Yes, it’s that time of the year again when Complex breaks some rap nerd hearts by ranking the 20 Best Rappers in Their 20s. Admittedly, this list is a bit less fun this time around now that young veterans like Wale, J. Cole, and Future are all now in their 30s and don’t qualify anymore—even if they are in fact contemporaries of most people on this list (FYI other rappers like Childish Gambino, Nicki Minaj, and Action Bronson are all too old for this as well). Still, with 2015 being one of the best years in recent rap memory—with a slew of exciting projects released by a diversity of rappers—there’s plenty to discuss.
First off, we must reinitiate a few things about this list. Mainly, this is not a list of the Most Skilled Rappers in Their 20s. This is a list about the Best Rappers, and being the best rapper entails making the best rap music. We take rap skills into consideration, but our emphasis is on an artist’s overall catalog and more often than not, people’s skill sets don’t match their output. But if a rapper isn’t making the most of their talent, that’s on them. Secondly, this list can change at any moment based on new material. Some of the people on this list released albums this year and are on the upswing, while others are riding off a residual effect of past work. It wasn’t always easy, but we tried to balance it out as well as we could. Still, for all we know, someone can drop a surprise album tomorrow and force us to reconsider our rankings for the future. With that being said, here are the 20 Best Rappers in Their 20s.
Like Kendrick Lamar and Lupe Fiasco before him, Mick Jenkins infuses brooding, jazzy production with conscientious songwriting and black pride. Mick's demonic baritone is distinct and powerful, a force for wisdom in a world wrecked by ignorance and temptation. With the mixtape follow-up to his critically-acclaimed The Water[s] due out any minute now, Mick is lowkey making the most of 2015. —Justin Charity
If this was solely based on talent, ScHoolboy Q would probably rank a lot higher. Just last year we ranked him at No. 12 and praised his versatility, even if we felt disappointed by Oxymoron. Alas, this list isn’t about theoretical talent, it’s about the actual music you put into the world. Which is to say, ScHoolboy simply hasn’t released enough music as of late to make us remember what we like about him so much.
Since releasing Oxymoron, his main output has been features for buddies like A$AP Rocky, Mac Miller, and BJ the Chicago Kid—all good verses but nothing spectacular. In order to maintain your spot in the here today, gone this afternoon pace of Rap 2015 you need to release something good every once in a while. Good news is we hear Q is busy in the studio working on his next project. With first major label album jitters out of the way, we fully expect Q to come back with fresh material worthy of his talent. —Insanul Ahmed
In 2013, Mac Miller successfully reinvented himself as the off-brand Odd Future member with more commercially savvy tastes. An artist who'd built his fanbase on teen Caucasians took OF's eccentricities and molded them into a collegiate hippie's pinboard on Watching Movies With the Sound Off, achieving the acclaim from critics that had previously been denied to him. Of course, the music threatened to shake his day-one fans, who'd gotten used to his uptempo boom-bap pop. So far, since then, he's been quiet, producing under the name Larry Fisherman and releasing low-profile mixtapes like 2014's Faces. After signing the reputed $10 million deal with Warner Bros. in 2014, it'll be proving time for the former Pittsburgh MC with his upcoming album, Good A.M. —David Drake
It was pretty much a given that Joey Bada$$ would slide onto this list once he reached qualifying age. The Brooklyn rapper has transitioned from a lyrical whiz kid isolated on the East Coast and blogs to an underground staple throughout the country and overseas in just a matter of years, stoking the flames of ’90s rap revivalism that old heads and kids hitting puberty could appreciate. His debut album, B4.DA.$$—which made a top five debut off the strength of zero radio play—offered up a bit of what we’ve already experienced from Joey, but it’s this consistency that will keep the MC in demand for years to come. If ain’t broke, why fix it? —Edwin Ortiz
Don't lie, we all thought Fetty was going to be a one-hit wonder. But then we didn't realize he had a whole SoundCloud full of bangers. "679" is from 2014, "RGF Island" is a lowkey anthem, and "My Way" got the Drake remix treatment. By the time "Trap Queen" broke through on local radio it already had 500K hits on SoundCloud. This list factors in everything that makes a rapper: skills, songwriting, and hit-making ability. While Fetty may not be the best rapper in the traditional sense, you can't front on his songwriting and ability to make hits. It's looking like Zoo Wap is here to stay. —Angel Diaz
