From gritty street tales and block parties to million dollar video budgets and opulent luxury rhymes, hip hop culture’s transformative journey over the past four decades has left us with a rich, diverse palette of sonic and lyrical genius. Whether it’s the pioneering audacity of the 1980s or the electrifying innovation of the 2020s, each era of rap music has been graced by lyrical and production greats all pushing the envelope.
While hip hop has been around since the ’70s, things truly kicked off in the mid-80s when rappers like Rakim, KRS-One, Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J marked the dawn of a new era in rap. Their legacy reverberated into the ’90s, a defining era punctuated by the dynamism of artists like 2Pac, Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., OutKast, Snoop Dogg, and plenty more. As the millennium dawned, hip-hop’s narrative was propelled forward by the likes of T.I., Young Jeezy, Eminem, 50 Cent, and the indomitable Lil Wayne. The South’s influence, stylistic diversity and creative boldness painted the 2000s with unforgettable classics and genre-defining anthems.
The baton then passed into the hands of the 2010s torchbearers, a cohort represented by the three-headed lyrical monster of Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Drake. Not to mention the gritty underground realism of Billy Woods, Boldy James and Roc Marciano, all contributing to a decade marked by both commercial success and experimental boundary-pushing. Now, as we move further into the 2020s, the narrative continues to evolve. Groundbreaking artists like Denzel Curry, JID, Lil Baby, and Vince Staples are continuing to push the envelope, experimenting with new sounds and styles, defining a fresh wave of hip hop genius.
So let’s get into it. From Rakim and Big Daddy Kane to Nas and 2Pac, from 50 Cent and Kanye West to Kendrick Lamar and Drake, we rank the top 10 rappers from each decade — 1980s to 2020s.
Top 10 Best Rappers: 1980s
10. MC Lyte
Best album: Lyte as a Rock
A vocal powerhouse, Brooklyn native MC Lyte exploded onto the hip hop scene with her debut album, Lyte as a Rock which exploded like a sonic cannonball in the pool of hip hop. These distinct vocals that would go on to inspire and be sampled by a legion of hip hop legends including 2Pac, Mobb Deep, and N.W.A. But what set her apart wasn’t just her voice, it was her potent lyricism and storytelling that shone through even at a young age. Releasing a pioneering rap song on the crack epidemic at 16, her lyrical prowess put her on the map as one of the leading female rappers to disrupt and shape the culture.
9. Kool Moe Dee
Best album: How Ya Like Me Now
The ’80s wave of hip hop might have swept many off their feet, but not Kool Moe Dee. This veteran MC of the Treacherous Three surfed the tide with a mastery that separated him from the pack. From the roots of Melle Mel and Grandmaster Caz, he carved out a solo path, notching his belt with successful albums like How Ya Like Me Now and Knowledge Is King. Moe Dee also proved he could dish it out in the rap battle arena, notably handing out a lyrical dishing to LL Cool J in “Let’s Go”, further cementing his legacy.
Best album: Power
Call him the Original Gangster of West Coast hip hop. New Jersey-born, Crenshaw-raised Ice-T built an impressive catalogue, peppered with classic albums that left indelible marks on the genre. His track “6 in the Mornin'” was a veritable big bang that sparked the entire West Coast gangsta rap movement. This record, inspired by Schoolly D’s 1985 single, became a creative wellspring for future West Coast heavyweights like Eazy-E and Ice Cube. The godfather of West Coast hip hop, Ice-T’s influence reaches far beyond the ’80s, weaving him into the very fabric of hip hop history.
7. Slick Rick
Best album: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick
Slick Rick, the ruler of ’80s storytelling rap, was more of a moonshot than a marathon runner. Rather than boasting a vast discography, Ricky D’s influence lays in the reverberating impact of his signature works. His 1985 breakout hit “La Di Da Di” made shockwaves before he even dropped an album, and when he did, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick was nothing short of a game-changer. Tracks like “Children’s Story,” “The Moment I Feared,” and “Teenage Love,” were all masterclasses in narrative lyricism, painting vivid tales that would inspire titans like Nas, Jay-Z, and Biggie. As one of the most sampled hip hop artists, Slick Rick’s legacy is a testament to quality over quantity.
