Every year, we assess the output of the best 20-something rappers out, weighing their overall talent against their most recent work, and crown a champion. Hip-hop privileges the energy and creativity of young people, which means that the best rappers in their 20s are often the best rappers out, period. Of course, there are exceptions — Danny Brown, Nicki Minaj, Future, J. Cole, just to name a few. Regardless, this year's list feels more high stakes than usual. A few of the best artists making music today are about to become 30-somethings, including Kendrick Lamar, Drake, ScHoolboy Q and Meek Mill; in 12 months, the playing field will look considerably different. Meanwhile, 2016 has been one of the best years for excellent albums in recent memory, especially for hip-hop, making this ranking even more competitive.
In other words, making this list wasn't easy. Have your arguments handy.
Last Year's Rank: 17
This list is as much about consistency and output as it is about technical ability. Joey Bada$$ has been honing his skills with the best of them and, at just 21, his future is bright. But his past year has been musically sparse (his debut album, B4.DA.$$, came out 18 months ago). He’s been a guest on a handful of tracks—“5 Minutes” with Kirk Knight and PRhyme’s “Golden Era” were the most memorable— and he’s also dropped a few solo songs that show his current headspace. “Ready” is a war cry from the Brooklyn native, while “Devastated” offers a deeper look at the rapper's pre-fame struggles. The latter track is currently making its way up Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, giving the young MC a good chance at his first solo appearance on the Hot 100. His guest role on Mr. Robot has been a great look for his nascent acting career, but expect the focus to snap back to his raps once he starts rolling out his next project. —Edwin Ortiz
lil uzi vert
Last Year's Rank: n/a
The runaway popularity of Lil Uzi Vert caught many by surprise, but it shouldn’t have. His sing-songy style fits perfectly into the context of a rap world figuring out what comes next after the success of Future and Young Thug. The Philadelphia artist has dropped two mixtapes in the last four months—Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World and The Perfect LUV—both of which performed admirably. Uzi's breakthrough records “Money Longer” and “Pull Up” with Wiz Khalifa, encapsulate his star power and charisma the best. “When I’m in L.A., pedal to the floor man,” he croons on “Pull Up,” turning what could have been a run-of-the-mill Wiz song into something special. Does he have the ability to carry a proper studio full-length? Time will tell, but he’s certainly building a dedicated fan base (as attendees at last weekend's Made in America saw firsthand). If he can leverage that into crossover hits and solid album sales, Uzi has the chance to shape the sound of hip-hop. —Chris Mench
Tyler, the creator
Last Year's Rank: 13
Do you know how ill Tyler, the Creator is? He can decrease his output as an artist and still drop just one spot in our annual list. In 2015, Tyler released his most ambitious album, Cherry Bomb, and further explored the influences he’s long worn on his sleeve. Handling production duties by himself, Tyler went toe-to-toe with rap titans like Lil Wayne and Kanye West, got jazzy as hell, and made his well-documented love for chord progressions clear at every turn.
This year, instead of blessing his fans with a new project, he snapped on his version of Kanye West’s “Freestyle 4,” showcasing how easy it is for him to talk that talk over the right eerie instrumental. Then, on a totally different wave, he remixed Zayn’s “Pillow Talk," highlighting a brighter, club-ready vibe to his sound. That uptempo energy showed up again “Big Body,” the song he produced for ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP. He also made time to lend production to Odd Future compatriot Domo Genesis’ album. Outside of the studio, Tyler continued to get his mogul on, with his content-heavy Golf Media app and his first, fittingly bizarre fashion show. Tyler’s shaping up to be a young Dr. Dre. —khal
Last Year's Rank: n/a
It’s rare that it only takes one project to identify a new rapper as a sure-bet star, but Kamaiyah did just that this year with the release of her debut mixtape, A Good Night in the Ghetto. The project holds its own among 2016's stacked slate of rap releases, buoyed by vibrant G-funk, bouncy synthesizers, and a standout track in "How Does It Feel," a short, sweet anthem for anyone who has ever worked their ass off for the privileges that success bring. Armed with a inflappably confident delivery and an ear for bright, woozy instrumentals, she won't need to wait long to learn how it feels to be rich. After collaborating with Drake and YG on the latter's single "Why You Always Hatin?," Kamaiyah is asserting herself as one of the West Coast's blue chip talents. —Gus Turner
Last Year's Rank: n/a
In 2013, Trap Lord established Ferg as the boisterous foil to A$AP Mob’s head honcho Rocky. Whereas Rocky was effortless cool, Ferg was all chest-beating triumphalism, making a headstrong strain of trap music particular to Ferg and Ferg alone. Thanks to his unexpected lyricism, knack for details, and ever-present sense of humor, he elevated his debut from standard genre fare into a convincing one-man show that launched him from anonymous member of a new crew to a fresh voice in the New York hip-hop landscape.
