller compared to others, but each of his four studio albums is a masterclass in lyricism, particularly I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, and Some Rap Songs, which delve into his struggles with depression and showcase his profound lyrical depth. Earl’s music may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who appreciate forward-thinking production and deep, introspective lyrics, he’s a true gem. He’s not one for fast-paced club bangers, preferring instead to focus on his dense and complex bars over bare-knuckled production.
Essential listening: Honor Killed the Samurai (2016)
Brooklyn’s very own Ka is one of those rare rappers whose pen game outshines the vast majority of his contemporaries. An artisan of his craft, Ka’s lyrical approach is like an impressionist painting – each verse a vivid landscape of street narratives, rich in detail, yet delivered with an undercurrent of subtlety and quiet power. His verses possess a poetic nature, underpinned by a haunting, contemplative delivery that enhances the somber and reflective nature of his stories. His projects, from ‘The Night’s Gambit’ to ‘Honor Killed the Samurai’, are examples of rap lyricism in its most literary form – thought-provoking, starkly beautiful, and profoundly resonant. If there was a Pulitzer for rap lyricism, Ka would undoubtedly be a prime candidate.
Essential listening: Like Water for Chocolate (2000)
Common’s immaculate pen game and thought-provoking lyrics have established him as one of the greatest wordsmiths in hip hop history. From his early days in the Chicago rap scene to his more recent Oscar-winning work, Common’s ability to craft deeply poetic rhymes and socially-charged messages has earned him countless accolades and a place in the upper echelon of MCs. Over the course of his career, Common has shown an unwavering commitment to lyrical excellence, with albums like Resurrection and Like Water for Chocolate showcasing his ability to weave intricate stories and social commentary into his rhymes. His collaborations with producers like J Dilla and Kanye West have resulted in some of the most sonically adventurous and lyrically dense rap albums of the 2000s, including the critically acclaimed Be. Even in his more recent work, Common has continued to demonstrate his lyrical prowess, tackling weighty social and political issues with precision and finesse. With a unique flow and a gift for metaphor and wordplay, Common has solidified his place as one of the greatest lyricists to ever pick up a mic.
30. Chuck D
Essential listening: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
Chuck D is a towering figure in hip hop, both in stature and influence. As the frontman of Public Enemy, he helped define the sound of political and socially conscious rap music in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But Chuck’s greatness goes beyond his commanding stage presence and booming baritone voice – his lyricism is some of the most poetic and powerful in the history of the genre. From the very early days, the Long Island rapper’s rhymes were sharp and incisive, addressing the issues of the day with a clarity and conviction that few could match. With Public Enemy, he unleashed a series of classic albums that challenged the status quo and inspired a generation of activists and artists alike.
29. MC Lyte
Essential listening: Lyte as a Rock (1988)
MC Lyte carved a path for herself and future women in hip-hop during a time when the industry was largely a boys’ club. One of the first female rappers to drop a full LP with “Lyte as a Rock” in 1988, Lyte’s lyrics were sharp, fierce, and unapologetically real. Tracks like “Paper Thin” and “Cha Cha Cha” exhibit her technical prowess, while her storytelling ability shines in songs like “Poor Georgie.” Lyte’s contribution to the game goes beyond just her lyrical talent; she set the precedent for women standing their ground in the male-dominated world of rap.
Essential listening: Me Against the World (1995)
Rap dummies will argue all day saying that 2Pac wasn’t a “lyrical” MC which is the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard. Beyond his ability to connect with his audience on a deep emotional level, Pac’s lyrical content was rich with social commentary and introspection. Born to parents who were both political activists and Black Panther Party members, he tackled issues such as poverty, police brutality, and racism, and his words continue to resonate with listeners to this day. While he may not have been known for his technical prowess, Pac’s delivery was simply unmatched. His booming voice, with its distinctive cadence and subtle melodies, lent his words a power that was impossible to ignore. In the end, 2Pac was a complex, flawed, and deeply human individual, and he never shied away from expressing himself honestly and authentically through his unfiltered lyricism.
