When the calendar flipped to 2010, rap music was gearing up to swerve into new lanes and embrace a plethora of emerging voices. It was a defining decade that further cemented the rap game’s place as a cultural powerhouse and transformed it into the number music genre in the world.
During this decade, the hip hop landscape was a rich mosaic of style, substance, and sound. Boundaries were pushed, and the traditional norms of the genre were continuously challenged. Kanye West continued to shift paradigms with his sonic experimentation, touching nerve and soul alike, while Kendrick Lamar’s poetic prowess redefined lyrical complexity. Drake’s fusion of singing and rapping crafted a ubiquitous sound, transcending rap and shaping the popular music landscape.
Artists like Tyler, The Creator and A$AP Rocky were rewriting the rules, blending genres, and bending norms with a fearless artistry that influenced a new generation of rappers. The incomparable Nicki Minaj shattered ceilings for female MCs, dominating the charts with a blend of wit, flow, and undeniable skill. Joey Bada$$ and Roc Marciano, with their respective styles, paid homage to the golden era while carving new lanes, proving that the rap game’s roots were as essential as its future innovations.
So let’s get into it. From the ethereal trap sounds of Future to the eloquent lyricism of J. Cole and eclectic experimentation of Danny Brown, here are the top 50 best 2010s rappers.
50. 2 Chainz
Essential listening: Pretty Girls Like Trap Music (2017)
2 Chainz burst into the mainstream with his charismatic flow and hilarious punchlines, providing a refreshing take on Southern rap. His penchant for crafting anthems is undeniable, with hits like “I’m Different” and “Birthday Song” soundtracking the early 2010s. But the second half of the decade saw 2 Chainz refine his style, trading in the overt humor for a more nuanced, introspective approach on albums like Pretty Girls Like Trap Music and Rap or Go to the League. Whether he’s flaunting his wealth or exploring deeper themes, 2 Chainz’s infectious energy and lyrical dexterity place him firmly among the best rappers of the 2010s.
Essential listening: My Krazy Life (2014)
Compton’s own YG has been a defining voice of West Coast hip-hop in the 2010s. He introduced the world to his distinctive brand of reality rap with his debut album, My Krazy Life, offering a modern spin on the G-funk and gangsta rap traditions of his hometown. His gritty tales of street life, paired with Mustard’s bouncy production, birthed hits like “My Ni**a” and “Who Do You Love?” But it’s YG’s evolution as a social commentator, particularly on the politically-charged “FDT,” that solidifies his place on this list. Unapologetically West Coast, the Compton-born rapper embodies the spirit of his city, both honoring its legacy and driving it forward.
48. Big Sean
Essential listening: Dark Sky Paradise (2015)
Often overlooked in discussions of 2010s hip-hop, Big Sean nonetheless had an impact that’s hard to ignore. His nimble flow and clever wordplay made him a mainstay on radio waves, with hits like “IDFWU” and “Blessings” showing his knack for blending pop accessibility with hardened lyricism. On the album front, works like Dark Sky Paradise and I Decided showcased the Detroit rapper’s evolution as an artist, delving into personal narratives and spiritual themes.
47. Rick Ross
Essential listening: Rich Forever (2012)
Rick Ross is, without a doubt, one of the most successful rappers of the 2010s, maintaining a consistent presence in the rap game through sheer tenacity and the power of his Maybach Music Group label, where he fostered talents like Meek Mill and Wale. His larger-than-life persona, coupled with an inimitable gruff delivery and luxury-based raps, made him a mainstay in the decade’s hip-hop scene. Ross’ ear for lush, cinematic production and memorial one-liners found a home in his seminal albums such as Teflon Don and Mastermind. Despite hitting some controversy and health scares, the self-proclaimed Bawse remained unflappable, continuously demonstrating his ability to pen some of hip-hop’s most memorable bars.
46. Kevin Gates
Essential listening: Islah (2016)
One of the hardest working MCs of the decade, there’s no denying that Kevin Gates had a massive impact on the 2010s. The Baton Rouge native is a study in contrasts – gritty street tales interwoven with emotional vulnerability. Gates’ authenticity is his superpower. His music, filled with raw emotions and unfiltered confessions, resonated deeply with his fans. Behind his husky, melodic flow lies a poignant storyteller, a thoughtful lyricist who’s never afraid to bare his soul.
45. Travis Scott
Essential listening: Astroworld (2018)
Travis Scott is more than a rapper; he’s a creative force who’s shifted the soundscape of hip-hop in the 2010s. From Rodeo to Astroworld, La Flame’s albums are rollercoaster rides of sonically adventurous trap, filled with a punk ethos, intoxicating beats, and a psychedelic haze that blurs the line between hip-hop and rock. With anthems like “Antidote” to chart-toppers like “Sicko Mode,” the Houston-born rapper consistently pushed the envelope, challenged conventions and redefined the sound of modern rap with every new release. In an era where many artists stuck to the playbook, Travis Scott is wrote his own during the 2010s.
