This month, hip-hop celebrated 50 years since its birth at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx borough of New York City, NY. Though its conception beforehand included several factors and influences, the most important ones have stayed with the art for the past five decades: good music, dancing, emceeing, a defiant spirit, and a steel-clad resolve that enabled it to not only persevere, but grow into the pop culture mammoth it is today. These are a bit different from the official, equally important five pillars of hip-hop: emceeing, DJing, graffiti, breakdancing, and knowledge. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the details, especially if they’re much better explained elsewhere. What’s wholly evident is we’re pretty big fans of it here at Everything Is Noise and it was my hope to create something that reflects that among our team.
Back in March, I called for other team members to jump on this idea with me, to get an article together that showcases not so much the objectively best the genre of music has to offer, but why we love it so much. Toni, Dan, Alex, and Dylan answered the call – shoutout to JP who signed on as well, but had to step away early on. We set out early on to talk about our favorite songs, not picks that necessarily best represent the art of rap and hip-hop, though many of these do, just songs we love and think others would be into whether you’re a seasoned fan like us or a newcomer who’s always been a little curious. This list does not aim for any sort of comprehensiveness, rather it’s a surface-level look at hip-hop throughout the decades and from various regions of the US and world as a whole.
Our criteria? Well, I wanted this to be a very diverse list, so I instilled a ONE song per artist rule. An artist can appear twice on the list: once as the principle artist on a track, and another as part of an established group or as a guest verse. As such, you’ll see a couple songs featuring Kendrick Lamar, and OutKast in different capacities for example, but only one rapper appears in three different capacities (principle artist, as part of a group, and featured guest), but I’ll let you find out who on your own so pay attention! 😉
We came to the number 80 because doing 50 songs for the 50th anniversary and trying to be cute felt too limiting, and 100 songs seemed like a bit much (even though we totally could have done that). 80 worked out well because it meant we got an equal number of picks to place on this list unchallenged (10 each), and any conflicts (like more than one person picking different songs of the same artist) were voted on democratically to fill out the rest of the list. With each song, please find below its info three descriptive terms, the first being the region of the US or world that it’s from, and then two sonic descriptors that may help you choose which songs to try out and fit your mood or taste. A lot of terms are reused at least a couple times so feel free to Ctrl+F your favorites and see what you find!
Lastly, before we get started, we wanted to shout out other creators and publications who talk about hip-hop with regularity, who have knowledgeable voices and make the artform that much more artful whether through creativity or analytical wherewithal, with great preference to Black-owned and/or -managed entities. Please do check them out if you’re at all interested in rap and hip-hop – we are far from the only ones showcasing hip-hop, and even farther from being the most qualified voices on the subject.
2Pac – “Ambitionz Az A Ridah”
From All Eyez on Me (1996)
West Coast | gangsta | glamorous
“Ambitionz Az A Ridah” pulls you right into Pac’s gangsta rap masterpiece All Eyez On Me. The simple piano in the instrumental works perfectly to offset how aggressive Pac is, and he is relentless from the jump with three of his best and most combative verses outside “Hit ‘Em Up”. Some of Pac’s lines involving death also give the track a very eerie quality, as does the boxing reference at the track’s start.
50 Cent – “Many Men (Wish Death)”
From Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003)
East Coast | sincere | hard-bodied
The new millennium brought along so many changes and new faces to hip-hop, but one of the most fierce and charismatic without a doubt was 50 Cent. He wasn’t able to replicate the absolute rawness he captured on Get Rich or Die Tryin’ in future albums, but that’s fine – that debut alone has enough heat for the club, radio, and the streets. For me, I favor the last the most. What a great track.
A Tribe Called Quest – “We The People…”
From We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service (2016)
East Coast | conscious | jazzy
Early Tribe songs can easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the best tracks from other iconic groups, but none of those groups can match “We The People…”. Tribe going away for almost a full twenty years, returning, not missing a beat, and dropping one of the best albums of the century isn’t just an unprecedented achievement in rap, but in music as a whole, and “We The People…” is one of Tribe’s best moments.
A$AP Rocky – “1Train” (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson, & Big K.R.I.T.)
From LONG.LIVE.A$AP (2013)
East Coast | new school heat | braggadocious
“1Train” is one of the best posse tracks of the new millennium due to its star power, many still in their freshman years. It’s hard to beat early Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown, and Joey Bada$$. Yelawolf comes correct, I don’t think there’s been any time where Big K.R.I.T. didn’t sound confident, and Action Bronson is better than he perhaps gets credit for. And A$AP Rocky? Couldn’t have had a better host in 2013. Bars for days.
Avantdale Bowling Club – “F(r)iends”
From Avantdale Bowling Club (2018)
New Zealand | jazzy | live instrumentation
Tom Scott, the mind and mouth behind Avantdale Bowling Club, had already made for himself before he launched his groundbreaking breakthrough – but New Zealand simply doesn’t happen on the map of international hip hop. ABC kinda changed that, at least in some circles. “F(r)iends” encapsulates the storytelling jazz rap the best, and if the thought of a captivating MC rapping over a tight jazz band intrigues you, this one right here is for you.