27. Aesop Rock
Essential listening: Labor Days (2001)
Aesop Rock is not your average rapper. An underground icon for the past two decades, the Long Island-born MC is a master of the art of wordplay, a lyrical genius with one of the largest vocabularies in the game. His lyrics are cryptic but rich in meaning, making for tracks that demand multiple listens to fully appreciate. Aesop’s ability as a storyteller and a crafter of concepts is extraordinary. He weaves intricate tales and concepts into his tracks, creating vivid and immersive worlds for his listeners. From the wild world of Spirit World Field Guide to the metaphor of recycling used to represent sampling and reflection in Garbology, Aesop’s imagination and creativity are unparalleled. His 2001 classic Labor Days cemented him as a rap wordsmith of the highest calibre, with tracks like “Daylight” showcasing his unparalleled skill at weaving intricate rhymes together. And from there, he’s continued to push the boundaries of what’s possible in hip-hop, consistently releasing innovative and thought-provoking albums.
26. Masta Ace
Essential listening: A Long Hot Summer (2004)
There are few rappers as criminally underrated as Brooklyn’s own Masta Ace. He’s one of those veteran MCs who may not get the recognition he deserves, but any true hip hop head knows that his skills on the mic are nothing short of legendary. It’s no wonder that Eminem has frequently shouted out Masta Ace as one of his favourite rappers of all time. And while he may not have the mainstream success of some of his peers, Masta Ace’s talent and dedication to the art of lyricism is undeniable. He’s a true MC’s MC, a master of his craft who has been able to navigate different eras of hip hop while staying true to himself.
Essential listening: Muddy Waters (1996)
Reggie Noble’s debut on EPMD’s Business as Usual in 1990 was just the beginning of his reign of fire during the ’90s. After crushing the mic on his debut verse, the New Jersey-born MC dropped his solo debut, Whut? Thee Album, a certified golden age classic that showcased Redman as a lyrical monster over the thick, funky boom-bap of Erick Sermon. Reggie’s style is characterized by his hot lava flow and his ability to mix humor and aggression in his rhymes. He’s a rapper’s rapper, respected by his peers and loved by fans all over the world. At 52 years old and still touring the world on a consistent basis, Redman continues to prove why he’s one of the greatest lyricists of all time.
24. Big L
Essential listening: Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous (1995)
There’s something about Big L’s unapologetic, braggadocious style that embodies the very essence of New York rap. A true street spitter and poet, he was the epitome of what it meant to be a lyricist in the golden era of hip hop, where storytelling and wordplay were held in the highest regard. It’s hard not to listen to tracks like “Put It On” or “MVP” and be blown away by the sheer lyrical dexterity on display. His ability to drop one-liners that made you gasp in astonishment was unparalleled—”I’m so ahead of my time, my parents haven’t met yet,” he once boasted. Despite only having one studio album to his name, the Harlem rapper’s impact is still being felt to this day and his name continues to be revered by fellow rappers and fans alike.
23. Royce da 5’9″
Essential listening: Book of Ryan (2018)
Royce da 5’9″ has been on the rap scene for over two decades, and he’s consistently proven himself to be one of the most talented and technically skilled rappers in the game. In fact, there are very few rappers throughout history who could keep up with Eminem on a consistent basis, and Royce da 5’9″ is one of them. The two Detroit rappers first connected in 1997 at an Usher concert, where Royce was opening up for the R&B superstar and Eminem was selling copies of his newly released EP. Since then, the two have held it down for the city for the past couple of decades. Ever since Royce’s career resurgence during the late 2000s, it was clear that he was one of the finest MCs in the game. But his latest album, The Allegory, showcased a depth and thoughtfulness in his album-crafting ability that wasn’t previously seen.
Essential listening: Elmatic (2011)
Elzhi is a technical mastermind, consistently delivering intricate wordplay and dense lyricism that rewards repeated listens. From The Preface to Zhigeist, he’s shown versatility while maintaining his signature style. The Detroit MC’s ability to bend and twist words to create clever rhyme schemes is nothing short of impressive. His dedication to the craft is evident in his consistent output, cementing him as one of the most gifted and consistent MCs in the game. He may be called “Detroit’s best-kept secret,” but his talent is undeniable, and he is absolutely one of the greatest rap lyricists of all time.