Essential listening: Covert Coup (2011)
When it comes to repping the New Orleans rap scene, Curren$y is as authentic as it gets. Armed with a laid-back, hazy flow that perfectly complemented his love for weed and cars, Spitta crafted an untouchable lane for himself in hip hop. With a catalog filled to the brim with quality mixtapes, EPs, and albums, he’s a rapper’s rapper, focused on lyrical craftsmanship over mainstream appeal. His artistry is a throwback to a different era, yet his approach to rap has been ahead of its time, setting the stage for the era of streaming and the mixtape resurgence. Curren$y may not have the commercial numbers, but the man’s got respect – and in hip-hop, that’s a worth more than any Billboard position.
43. 21 Savage
Essential listening: I Am > I Was (2018)
Few artists have undergone a transformation as dramatic as 21 Savage’s over the last decade. He emerged from the Atlanta trap scene with a stripped-down, sinister sound on mixtapes like The Slaughter Tape and Savage Mode, but it was with his later projects, I Am > I Was and Savage Mode II, that 21 revealed his range. His lyricism became more intricate, his subject matter more diverse – there were still plenty of tough-talking bangers, but there were also moments of introspection and vulnerability. From the haunting “A Lot” to the confessional “Ball w/o You,” 21 Savage showed that he wasn’t just another trap rapper, but a true artist capable of growth and depth.
42. Inspectah Deck
Essential listening: Czarface (2013)
While Inspectah Deck’s peak may have been in the ’90s with the Wu-Tang Clan, his impact in the 2010s shouldn’t be overlooked. Throughout the decade, Deck remained a lyrical powerhouse, his pen game as sharp as ever. The Wu rapper’s 2010 solo effort Manifesto reminded everyone that he could hold his own, but the real jewel came with the formation of Czarface, his collaboration with 7L & Esoteric. Their comic book-inspired hip-hop breathed fresh life into Deck’s career, producing several critically acclaimed albums. With 8 albums dropped in the 2010s, including collaborations with Ghostface Killah and MF DOOM, Czarface’s hardcore, left-field rap style was a refreshing antithesis to mainstream rap, proving that Deck’s ability to adapt and innovate was key to his longevity.
41. Jay Rock
Essential listening: Redemption (2018)
Jay Rock may often be overshadowed by his fellow TDE labelmates like Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q, but make no mistake – he’s been quietly delivering some of the most consistent and heartfelt gangsta rap of the decade. His 2011 album, Follow Me Home, was a confident debut, but it was with 2015’s 90059 and 2018’s Redemption that Jay Rock really found his groove. From the grimy, unvarnished tales of life on the streets of Watts on tracks like “The Ways” and “Easy Bake” to the reflective introspection of “OSOM” and “Redemption,” Jay Rock’s music has always been grounded in his lived experience. His baritone delivery and gift for storytelling add a layer of authenticity that’s often missing in the genre, making him one of the realest voices in the game.
40. Meek Mill
Essential listening: Championships (2018)
Meek Mill, the Philly phenom, used the 2010s to etch his name into the rap history books. From his raw mixtapes to his more refined studio albums, Meek’s signature impassioned delivery and relentless flow have consistently captivated audiences. Records like “Dreams and Nightmares” and “Championships” served as autobiographical explorations of his tumultuous journey, filled with gritty narratives and triumphant anthems. Yet, beyond the music, Meek’s high-profile battles with the criminal justice system and his resulting advocacy work add a layer of significance to his artistry, making him a pivotal figure in the landscape of 2010s hip-hop.
39. Nipsey Hussle
Essential listening: Victory Lap (2018)
Nipsey Hussle, straight out of Crenshaw, Los Angeles, was not just a rapper but a visionary, a maverick in the game who saw value beyond traditional industry models. One of the figureheads of the independent movement during the 2010s, Nipsey made a statement his Crenshaw mixtape — bypassing the usual distribution channels and selling copies at a staggering $100. The rapper’s progression culminated in his Grammy-nominated debut album, Victory Lap, a masterstroke that encapsulated everything that was important to Nipsey — his music, his independence, his neighbourhood, his community. His untimely passing in 2019 left a void in hip hop, but his music and principles will continue to resonate long after he’s gone.
38. Chief Keef
Essential listening: Finally Rich (2012)
Chief Keef was just a teenager when he dropped “I Don’t Like,” but that anthem, with its menacing drill beat and Keef’s snarling delivery, reverberated from the streets of Chicago to the rest of the world. Keef’s Finally Rich, packed with more bangers like “Love Sosa”, “Hate Bein’ Sober” and “Laughin’ to the Bank” further cemented his status as one of the most magnetic rappers in the game. Later in the decade, even as his output became more sporadic, his influence remained evident – in the drill scenes of New York and London, in the SoundCloud rap wave, and in countless ad-libs and flows. To understand 2010s hip-hop, you’ve gotta reckon with Keef.