You can only beat that drum once, though, and in 2016 Ferg faced a challenge: the follow-up. If Trap Lord was all about swagger and bombast, ALWAYS STRIVE AND PROSPER is Ferg trying some new things (a piano house anthem with Missy Elliott, for one) and reining things in slightly (emphasis on slightly). The results were ambitious, and still as fun as ever. —Brendan Klinkenberg
Swae lee (Rae Sremmurd)
Last Year's Rank: 10
Rae Sremmurd’s party-starting, give-no-fucks fun has proven to be a polarizing force in hip-hop. Certain radio personalities have dubbed the music made by Swae Lee and his brother Slim Jxmmi “kiddie rap,” and the comment sections of their videos are always peppered with “death of hip-hop” doom and gloom. It’s true that they might not be the most cerebral artists, but SremmLife went platinum for a reason: these two know how to have a good time—and people like good times.
The duo’s sophomore outing SremmLife 2 shows real growth, incorporating some sneakily multilayered songwriting into the mix; Swae Lee, in particular, shines. His skills as a hooksmith continue to carry Sremmurd’s projects, whether it’s the dreamy quality of “Look Alive” or the hedonism of “Black Beatles.” Hell, the guy even crafted the hook for Beyonce’s “Formation”—no small feat. The biggest issue Swae faces now is SremmLife 2’s diminished commercial prospects; it doesn’t look like it’s going to be the pop smash the group’s debut was. If that’s the price they pay for growing up a bit lyrically, so be it. Both members have solo releases in the works. It’s evident that Swae Lee and Rae Sremmurd aren’t going away anytime soon. —Chris Mench
Last Year's Rank: 14
Travi$ Scott might not be the best technical rapper in the game, but he’s definitely one of its best artists. A disciple of Yeezus, Trav (who's performing at the inaugural ComplexCon in November) has a hand in every aspect of his music, and it shows. However, all of behind-the-boards skills in the world are only worthwhile if they complement your rap skills—which for Travis, thankfully, they do. By combining production talent, rapping, and a strikingly consistent visual aesthetic, he’s carved a niche for himself in hip-hop that no one else is duplicating.
At the top of the year, Scott's problem seemed to be forward momentum. Rodeo was solid, but it didn’t vault over 2014's great Days Before Rodeo. But then he released “Pick Up the Phone,” one of the best songs of 2016, in June. It was the perfect appetizer for his latest album, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight. With features from André 3000, Kid Cudi, Bryson Tiller, the Weeknd, Young Thug, and more, Birds is more evidence that Scott knows how to orchestrate greatness. He's further refining his melodic, moody sound; there's no question about momentum now. —Chris Mench
Last Year's Rank: 18
Mac Miller has come a long way since his EZ Mac days, and the changes have only accelerated in the past year, which saw the release of GO:OD AM. Anchored by standout cuts like “Brand Name” and the Miguel-assisted “Weekend,” his major label debut earned the Pittsburgh native praise outside of his usual base, though there was a dip in first week sales (Watching Movies With the Sound Off moved 102,000 units; GO:OD AM only hit 73,000). A fair trade for someone who can tour internationally with ease.
Mac’s rollout for his latest album, The Divine Feminine (due out Sept. 16), has carried on his tradition of quality music and ever-expanding creativity. The project consists entirely of songs exploring love and romance—unusual and refreshing territory for a hip-hop full-length. The first single, “Dang,” featuring Anderson .Paak, is summer joy bottled in a pop song, and yet another sign of Mac’s ambition and curiosity. —Edwin Ortiz
Last Year's Rank: n/a
Noname burst onto the scene three years ago, seemingly fully formed, with a series of dazzling guest spots. The first was on Chance the Rapper’s “Lost,” followed by collaborations with Mick Jenkins and Saba. The young Chicago MC raps dense, with stumbling meters, internal rhymes and tightly controlled flows as close to poetry as they are rap—and she does it all so confidently that it’s hard to believe she’s a newcomer.