6. Chuck D
Best album: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Chuck D, the thunderous voice behind Public Enemy, wielded his resonant baritone as a weapon of socio-political change. His powerful delivery brought urgency to the lyrics, adding a palpable weight to the group’s messaging. After a perceived dated debut album, Chuck and his squad revisited the studio, emerging with “Rebel Without a Pause,” a response to Eric B. & Rakim’s innovative “I Know You Got Soul.” This led to the creation of the seminal It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, hailed by many as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. Long before the reign of GOAT albums like Illmatic or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Public Enemy were defining what greatness looked like in the rap game.
Best album: Raising Hell
Run-D.M.C. was the breath of fresh air that changed the course of rap, trading disco influence for a streetwise aesthetic and sound. The trio’s fresh style, featuring Kangol hats, Cazal glasses, leather jackets, and unlaced Adidas shoes, became the new paradigm. Their groundbreaking achievements, including the first gold-certified rap album, the first rap video on MTV with “Rock Box,” and the first rap Grammy nomination with Raising Hell, charted a new trajectory for hip hop. Their multi-platinum selling albums not only disrupted the ’80s but carved an unalterable path for future generations. Run-D.M.C. were not just pioneers of their decade; they are among the greatest and most consequential rap acts in rap history.
4. LL Cool J
Best album: Bigger and Deffer
LL Cool J, the golden boy of the ’80s rap scene, arguably fulfilled and further developed the superstar rapper blueprint established by Kurtis Blow. Starting out as a mere teenager crafting demos in his grandparents’ Queens home, LL would soon become the foundation stone of the burgeoning Def Jam Recordings. His debut single “I Need a Beat” heralded the new era, setting the stage for his iconic debut album, Radio. But it was with his sophomore effort, Bigger and Deffer, that the brash Queens MC truly skyrocketed to stardom. Balancing gritty street anthems like “I’m Bad” with smoother R&B chart-toppers like “I Need Love”, LL had an irresistible charm that made him an instant favorite with the ladies and hardcore hip hop enthusiasts alike. This dual appeal solidified his place as one of the definitive rappers of the 1980s.
3. Big Daddy Kan
Best album: It’s a Big Daddy Thing
Amidst the seismic shifts Rakim was inducing in rap lyricism, Big Daddy Kane emerged as a force capable of a revolution of his own. His debut album, Long Live the Kane, may have arrived later than Paid in Full, but its impact was just as profound. Fusing slick punchlines with an electrifying charisma and unparalleled showmanship, Kane was one of the few MCs of that era who could go toe-to-toe with Rakim in the lyrical arena. It’s no surprise that the likes of Jay-Z and Biggie, who would later become titans of Brooklyn’s rap scene, idolized him. Big Daddy Kane’s unique blend of gritty battle raps, irresistible charm, and undeniable swagger made him as a complete rhyming package.
Best album: Criminal Minded
Speaking of hip hop personified, one must speak of Lawrence “Kris” Parker, also known as KRS-One. From his raw battle rap beginnings in the mid-80s, challenging MC Shan, Marley Marl, and the Juice Crew, KRS quickly earned his stripes as a formidable lyricist. However, his true greatness lay in his ability to oscillate between raw, streetwise anthems like “South Bronx” and “9mm Goes Bang” and thought-provoking conscious rap. The Bronx rapper didn’t just walk the line between gangsta and conscious rap; he pioneered it. His three seminal albums with Boogie Down Productions — Criminal Minded, By All Means Necessary, and Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop — firmly established him as one of the quintessential rappers of the ’80s.
Best album: Follow the Leader
Few figures in hip hop history have instigated a paradigm shift like Rakim. The advent of “Eric B. Is President” backed by “My Melody” in 1986 marked a turning point as monumental as the arrival of “The Message” or “Sucker M.C.’s.” The hip hop world was effectively split into two eras: before Rakim and after Rakim. Before Rakim, rhymes were straightforward and flows were simple. After Rakim, the floodgates opened for complex multisyllabic, compound rhymes, forever changing the landscape of hip hop lyricism. He morphed rap from a relatively simple art form into a rich, layered narrative akin to a jazz recital, taking cues from the great John Coltrane. Rakim’s influence transcends his reign in the ’80s; it permeates the very fabric of hip hop. He isn’t just the greatest 80s rapper, he’s the bedrock on which modern MCs stand.