Beastie Boys – “Intergalactic”
From Hello Nasty (1998)
East Coast | turntablism | old school flair
There’s not a rap song list where I’m involved that doesn’t mention Beastie Boys. “Intergalactic” is their hardest single that aged the best – even as it sounds so indebted to the rich, though admittedly basic roots of hip-hop, they are starbound, catapulting themselves to the stars to live into the future where not many can reach them. No other group in the world ate, slept, and bled hip-hop quite like this legendary trio did, and the world is a whole lot less fun without them. RIP MCA.
billy woods & Kenny Segal – “Houthi”
From Hiding Places (2019)
East Coast | abstract | moody
billy woods is one of the most interesting rappers out there right now, especially if you are into more experimental, conscious hip hop – but when he teams up with others, especially with beat master Kenny Segal, he reaches completely new heights. And those heights were never more untouchable than on “Houthi” from the critically acclaimed masterpiece Hiding Places.
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony – “Tha Crossroads”
From E. 1999 Eternal (1995)
Midwest | melodic | fast rap
Meant as a eulogy for very real people in Bone Thugs-N-Harmony‘s lives – including their pal who put them on, Eazy-E – “Tha Crossroads” became a smash hit success for these Cleveland buddha lovaz. Even between getting their horrorcore on with E. 1999 Eternal, they found time to honor the fallen in a beautiful way that set a precedence for melodic hip-hop that’s felt decades later. There’s a reason I waxed poetic about them and this album a while back.
Cannibal Ox – “Ox out the Cage” (feat. El-P)
From The Cold Vein (2001)
East Coast | heady | grimy
Cannibal Ox crafted a profound gem with The Cold Vein. Between both production work and a verse by El-P, as well as plenty of intelligent commentary on hard living, the streets, and society as a whole, “Ox Out The Cage” (as well as the album in full) speaks right to humanity and the ups and downs of existence. Cannibal Ox are champions within the history of hip-hop.
Cardi B – “Bodak Yellow”
From Invasion of Privacy (2018)
East Coast | trap | gilded
Flashback to 2017 and the state of women in rap was dire. People were still hyping up Iggy Azalea. Bhad Bhabie was a thing. It was bad. “Bodak” was a complete adrenaline boost to the rap world, one of the highlights of the trapwave of the late 2010s, and Cardi’s infectious energy would (directly or not) lead to an increase in popularity for women in rap, which would be vital as many of the male acts from the era fizzled out.
Chief Keef – “Save That Shit”
From Back From The Dead (2012)
Midwest | drill | talking shit
Mixtape Chief Keef is special. “Save That Shit” isn’t as famous as some of the tracks from Bang 3 or Finally Rich, but Keef has never written a better hook – ‘She say she love me whatever that is, do me a favor save that shit’ gets stuck in your head immediately. Back From The Dead turning Keef into a star would change how rap sounds for years, and it’s easy to see how Keef’s hits would make drill one of rap’s most imitated styles.
City Girls – “Period (We Live)”
From PERIOD (2018)
South | sexy | braggadocious
City Girls are both honest and empowering. On “Period (We Live)”, it’s practically a march of an independent woman who cannot be moved by men who think they’re the players, all while getting played themselves by the narrator. Although rather sexual in its context, the song’s mantra, as I interpret, seems to be about both bodily autonomy and the philosophy that ‘a deal is a deal’.
clipping. – “Work Work” (feat. Cocc Pistol Cree)
From CLPPNG (2014)
West Coast | experimental | dark
clipping. have been impressive since day one and they only seem to grow with every piece of output. Their breakthrough, CLPPNG, was a breakthrough in large part to very catchy songs like “Work Work” that still weaved in a pronounced experimental mind. It appeals to many, and the fact the very good video for it only has 2.4 million views is absolutely wild to me. Run it up a bit for them?
Denzel Curry – “Walkin”
From Melt My Eyez See Your Future (2022)
South | introspective | storytelling
To be honest, I would be surprised if Denzel doesn’t surpass this track soon. With that said, this is the best track in Denzel’s young career. The lead single from one of last year’s best albums Melt My Eyez See Your Future; the beat switch leading into the second verse hits like pure adrenaline, and Denzel manages to be hyped up and extremely introspective on the better of last year’s rap albums involving therapy.
DJ Screw – “South Side Groovin'” (feat. Point Blank)
From The Legend (2001)
South | chopped and screwed | funky
Nothing better exemplifies the Texas rap scene like DJ Screw. Growing up listening to hip hop and rap in Texas, you learn very quick the legacy of this Texas legend. Of all the tracks this one sticks out as a favorite amongst many amazing tracks. Slowed down to almost destruction, Screw has mastered, mixed, chopped, and screwed a masterpiece of Third Coast psychedelic bliss. Seven minutes in rap have never been so sonically kaleidoscopic.
Earl Sweatshirt – “Chum”
From Doris (2013)
West Coast | off-kilter | gloomy
A far cry from Earl’s profoundly edgy mixtape days with Odd Future, Doris was much more vulnerable, relatable, and emotionally taxing as opposed to joyously offensive. “Chum” was a big reason why – a song about Earl’s father, family, and upbringing that tons of similarly aged (or even a bit older like me) young adults really felt in their hearts. Though Earl’s monotoned resolve never falters, you felt every bar dude spit as if they were your own life’s disappointments – because they were.
