1988: Slick Rick
Credentials: The Great Adventures of Slick Rick
Goddamn, 1988 was a good year for hip-hop. Too good, really. Or at least too good to distill for a list like this. So many great voices emerged, saying so many compelling, literally world-changing, genre-shifting things. But only one of them said it the slickest. And his name was Rick. Slick Rick. Or MC Ricky Dee, the Ruler if you're not into the whole brevity thing.
In 1988, the English expat—who'd achieved notoriety three years prior as a member of Doug E Fresh's Get Fresh Crew, performing raps on the classic 12" "The Show" b/w "La Di Da Di"—released his platinum debut, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, and vaulted himself to rap's pole position (no Magic City). Though Rick had been an obviously able lyricist on his earlier work, and stood out thanks to his English accent, the mix of intricate, and often hilarious narratives with stone-cold shit talking that he unleashed on the LP was absolutely unprecedented.
His stories were rich, oscillating between cartoons with morals, like "Children's Story," and ridiculous slices of life, like "The Moment I Feared." And his swag? He had so much swag it would make you want to kill yourself. Or at least "Lick The Balls," as he invites all crab rappers to do on the song of the same name. Perhaps most groundbreaking, though, was his introduction to hip-hop of the alter ego on the NYC nightclub classic "Mona Lisa," in which he suggests that Slick Rick and MC Ricky Dee are separate people. This archetype would be explored at length by acolytes like Redman, Biggie Smalls, Eminem, and even T.I.
And so, despite the almost slapstick silliness of the LP, which, on the heels of Public Enemy dropping their pivotal It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (interestingly also produced by the Bomb Squad) gave it a remarkably dated feel, there is simply no denying that when TGAOSR dropped on May 2, 1988, no one on earth could outrap Slick Rick.
Honorable Mentions: Chuck D, Ice Cube, Big Daddy Kane
1988 was Public Enemy's year. There is no way around it. It Takes A Nation Of Millions exploded louder than a bomb and changed the direction of rap for at least three full years after its release. But it wasn't all about Chuck D. It was about the idea. It was about the group. It was about the message. It was about the noise. And yes, Chuck brought all of the above. Chuck has one of the greatest voices in rap history. But still, despite all of the accolades you can give him during that period, he just wasn't the top lyricist.
Ice Cube also punched listeners in the face that year on N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton. He barreled over the tracks with force and passion, and proved that people outside of New York could compete. That said, what his rhymes had in chutzpah they lacked in polish or depth.
And then there was Big Daddy Kane. Emerging from Marley Marl's Juice Crew, the Brooklyn MC had a smooth confidence as he nonchalantly spit the most intricate bars he could write. His first album only teased his greatness, but his ascent was obvious. And impending. — Noah Callahan-Bever (@N_C_B)