Top 10 Best Rappers: 1990s
Best album: Reasonable Doubt
The underdog story of Jay-Z started in the backstreets of Brooklyn in the ’90s, evolving from an underground MC to the undisputed king of rap within a breathtakingly short span. Known for his ice-cold flow and confident swagger, Jay-Z cracked the code by combining gritty street narratives with the glossy commercial sound needed for chart dominance. This unique approach found its zenith with Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, which laid the groundwork for his ascension to future GOAT status.
9. Lauryn Hill
Best album: The Score
With only three album releases in the ’90s, including one solo project, Lauryn Hill’s impact outshone the majority of her contemporaries. The Fugees’ The Score, bolstered by hits like “Killing Me Softly”, “Fu-Gee-La”, and “Ready or Not”, earned a Grammy nod for Album of the Year, becoming only the second rap album to do so. Yet, her magnum opus was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, an enduring classic that blurred the lines between hip hop, neo-soul, and R&B. As a supreme lyricist, a gifted singer, and a dynamic producer, Lauryn Hill is unquestionably one of the ’90s’ finest talents and arguably the greatest female rapper of all time.
Best album: The Diary
Emerging from Houston, Texas in the late ’80s, Scarface was a significant trailblazer of ’90s hip hop, especially for the South. Starting the decade with the notorious Geto Boys, Scarface penned “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” the group’s most acclaimed hit and one of the standout rap songs of 1991. Moving forward, the Texas rapper’s solo career witnessed an even greater triumph. Albums like Mr. Scarface Is Back and The World Is Yours displayed his mastery of world-weary storytelling, peaking with the exemplary The Diary and the chart-topping The Untouchable. With his prolific output in the ’90s alone, Scarface secured his place among the greatest Southern rappers of all time, undeniably making him one of the best rappers of the decade.
Best album: Muddy Waters
In the ’90s, no rapper was as unwaveringly consistent as Reggie “Redman” Noble. This funky New Jersey MC set the decade ablaze with back-to-back hits, from his debut on EPMD’s 1990 album Business as Usual, to his group effort with Def Squad, to his unforgettable collaboration with Method Man. Each verse Redman spat was instantly memorable, packed with punchlines and creativity. His trifecta of solo albums were some of the best during the ’90s, and when paired with his remarkable features, there’s no question that Redman remains one of the decade’s strongest rap figures.
Best album: Aquemini
Seamlessly blending their individual talents, OutKast pushed boundaries, frequently reinventing their sound and challenging what hip hop could be. Their transformative journey from their debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, to their ’90s finale, Aquemini, was nothing short of revolutionary. OutKast’s pioneering fusion of gritty Southern aesthetics, explorative lyricism, and eclectic funk resonated with listeners worldwide, setting a new bar for future innovators like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. Whether they were uplifting spirits with “Git Up, Git Out”, waxing philosophical on “Elevators (Me & You)”, or painting vivid narratives with “Aquemini”, OutKast’s ability to evolve while maintaining their lyrical prowess and inventive spirit makes them one of the most influential and enduring rap acts of the ’90s.
5. Snoop Dogg
Best album: Doggystyle
Before rap giants like 2Pac, Eminem, and 50 Cent hit the scene, there was Snoop Dogg. Leveraging his standout performances on The Chronic, Snoop Dogg’s debut album Doggystyle broke records, selling over 800,000 copies in its first week. The Long Beach MC, with his West Coast flavor and Slick Rick-like storytelling over the funkiest beats, was an undeniable sensation. Just consider the iconic opening lines of “Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang” — simple yet unforgettable, largely thanks to Snoop’s laid-back flow and distinct voice. This undeniable charisma, coupled with his musical prowess, makes Snoop Dogg one of the defining figures of the ’90s.
4. Ice Cube
Best album: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted
Few artists managed to accomplish what Ice Cube did between 1990 and 1992. In a span of just two years, he released three definitive classic albums – AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate, and The Predator – and a platinum-selling EP, Kill at Will. This whirlwind of productivity remains unparalleled in hip-hop history. Beyond his music, the West Coast rapper waged lyrical warfare on his former group N.W.A with the blistering “No Vaseline,” formed his own group, Westside Connection, and even found time to clash with Cypress Hill and Common. Throw in five platinum albums and a successful comedic film career, and its undeniable – Ice Cube was not just a rapper in the ’90s, he was an undeniable force of culture.