El-P – “Deep Space 9mm”
From Fantastic Damage (2002)
East Coast | dystopian | gritty
El Producto has developed a reputation of one of the biggest underdogs and fiercest MCs of the New York underground. The king of Definitive Jux left his mark on the independent and backpacker scene with a conspiratorial streetcorner rambling of a flow that has equal parts piercing honesty, aggressive brutality, mundfuckery, and street trash New York attitude. One should never sleep on El-P.
Future – “March Madness”
From 56 Nights (2015)
South | trap | hazy
Not many rappers have ever had a year even half as good as Future had in 2015. Beast Mode, 56 Nights, DS2, and the collab album What a Time To Be Alive with Drake cemented Future as one of the biggest and most successful rappers in the world, and “March Madness” is his best moment from his best era. Future’s leaned-out trap is the best it’s ever sounded and proved why he was one of music’s biggest stars.
Grandmaster Flash – “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)” (feat. Melle Mel)
From a 12″ single (1983)
East Coast | old school | danceable
Arguably the Godfather of sample usage in hip-hop, it seemed only appropriate to mention Grandmaster Flash in an article commemorating and reflecting upon the history of hip-hop. Borrowing melodies and structure from Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” (although performed by Sugarhill Gang session musician Doug Wimbish), the song gives a stark warning against cocaine usage, addiction, and drug smuggling in probably the funkiest and catchiest PSA ever crafted. This is one all the oldest heads will remember fondly.
Gucci Mane – “Lemonade”
From The State vs. Radric Davis (2009)
South | dirty | blinged-out
The father of Atlanta trap, Gucci helped define what entire generations of rap would sound like. “Lemonade” is the high point of Gucci’s best project and the piano playing worked into the instrumental is one of the 2000s most iconic beats, with one of the best hooks Gucci killed the track – pulling off tying almost every line with lemons/the color yellow. This goes horribly wrong more often than not. This is a rare exception.
Ice Cube – “It Was A Good Day”
From The Predator (1992)
West Coast | chill | storytelling
Even if Ice Cube is, ironically, not the voice he used to be politically speaking – this song is a classic that puts the icing on the cake of a perfect day with no worries. Any time you’ve got nice weather, good vibes, and find yourself chilling and grilling with the homies, this is likely a song you’ll have queued up somewhere on the pool party playlist. It also makes for a glorious driving tune.
Injury Reserve – “Knees”
From By the Time I Get to Phoenix (2021)
West | experimental | somber
I had real trouble coming up with words to describe what this song means to me. Yeah, we might celebrate 50 years of hip hop and generally speaking, Injury Reserve are maybe not the most influential group out there – but fuck it, this group and especially this song means the world to me. Grief hit never better.
J-Live – “Braggin Writes”
From Always Has Been (2002)
East Coast | boom bap | smooth
J-Live is a criminally underrated mastermind of hip-hop, in my opinion. Often referred to as a ‘hip-hop teacher’, he quite literally runs clinics on rapping, flow, and even doing production. He has recorded and toured with names such as The Roots, DJ Premier, Oddisee, and Wu-Tang Clan. This song, “Braggin Writes” features a myriad of cleverly composed similes, wordplay, and just an overall message of skill live on display.
Jay-Z – “Big Pimpin'” (feat. UGK)
From Vol. 3… Life And Times Of S. Carter (1999)
East Coast | bling era | lascivious
Combine one of New York’s best, a fire Timbaland beat, and the two kingz of Houston rap and you get a masterpiece. Everyone shines on “Big Pimpin’”, there’s not a second that goes to waste, but goddamn does Pimp C kill it. The best part is Pimp hated the song for a number of strange reasons and would only do an eight-bar verse, yet accidentally dropped one of the best verses in rap history. R.I.P. Legend.
Jucee Froot – “Girls Kissing Girls” (feat. Juicy J)
From Black Sheep (2020)
South | sapphic | club banger
Jucee Froot plays the brat trap game with ease. While many other folks spend their time with acts in the spotlight, Jucee Froot have been making stripper anthems that are equal parts bop and sensuality. She’s a Memphis gem that deserves her time to shine.
Juice WRLD – “Armed And Dangerous”
From Goodbye & Good Riddance (2018)
Midwest | emo | melodic
Juice was one that could have continued to sonically shape the SoundCloud rap world. With a keen ability to flow, and a developed brevity that carries a cadence that ranges from hope, despair, and happiness, to earnestness, self destruction, and joy, Juice made songs that were entirely subjective to his experience, but wholly human. “Armed And Dangerous”‘ childlike wonderment of the archetypal hypermasculine modern trap star has never been duplicated. RIP Juice WRLD.
Ka – “We Living/Martyr” (feat. Navy Blue)
From A Martyr’s Reward (2021)
East Coast | dreary | poetic
One of the rapper’s rappers. Ka never reached the recognition his artistic vision and narrative deserves, but for those who spent time with his music are rewarded with bars as deep as Mariana Trench, and arrangements which leave you in childish wonder. “We Living/Martyr” doesn’t need a beat to pulse, and it doesn’t need a hook to grab you by your heart and mind.
