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The 10 Best Rappers of the '90s Hulton Archives/Getty

4. Scarface

Solo Albums: Mr. Scarface Is Back (1991), The World Is Yours (1993), The Diary (1994), The Untouchable (1997), My Homies (1998)
Group AlbumsThe Geto Boys (1990) with Geto Boys, We Can't Be Stopped (1991) with Geto BoysTill Death Do Us Part (1993) with Geto BoysThe Resurrection (1996) with Geto BoysDa Good da Bad & da Ugly (1998) with Geto Boys
Biggest Hits: "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" with Geto Boys (1991), "Six Feet Deep" with Geto Boys (1993), "Hand of the Dead Body" f/ Ice Cube, Devin the Dude (1994), "I Seen a Man Die" (1994), "Smile" f/ 2Pac, Johnny P (1997)

Who is the most underrated rapper of all time? Big L? MF Doom? Kool Keith? I would suggest that it’s not anyone so “underground.” I would suggest that the most underrated rapper of all-time is actually someone quite famous. A legend, even. Just, not a highly-enough rated legend. Brad “Scarface” Jordan is the most underrated rapper of all time.

Scarface is a member of Houston’s Geto Boys, the rough-tough Texan trio who were pioneering gangsta rap and southern rap in the '80s, before either of those terms were part of the national lexicon. In 1991, he wrote what many people (including Kid Cudi, Bun B, and, on most days anyone would ask, me), consider to be the single best rap song ever recorded, "Mind Playing Tricks On Me." Originally intended to be a solo effort, ’Face’s harrowing examination of the depression and paranoia that can plague life in the drug game became the highlight of his group’s fourth album We Can’t Be Stopped, and displayed the breathtaking artistry and honesty that rap music, still so often maligned, was capable of. “I sit alone in my four-cornered room, staring at candles,” he says at the outset. Ten words. Is there a better, more economical depiction of mental anguish in rap? In the lyrics of any music? In poetry, ever? It’s the “four-cornered” part that does it. The emptiness, the awareness of one’s solitude in a given space. Staring at candles. It makes you shiver just typing it.

 

Brad “Scarface” Jordan is the most underrated rapper of all time.

 

His first two solo albums were huge sellers down South, uncompromising barrages of foul-mouthed nastiness and the all-too-real-feeling horrors of Houston street life. He rhymed in a baritone; steady, relentless, all cowboy-boot tough and black-hat bad. He was about as bad as anyone’s ever sounded on the mic, in the full panoply of meaning that that term carries. Fast and furious over straight-up-and-down boom-bap beats, slow and sinister over soul-sample funk.

But rap was changing in the early ’90s. The seismic impact of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic changed the sound of the entire genre. And here’s where the assets that set Scarface apart from so many of his peers came to the fore: Consistency, musical versatility. In 1994, working with his long-time collaborator N.O. Joe, and, for the first time, with a mysterious, motorcycle-riding white guy named Mike Dean, Scarface made his solo masterpiece, The Diary. Again marked by emotional honesty and clear-eyed, unflinching vision, but set to a wider, smoother, almost orchestral sound played with live instruments, the album was the start of the most fruitful stretch of a long, prolific career. Cold, but sorrowful somehow, burdened, but deepened, by the death obsession running through them as a theme, songs like "No Tears," "I Seen a Man Die," and "Hand of the Dead Body" established Scarface as the singular voice of rap’s sense of mortality. He was 23-years-old when the album came out. He rhymed with the gravitas of an old, old man.

Next, in 1996, came the Geto Boys’ reunion album, The Resurrection. Does everybody know that this is the best Geto Boys album, a top-ten-of-the-’90s album? Does everybody know that on “Geto Boy and Girls,” over the burly bass and blues guitar cooked up with Mike Dean, when the Scarface and Willie D detail the Northside/Southside strife that had broken up the group five years before, and very nearly led to gun violence between the two and their crews, but then how they “sat down and settled their differences like men,” that this, too, is one of the pinnacle achievements of Southern rap? I feel they don’t. Or at least, this doesn’t get talked about enough. Scarface is so underrated.

Then ’Face got to flexing. The Untouchable he called his next album, in 1997, a more shimmering collection of songs, poppier maybe than anything he’d previously done, at the dawn of the shiny-suit era. (And including the poignant, lovely, "Smile"—a duet with ’Face’s friend Tupac, the first posthumous song to be released after his death.) Even with its brighter tones, though, the music was still streaked by rattlesnake-hiss percussion, still dangerous, still stunningly powerful. And then My Homies, a double-disc full of guest appearances from an impressive array of star-level talent. Tupac, Willie D, Bushwick Bill, Ice Cube, Master P, Devin the Dude, Do or Die, B-Legit, UGK, Too Short, Big Mike, Yukmouth, Menace Clan. An army of prominent gangsta rap artists, from all over the hip-hop map, heavyweights came to give dap, to show love, to get down. His peers know. Ask a rapper, they’ll tell you. No much how much respect and acclaim and admiration Scarface could ever get. Really, it would never be enough. —Dave Bry 

RELATED: Scarface Breaks Down His 25 Most Essential Songs

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