Best album: Illmatic
When an 18-year old Nasir Jones, aka Nas, made his stunning debut on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque,” his talent was immediately apparent. Yet, no one could have predicted the towering legacy he would build over the next decade. He meticulously studied the styles of Rakim, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane, but it was the depth and introspection of his seminal 1994 album, Illmatic, that placed him on a pedestal. On his second go around, the Queensbridge poet went beyond Illmatic, reaching new heights with his triple-platinum album, It Was Written, backed by hits like “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)” and “Street Dreams.” Despite the critical misstep with Nastradamus in 1999, Nas’ remarkable work in the ’90s established him as an indisputable titan of the decade.
2. The Notorious B.I.G.
Best album: Life After Death
The Notorious B.I.G.’s debut album, Ready to Die, signalled a seismic shift in New York hip hop. Pairing his gritty narratives with West Coast-inspired production, Biggie appealed to both street audiences and mainstream listeners alike. Yet, it was his sophomore project, Life After Death, that truly solidified his status as one of the greatest rappers of all time. Across 24 tracks, the Brooklyn MC displayed an unparalleled range — from club bangers like “Hypnotize” to vivid storytelling on “I Got a Story to Tell” — proving his supreme versatility. Whether sparring with Nas and Raekwon or delivering radio hits, Biggie’s ability to master all facets of the rap game underlined his dominance in the ’90s.
Best album: The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory
The breadth and depth of 2Pac’s career, compressed into an intense five years, remain staggering. From his debut album, 2Pacalypse Now, to his first posthumous release, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, Pac showcased an unparalleled artistic range, embodying an entire spectrum of human emotions in his music. His critics often downplayed his lyricism, citing a lack of complex wordplay or intricate storytelling. However, the late rapper’s true gift was his emotional transparency. He laid bare the essence of his experiences, connecting with his audience on a deeply personal level. This ability, along with his tireless productivity, marks Tupac Shakur as the greatest rapper of the 1990s.
Top 10 Best Rappers: 2000s
10. Young Jeezy
Best album: Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101
With a voice that echoes truth and a delivery that keeps listeners on the edge, Young Jeezy rose to stardom in the 2000s Southern rap takeover. He didn’t need the liquid flow of Ludacris or T.I.’s mic charisma. Like 2Pac, his authenticity was his superpower. His graphic trap life narratives, underscored by the pulsating beats of Shawty Redd, Drumma Boy, and Mannie Fresh, solidified his place as a hip hop powerhouse in Atlanta and beyond.
9. 50 Cent
Best album: Get Rich or Die Tryin’
Don’t be fooled by the commercial juggernaut that was 50 Cent’s debut Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and his follow-up The Massacre; there was far more to his artistry in the 2000s. Beyond the multi-platinum album sales were groundbreaking mixtapes, collaborative efforts with G-Unit, and a substantial creative role in The Game’s The Documentary. With his omnipresence in the rap scene and a repertoire of chart-busting hits, it’s undeniable that 50 Cent shaped the soundscape of the 2000s.
8. MF DOOM
Best album: Madvillainy
MF DOOM, the underground legend, who began his career in the late ’80s as Zev Love X, truly came into his own with his transformation into the masked villain. Despite the initial success of his 1999 debut Operation: Doomsday, it was his partnership with Madlib on 2004’s Madvillainy that solidified his legacy. Renowned for his intricate lyricism and unconventional approach to song structure, DOOM defied expectations with verse-heavy tracks, disregarding traditional hooks. His unwavering commitment to distinctive rap artistry secures his place among the top rappers of the 2000s and arguably the greatest underground MC of all time.
Best album: Stillmatic
The Queensbridge poet navigated the 2000s with a blend of sheer brilliance and unpredictability. While his output was marred by instances of thematic incoherence and uninspired beat selection, it’s important to remember that a Nas in low gear still outpaces most. He’s the same MC who stood against the formidable Roc-A-Fella empire and prevailed, the poet behind “Made You Look,” and the force who unleashed Stillmatic, The Lost Tapes, and God’s Son within a year. Despite the ups and downs, Nas remained a defining figure in 2000s rap.