Ye (FKA Kanye West) – “We Don’t Care”
From The College Dropout (2004)
Midwest | soulful | reflective
There’s no way to make a list like this and not include Kanye. Things have gotten as antisemitic and controversial as possible in recent years, but he is inarguably one of the five most important figures in rap history, and “We Don’t Care” is a great song to look back on and use to compare and see how bad things have gotten. Can’t even use the ‘Jonah Hill made me like Jewish people again’ joke.
Kendrick Lamar – “Money Trees” (feat. Jay Rock)
From good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)
West Coast | vibey | post-gangsta
A standout song on a standout album from a standout artist, “Money Trees” was something truly special. Its washed-out beat really captures those windy days where the trees rustle and sway as you scheme. Legality optional, it’s whatever it takes to get your family and/or crew stepping out the door the next day, a symptom of failed systems in a corrupt world that’d rather see you as a slave or dead. If only those trees were made of money.
Koi Child – “1-5-9”
From Koi Child (2016)
Australia | jazzy | vivid
A few days ago, I was on my way to band practice. It had rained for days, not really good summer time overall. I was standing at a crossing, and out of nowhere, the sky cleared up and sunbeams hit me up. The warmth on my skin was cleansing. I felt wonderful, vibrant, happy. Then I noticed that I was listening to Australian jazzy hip hop group Koi Child, and everything made sense.
Latto – “Big Energy”
From 777 (2022)
South | classic samples | confident
Latto has some playful yet powerful writing on “Big Energy”. While many have found excellent usage in sampling Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”, Latto’s use turns it right into a superb, modern, hip-hop-infused future funk and pop hit. A song all about recognizing the strong spirit of one admired, the song itself possesses the very big energy it speaks on.
Lauryn Hill – “Doo Wop (That Thing)”
From The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
East Coast | R&B crossover | vintage feel
Hip hop was and still is male-dominated – like most musical styles, to be honest. People like Sha-Rock, commonly named as the first female MC, were a rarity, especially back in the late ’70s/early ’80s. Lauryn Hill, one of the queens of hip hop in the ’90s, was not only stellar behind the mic, but also very prolific as a producer. And her hit single “Doo Wop (That Thing)” is not only incredibly catchy, but one of raps great female empowerment anthems!
Lil Ugly Mane – “Throw Dem Gunz”
From Mista Thug Isolation (2011)
South | drugged-out | eerie
Austin and Richmond oddly have a lot in common. Splitting my time between the two has given me an opportunity to understand how the twin flame vibe that seems obnoxiously evident. Wholly indebted to the dark psychedelia of DJ Screw, one of Richmond’s finest developed a late night, red eyed, paranoia banger for the midnight thugs that stay under the luminescence of the computer screen. Mista Thug Isolation is a gem that continues to give, and “Throw Dem Gunz” is a delicacy amongst them all.
Lil Uzi Vert – “XO Tour Llif3”
From Luv Is Rage 2 (2017)
East Coast | emo | catchy
One of the last few great moments from the SoundCloud rap era of the mid-2010s. Uzi is easily one of the standout artists from that firework show of a music era and one of the few still making good music. “XO” bookends Uzi’s run as a pioneer of rap’s short-lived emo phase and cemented them as arguably the best hitmaker of the era before pivoting to helping Carti turn rage into rap’s newest hot sound.
Lil Wayne – “A Milli”
From Tha Carter III (2008)
South | trap | punchline-heavy
With an incomparable stream of consciousness, “A Milli” is a statement to the most prolific and successful freestyler rap has ever seen. Never performed the same way twice, because Lil Wayne doesn’t need to write down any lyrics, this track is an exemplary standout of hip hop creativity that rumbles the entire world with ferocity. Cranking this shit up is bound to get anything, and anyone turnt.
Lil Yachty – “DAS CAP”
From Lil Boat 2 (2018)
South | trap | luxurious
With his penchant for supreme beat selection, Yachty relies on his slow, Southern draw to calmly call out all who falsely flex. As one of rap’s most currently visible weirdos right now, Yachty has left a legacy of unique and creative bubblegum trap bangers that hardly ever disappoint.
Little Simz – “Flowers” (feat. Michael Kiwanuka)
From GREY Area (2019)
UK | moody | storytelling
It’s tough to pick a Little Simz track which represents what she means to contemporary hip hop – making another step for UK hip hop on the international map, bringing soul back into rap, progressive empowerment, unique storytelling – all that and more is Simbi. Her constant progression as an artist, her warmth paired with confrontation and razor-sharp bars, there can’t be a hip hop list without her.
Lupe Fiasco – “Mural”
From Tetsuo & Youth (2015)
Midwest | jazzy | cryptic
A faltering Lupe Fiasco, down from his disaster rollout of Lasers (not his fault, read into it), drops a new album four years later and the first song is “Mural”, a fucking sub-nine-minute clinic on lyricism with wordplay and references that fans were still putting together years later like a 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle. This may not bump in many whips, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better wordsmith that still remains in good graces decades later like him.
