Age: 25
Label: TDE/Aftermath/Interscope
From: Compton, California
Active Since: 2003
Latest Release: good kid, m.A.A.d city
Recent Single: "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe"
In 2013, all roads lead to Kendrick Lamar. He took the rap game over at the end of last year, becoming at once a radio rap presence and a calmly dignified icon. Compton’s new finest is hip-hop's least likely star, an artist with an almost-neurotic sense of self-awareness and a clear ambivalence about the subject matter—addiction, gang culture, violence, etc.—that he raps about.

Of course, these are subjects that have real relevance to mainstream America, and he doesn't pretend to be above it all. He recognizes the pull of temptation, but also the complexity of all life’s experiences, and he refuses to simply glorify or condemn any of them. He seems genuinely caught up in the dilemmas of his time, a principled, moral artist whose music sneakily expresses his POV without propaganda—beating most contemporary street rap at its own game, by being realer than "real."

His major label debut, good kid m.A.A.d city, is a rich, multihued examination of the idea that nothing’s ever that simple. Like all great writers, Kendrick creates a world, a complex, dynamic world where people behave realistically and his ideas come to life with stunning vibrancy. Perhaps his greatest gift as an artist is a willingness to grapple with issues that tend to turn others into one-dimensional partisans. He comes at things from the side, rather than butting into them head-on, creating music that is universally appealing and populist, but that fully expresses his own vision, without compromise.

And so far we've said nothing about his rapping, which is fluid and dexterous and clever, finding that precarious balance between the poles of corny and pretentious; coming across both down-to-earth and startlingly ambitious. There are no rappers on this list who would turn down a Kendrick Lamar guest spot. His verses are must-hear events. His work has redefined "real hip-hop" for 2013 without making it seem exclusionary. That's why he's the best rapper in his 20s. —David Drake

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