21. Ice Cube
Essential listening: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990)
When we talk about rap’s greatest storytellers, social commentators, and cultural critics, Ice Cube’s name deserves to be shouted from the rooftops. Emerging from the incendiary core of N.W.A., Cube swiftly established himself as a razor-sharp lyricist, armed with a potent blend of raw anger, wit, and unflinching social critique. His unapologetic narratives, whether painting a day in South Central on “It Was a Good Day” or dissecting societal ills on “Endangered Species,” were a masterclass in verbal acuity and evocative imagery. And let’s not forget his talent for weaponizing words, which he unleashed without mercy during his infamous feud with N.W.A., particularly on the scathing “No Vaseline.” Cube’s pioneering voice fundamentally shaped the course of West Coast rap, proving that gangsta rap could be a powerful platform for social commentary, and his influence still reverberates through the genre today.
20. Lil Wayne
Essential listening: Tha Carter II (2005)
Lil Wayne’s ascent to the top of the rap game was not only due to his sheer will, but also his death-defying lyricism and liquid flow. Weezy’s ability to weave complex rhyme schemes and clever wordplay into his verses was a hallmark of his style, and elevated him to the position of best rapper alive during his peak years. This all came from an insatiable work ethic and lifestyle that revolved around the recording studio. While his prime years (2005 to 2008) may be well behind him these days, recent guest verses on tracks like Westside Gunn’s “Bash Money,” Nicki Minaj’s “Seeing Green” Tyler, the Creator’s “Hot Wind Blows” and Khaled’s “God Did” prove that the Hollygrove MC still has the fire and hunger to compete with the best of them.
19. Big Pun
Essential listening: Capital Punishment (1998)
Big Pun was a tornado on the mic, there’s no other way to put it. A master of internal rhyme schemes, the late Bronx MC could switch between rapid-fire flows and intricate rap patterns with ease, leaving listeners in awe of his technical skills. Capital Punishment, Pun’s debut album, was a tour de force of lyrical dexterity, as he weaved in and out of complex rhyme schemes with ease. The album showcased Pun’s versatility as an artist, from the club-ready hit “Still Not a Player” to the gritty bars of “Tres Leches (Triboro Trilogy).” An absolute one-of-a-kind MC who would always dazzle with his phenomenal lyricism, he was sadly taken away from hip hop at the young age of 28.
Essential listening: Liquid Swords (1995)
As one of the founding members of the Wu-Tang Clan, GZA is a true genius in the art of rapping. With his cold and calculated flow, the Shaolin MC is a master on the mic, able to craft intricate rhymes and deliver them with ease. He might not be the flashiest member of the Wu, but his unique style and understated persona have won him the respect and admiration of fans and fellow rappers alike. In an era of over-the-top braggadocio, GZA stands out as a rapper who values substance over style. He doesn’t need flashy gimmicks or over-the-top delivery to captivate his audience – his lyrics speak for themselves. From his opening verse on “Protect Ya Neck” to his haunting bars on “Exploitation of Mistakes,” the Genius’ rap style is as unique as it is effective.
17. Big Daddy Kane
Essential listening: It’s a Big Daddy Thing (1989)
The one and only Big Daddy Kane – the smooth-talking, crowd-rocking, ladies-loving MC from Brooklyn – was a true trailblazer in the golden age of hip hop. Sporting his signature fedora, thick gold chains, and tailored suits, Kane was the epitome of cool. With an undeniable swag, impeccable punchlines, and relentless flow, Kane was a total master of the mic. While Rakim may have pioneered the use of multisyllabic and compound rhyme patterns, the Brooklyn MC was right there with him, challenging for the throne of the lyrical king. Kane’s ability to switch between his “Raw” and “Smooth Operator” styles, his gritty battle raps, and his smooth operator charm that hooked the ladies made him the full package – one of the greatest lyricists to ever grace the mic.
16. Billy Woods
Essential listening: Hiding Places (2019)
Billy Woods is an enigma wrapped in complex rhymes and hyper-literate references, a ghost in the rap game machine who’s arguably one of the best lyricists in the game right now. This Zimbabwe-born, Washington D.C.-raised MC has been consistently raising the bar in the underground scene with a pen game that rivals the best in the business. Woods’ rhymes are an intricate labyrinth of introspection, social commentary, and intricate wordplay, often exploring the darker corners of human existence. His verses demand attention and repeat listens to fully unpack, given their dense layers of meaning and often oblique references. It’s this uncompromising approach to lyricism that makes Billy Woods stand out – he doesn’t just want to impress with clever lines, he aims to challenge and provoke thought, making him a genuine poet in a field often overly focused on style over substance.