M.O.P. – “Ante Up (Robbin Hoodz Theory)”
From Warriorz (2000)
East Coast | hardcore | punchy
Among my hip-hop friends, there’s a consensus: “Ante Up” is one of the hardest fucking songs of all time. Able to invigorate you with the power to fight God, I can’t even imagine the amount of crimes committed shortly after hearing this song. This is New York hardcore rap at its finest and if it dropped in the early ’90s, there would have been congressional hearings about it. Good, Billy Danze and Lil’ Fame will run Congress’ shit too.
Mac Miller – “Good News”
From Circles (2020)
East Coast | gentle | introspective
I will say that I like the instrumental quite a bit. Mac’s growth as an artist from frat-rap to being in the running for second-best rapper from his era after Kendrick was historic. “Good News” just overwhelms you with passion and puts you straight into the bleak emotional state Mac was in at the time. We never got to see what Mac’s peak would have looked like and rap lost one of its most positive and irreplaceable figures.
MF DOOM – “Rapp Snitch Knishes” (feat. Mr. Fantastik)
From MM..FOOD (2004)
East Coast | weird | acerbic
DOOM and Mr. Fantastik expand upon a Mark Twain quote – ‘It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt’. Calling out those who brag about all their supposed street cred that unsurprisingly disappears as soon as things ‘get hot’, the song samples part of a guitar solo in David Matthews’ cover of “Space Oddity”. DOOM was a beat genius.
M.I.A. – “Paper Planes”
From Kala (2007)
UK | hard-bodied | slick
No one’s ever made music like M.I.A. before. The blend of pop-rap, rock, electronic, and heavy political messaging with a (formerly) incredibly unique perspective as a Sri Lankan refugee made her one of music’s most interesting figures. Seth Rogen and James Franco have put a stoner haze over “Paper Planes” political messaging, but if you see through the cloud you’ll see how special M.I.A. was at writing her early pop-rap hits.
Migos – “Walk It Talk It”
From Culture II (2018)
South | glamorous | catchy
Migos developed a dynasty off Atlanta anthems that only deserved to be played in arenas. Drawing a spotlight of diamonds on trap that’s only interested in keeping it on repeat in your head, the three northern Atlantans make the best argument for being one of the top hip hop groups of all time, and even made Drake sound a little more tough than he deserves to sound. Rest in Peace Takeoff, your presence will be forever missed.
Mike G – “Everything That’s Yours”
From Radical (2010)
West Coast | remix | chill
Mike G wrote one of his absolute best songs during the Odd Future days. While his work thereafter is truly impactful, no doubt, this song will make you feel expensive. A real flavor, finesse, and smoothness to the beat and the voice of Mike G himself, this track is golden. For being a part of an early mixtape with maybe not the best production value, this one went exquisitely hard.
Mike Jones – “Still Tippin'”
From Who Is Mike Jones? (2005)
South | slab anthem | braggadocious
The Texas Street’s National Anthem, it’s almost a requirement to know all of the words by heart for each verse in this track. Houston had never sounded so bad ass as it did when this dropped. Slim Thug, Mike Jones, and Paul Wall make Houston an empire of slabs, purple drank, and slowed up tunes for all the heads. Make sure you learn all the words, unless you’re just a dork. This one is for the real ones.
milo – “souvenir” (feat. Hemlock Ernst)
From so the flies don’t come (2015)
Midwest | off-kilter | moody
We need to talk about the rapsmith himself, the one and only milo/R.A.P. Ferreira/Scallops Hotel – or just Rory. In times where I was primarily listening to A Tribe Called Quest, Mobb Deep, and Soulquarians records, he brought contemporary rap on my table. I was unable to stop listening to his stories. I’m still not able to turn it down, right now, listening to “souvenir” while writing these words. His words are nurturing my mind and healing my soul.
Missy Elliott – “Work It”
From Under Construction (2002)
South | sexy | innovative
If I had to guess, I think Missy Elliott is one of the few outstanding women in hip-hop who have gotten anywhere close to adequate flowers while still alive. While that’s a separate issue in itself, Missy’s incredible 2000s run was innovative, weird, and catchy as hell. She was unstoppable for a time and while things may have waned in recent years, her impact is still felt with the new guard coming in bulwarked by the confidence Missy instilled years ago.
Mobb Deep – “Shook Ones, Pt. II”
From The Infamous (1995)
East Coast | violent | dreary
‘Ain’t no such things as halfway crooks, scared to death and scared to look.’ “Shook Ones, Pt II” has one of the most hauntingly memorable hooks in all of rap history delivered by Prodigy and it sticks with you for the rest of your life. One of the best early tracks from the hardcore hip-hop wave, The Infamous helped define how introspective and bleak New York rap could get in the mid-’90s.
Moe and ghosts x 空間現代 (Kukangendai) – “不通”
From Rap Phenomenon (2016)
Japan | off-kilter | avant-garde
Rap from Japan? A female MC with a math rock-ish drummer? I can guarantee you – you’ve never heard anything like Moe and ghosts. It will be weird at first, new to your ears, but if you are willing to spend time with it, this project and their lead single “不通” will show you that hip hop is everywhere, and that it can take every shape and form imaginable.