Best album: King
Riding the wave of Southern rap’s ascendance in the 2000s, T.I. boldly claimed the title of the ‘King of the South.’ But audacious as it might have been, he had the lyrical prowess to back it up. With albums like I’m Serious, Trap Muzik, and Urban Legend, he fused East Coast flows with Southern flair. However, his 2006 release, King, saw him seize the throne decisively. Armed with a diverse production team and stellar guest features, King underscored T.I.’s dominion over the South and showcased him as one of the era’s finest.
5. Ghostface Killah
Best album: Fishscale
In a decade where the once-invincible Wu-Tang Clan faltered, Ghostface Killah emerged as the exception. His 2000 magnum opus, Supreme Clientele, accentuated his abstract, stream-of-consciousness rhymes and marked him as the group’s most compelling solo act. Ghostface’s output didn’t stop there; from playing a crucial role in all Wu albums to producing stellar solo projects like The Pretty Toney Album, Fishscale, and the underrated Ghostdini: Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City, he established himself as a consistent and innovative force in 2000s hip hop.
4. Kanye West
Best album: Graduation
Step aside, because nobody influenced the hip hop terrain of the 2000s like Kanye West did. His pioneering work on The Dynasty: Roc La Familia and The Blueprint as a producer was instrumental in bringing soul back into the genre. Not one to rest on his laurels, Kanye took to the mic with The College Dropout, pushing against the gangsta rap narrative and making room for the average-Joe rappers. A trailblazer at heart, Kanye set the stage for the next generation with 808s & Heartbreak, paving the way for Drake’s meteoric rise. His musical genius often overshadowed by his off-stage antics, Kanye’s contributions to hip-hop cannot be undermined.
3. Lil Wayne
Best album: Tha Carter II
With the boastful but accurate claim of being the ‘best rapper alive‘, Lil Wayne etched his mark on the 2000s. This wasn’t a groundless proclamation; Lil Wayne backed it up with a prolific body of work that was a testament to his extraordinary lyrical prowess. With a rich catalog of mixtapes, albums, and features, he proved that his claim wasn’t just about the money or business, it was purely about the art. Challenging Jay-Z’s crown might have seemed like an overreach to many, but during the 2000s, on a verse-by-verse basis, Lil Wayne reigned supreme. It wasn’t just a claim; it was a fact.
Best album: The Marshall Mathers LP
Imagine a whirlwind. Now imagine that whirlwind is made of words, expertly crafted rhymes, and controversy. That was Eminem in the 2000s. His peak was a towering edifice of lyrical prowess, unmatched even by the industry’s giants. Take his tracks “The Way I Am” or “‘Till I Collapse,” masterclasses in flow, delivery, and breath control. Em wasn’t just a genius with a pen, but a record-breaking phenomenon too, his albums like The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show sold millions, literally. Adding an Oscar to his mantle for “Lose Yourself,” Eminem took success in hip hop to the next level. The Detroit rapper’s ability to weave narratives, create unforgettable features, and come back stronger post battling substance abuse, affirmed his unmatched presence.
Best album: The Blueprint
Jay-Z is the marathon runner of hip hop. While many sprinters dashed past him at their peak, none could sustain the race as consistently as Hov. By the end of the ’90s, he had proven himself as one of the biggest names in hip hop, post-2Pac and Biggie. But it was in the 2000s that he truly ascended the throne. While his competitors came and went, Hov’s success remained steady, a testament to his artistic and commercial prowess. The Brooklyn MC’s true talent laid in his adaptability, his sharp lyrics, his uncanny ability to reflect the zeitgeist in his music. He was not just a rapper, he was an influencer, a trendsetter, and a maverick. As he stated in “What More Can I Say,” his overall impact on hip hop culture is undeniable, making him an indisputable choice for the top spot of the 2000s.
Top 10 Best Rappers: 2010s
10. Nicki Minaj
Best album: Queen
Nicki Minaj, the self-proclaimed queen of rap, has been reigning supreme for over a decade now. Since kicking down the door in 2010, the Queens rapper has single-handedly carved out a space in a male-dominated field. She’s not just a rap queen but a cross-genre powerhouse who blends her lyrical finesse with diverse musical styles. Her legendary features run in the early 2010s — which included verses on Kanye’s “Monster”, Trey Songz’s “Bottoms Up”, Drake’s “Up All Night” and Ludacris’ “My Chick Bad” — alone could cement her place on this list. Yet, her portfolio boasts a slew of strong albums, striking guest verses, and genre-defining hits. Nicki Minaj wasn’t not just a great rapper; she was a cultural force of the 2010s.