Essential listening: Culture (2017)
Migos, the three-headed monster of Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff, became synonymous with the 2010s. Their flow – that triplet rhythm they didn’t invent but perfected – became a language of its own. A language everyone started speaking, from Drake to your local SoundCloud rapper. When their 2013 mixtape Y.R.N. (Young Rich Ni**as) dropped with the infectious hit “Versace,” it became clear that Migos weren’t a flash in the pan. Then, Culture hit the streets, with the monster hit “Bad and Boujee”, solidifying their place as Atlanta’s new number one rap act. One of the most important groups to emerge in the decade, there’s no denying Migos transformed the trap landscape and influenced a whole bunch of rappers coming up.
36. Benny the Butcher
Essential listening: Tana Talk 3 (2018)
Emerging from the gritty streets of Buffalo, Benny the Butcher etched his name into the 2010s rap narrative with his raw lyricism and classic East Coast ethos. As part of the Griselda collective, he’s breathed new life into the gangsta rap sub-genre with his unfiltered street tales. Albums like Tana Talk 3 and The Plugs I Met are prime examples of Benny’s ability to sling dope verses with his gruff, no-nonsense delivery — effortlessly weaving rhymes about the grim realities of drug trafficking and its fallout. His bars hit hard, but it’s the authenticity that sticks – Benny is a hardened veteran, and his rhymes are battle scars.
Essential listening: Care for Me (2018)
Saba is the future. When we speak about the Chi-town renaissance, this guy’s name should be up in lights. His 2016 debut Bucket List Project showcased a thoughtful lyricist with a flow smooth as silk, but it was 2018’s Care for Me, one of the best albums of the 2010s, that really pushed him into the limelight. A meditation on grief following the death of his cousin, the album stood as one of the decade’s most intimate and introspective projects and brilliantly showcased Saba’s superb penmanship that can paint a picture so evocative it feels like a high-definition memory.
34. Ghostface Killah
Essential listening: Twelve Reasons to Die (2013)
Tony Starks, a.k.a Ghostface Killah, is one hip-hop’s unsinkable warships. After illuminating the 90s and early 2000s with unforgettable albums, you’d think the Wu-Tang’s most consistent would chill in the 2010s, right? Nah, Ghost had different plans. His decade started with Apollo Kids, a record that held its ground against a new generation of sound. But it’s the one-two punch of Twelve Reasons to Die and 36 Seasons, where Ghost demonstrated that his storytelling rap game hadn’t lost an ounce of its sharpness. Add to this his collaboration with BADBADNOTGOOD on Sour Soul as well as the sequel to Twelve Reasons to Die, and it’s clear Ghostface wasn’t just surviving in the 2010s – he was thriving.
Essential listening: Music for My Friends (2015)
If you’re not familiar with the name Skyzoo, you’re missing out on one of hip-hop’s best-kept secrets. A student of the game with a reverence for hip-hop’s golden age, the laid-back Brooklyn MC is one of the rap game’s quiet achievers. During the 2010s, he created a discography that boasts a remarkable level of consistency. A Dream Deferred and Music For My Friends showcased Skyzoo’s thoughtful lyricism, while In Celebration of Us displayed his socio-political awareness. But the pièce de résistance has to be Retropolitan – a collaborative project with Pete Rock. For an MC whose work is heavily influenced by the likes of Jay-Z and Nas, to hear him rip through Pete’s boom-bap production was a moment of full-circle greatness.
32. Tyler, the Creator
Essential listening: Flower Boy (2017)
Tyler’s journey from the irreverent provocateur of Goblin to the acclaimed, genre-bending maestro of IGOR is one of the defining arcs of the 2010s. In the early days, his shock value lyrics and grimy production made waves, but it was his later work, like 2017’s Flower Boy, that made everyone really stand up and take notice. With its lush instrumentals and candid introspection, he shook off the shackles of his Odd Future persona, blooming into a sophisticated artist unafraid to explore vulnerability and heartbreak. Then came IGOR, a heartbreak tale served over jazzy-soulful beats that pushed hip-hop right up against the edges, scoring Tyler a well-deserved Grammy. Wildly original and consistently evolving, Tyler, the Creator painted the 2010s in his own technicolors, and hip-hop is all the more vibrant for it.
31. A$AP Rocky
Essential listening: AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP (2015)
Bursting onto the scene with LIVE.LOVE.A$AP, Rocky established himself as a stylish wordsmith, weaving tales of lavish living over woozy, atmospheric beats that contrasted sharply with the gritty boom-bap that NYC was known for. His debut album, LONG.LIVE.A$AP, delivered street anthems and club bangers in equal measure, showcasing his adeptness at crafting hits while staying true to his core style. But it was AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP that saw the Harlem rapper achieve new heights, experimenting with psychedelic sounds and introspective themes, resulting in arguably his best album to date. Always swagged-out and never predictable, A$AP Rocky defined a new era of New York hip-hop during the 2010s.