This year, she dropped her full debut, Telefone, which made the case that she's having more than just a breakout year; she’s gunning to be talked about with the greats. The album is self-assured, technically impressive, and tempered by a melancholic air that runs through every song. That bittersweet, wise-beyond-her-years sadness makes this an intimate portrait of a compelling young artist, a distinctly Chicago slice of life, and an album that we’re going to be listening to and talking about for a long time to come. It’s also why we can’t wait to see what Noname does next. —Brendan Klinkenberg
Last Year's Rank: 6
Odd Future isn’t what it once was, but you can still hear remnants of that original dark energy in the recent releases of some of its members. Earl Sweatshirt’s 2015 opus I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside showed the rapper purging his most personal demons on a claustrophobic, insular album. He’s only released one official single this year—“Balance,” featuring Knxwledge, through the Adult Swim Singles service—a sign that he’s keeping his head down and working. Word is the first official Kendrick Lamar/Earl Sweatshirt collaboration will happen on Danny Brown’s upcoming album Atrocity Exhibition, and during Earl’s live shows over the last year, he’s been performing a number of new gems. Even without any confirmation of new material (or material that’s over two minutes in length) on the horizon, Earl’s emotional honesty and deadly technical pen game make him a force on the mic. One has to imagine that he’s sitting on some heat; odds are he’ll unleash something new to reaffirm his status as an elite rapper, and sooner rather than later. —khal
Last Year's Rank: 9
It's not that I expected more from Big Sean in 2016. He's been quite active, I just expected that activity to be different.
Let's back up. In the fall of 2014, the Detroit MC ended a hiatus, one that started with a high-profile breakup with his fiancée and a widely ridiculed sophomore album, with "I Don't Fuck With You," his biggest chart smash to date. It was released with three other songs in a care package that contained some of his most refreshingly introspective raps ("4th Quarter") alongside some of his most dizzying technically ("Paradise"). Sean capitalized on the renewed buzz by dropping his third album, Dark Sky Paradise, in February 2015. The project served as a long-awaited coronation. Finally, Big Sean had mastered his powers, joining his endearingly goofy but impressive wordplay with a knack for radio catnip to make an album worthy of both critical and stadium acclaim.
Surely, the next step would be a fourth album that doubled down on DSP's quality and further cemented Sean's reputation. Instead he linked up with frequent collaborator Jhené Aiko to become rap/R&B's Sonny & Cher on an eight-song EP backed with Ex Machina inspired visuals. TWENTY88 might’ve yielded some compelling moments and a successful tour, but it wasn’t anything substantial for Sean Don fans waiting on his next move. Thankfully, the past couple of months have seen him back doing what he does best, with two A1 contributions to DJ Khaled's album and a scene-stealing showout on the G.O.O.D. Music posse cut "Champions." With those verses comes renewed talk of the fourth album. Detours are cool, but it's time for Big Sean to get back on his path. —Frazier Tharpe
Last Year's Rank: 3
The A$AP Mob general has been quiet since dropping his sophomore album in the summer of 2015, stepping aside for Ferg to shine with his own second project and making his acting debut in last year’s hip-hop coming of age flick, Dope. Still, maybe Rocky's earned a sabbatical—At.Long.Last.A$AP was arguably the most underrated rap album of 2015 and, if nothing else, one of the more sonically audacious projects of any genre. What other album could shift gears from a psychedelic drifter anthem to an Old Kanye-ish Smokey Robinson flip to briefly resurrecting Pimp C for an authentic UGK cut?