Essential listening: The Fix (2002)
In a culture that often glorifies violence and aggression, it’s not often that a voice of introspection and vulnerability emerges. Scarface’s music has always been rooted in the harsh realities of his life, and he’s never been afraid to tackle the darkest, most painful subjects head-on. From his days with the Geto Boys to his solo work, Scarface’s lyrics are often a reflection of the harsh world he’s experienced firsthand. Despite this, Scarface has always been able to find beauty in the struggle. “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” is a perfect example of this. Scarface’s verse on the track details his struggles with paranoia and mental illness, but it’s also a deeply introspective and poignant exploration of the human psyche. This is a theme that runs throughout Scarface’s work. On The Fix, Scarface delves even deeper into his own experiences, creating a vivid and moving portrait of life in the inner city. The Houston OG’s flow is contemplative and reflective, perfectly capturing the weight of his words. It’s this ability to transform his own pain into something meaningful and beautiful that makes Scarface such a remarkable lyricist.
Essential listening: Return of the Boom Bap (1993)
From his early days as part of Boogie Down Productions to his latest release, 2022’s I M A M C R U 1 2, KRS-One’s lyricism have been nothing short of iconic. Whether he’s taking on societal issues or delivering hard-hitting battle rhymes, the Blastmaster’s verses are always packed with meaning and depth. His razor-sharp lyricism is exemplified in tracks like “My Philosophy,” where he challenges listeners to question their beliefs and values, and “Sound of da Police,” where he takes on the issue of police brutality. With his commanding flow and mastery of the English language, KRS-One has cemented himself as one of the greatest lyricists in hip hop history.
13. Kool G Rap
Essential listening: Live and Let Die (1992)
Hip hop music has always had its roots entrenched in street culture, and when it comes to street rap, there is no one who reigns supreme quite like Kool G Rap. From his early days with DJ Polo to present day, the Queens MC has consistently brought his listeners into the gritty, violent world of the streets with his razor-sharp lyricism and vivid storytelling. G Rap’s influence on the street rap culture is undeniable, and his technical skill as an MC is unmatched. His use of multisyllabic rhyme schemes, alliteration, and wordplay set the standard for street rap, and his style has been emulated by countless MCs in the decades since, whether it’s Nas and Biggie or Big Pun and Wu-Tang. From the dark alleys and seedy bars of New York City to the backstreets of Miami and beyond, G Rap’s rhymes transport listeners to a world of crime, violence, and struggle. And while the subject matter may be bleak, there is an undeniable beauty to the way G Rap weaves his words together, creating a tapestry of sound that is both complex and deeply impactful.
12. Pharoahe Monch
Essential listening: Internal Affairs (1999)
When rap legend Kool Moe Dee described Pharoahe Monch as an “eloquent linguistics professor moonlighting as a rhyme serial killer terrorist,” he wasn’t exaggerating. The Queens rapper is the king of complexity, an MC whose rhymes are so dense and intricate, it’s like he’s conducting a masterclass in rap every time he steps up to the mic. With a dynamic flow and a manic tone, Monch has become one of the most respected and versatile artists in hip hop. From jazzy beats to gritty production to explosive rock instrumentals, he’s always able to showcase his incredible talent.
11. Mos Def
Essential listening: Black on Both Sides (1999)
A legend of conscious, underground hip hop known for his introspective lyricism rapped with charisma and personality, Mos Def aka Yasiin Bey has always managed to transcend hip hop culture even from his early days. One of his greatest strengths is his versatility as an artist. From the hard-hitting, politically charged tracks on Black on Both Sides to the soulful, introspective jams on The New Danger, Bey’s ability to effortlessly switch up his style has earned him a place as one of the most respected and beloved MCs of all time. Whether he’s performing under the name Mos Def or Yasiin Bey, there’s no denying the impact this Brooklyn MC has had on the evolution of rap lyricism.