Moor Mother & billy woods – “The Blues Remembers Everything the Country Forgot” (feat. Wolf Weston)
From BRASS (2020)
East Coast | heady | ethereal
Another queen of hip hop, this time of the jazzy, abstract variant. Either with Irreversible Entanglements, Black Quantum Futurism or solo (including one album with billy woods) – Moor Mother aka Camae Ayewa masters abstract poetry and complex arrangements like no other. One of the most impressive displays of her art is “The Blues Remembers Everything The Country Forgot” from her album BRASS (remember, that one with billy woods) – it easily drops your jaw and takes your breath.
Yasiin Bey (FKA Mos Def) – “Hip Hop”
From Black On Both Sides (1999)
East Coast | boom bap | lyrical
At first, I noticed Mos Def as an actor – especially in Chapoelle’s Show and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – and I was only vaguely aware of his musical career. That changed quickly when I learned that he was part of the Soulquarians, which led me to devour his discography in no time. His solo debut Black On Both Sides aged like fine wine, with “Hip Hop” as one of the standout tracks.
Nas – “N.Y. State of Mind”
From Ilmatic (1994)
East Coast | gritty | street smart
If you die, and are greeted with the sounds of “N.Y. State of Mind”, know that you’re in hell. This song is what you’d get if a villain in a superhero movie made a weapon that audibly triggered an anxiety attack. Nas’s first verse is in the running for the best verses in music history. Even Nas sounds desperate and panicked by the best beat DJ Premier ever made. Every word spikes your adrenaline more and more as Nas places you right in the pits of hell while Preem chases you through each circle of hell.
Nipsey Hussle – “Last Time That I Checc’d” (feat. YG)
From Victory Lap (2018)
West Coast | G-funk | inspirational
Another one that was taken away from us too soon, Nipsey Hussle gave hip hop an independent, wholly self reflective gem before his passing. With an unprecedented drive, Nip rose up from the gutter and achieved his goals with a golden hustler’s mentality. All of that can be felt with his Cali flow all over Victory Lap, and “Last Time That I Checc’d” is no different. A tragic figure with street humanist sensibility, the Crenshaw legend will and should never be forgotten.
Nujabes – “Luv (sic)” (feat. Shing02)
From a single (2001)
Japan | soulful | sample-heavy
When I became part of this feature, the first entry I had in mind was not your typical classic. Nujabes, who passed away way too early, acted as one of the integral figures for establishing the culture of lofi hip hop. His jazzy, super slick, and warm beats shine especially bright when he put his friend and Japanese rapper Shing02 behind the mic. And this partnership was never more awesome than on “Luv(Sic)”.
N.W.A – “Fuck Tha Police”
From Straight Outta Compton (1988)
West Coast | gangsta | political
“Fuck Tha Police” has been written on endlessly since its incendiary 1988 drop; nothing I say here will be intelligent or revelatory, so I’ll just state what is likely obvious. This song is one of the most important songs ever and was absolutely integral to rap’s growth in the ’90s and beyond. The fact that its themes are still relevant today is shameful as fuck, but it’s imperative that we bring this sort of energy into the future as every fascist police state is stamped out.
Odd Future – “Oldie”
From The OF Tape Vol. 2 (2012)
West Coast | talking shit | leisurely
Skate rap has never sounded so goddamn fun, and obnoxiously juvenile. With the entire OF collective putting in some of their hardest verses, the creative energy of these roving maniacs is destructive as much as it is infectious. With Tyler starting and ending this monster of a posse cut with his assertion of dominance and leadership, the best verse still goes to motherfucking Jasper, who’s not even a rapper, and that goddamn burp.
Onyx – “Last Dayz”
From All We Got Iz Us (1995)
East Coast | hardcore | fight music
‘Ward, I think you were a little hard on the Beaver…’ Onyx are raw as hell; Especially so on this track, where they bluntly talk about being brutal survivors in a world that seems to constantly work against them for their own race, even. The beat goes hard, Sticky Fingaz’ voice has an exceptionally menacing grit and push to it, and this is also the instrumental that Eminem tore Ox apart to in 8 Mile.
OutKast – “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)”
From Stankonia (2000)
South | strong production | lyrical
Narrowing it down to just one OutKast song was arguably the most difficult pick of any artist. OutKast might be the best act in rap history, and “B.O.B.” might be their best work. The drums on “B.O.B.” are all over the place in the best way possible as Andre and Big Boi speedrun through the track, plus the hook is phenomenal. There could have been five more OutKast songs here.
Playboi Carti – “Shoota” (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)
From Die Lit (2018)
South | melodic | vibey
Carti is a divisive figure in rap, because he hardly raps at all. Much more interested in pushing the sonic boundaries of what a rap song can be, the deconstructionalist delivers a verse twice of hood optimism that feels genuine and sincere. The chemistry Uzi and Carti have always leads to amazing results when it’s not driving contention between the two pop trap stars. With the hood dorkiness of Uzi aligning with the hood weirdo sensibilities of Carti, the exuberance of positivity delivers on all fronts.