30. Conway the Machine
Essential listening: Reject 2 (2015)
When we’re talking about the resurgence of gritty, street-oriented rap in the 2010s, we can’t skip Conway the Machine. As a key member of Griselda Records, Conway has been consistently serving up unflinching tales from the underbelly of Buffalo, New York, over sinister boom-bap production. His wordplay is sharp as a switchblade, and his delivery, gruff and relentless. Records like Reject 2 and G.O.A.T. are raw, uncut dope, delivering one head-nodding banger after another. Meanwhile, his 2019 project, Look What I Became…, proved that Conway could expand his sound without losing an ounce of his hardcore edge. In a decade often defined by gloss and glitter, Conway reminded us of hip-hop’s grimy roots, earning him respect from old heads and new fans alike.
Essential listening: Control System (2012)
Look no further than Ab-Soul for a blend of deep philosophy, societal critique, and skillful wordplay. As a crucial part of the Black Hippy crew, Ab-Soul’s 2012 album Control System gave rap fans a different perspective from Kendrick, Q and Jay Rock, delivering thought-provoking commentary on society, metaphysics, and spirituality. Tracks like “The Book of Soul” gave a raw glimpse into Soul’s personal life, while “Terrorist Threats” and “Illuminate” delved into the realities of our socio-political environment. Although Ab-Soul may have been comparatively quiet over the decade, his masterful lyricism and precise flow cemented him as undoubtedly one of the best 2010s rappers.
28. Schoolboy Q
Essential listening: Blank Face LP (2016)
Schoolboy Q’s journey through the 2010s was a sonic joyride, with the TDE rapper putting together a blend of West Coast gangsta rap and eclectic sounds that only he could deliver. Habits & Contradictions and Oxymoron were thrilling exercises in hedonism, with Q’s gruff delivery adding a gritty realism to the over-the-top street anthems and party joints. But it was 2016’s Blank Face LP that showed Q’s full range, balancing club bangers like “That Part” with more introspective tracks such as “JoHn Muir” and grimy street cuts like “Tookie Knows II.” With each release, the TDE superstar proved why he was a key West Coast player, consistently evolving while staying rooted in tradition.
27. Big K.R.I.T.
Essential listening: Live from the Underground (2012)
In a decade where the South’s influence on hip-hop was more evident than ever, few voices embodied the old-school spirit of Southern rap like Big K.R.I.T. A soulful blend of vibrant production and heartfelt lyricism that cuts straight to the core, K.R.I.T. zigged while everyone else zagged. The Mississippi rapper’s 2017 double-disc opus, 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, represents everything that makes him great — evocative dissection of everything, from fame to faith, over immaculate, bass-heavy production. It’s the kind of introspective, dense album that rewards multiple listens and cements K.R.I.T.’s status as a Southern rap titan.
26. Nicki Minaj
Essential listening: The Pinkprint (2014)
Few artists in the 2010s defined and reshaped their place in hip-hop like Nicki Minaj. With a style as multifaceted as it is brash, Nicki’s arsenal of rapid-fire flows and cartoonish alter egos challenged conventions and transformed the landscape for women in rap. Her debut album, Pink Friday, ushered in a new era of female empowerment in hip-hop, featuring mega hits like “Super Bass” that showcased Nicki’s unique blend of rap, pop, and R&B. But the Young Money rapper also made sure, in between the chart-topping smash hits, to remind everyone that she’s one of the best lyricists to emerge from the 2010s with legendary verses on cuts like Kanye’s “Monster,” “Lookin Ass”, “Chi-Raq”, “Up All Night”, “Beez in the Trap” and plenty others. With an enviable rap catalogue, Nicki Minaj secured her position as, not only one of the best female rappers of the 2010s, but one of the best, period.
25. Killer Mike
Essential listening: R.A.P. Music (2012)
After spending a decade grinding in the rap game, Killer Mike truly came into his own in the 2010s. The Atlanta rapper’s fifth album, R.A.P. Music, produced entirely by El-P, marked a new high point in his career. But it’s Run The Jewels that became synonymous with the decade, each of their albums delivering a knockout punch of aggressive beats, razor-sharp lyrics, and Killer Mike’s unapologetic political commentary. On top of his musical achievements, Mike’s activism and public speaking have made him a prominent voice in modern culture. In a decade defined by its intersection of music and politics, few have embodied that blend as powerfully as Killer Mike.
Essential listening: Eve (2019)
Rapsody’s rise to prominence in the 2010s was a breath of fresh air, challenging the industry’s norms with her potent lyricism, thematic depth, and versatile flows. Her opus, Laila’s Wisdom, not only earned her two Grammy nominations but marked a significant moment for female in hip-hop, as it underscored the fact that women can create impactful and substantial rap music without conforming to industry expectations. From collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights like Kendrick Lamar and superstars like Anderson .Paak to her indomitable solo efforts, Rapsody’s contributions to the hip-hop of the 2010s are undeniable, demonstrating her raw talent and dedication to the art form.