9. Freddie Gibbs
Best album: Bandana
Sometimes, the best thing that can happen is failure, at least in Freddie Gibbs’ case. After his fallout with Jeezy’s CTE World, Gibbs took the reins of his career and forged his unique path, pairing up with Madlib. The result? A pair of mesmerizing albums, Piñata and Bandana, in addition to a handful of great solo releases like Shadow of a Doubt, You Only Live 2wice, and Freddie. From the gritty streets of Gary, Indiana, Gibbs rose to be hailed as one of the best rappers alive, proving that a stumble may prevent a fall.
Best album: 4:44
Jay-Z entered the 2010s by teaming up with Kanye on the monumental Watch the Throne, which saw the two titans trade blistering verses over some of the most big-budget, luxurious production ever committed to a rap track. They blended opulence with political undertones, creating anthems like “Otis” and “No Church in the Wild.” While 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail saw Hov delve further into themes of fame, wealth, and legacy, it was 2017’s introspective 4:44 that marked a late-career pinnacle, revealing a mature, self-reflective Jay-Z grappling with infidelity, black wealth, and legacy. Capping the decade, he partnered with Beyoncé for Everything Is Love, an album of love, reconciliation, and shared success, reaffirming his spot as one of the most consistent rappers of all time.
7. Roc Marciano
Best album: Reloaded
While Westside Gunn and Griselda are often lauded for resurrecting the New York ‘90s boom-bap sound, it’s Roc Marciano who has been the quiet guardian of this gritty, underground scene. His journey from a brief stint in Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad to an independent career paints a picture of resilience and a relentless pursuit of his unique sound. Over the past decade, Marciano has churned out consistently exceptional music, including the classics Marcberg and Reloaded, earning him respect and solidifying his position as one of the most influential rappers of his generation.
6. Pusha T
Best album: Daytona
No one else could turn a career transition into a winning streak like Pusha T did in the 2010s. After the Clipse disbanded, he sprang back to life, becoming a cornerstone of Kanye West’s GOOD Music era with unforgettable verses on what some consider the best hip hop album of the decade. With a remarkable solo discography including two classic albums and a string of hard-hitting features, Pusha proved his resilience. Engaging in a beef with Drake and emerging unscathed only underscored his unassailable status. Pusha T didn’t just survive the 2010s; he owned them.
5. J. Cole
Best album: 2014 Forest Hills Drive
J. Cole’s rise in the 2010s wasn’t meteoric, but his steady ascension to hip-hop royalty was every bit as satisfying. While Cole World: The Sideline Story and Born Sinner were commendable efforts, it was 2014 Forest Hills Drive that became his masterstroke. The album’s resonance transformed him into a cultural icon, his voice echoing beyond the confines of hip hop. His trajectory is a testament to the fact that it’s not just about reaching the top, it’s also about the climb. After a transformative 2010s, Cole headed into the new decade a seasoned veteran, one of hip-hop’s cherished stalwarts.
Best album: DS2
Future’s evolution over the 2010s from a trap crooner to a multidimensional music titan has been both enthralling and influential. After the commercial setback of his sophomore album Honest, he reunited up with Metro Boomin and DJ Esco, sparking an unprecedented mixtape run akin to Lil Wayne’s one in the 2000s. The triumvirate of Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights revived the Atlanta rapper’s career and set the stage for the revered albums that followed, from DS2 to his R&B/pop fusion masterpiece Hndrxx. Future’s adaptability and persistent innovation made him a defining artist of the decade and arguably the most influential.
3. Kanye West
Best album: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Few artists in hip-hop, or indeed any genre, stirred as much controversy, conversation, and creativity in the 2010s as Kanye West. The decade was a rollercoaster ride for the Chicago genius, with highs including the pitch-perfect masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and avant-garde thriller Yeezus. Kanye’s relentless sonic innovation and audacious artistry made each release an event. However, his candid and often turbulent personal life meant that his music was just one part of the Kanye conversation. Regardless of his extra-musical antics, West’s boundary-pushing work in the 2010s solidified his legacy as one of hip hop’s most influential and polarizing figures of the decade.