10. Kendrick Lamar
Essential listening: To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
Kendrick Lamar’s reign as the best rapper of his generation is not up for debate, it’s an undeniable fact. From his humble beginnings in Compton, he has risen to become one of the most exceptional and influential artists in hip hop history. With his unparalleled rhyming talent, exceptional songwriting skills, and a penchant for delivering socially conscious and introspective lyrics, Kendrick has not only represented the West Coast with immense pride but has also brought the story of growing up in the hood to millions of people around the world. From the cinematic storytelling of good kid, m.A.A.d city to the genre-bending To Pimp a Butterfly to the introspection of Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, Kendrick has consistently demonstrated why he is one of the greatest lyricists alive.
9. The Notorious B.I.G.
Essential listening: Life After Death (1997)
From the moment he burst onto the scene in the early-’90s, Biggie’s raw talent was undeniable. On early cuts like “Party and Bullshit” and “What’s the 411? (Remix),” the Brooklyn spitter showed a mic presence and witty charisma rarely seen before in hip hop. As he evolved as an artist, so did his lyricism. By the time Life After Deathdropped in 1997, Biggie had firmly established himself as the best rapper alive. With hits like “Hypnotize” and “Mo Money Mo Problems,” he dominated the radio and clubs, while tracks like “Somebody’s Gotta Die” and “Ni**as Bleed” showcased his unparalleled storytelling skills. Whether he was going at Nas and Raekwon or trading bars with Jay-Z and The LOX, Biggie proved time and time again that he was in a league of his own.
8. MF DOOM
Essential listening: Madvillainy (2004)
Inspired by the abstract, stream-of-consciousness of Ghostface’s Supreme Cliente, MF DOOM developed a lyrical style that helped him transform into the king of the underground. DOOM’s lyrical ability wasn’t just about the sheer technical skill of his rhymes, but also his creative use of language to paint vivid pictures and tell complex stories. His songs were like novels, with intricate plots, well-developed characters, and unexpected twists and turns. He was a master storyteller, using samples from cartoons and obscure films to create entire worlds in his music. From the villainous persona of MF DOOM to the supergroup collaboration with Madlib as Madvillain, DOOM’s unconventional approach to lyricism paved the way for a new generation of underground hip hop artists.
Essential listening: Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Hov’s rise to the top of the rap game was not solely due to his business acumen and marketing savvy, but also his unparalleled lyricism. In the late ’90s, he established himself as one of the best rappers alive with a string of albums that showcased his masterful wordplay, witty punchlines, and intricate storytelling. On tracks like “Can I Live,” “D’Evils,” and “Dead Presidents,” Jay-Z displayed a rare ability to seamlessly weave together complex rhyme schemes and vivid imagery to create a world that was both cinematic and deeply personal. With his unparalleled skill on the mic and an endless supply of unforgettable verses, the Brooklyn MC will always be remembered as one of the greatest lyricists in hip hop history.
Essential listening: The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
There might be a lot of hip hop heads out there who are against naming Eminem as one of the GOATs, which is pretty fucking weird, considering what the Detroit MC has been able to do over the course of his career. But, despite how haters feel about him, Em’s lyrical ability on the mic has never been in question. From the early days of The Slim Shady LP to his more recent work on Music to Be Murdered By, Em has consistently showcased his unparalleled flow, tight breath control, and perfect delivery. While he may be past his prime nowadays, Em still raps for the love of the sport and the spirit of competition, as seen in his recent collaborations with lyrical killers like Royce da 5’9″, Black Thought, and Kxng Crooked.
5. Black Thought
Essential listening: Cheat Codes (2022)
It’s rare for an artist to remain relevant and innovative after decades in the game, but Black Thought has done just that. For an MC who debuted in 1993 with Organix to able to drop a masterpiece like Cheat Codes nearly 30 years later is just a testament to his deep lyrical talent. As one of the most cerebral rappers in the game, with a vocabulary that rivals that of Shakespeare himself, Thought’s rhymes are dense and intricate, packed with literary references and wordplay that rewards close listening. And he’s only gotten better with age. On his solo albums, including Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Black Thought has continued to push himself as a lyricist, experimenting with different styles and working with a variety of producers. His collaborations with 9th Wonder, Salaam Remi, and Danger Mouse have all produced some of his most impressive work yet.