Rocky's relative silence between his debut and A.L.L.A prove he's not much for features or loosies (although January’s “Hear Me” is a banger), so we probably won't hear from him again until he's ready for another full-length, be it the long-awaited A$AP Mob album or another solo effort. He's got a lot to talk about when he returns. The untimely passing of A$AP Yams lingers, there’s rumors of a new romance, and yes, the recent controversy surrounding comments he made about his participation in the Black Lives Matter movement—or lack thereof. Rocky appeared on the Breakfast Club to argue that not every rapper can be Kendrick, nor should they aim to be something that they aren't. If rapping about women and fashion are his brand, his way of putting on for his hood and his people, then that's fine, arguably (though A.L.L.A was peppered, ever so slightly, with social commentary, so who knows where recent events could drive his subject matter in the future). But it's about time he stopped being missing in action. —Frazier Tharpe
Last Year's Rank: 4
If Meek Mill was an NBA team, his 2016 would be what you’d call a rebuilding year. 2015 saw the Philadelphia rapper capture his biggest win to date with his album Dreams Worth More Than Money, only to see the whole thing come crashing down in the wake of his summertime beef with Drake. Now he's ready for a comeback, with his next project, DC4, set to drop in September. Meek has released music since the Drake fiasco calmed down that was undeniably great (“War Pain” is a notable stand out.) He's returned to posting snippets of his music on Instagram and, yes, they sound great, too. Meek appears to be heading back to what got him here; bangers that fueled by the struggles of the streets. And honestly, if Meek wants to win in the long run against Drake, or anyone else for that matter, the surefire route is to make great music. —Zach Frydenlund
Last Year's Rank: 12
The West Coast is humming right now thanks to the likes of Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q, Anderson .Paak, Vince Staples and YG. K. Dot and Vince both dropped projects last year, but YG was nearly radio silent in 2015, save for a few guest spots and his infectious single “Twist My Fingaz," recorded in response to being shot in June. The reclusive approach clearly worked in YG's favor, however, affording him time to focus on his sophomore effort, Still Brazy. Much like its predecessor My Krazy Life, Still Brazy exceeds expectations. Just as important, it proved YG could maneuver without DJ Mustard at his side, in turn allowing the Compton rapper to expand on his sound.
However, YG is already looking to reunite with Mustard and drop a collaborative project titled 400 Summers later this year. It will ostensibly be a return to the club bangers he made on My Krazy Life, but will also double as a victory lap for him. YG has staying power; don’t ever doubt it. —Edwin Ortiz
Last Year's Rank: 19
In the wake of Kendrick's celebrated To Pimp a Butterfly last year, the running joke about TDE was the story of a superhero surrounded by sidekicks—despite the fact that the label's second-in-command, ScHoolboy Q, already had a No. 1 album to his name. While Q's Oxymoron boasted a slew of charting singles and was met with near-unanimous critical acclaim, TPAB still managed to put him and his labelmates into the wings.
So, with the pressure on to produce a classic album that could stand up to Kendrick's, how did Q respond? With Blank Face LP, a dark, uncompromising account of a life lived under duress, worn down by the constant fear of a trip to the penitentiary. Blank Face didn't send Q back to the top of the charts, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 behind Drake's blockbuster Views, a victim of timing more than lack of an audience. But it did reassert Q as one of the best of his generation, winning critical praise for its complexity and cohesiveness. As frenetic as he is reflective, Q has proven that he's more than a mere accessory. —Gus Turner
Last Year's Rank: 7
Online, Vince Staples is a troll. He’s smarter than you, and admit it, it gets you mad; he’s aware of this, which only makes him all the more entertaining. His dark wit and humor are new to some, but those who have been following his career since he first appeared on early Odd Future projects have long been aware of his potential. Vince uses that snarky sensibility to tell his truth on wax in a way only he can. On last June's excellent commercial debut, Summertime '06, the Long Beach native recounts grim tales he witnessed growing up in a neighborhood riddled with crime, and in a family broken by his father’s decisions. In the past 12 months, from the songs he’s given us with his Cutthroat Boyz collective alongside Joey Fatts and Aston Matthews to his latest, the experimental Prima Donna EP, Vince has been consistent in delivering that raw. Now in the throes of a real rap career, Vince isn’t going to compromise, and we’re lucky to have someone like him in our corner. —Angel Diaz
Last Year's Rank: 5
Is there a more polarizing rapper than Young Thug? Whether questioning gender norms in an ad campaign or just forcing the listener to rewind again and again to understand just what the hell he’s saying, Thugger refuses to be pinned down. He’s Prince for the trap generation, consistently bending the scope through which we view 21st-century rap. Am I exaggerating? Maybe. But when I first heard “Stunna,” it honestly felt like the first time I heard Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.” He is more artist than he is MC, and that’s a good thing.