Best album: If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late
The 2010s witnessed an extraordinary force in hip-hop: Drake. While we’ve seen higher peaks and bigger sales from other artists, no one has commanded a decade like Drizzy. His reign at the summit of rap has been unprecedented, an amalgamation of lyrical prowess and commercial dominance. Even when evaluated beyond sales and impact, the Toronto rapper’s pen game aligns him with the best of his generation. With a straightforward, heartfelt approach to lyricism, he has redefined the genre’s boundaries, and cemented himself as one of the most formidable commercial forces in rap history.
1. Kendrick Lamar
Best album: To Pimp a Butterfly
If there were any contention about the best rapper of the 2010s, Kendrick Lamar has dismissed it. From the down-to-earth tales of his debut, the cinematic mastery of good kid, m.A.A.d city, the genre-defying To Pimp a Butterfly, to the sheer brilliance of DAMN., Kendrick’s discography reflects an artist at the peak of his craft. His deep lyricism, powerful storytelling, and conscious themes make his works timeless classics. The Compton MC’s influence extends far beyond the decade, positioning him as not just the greatest rapper of the 2010s, but potentially one of the greatest of all time.
Top 10 Best Rappers: 2020s
10. Lil Baby
Best album: My Turn
Emerging from the peripheries of the street life into the limelight of hip hop, Lil Baby is a prime example of raw talent nurtured to perfection. Spotted by Young Thug in his early years, he morphed from an aspirant with ties to the streets into an iconic force in the music scene. He embodies an appealing blend of his influencers, Young Thug and Lil Wayne, showcasing dexterity in rapping and an innate talent for songwriting. His debut studio album, My Turn, a tour de force of storytelling and rhythm, became the most streamed album of 2020, laying a promising path towards being crowned the best rapper of his generation.
Best album: The Forever Story
When it comes to the art of rhyming and mic prowess, few contemporaries can hold a candle to JID. His 2022 release, The Forever Story, showcased his evolution from a highly skilled rapper to an extraordinary artist. The album presents a sprawling epic of Atlanta, paired with his signature malleable delivery and inventive flows, balanced with a new-found command of melody and thematics. Coupled with an impressive array of features like Conway’s “Scatter Brain,” Lute’s “Still Dreamin,” and Denzel Curry’s “Ain’t No Way,” JID has proven himself as a leading lyricist in the current rap game.
8. Denzel Curry
Best album: Melt My Eyez See Your Future
A torchbearer of genre-blending lyricism and captivating performances, Denzel Curry has consistently demonstrated why he’s in the pantheon of the best rappers of the 2020s. From Nostalgic 64 to Unlocked, the Florida rapper’s rap career has been a seamless flow of top-tier production and masterful rhymes. However, it was with Melt My Eyez See Your Future that Denzel expanded the breadth of his artistry, intertwining jazz-infused beats with his signature rhythmic storytelling. Thanks to collaborations with notable artists like Cardo, FnZ, Thundercat, JPEGMafia, and Kenny Beats, Denzel Curry not only affirmed his prowess but also redefined the dynamics of the rap game, solidifying his position at the upper echelon of hip hop artists.
7. Boldy James
Best album: Bo Jackson
With an exceptional aptitude for detailed storytelling, Boldy James has proved himself as an extraordinary artist in the 2020s. An unassuming presence from Detroit, his signature subdued style conceals a razor-sharp intellect that slices through each beat with precision. Collaborating with the likes of The Alchemist and Real Bad Man, his lyrical prowess and his effortless, cool-as-ice flow have been showcased through several groundbreaking projects. Boldy has not only delivered an annual array of critically-acclaimed albums, such as The Price of Tea in China and Bo Jackson, but also cemented his name as a consistent contender for the album of the year.
6. Vince Staples
Best album: Ramona Park Broke My Heart
Vince Staples, the paradigm of duality in hip hop, defies labels with his unique approach to the genre. His Compton-born, North Long Beach-raised persona combined with his unusual life trajectory feed into a dynamic musical output, demonstrated by the distinctive sounds of Summertime ’06 and Big Fish Theory. As the 2020s unfolded, Staples continued to thrive as an unpredictable, yet incredibly consistent artist. The two critically acclaimed albums of this decade, 2021’s self-titled Vince Staples and the evocative Ramona Park Broke My Heart, underpin his resilience and artistry, reinforcing his stature as one of the most versatile and compelling rappers in the game.