Essential listening: Follow the Leader (1988)
Rakim is not just a rapper, he’s a lyrical deity. The God MC from Long Island transformed hip hop with his intricate rhyme schemes and effortless flow, setting the standard for all who came after him. Before Rakim, rap was relatively simple, with MCs rapping in straightforward rhyme patterns. But after him, the possibilities for complexity were endless. His innovative rhyming scheme, marked by internal and multisyllabic rhymes, set the new standard for MCs and is often credited with pushing hip-hop into its lyrical golden age. Ra didn’t just rap; he philosophized in rhythm, dealing with topics ranging from the socio-political to the metaphysical. One listen to tracks like “Microphone Fiend” and “Follow the Leader” and you’ll understand why Rakim is held in such high regard. His approach to rhyming feels like a seasoned jazz musician improvising on a theme; it’s complex, clever, and seemingly effortless. He transformed the mic into a potent tool of expression, making it clear that rap could be as cerebral as it is visceral.
Essential listening: It Was Written (1996)
From his early days as a teenage prodigy spitting fiery bars on “Live At The Barbeque” to his current status as a seasoned veteran dropping future classics like King’s Disease III, Nas has always been a master of lyricism. Bursting onto the scene with his groundbreaking debut Illmatic in 1994, the budding 20-year old painted sepia-toned pictures of his Queensbridge upbringing with an intricate, storytelling flow that immediately placed him in a class of his own. His introspective lyricism, coupled with his social consciousness and innate ability to create visual imagery through words, make him a poet of the streets. What’s more, the QB poet’s ability to transport listeners into the world he’s writing about, whether it’s the harsh realities of the projects or the introspective musings of a man grappling with fame and fortune, remains unparalleled, and he’s been rapping at the highest lyrical level for the past 30 summers. Nas may have had his ups and downs throughout his esteemed career, but even at his lowest, he’s still a killer lyricist capable of the finest penmanship in the rap game.
2. Lupe Fiasco
Essential listening: Tetsuo & Youth (2015)
Lupe Fiasco is a rap unicorn, a mythical creature that manages to combine top-notch technical ability with superb storytelling skills and pop sensibilities. He’s the poster child for lyrical rap, the antidote for those tired of the same old recycled bars. From his nimble flow to his unparalleled vocabulary, Lupe has an impressive range of skills that he puts on display with each release. The Chicago MC’s ability to craft cohesive, concept-driven albums with high replay value is a testament to his lyrical density and complexity, all while never feeling overwhelming. Bottom line is: Lupe Fiasco is not bound by musical trends or cultural norms, existing purely in his own space, and as a result he’s become one of the greatest hip hop writers of all time.
1. Andre 3000
Essential listening: Aquemini (1998)
Despite not dropping an album since 2006’s Idlewild, Andre 3000 continues to remain in the conversation as one of the best rappers alive. And we’re not talking about being great in retrospect like Rakim or Big Daddy Kane – the ATLien is in the same conversation as the hottest rappers of the moment. Every verse he drops is a moment, generating buzz and excitement across social media, whether it’s his unforgettable feature on Big Boi’s “Royal Flush” or his showstopping appearance on Kanye’s “Life of the Party.” As an MC, Andre 3000’s lyrical ability is truly unmatched. He has an uncanny ability to weave complex rhyme schemes and clever wordplay into his verses, and he effortlessly transitions from humorous to profound. From the moment he burst onto the scene with OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, it was clear that 3 Stacks had something special. He was a wordsmith of the highest order, capable of turning a phrase in ways that few others could. Throughout his career, the Atlanta MC has continued to push himself lyrically. His verses on classic OutKast albums like ATLiens and Aquemini are packed with intricate wordplay and metaphors, but his ongoing feature appearances continue to showcase his intense lyrical prowess. But it’s not just about the technical aspects of his lyricism. Andre has a rare ability to inject emotion into his verses, making them feel deeply personal and relatable. His verse on Frank Ocean’s “Solo (Reprise)” is a perfect example – it’s a raw, vulnerable expression of his innermost thoughts and fears. In short, Stacks is a lyrical genius. He has a way with words that few others can match, and his verses are always packed with meaning and depth, which is why he’s will go down in hip hop history as the greatest lyricist of all time.