rich homie quan
In March of this year, we published a piece titled “2015 Is the Year of Rich Homie Quan.” Eight months into 2015, it’s safe to say we may have overestimated a bit. This year has been fucking nuts. Still, despite the surfeit of great albums and seemingly ascendant rappers, RHQ still looks to be one of the most promising. He may not have the chart-toppers of fellow street crooner/croaker Fetty Wap, but he’s proved to have staying power. “Flex (Ooh Ooh Ooh) from his latest mixtape, If You Ever Think I Will Stop Goin' In Ask Double R, is currently No. 26 on the Hot 100 and has over 55 million views on VEVO. We’ll never get another Rich Gang project, the first of which was anchored by Quan’s terrestrial scope. But while Thug continues to experiment and find his footing, Quan, as we stated back in March, is furthering his ability to balance gospel-trap crossover with indelible, sticky chorus-driven bangers. Known to drop multiple mixtapes a year, Quan may yet surprise us with more heat in the next five months. But even if he doesn’t, his spot is firmly solidified. —Damien Scott
You came to La Flame looking for lyrics, bars? Well, then you're in the wrong place. No shots, his verses are fine, but his true value is his ear. (His best lyrical showing is easily the double-time flow on "Don't Play," where he manages to keep up with GOOD-mate Big Sean). He's slowly but surely creating one of the most intriguing and identifiable soundscapes in rap—he's the guy who more or less inspired Yeezus, for Kanye's sakes. And in Yeezus' image, he is a true protege, putting together the best on the mic and behind the boards to create the most sonically exciting songs possible that still nevertheless bear his Texas-tinged fingerprints first and foremost. How many rappers new or vet can drop a 7:42 song as their first single and every second is futuristic fire? There are better lyricists, but from songs, projects to visuals, Travi$ is building a unique aesthetic, and a lot better and faster than some of his other contemporaries. Long live the Rodeo. —Frazier Tharpe
tyler, the creator
Is Tyler, the Creator an underrated prodigy who’s been able to summon an uncanny amount of creative energy into building one of the most unique brands in music today? Or he is just a petulant rabble-rouser who’s listened to N.E.R.D.’s catalog too many times? He’s a bit of both, though more so the former. At a time when every rapper seems to be branching out in efforts to collaborate with the brightest minds they can afford, Tyler doubled down on himself. His latest album, Cherry Bomb, is produced entirely by him and is at its best when Tyler allows the music to be as resplendent as his clothing. But, there’s more to him than his work on the boards. Not enough people talk about Tyler as an MC. Though not as technically proficient as Earl, Tyler has proven to be deft at putting words together that illuminate the thoughts of a kid who’s slowly, but surely growing out of the shock and awe phase of his life. Very few people can write a verse where lines about being iller than HIV victims seem at home next to lines about getting your mother out of section 8 housing. And even fewer can hold their own on a song with Kanye West and Lil Wayne. Tyler’s one of ’em. —DS
The crown for rap street king is currently being passed between Future and Meek Mill, but do remember, YG had the streets completely on lock last year when he dropped his debut album, My Krazy Life. The project solidified YG as a viable threat on the West Coast, and even caused an uproar online when it was “snubbed” of a Grammy nod for Best Rap Album. The “what have you done for us lately” factor is why the Compton rapper slid five spots since last year’s list. MKL is almost 18 months old, and his Blame It on the Streets soundtrack wasn’t anything to write home about. Still, without sounding cynical, YG’s got quite a bit of momentum going into his next album following a recent shooting. "The only one that got hit and was walking the same day," YG raps on his heater of a single, "Twist My Fingaz." Sometimes you gotta go through shit to gain a deeper narrative. —EO
Unfortunately, for most people, the only time they hear Azealia Banks’ name is when their timeline is flooded with news of something negative she said about someone else on Twitter. It’s not that she shouldn’t speak her mind, it’s just that she ends up talking over the music—which ought to speak for itself. As anyone who actually bothered to listen to her debut album, last year’s Broke With Expensive Taste, can tell you, the girl can flat out rap over just about anything and do it with flair and grace. Her excellent debut album is the main reason she’s on this list. Problem is, too many people were turned off by her outspoken antics to care that she put out a dope album. But if she can keep releasing quality music, it might not be too late to win over those fans who might find one day find bravery in her bravado. Until then, like Biggie said, “Fuck that beef shit, that shit is played out.” —IA