5. Billy Woods
Best album: Aethiopes
Billy Woods is the underappreciated poet of the New York underground rap scene. With a rap career that dates back to the early 2000s, Woods has honed his craft to perfection over the years. As the 2020s unfold, Woods has upped his game, presenting bars that resonate and stories that leave a lasting imprint. His collaborations as part of the duo Armand Hammer culminated in the acclaimed releases of Shrines and Haram, while his solo venture, Aethiopes, was just another example of his complex lyricism and out-of-this-world flow. Always against a backdrop of resonant drum loops and shattering samples, the reclusive MC effortlessly engages in philosophical soliloquies, securing his spot amongst the best lyricists in the game today.
4. Kendrick Lamar
Best album: Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers
As the 2010s concluded, Kendrick Lamar unquestionably towered as the titan of the rap industry. The unmatched lyrical brilliance, commercial magnetism, and indomitable discography of the Compton native have weathered fierce competition. Lamar’s incredible run with projects like Section.80, good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp a Butterfly, DAMN., and the undeniably solid untitled unmastered., proved his unrivaled mastery. The 2020s found Kendrick wrestling with writer’s block until his grand resurgence in 2022 with Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. One album was all it took to reaffirm Kendrick’s reputation as not only one of the most outstanding talents of his generation but also an enduring great of all time. The Compton rapper’s legacy persists even if he were to never release another album.
3. Black Thought
Best album: Cheat Codes
Since his high school days in 1987, when Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter met Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the Philly-raised rapper has never ceased to impress. His long-spanning career came to an exhilarating peak in 2022, with the release of Cheat Codes, produced in collaboration with Danger Mouse. Featuring dynamic verses with formidable talents such as Raekwon, MF DOOM, Conway the Machine, Run the Jewels, and Joey Badass, the album reaffirmed Thought’s enduring dominance. Whether it’s fronting The Roots; annihilating Funkmaster Flex freestyles or consistently delivering stellar solo projects, Black Thought remains an unstoppable force in the rap landscape. His dynamic skills mark him as not only one of the current leading rappers but also a timeless figure in Philly’s hip hop history.
Best album: King’s Disease III
The phenomenon Nas has created in hip hop is a spectacle to behold. The Queensbridge luminary, who exploded onto the scene in 1991, is making music at an unprecedented rate and maintaining a level of quality typically associated with artists hungry for their first taste of fame. Importantly, the legendary rapper is not beholden to the industry for his livelihood. He’s a well-established investor in the tech world, and through his venture capital firm, Queensbridge Venture Partners, he’s accrued significant wealth – notably, a $40 million payday from the acquisition of Ring, a home security company in which he’d invested. Despite his financial success outside of music, Nas continues to pour his heart into the rap game. Albums such as the King’s Disease trilogy and Magic reverberate with a love for hip hop that is as potent as it is infectious. Each release solidifies his status as a master lyricist and a storyteller par excellence, narrating tales of the streets with an insightful eye and a sage’s wisdom. This level of dedication and craftsmanship, undeterred by time or wealth, attests to the Queensbridge MC’s immeasurable contribution to the culture. In his four-decade-long journey, he’s moved from a rap prodigy to an industry titan, his undying passion for hip hop shining like a beacon for the new generation.
1. J. Cole
Best album: The Off-Season
J. Cole’s establishment of Dreamville Records proved to be a strategic masterstroke that not only provided a platform for talented MCs such as Bas, Cozz, JID, and EarthGang but also set up a creatively stimulating environment for the Fayetteville rapper himself. The constant interaction with these gifted artists has forged a crucible that has kept Cole on his toes, producing music that’s sharp, relevant, and deeply connected to the streets. In the last few years, Cole has been in an undeniable state of flow. The sublime Off-Season is a testament to this, as are the brilliantly orchestrated group albums that he’s shepherded. But it’s not just his solo work that’s worth celebrating; since 2018, Cole has embarked on a stunning run of guest features. No matter who you are – Benny the Butcher, Wale, 21 Savage, Young Thug – if the Dreamville head honcho graces your track, he will steal the show. It’s a fact that he fiercely asserted on Benny’s “Johnny P’s Caddy”. Whether through his own material or his features, Cole has created a paradigm of artistic evolution and a refusal to stagnate. J Cole’s commitment to constantly raising the bar, for both himself and his label, has positioned him at the zenith of the hip hop world this decade, and for good reason.