Public Enemy – “By The Time I Get To Arizona”
From Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black (1991)
East Coast | political | bold vocals
One of the names on here that could fill out half this list if I allowed it, Public Enemy has no shortage of stellar songs packed with no-nonsense messaging and a strong voice to convey it all in Chuck D. Depending on the day, “By The Time I Get To Arizona” is their best, packed with quotables that are still relevant in today’s ass-backwards, deplorable handlings of race where we can’t even teach some kids about racism. ‘What’s a smiling face when a whole state’s racist?‘
Ramirez – “Gold Thangs & Pinky Rangs (Da Hooptie)” (feat. Shakewell and Pouya)
From THE PLAYA$ MANUAL (2020)
West Coast | G-funk | chill
Ramirez‘ horrorcore revivalism shows its lighter side as it should with a throwback joint that is akin to the smooth drive-to tunes that are for sunny days. THE PLAYA$ MANUAL is filled with heaters from end to end, and the entire vibe exudes a cool chill that makes it ripe for tons of relistens.
Rico Nasty – “Smack a Bitch”
From Nightmare Vacation (2020)
East Coast | edgy | cathartic
I was quickly won over by Rico Nasty‘s infectious energy on her Anger Management tape with Kenny Beats. Loud, heavy, fierce attitude, unique style, she quite literally has it all to be an indie legend in rap with her sugar trap style and husky delivery. Every new project demands a listen. Every new video beckons a watch. If Rico’s not up next, I swear I’m gonna… well, you know.
RUN-DMC – “Tougher Than Leather”
From Tougher Than Leather (1987)
East Coast | golden age | rock-based
Maybe not the pick most would make for RUN-DMC, but that’s kind of why I picked it. As contrarian as that is, “Tougher Than Leather” is a great golden age deep(er) cut that showcases the legendary trio’s marriage of raucous rock production with fun, braggadocious lyrics that just about anyone could rap. OLD HEAD MODE ENGAGED: for as much as I love contemporary hip-hop, some of these classics just can’t be beat and I was born after this song dropped.
Run The Jewels – “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck) (feat. Zack De La Rocha)
From Run The Jewels 2 (2014)
East Coast | incendiary | hard-bodied
This song stand well on its own with Run The Jewels themselves, but the added vitriol of one of modern music’s most impactful vocalists in Zach De La Rocha sold this as an instant classic. Killer Mike’s prison riot narrative hits hard, El-P’s trademark dystopic paranoia eviscerates, and Zack comes in with a heady Spartan kick to the chest so finish your shit off. All over a pointed beat that shouldn’t go as hard as it does. A unsettlingly current video tops it all off.
Sammus – “Perfect, Dark”
From Pieces In Space (2016)
East Coast | nerdcore | intersectional
I had a nice, long stint with nerdcore hip-hop. Rap music about video games and other nerd shit? Sign me up. Long after the gimmick wore off though, not very many artists’ music stood the test of time – Sammus was one of them that did. As she puts it, ‘a Brown girl from Upstate [New York]’ instilling her music with deep messaging on racism, sexual autonomy, and representation from an intersectional Black feminist position.
Sean Price – “Rising to the Top” (feat. Agallah)
From Monkey Barz (2005)
East Coast | hardcore | humorous
Sean Price was one of the best rappers to ever fucking walk the earth. Dude had the hardest and funniest bars (‘Dress sloppy, but my rap is dapper/Watch Rosewood, go outside and slap a cracker’), often within the same verses. From the brutal streets of Brownsville, P’s heart was firmly in his music and family, two things that prove his legacy years after his untimely, tragic death. There will never be another like him.
Ski Mask the Slump God – “DoIHavetheSause?”
From BEWARE THE BOOK OF ELI (2018)
South | fast vocals | bold production
Ski Mask the Slump God is fast, witty, and super fun. “DoIHaveTheSauce?” was the first song I heard by him when my friend Marvin introduced me to his work. The song, coincidentally, acts as an introduction of the rapper himself, explaining not only his credentials but also his pursuits. Though a much more modern track, this one has a sort of old-school flair to it that reminds us hip-hop is still in good hands.
Slum Village – “Fall In Love”
From Fantastic, Vol.2 (2000)
Midwest | jazzy | forlorn
J Dilla did a lot of fantastic things for hip hop. His magnum opus, though, was his work with Slum Village. Although I love the group’s run with Elzhi, who replaced J Dilla after he left the group with the release of Fantastic, Vol. 2, those first two Slum Village have a very special place in my heart. The empowering and wholesome tune “Fall In Love” shows a more tender side of hip hop in general, and falling in love with the track was the easiest thing to do.
The Notorious B.I.G. – “Juicy”
From Ready to Die (1994)
East Coast | inspirational | reflective
Biggie wrote a true anthem that coincides with the story of hip-hop as a genre itself; Coming from nothing and building an empire of massive success. “Juicy” is the song you put on after you achieve any level of victory, big or small. Biggie’s words remind us it’s not even about the result and what you get as reward, but the process and journey it took to get there. Never forget where you came from.
The Pharcyde – “Passin’ Me By”
From Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (1991)
West Coast | jazzy | catchy
A ‘90s classic, The Pharcyde make many references to the idea of feeling like a hopeless romantic, but I personally interpret this as a metaphor for life, time, and opportunities passing one by despite their efforts. A catchy chorus and a sort of haunting instrumental, this one lives rent-free in my brain.