The year's more than halfway over and as it stands SremmLife is still one of the most enjoyable albums of '15. Slim Jimmy is cool, but before you're even finished listening to the album, it's clear that Swae Lee is the real standout, kickstarting almost every song and blowing through every fantastic Mike Will beat with perfectly composed verse winning in its unapologetically shallow content. The SremmBros aren't just coasting off of amazing beats from their boss—they're dope songwriters too, and Swae very audibly takes the lead. And to let Mike Will tell it, he already has swaggerjackers. Remember when everyone thought they'd just be one-hit wonders?? Lmao. —FT
Big Sean is the poster boy for potential and progress. From a C+ of a debut four years ago, a misstep here and there, the Detroit spitter has stayed on an upward trajectory only to land where he is now, as one of the most entertaining lyricists active in the game now, with one of the year's best albums. Sean dropped the hashtag rap, the cringeworthy punchlines (for the most part), and finally learned how to tell his increasingly interesting story in the best way, lyrically and sonically—he's developing a collaborative rhythm of Drake-40 proportions with Key Wayne. And best of all, he knows he can still do better. Play the last verse of "Paradise" and imagine him somehow going even harder on the next project. —FT
chance the rapper
Numbers can be used as a measuring stick for success, and presumably, whether an artist has gotten better over time. Except this theory doesn’t apply to Chance the Rapper, who has yet to release a project for retail, nor does he have a single heating up the charts. What he has done is serve up quality music for free at a consistent rate and galvanize his dedicated fan base at the ticket booth. Which is a solid plan when you’re independent and not a rapper signed to another rapper. Chance hasn’t dropped a proper follow-up to Acid Rap, a fact that will hopefully change soon rather than later. Still, you can’t deny his contributions to Donnie Trumpet’s impressive Surf album, his fun collaborative project with Lil B, and slots at major festivals like Lollapalooza and Pitchfork. Know yourself, know your worth. —EO
Vince Staples is underrated and it's not his fault. Mainstream rap gatekeepers aren't fans of rappers who don't make bubble gum bullshit. They don't like rappers who are smart. They prefer ignorance and "swag." Vince is none of those things. He doesn't cater to the radio. He just spits intelligent, vicious rhymes that make you question how old he really is. The 22-year-old's ability to mix social commentary with dark humor is reminiscent of Ice Cube. If Vince keeps it up, he too will soon become a West Coast heavyweight. His tapes and debut album were all solid offerings. Now he has to prove that he doesn't have to shoot for radio spins to sell records like O'Shea once did with AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. —AD
Early predictions for Odd Future more broadly contended the group was the next Wu-Tang Clan; the reality ended up being somewhat less glamorous, as the group became more cult heroes than genre stalwarts, not so much reshaping the music's sound as creating a new space where none had previously existed before ultimately splintering. Within the crew, Earl may not have had the vision—that was Tyler's product—but he more than made up for it with his own, an increasingly narrow, claustrophobic worldview that spiraled into a closed circuit on his recent acclaimed album, I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside. Finding catharsis while chasing the spider webs of his mind down the rabbit holes of his psyche, Earl has transcended the group that helped make his name by not really transcending much of anything else, finding art in the internal. —DD
He's in strange territory, developmentally, but (and perhaps for that reason) Young Thug is still one of the most fascinating rappers in the game. A proud and passionate troll, Thugger is now invaluable on the strength of his provocative brand, infectious cadences, and hyperactive experimentation. His latest Hy!£UN35 single, "Pacifier," is a thrashing mash-up of so much energy against a few genres at once. We're looking forward to his further chaos. —JC