23. Royce da 5’9″
Essential listening: Book of Ryan (2018)
Once known primarily as Eminem’s partner-in-rhyme and then as a part of Slaughterhouse, Royce da 5’9″ blossomed into a force in his own right in the 2010s. Nickel’s 2011 collaborative project with Em, known as Bad Meets Evil, gave us the over-the-top lyricism of Hell: The Sequel, but it was his solo work that truly shined. Albums like Layers and Book of Ryan showed us a more introspective Royce, one who wasn’t afraid to delve into the depths of his soul, confronting his demons and exploring his past. Lyrically, his technical skills on the mic are nearly unparalleled, with his intricate rhymes and complex metaphors, earning him respect across the board.
22. Mac Miller
Essential listening: Swimming (2018)
Bursting onto the hip-hop scene as a teenage wunderkind, Mac Miller’s career trajectory embodied the essence of artistic evolution. While he initially gained fame with his 2010 mixtape K.I.D.S., filled with light-hearted party anthems and lovable stoner vibes, Mac’s music soon revealed a young man grappling with the nuances of life and fame. 2012’s Macadelic mixtape marked a turning point, reflecting his experimentation with psychedelic music and delving into darker subject matter. The subsequent album, Watching Movies with the Sound Off, continued this trend, showcasing Mac’s growing maturity and depth. However, it was Mac’s last two albums that truly solidified his standing as one of the defining hip hop artists of the 2010s. Swimming was a poignant exploration of his struggles with depression and substance abuse, featuring some of his most introspective writing and expansive production. Its posthumous follow-up, Circles, completed the narrative arc begun on Swimming, presenting a raw and vulnerable portrait of an artist grappling with his demons while seeking peace. Mac Miller’s tragic passing in 2018 was a devastating blow to the music world, but his legacy lives on through his music — his willingness to bare his soul in his music, his constant strive for innovation, and his resilience in the face of adversity make him one of the most influential and revered rappers of the 2010s.
Essential listening: Cancer 4 Cure (2012)
If we’re talking about artists who truly shaped the sound of the 2010s, El-P is one of those names that shines brightly. As one half of Run the Jewels, alongside Killer Mike, El-P spent the decade pushing boundaries with his raw, bombastic production and sharp, politically charged lyrics. Prior to RTJ, his solo work, like 2012’s Cancer 4 Cure, laid the groundwork for his gritty, anarchy-infused hip-hop sound. But it was with Run the Jewels that El-P truly became a household name, their self-titled projects becoming essential listens for anyone attuned to the pulse of 2010s hip-hop. As a rapper and producer, it’s clear that El-P’s fingerprints will remain on the blueprint of hip-hop for decades to come.
20. Joey Bada$$
Essential listening: All-Amerikkkan Badass (2017)
Making his official entry into the rap game with his debut mixtape 1999, Joey Bada$$ marked a new era for golden age revivalist hip hop in the midst of a rapidly evolving genre. Joey didn’t just rest on the laurels of nostalgia, though. His debut album, B4.DA.$$, saw the Brooklyn rapper balancing his old-school aesthetics with sharper, more personal storytelling, tackling topics like police brutality and systemic oppression with an urgency that felt deeply connected to the moment. But perhaps it’s the Pro Era rapper’s sophomore album, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, where he really crafted his masterpiece. Here, Joey crafted a potent and timely commentary on the state of America, blending biting social critique with personal reflection to create one of the decade’s most impactful political rap albums and cementing him as one of the key voices of his generation.
Essential listening: A Long Red Hot Los Angeles Summer Night (2019)
Blu emerged in the 2000s as a breath of fresh air with the Exile-produced Below the Heavens, one of the greatest rap debuts of the decade. Entering the 2010s, he continued to carve out his own lane in the underground hip-hop scene. The Inglewood-born artist’s everyday, workmanship rhymes matched with soul-infused beats, had a way of captivating audiences. Blu’s discography is filled with introspective masterpieces that move like poetic diary entries, capturing the essence of a man who’s fully aware of his flaws, strengths, and surroundings. While he may not be a commercial giant, Blu’s pure lyrical prowess, combined with his conscious content, makes him one of the defining voices of 2010s underground hip-hop.
18. Lil Wayne
Essential listening: Tha Carter V (2018)
The 2000s established Lil Wayne as one of the most influential rappers of his generation, but the 2010s were a rollercoaster ride for the Young Money boss. He kicked off the decade with the monster success of Tha Carter IV, continuing the tradition of his legendary series, but his journey was not without roadblocks. Legal battles, health issues, and delays to his projects characterized a large part of the decade. However, Wayne’s brilliance couldn’t be dimmed. His Dedication and No Ceilings mixtape series kept his name in the mix, showcasing his unparalleled wordplay, punchlines, and freestyle abilities. Despite all the odds, Weezy managed to close the decade on a high note with Tha Carter V, reminding the world why he was and forever will be one of the best rappers alive.