Three 6 Mafia – “Who Run It”
From When the Smoke Clears: Sixty 6, Sixty 1 (2000)
South | crunk | violent
If we’re talking horrorcore, crunk, or just hardcore Southern hip-hop in general, Three 6 Mafia must be mentioned. Must. There is no other group I can think of that so consistently made banger after banger and their legacy lives well beyond the last proper Three 6 album in 2008. When the Smoke Clears marks the last time all members appeared together. It pains me every time I remember half of the original sextet is now dead. RIP to Lord Infamous, Koopsta, and Gangsta Boo.
Tom Skeemask – “Ni**as Watch Your Back”
From Ni**as Watch Your Back / Gonna Make Changes (1996)
South | chopped and screwed | hardcore
Almost no one I’ve ever talked hip-hop with has any idea who Tom Skeemask is. One of the legendary names of the Memphis scene, Skeemask makes a badass use of The Isley Brothers’ “The Highways of My Life”, and something about the track feels eerie, possibly in part to its authentic ‘mixtape’ quality. This was likely, in part, because the only place you could get this and other tracks on the tape was via cassette.
Travis Scott – “Antidote”
From Rodeo (2015)
South | party anthem | hazy
Travis has a special ability to make these long, winding trap bangers where no second is wasted and almost every minute sounds completely different. Rodeo is his best project to date, and “Antidote” is the best example of how fuckin hard he can go. The track’s first half is right there with any of his other best tracks but “Antidote” truly flips to being a masterpiece at the two-minute mark. Anything can happen at the night show.
UGK – “Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You) (feat. OutKast)
From Underground Kingz (2007)
South | amorous | soulful
It’s UGK. Featuring OutKast. Produced by DJ Paul (the remix features a full Three 6 appearance) and Juicy J. What the fuck else do you want? This track is the Dirty South version of Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor fighting Thanos in Endgame. The beat is perfect, Andre is a perfect tone-setter, Pimp C killed it, the only flaw is that the main version left off the phenomenal DJ Paul verse.
Vince Staples – “Blue Suede”
From Hell Can Wait (2014)
West Coast | bass-heavy | hard-bodied
If the synth being tortured till it sounds like a blaring siren on the instrumental doesn’t immediately pull you in, you don’t like rap. Vince’s first track released after signing to Def Jam in 2014 following his killer run of collabs with Earl Sweatshirt and Mac Miller, “Blue Suede” is a perfect encapsulation of what Vince sounds like at his best. Nothing held back, blunt as hell, confrontational at times, and with a killer flow over an incredibly well-made and unnerving beat.
Warren G – “Regulate” (feat. Nate Dogg)
From Regulate… G Funk Era (1994)
West Coast | G-funk | storytelling
From the Southern California streets to the suburban white bread karaoke spot, “Regulate” rings the hell off. All respect to The D.O.C., DJ Quik, Snoop Dogg, and Dr. Dre, but Warren G was an unsung hero of G-funk with this track buoying his popularity, but all of Regulate… G Funk Era goes just about as hard. A West Coast classic in a sea of classics during this time. Don’t sleep!
Westside Gunn – “$500 Ounces” (feat. Freddie Gibbs and Roc Marciano)
From Pray for Paris (2020)
East Coast | lyrical | dark
Roc, Gibbs, and the best of the Griselda fleet deliver how they know best with a track that I argue is one of the best rap tracks ever recorded. Cool as fuck, tough as fuck, and gangster as fuck, this track is an exemplary masterclass of rap royalty.
Wu-Tang Clan – “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)”
From Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
East Coast | hardcore | retrospective
Literally what else could I say about this song that hasn’t been said already? Oh… yeah. “C.R.E.A.M” showed a more reflective, tragic side to the Shaolin spitters who were, just mere songs ago on their debut LP, imagining various ways to rob you blind, of possessions or blood didn’t matter. Between Method Man’s iconic hook and Raekwon and Inspectah Deck’s dark, gritty, vivid lyricism, the Wu didn’t even need half their members to run shit when they came out.
YG – “FDT” (feat. Nipsey Hussle)
From Still Brazy (2016)
West Coast | political | unifying
While not the most sophisticated or biting political commentary in hip-hop, or even on this list, “FDT” was profound in its unity of the people against a common enemy. There’s a lot of weight to to Nipsey’s lyrics: ‘It wouldn’t be the USA without Mexicans/And if it’s time to team up, shit, let’s begin/Black love, Brown pride in the sets again/White people feel the same is my next of kin.‘ Sometimes the simple parts hit the hardest. RIP Nip. Fuck Donald Trump.
Young Thug – “Hot (Remix)” (feat. Gunna and Travis Scott)
From So Much Fun (Deluxe) (2019)
South | trap | FREE YOUNG THUG
FREE YOUNG THUG. FREE YOUNG THUG. FREE YOUNG THUG. FREE YOUNG THUG. FREE YOUNG THUG. FREE YOUNG THUG. FREE YOUNG THUG. FREE YOUNG THUG. LET JEFFREY GO. I rest my case.
Thanks for reading, y’all. It was time-consuming and heart-wrenching, but ultimately so fun to make and for as long as I’ve been listening to hip-hop (over 20 years), I learned a lot from my pals on this team and I’m so proud of the final product. We hope you enjoyed it too. 🙂