Meek Mill's career success must have seemed pre-ordained in 2011; as the street rap hope from Rick Ross' MMG outfit, smash records like "I'm a Boss," "Tupac's Back," and "House Party" suggested Philadelphia's newest son was ready for the national stage. But the sands were shifting in the hip-hop world, and Meek's underwhelming debut was soon overshadowed by the release of Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Of late, though, the fire has returned to Meek's world: With the long-bubbling success of Dreams and Nightmares' title track, and having shaken off a jail sentence that delayed his sophomore album, Dreams Worth More Than Money, the rapper hit the ground running, receiving some of the acclaim denied his debut, joining a high-profile relationship with Nicki Minaj, and provoking Drake—a rapper who'd once said "diss me, you'll never hear a reply for it"—into a headline-dominating feud. —DD
Rocky's A.L.L.A. album is still one of the year's best. He stepped his pen up on the rapping and songwriting tips. Songs like "Holy Ghost" and "Excuse Me" proved the former while songs like "L$D" and "Everyday" showed off the latter. But what really makes Rocky a threat is his ability to never stray too far from his aesthetic. His ability to fuse NYC boom bap with Houston lean is remarkable, and he's really one of the first artists of the Internet era to do that. Rap is no longer held back by regions. The world wide web has made it easy to listen to music from different areas of the country. Rocky is the poster boy of this new generation, as is Drake. Both artists have Southern leanings in their songwriting. Rocky also has the fashion side of things locked down, allowing him to have visibility outside of rap as a trendsetter. —AD
Making this list became way more fun the second Meek Mill pressed publish on his now infamous tweets about Drake using a ghostwriter. Ever since then there’s been a lot of chatter about what a rapper having a ghostwriter means and if it even matters. (Mostly, it’s an opportunity for Drake haters to bash their least favorite rapper and Drake fans to #ProtectAubrey at all costs.) Yes, this list considers how good you are at rapping, but ultimately that idea boils down to how good the rap music you make is. And let’s be for real, Drake has made some of the best songs of this year, the year before, and the year before that. Meek can chastise Drake all he wants about the ethics of ghostwriting, but here’s the kicker; Drake’s music is better than Meek’s and better than almost every rapper in their 20s.
Yes, the ghostwriting accusations have altered the perception of the process behind Drake’s music, but it doesn’t change the quality of the product he consistently delivers. Are you really going to bump Quentin Miller’s version of “10 Bands” over Drake’s? Drake is already a legend not because of his OVO radio show, or because he’ll poke fun at himself on social media, or because of cans of sugar water. He's a legend because in the last five years he’s crafted the most immaculate and vital catalog of anyone on this list. (There's a case to be made for Kendrick, but his releases aren't as frequent and he hasn't been as relevant for as long). Drake's random throwaways become hits, his guest spots give people careers, his albums move massive units. If this is what using ghostwriters gets you, well, maybe more rappers should start to using them. —IA
Kendrick Lamar launched himself into the upper echelons of rap when his major label debut album, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, blew away critics and fans alike. He faced immense pressure to follow-up his instant classic and came through with another masterful album this year with To Pimp a Butterfly, which not only solidified his spot as the Best Rapper Alive, but it established his place in the all-time pantheon of rap. But if Kendrick has a flaw, it’s that his pursuit of morality dilutes his interest in verses in the vain of “Classic Man (Remix)” or “Fuckin’ Problems”—songs that keep his mic skills intact, but come without the baggage of survivor's guilt, inner demons, and meditations on black American life. Just yesterday, Dr. Dre finally released Compton, but it was "Deep Water" that trended on Twitter because...of course it did. Kendrick's verses can easily turn into events.
One of the main themes of TPAB is Kendrick struggling with the nature of his fame, the idea that he could “pimp” the butterfly of his talent, misuse his influence, and pursue worldly pleasures. TPAB’s density reflects the conscience of an artist who opted not to take the easy way out, but instead hoped to achieve inner peace by reaching for greater heights. It’s promising that Kendrick—and hopefully future generations of rappers—will continue to strive for artistic achievement rather than settling for radio hits and platinum plaques. But either way, it's startling to consider that in some ways, the Best Rapper Alive is still holding out on us. —IA