17. Vince Staples
Essential listening: Summertime ’06 (2015)
This Long Beach native is an enigma wrapped in a paradox, a reflective soul who managed to capture the grim realities of his upbringing while offering profound insights into the human condition. The 2010s was the decade where Vince Staples stopped being hip-hop’s best-kept secret and became one of its most essential voices. Summertime ’06, his 2015 double-disc debut, was a raw, emotionally charged journey through his adolescence. The rapper’s detached delivery served as a compelling counterpoint to the potent themes of poverty, violence, and racial injustice he was addressing. Meanwhile, his 2017 album Big Fish Theory saw him push against hip hop’s edges by fusing his sharp lyricism with electronic beats and UK garage influences, showcasing his willingness to push the envelope while cementing himself as one of the most forward-thinking MCs in the game.
16. Earl Sweatshirt
Essential listening: I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (2015)
Earl Sweatshirt emerged in the 2010s as a poetic savant, his dense wordplay and introspective lyrics carving out a distinct space in the hip-hop landscape. Starting the decade as the youngest member of the irreverent Odd Future collective, Earl quickly distinguished himself as a formidable talent, albeit one who shunned the limelight in favor of exploring his darker inclinations. Following a tumultuous start that included a stint at a reform school in Samoa, Earl emerged with Doris in 2013. This debut LP was a coming-of-age project, rife with harrowing accounts of his life and complex metaphorical rhymes that showcased his incredible gift for lyrical acrobatics. However, it was with 2015’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside that Earl truly came into his own. The album is a grim, stark exploration of depression, loneliness, and existential dread that peeled back layers to reveal a young man grappling with the weight of his reality. The beats, mostly self-produced, echo this introspection – spare and claustrophobic, they perfectly frame his intricate rhymes. Over the course of the 2010s, Earl Sweatshirt has transformed from an enigmatic prodigy into one of the most captivating voices in hip-hop, the heir-apparent to MF DOOM’s supreme lyrical throne.
Essential listening: The Night’s Gambit (2013)
This Brownsville, Brooklyn native isn’t your average rapper. Maintaining a full-time job as a firefighter, Ka released some of the most profound and poetic hip-hop of the 2010s. His discography, though not prolific, is impactful – Grief Pedigree, The Night’s Gambit, and Honor Killed the Samurai are all considered modern classics by those who know are excellent lyricism sounds like. With a muted, near-whisper delivery, Ka’s verses require your full attention, but the payoff is worth it – his rhymes are filled with complex metaphors and historical references, painting deep-coloured pictures of his rough upbringing. Ka might not make headlines, but his quiet, thought-provoking lyrical approach makes him one of the most important underground rappers of the 2010s.
14. Black Thought
Essential listening: Undun (2011)
The 2010s saw Black Thought achieve a level of recognition and respect among the hip-hop community that was long overdue. Known for his incredible lyrical ability, gritty voice, and a masterful command of flow, Thought has long solidified his legacy as one of the greatest rappers of all time. But with the one-two punch of How I Got Over and Undun, the start of his solo career with the Streams of Thought series, as well as his legendary lyrical slaughter on Funkmaster Flex’s radio show, the Philly MC’s greatness was suddenly front and centre in every rap fans’ mind.
Essential listening: The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013)
The 2010s were a complex period for Eminem. Starting the decade with the best-selling Recovery, a therapeutic purge of his past demons, he showed he still had the rhyming chops and commercial appeal, despite past personal challenges. The Detroit rapper in the 2010s was a mixture of reflection, reinvention, and a revival of his Slim Shady alter ego. While his 2017 album Revival was one of the most disappointing releases of all time, Em’s other albums The Marshall Mathers LP 2 and Kamikaze were strong enough releases to make up for it. Even though way past his prime, Em’s technical proficiency and rapid-fire flow made him a hip-hop pillar, proving that he can hold his own against any MC from any era.
12. Danny Brown
Essential listening: Atrocity Exhibition (2016)
Danny Brown is the type of artist that doesn’t just bend genre conventions—he shatters them with a cackle and a mischievous grin. The Detroit rapper’s 2011 breakthrough project XXX was a drug-fueled odyssey through the grim realities of life. It juxtaposed party anthems with stark depictions of addiction and poverty, and it introduced the world to his unique vocal style—part yelp, part croak, but all Danny Brown. His delivery was unusual, yes, but it was also undeniably captivating. It demanded your attention. 2013’s Old demonstrated more Danny’s lyrical dexterity, balancing more commercial bangers with introspective narratives. Then came Atrocity Exhibition in 2016, a kaleidoscopic plunge into the rapper’s psyche that bent the very idea of what a rap album could be. Its fusion of punk, electronica, and rap, layered with his high-pitched rhymes about mental health, drugs, and the harsh realities of the Detroit streets, was pure artistry. Danny Brown may have been the wild card of the 2010s, but he’s also one of its most compelling figures.
11. Freddie Gibbs
Essential listening: Bandana (2019)
Freddie Gibbs may not have realised it at the time, but the whole failed label situation with Jeezy’s CTE World was the best thing that ever happened to him. The Gary, Indiana rapper was destined to do this rap game independently, and after linking up with Madlib, he found a lane he could own. Making a name for himself with his melodic, impeccable flow and gritty narratives that offer a nuanced view into street life and the struggles of hustling, Gibbs raps about the game with an unwavering realness that is hard to find, making listeners feel like they’re walking a mile in his shoes. Whether we’re talking his two classics with Madlib — Piñata and Bandana — his collaboration album with Currensy and Alchemist, Fetti, or his solo catalogue which includes standout projects like Cold Day in Hell, Baby Face Killa, Shadow of a Doubt and You Only Live 2wice, Gangsta Gibbs built up a stacked catalogue that would make it hard for anyone to deny that he was one of the best rappers of the 2010s.
10. Lupe Fiasco
Essential listening: Tetsuo & Youth (2015)
It was been a wild ride in the 2010s for the Chi-town poet. After starting the decade with the commercially successful but critically divisive Lasers, Lupe shifted gears and reminded everyone that he was the best lyricist in the rap game with albums like Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, Tetsuo & Youth, and Drogas Wave. Just have a listen to tracks like “Mural” or “Adoration of the Magi” and you’ll see a rapper who is completely in command of his craft. The 2010s bore witness to Lupe’s artistic resilience, cementing his position as a fiercely individualistic artist in an industry often resistant to such idiosyncrasies. Even in the face of criticism and setbacks, Lupe’s lyrical dexterity and intellectual capacity remained his defining trait, solidifying him as one of the top wordsmiths of the decade.
9. Roc Marciano
Essential listening: Reloaded (2012)
Roc Marciano is a rap purist’s dream. An understated icon of the underground, Roc Marci redefined the East Coast sound in the 2010s, carving out his own with a blend of minimalistic beats and intricate, hard-nosed lyrical style. His influence may be subtle but it’s spread through the rap game like a slow burn, subtly shaping the landscape of the culture — just look at rap acts like Griselda and Boldy James if you’re unsure. The Long Island rapper’s 2010 debut, Marcberg, as a breath of fresh air in the bling-obsessed landscape of the time, taking hip-hop back to the gritty realism of the streets. Marci followed this up with a string of critically acclaimed albums like Reloaded, Marci Beaucoup, and Rosebudd’s Revenge, each one further solidifying his status as a modern underground legend. By refusing to follow trends, Roc Marciano became a trendsetter in his own right — from Ka to Earl Sweatshirt, many great 2010s rappers have cited his influence — and his true legacy of the decade is a testament to the power of staying true to oneself and one’s craft.
8. Young Thug
Essential listening: Barter 6 (2015)
Over the course of the decade, Young Thug treated his catalogue like an experimental playground where he took rap to wild new places. The Atlanta rapper was a singular force — his sonic creativity, fluidity with flows, and his uninhibited approach to fashion and style, all contributed to one of the most unique artists the rap game has ever seen. Thugga’s vocal acrobatics, his ability to switch his pitch, tempo, and delivery at will, created a kaleidoscope of sounds that’s distinctly his own. From the wild energy of “Danny Glover” to the off-kilter sing-rap on “Best Friend,” Thug showed that he wasn’t afraid to break rules and create his own path. When you look back at the 2020s now, it should be very clear that he influenced an entire generation of rappers from Atlanta and beyond. Young Thug didn’t just dominate the 2010s; he reshaped the entire landscape of hip-hop with his idiosyncratic style and defiant creativity.
7. Pusha T
Essential listening: Daytona (2018)
There isn’t a rapper who had a better 2010s than Pusha T. Sure, there were plenty of rappers who put up bigger numbers, or even dropped better albums, but from 2010 to 2019, Pusha was winning every step of the way. After splitting up with his brother and breaking up the Clipse (a move that would have been the end for a lot of other rappers), Pusha linked up with Kanye and dropped two standout guest verses on quite possibly the best hip hop album of the 2010s. Then he started his solo run. Albums like My Name Is My Name and Daytona are prime examples of his consistency and commitment to quality over quantity. The latter, in particular, produced entirely by Kanye, is an exercise in laser-focused lyrical craftsmanship, with Pusha delivering pristine bars over impeccable production. You add all that up, plus Push’s legendary features run which saw him bodying tracks with Benny the Butcher, Freddie Gibbs, Cyhi the Prynce and Future, as well as his beef with the biggest hip hop artist in the world, and you’ve got a rapper who shined like diamond during the 2010.s
Essential listening: 4:44 (2017)
Even as the years add up, Jay-Z’s skill behind the mic remains at God-level. In the 2010s, after two decades in the game, the legendary Brooklyn MC continued to stand tall among his peers, dropping gems that echoed his distinct brand of sophistication and street wisdom. Watch the Throne was nothing short of a masterclass in rap royalty, filled with grandeur and audacious ambition that would set the tone for the rest of the decade. Then came 4:44, arguably the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen Hov. Here, he traded his hustler’s ethos for a reflective gaze into his life, embodying a sense of maturity rarely seen in rap music. It was a thoughtful exploration of fame, family, and faithfulness—a deep dive into his world, viewed through the lens of a seasoned, introspective veteran. Throughout the 2010s, Jay-Z cemented his legacy as one of hip-hop’s enduring icons, proving that longevity and relevancy are not mutually exclusive in the rap game.
5. J. Cole
Essential listening: 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014)
While his closest peers, Kendrick and Drake, found their footing in the rap game fairly soon after their debut album, it took J. Cole a few years before he found his lane. While Cole World: The Sideline Story and Born Sinner were both solid albums that established the Fayetteville MC as one of the top rappers of his generation, it wasn’t until his third album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, that the Dreamville head honcho cemented his legacy as one of the greatest to ever touch a mic. Subsequent albums like 4 Your Eyez Only and KOD delved deep into introspective themes, dissecting societal ills, exploring personal demons, and offering a reflective look into the life and mind of Cole himself. What made J. Cole’s music stand out was not only his adept wordplay and lyrical depth but also his authenticity. His discography is a mirror of his life experiences, filled with profound stories that resonate with rap fans worldwide.
Essential listening: DS2 (2015)
If you’re talking about artists who dominated the sound and aesthetic of the 2010s, there’s no way you can have that conversation and not mention Future. The Atlanta rapper’s influence on the rap game over the past decade cannot be overstated. He’s the trap music auteur, painting Codeine-soaked portraits of the streets while flexing a gift for melody that would shape that sound of hip hop for years to come. Coming from the rich musical pedigree of the Dungeon Family, Future brought raw, confessional lyricism over woozy, psychedelic trap beats to the forefront. The rapper’s prolific output, including his legendary mixtape run of Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights, redefined the trap sound and shot him into the upper echelon of hip hop. From Pluto to DS2, Hndrxx to The Wizrd, every new release from Future was a showcase of his evolving artistry and ability to construct a body of work that’s cohesive yet unpredictable.
3. Kanye West
Essential listening: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
The 2010s were nothing short of a rollercoaster ride for Kanye West, filled with meteoric highs, crushing lows, and more than a few twists and turns. But even amidst the chaos, Ye’s artistic genius shone brighter than ever, making him one of the most influential figures of the decade. Kicking off with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye delivered a tour de force in production and lyricism that solidified him as one of rap’s most avant-garde voices. The album, widely regarded as his magnum opus, blurred the boundaries between the mainstream and the experimental, pushing hip-hop into uncharted territories with its sprawling soundscapes and grandiose themes. From there, the Chicago rapper-producer kept his momentum with a string of projects, each one boldly distinct from the last. The luxurious opulence of Watch the Throne, the industrial punk ethos of Yeezus, the sprawling gospel-tinged The Life of Pablo, and the introspective Ye all reaffirmed his willingness to push boundaries and constantly reinvent his sound. From his soul-sampling origins to his genre-bending innovations, Kanye West’s 2010s catalogue was nothing short of groundbreaking and he cemented himself as one of the greatest artists of his generation.
Essential listening: If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (2015)
Hip hop has never seen a commercial force like Drake before. There have been rappers who have had higher peaks (50 Cent), rappers who have sold more records (Eminem), rappers who have been successful for longer (Jay-Z), but to stay at the top of the rap game for 10 years straight like Drake, has never been done before. What sets Drake apart is his versatility. He’s as comfortable spitting bars as he is crooning on moody R&B tracks. This ability to be a chameleon, to adapt and innovate, has made him one of the most influential artists of the decade. His signature brand of confessional lyricism—rife with vulnerability, braggadocio, and introspection—has become a blueprint for a new generation of artists. But even if you want to put aside sales and commercial impact, Drizzy has proven to be one of the most lyrically-adept rappers of his generation, even if those bars don’t fit in the same parameters as traditional hip hop heads might see them. Just check out some of Drake’s most lyrical tracks of all time and you’ll understand.
1. Kendrick Lamar
Essential listening: To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
K-Dot, coming straight out of Compton, took the hip-hop world by storm, bringing a level of storytelling and introspection that was both refreshing and deeply necessary. The decade saw Kendrick dropping some of the most critically acclaimed albums in hip-hop history, each distinct, yet tied together by his incisive social commentary and rich, layered storytelling. good kid, m.A.A.d city is a cinematic tour de force, a poignant narrative of growing up in the streets of Compton that balances tales of youthful indiscretions with sobering reflections on the cyclical nature of violence. It’s a record that hits hard, with raw lyricism that pierces your soul. But Kendrick didn’t stop there. The follow-up, To Pimp a Butterfly, is a sonic masterpiece, where he dared to blend jazz, funk, and spoken word with hip-hop, challenging the very confines of the genre. His discourse on racial tension, self-worth, and societal ills resonated deeply, sparking dialogue and inspiring a generation. DAMN. took it a step further, presenting a more stripped-down, yet equally complex exploration of his inner psyche and the human condition. Kendrick Lamar’s rise to the top was marked by unapologetic authenticity and a deep sense of responsibility. His ability to reflect on personal experiences and articulate larger societal issues established him as the voice of a generation. It’s this blend of raw talent, thought-provoking lyricism, and commitment to his craft that solidifies Kendrick Lamar as not only the best rappers of the 2010s, but also, undeniably, one of the greatest of all time.