If you took the best tracks from the astonishingly prolific Young Thug's recent projects—let’s say, Barter 6, each of the Slime Seasons, and I’m Up—you’d have a classic record. Thug’s unabashed willingness to be himself and no one else is resulting in some of the most progressive hip-hop of 2016. Take a look at his latest release, No, My Name Is JEFFERY. He’s basically Mortal Kombat’s Raiden in a dress on the album’s cover, and the tracklist is named after his idols, including Harambe, the silverback gorilla tragically killed by the Cincinnati Zoo earlier this year. Sonically, the record's soulfulness recalls the late, great Isaac Hayes. It’s a focused collection of songs that demonstrate how Thugger has been steadily, and successfully, refining his material. —Angel Diaz
chance the rapper
Last Year's Rank: 8
Chance the Rapper’s impressive 2013 breakthrough pales in comparison to his 2016 accomplishments—and he still hasn't signed a major label deal. His current run began with his Saturday Night Live performance in December, where he performed “Sunday Candy” from his backing band's May 2015 album Surf. The iconic sketch show gave the Chicago native the opportunity to shine again a couple months later in February, when he joined Kanye West for selections from The Life of Pablo. Chance contributed to five songs from Pablo, including, most notably, “Ultralight Beam.” You can count on one hand how many verses from this year rival Chance’s on that song.
It served as the perfect introduction to Chance’s latest solo effort, Coloring Book, which features an impassioned sound that blends gospel and reality raps from a young man coming into his own. The album stands out as one of the very best projects of the year in any genre, and it seems to be single-handedly changing the rules of the music industry—many point to it as a major reason the Recording Academy is making streaming-only albums eligible for the Grammys for the first time.
With Drake and Kendrick Lamar leaving their 20s next year, there’s a strong possibility that Chancelor Bennett will secure the top spot on this list in 2017. Didn’t we tell you Chance was destined for the throne? —Edwin Ortiz
Last Year's Rank: 2
If there was any doubt that Drake is now one of the biggest pop stars in the world, this past year put it to rest. His latest album, Views, has sold more than any other project in 2016 so far, despite critical consensus that it wasn't nearly his best work. And while critics weren't wrong—Views has plenty of well-documented issues—the avalanche that is 2016 Drake isn’t slowing down. His first solo No. 1 hit "One Dance" owned the Billboard Hot 100 this summer, staying in the top spot for 10 weeks, and to add fuel to his fire-emoji streak, he gifted DJ Khaled with an absolute banger in "For Free."
These days Drake seems to be focused more on pop than hip-hop, and it shows. On his most recent feature, on 2 Chainz' "Big Amount,” he raps, "Got the Billboard melodies, rap is something I do on the side/Crossed over to the other side, didn't even have to die." It's hard to argue with his strategy. Despite that, he's still had his moments on the mic, most notably on his loosie "4PM in Calabasas," where he opened up the clip and did what many beg him to do all the time: rap his ass off. The ghostwriting accusations still hang over his head, but there doesn’t seem to be any one thing that can slow Drake down. —Zach Frydenlund
Last Year's Rank: 1
In 2015, a simple question took on existential weight for rap fans: Kendrick or Drake? Your answer revealed more than just musical preference, the thinking went; it revealed what kind of person you were. You had to pick a side.
In many ways, the binary was inevitable. In 2015, two all-time generational rap greats—and yes, it’s clear that both Drake and Kendrick are that—hit their respective creative peaks. Drake’s If You’re Reading This It's Too Late, released in February 2015, was the ultimate flex, a show of effortless alpha dominance. It sold 450,000 units its first week without any promotion or advance notice; Drake nonetheless shrugged it off as a mixtape, and later that summer he humiliated battle-tested rival Meek Mill. Kendrick, meanwhile, dropped To Pimp a Butterfly, a dark, dense behemoth filled with dissonant jazz improvisation, Tupac references, and fearless philosophizing on race, poverty, violence, sex, incarceration, and more. The most challenging mainstream rap album since Kanye’s Yeezus, Butterfly didn’t produce any radio hits, but it topped most critics’ year-end lists and won a Grammy; more tellingly, single “Alright” became the unofficial theme song of the Black Lives Matter movement.
On one end, you had Kendrick, hip-hop's conscience and foremost critical darling, who specialized in tangled wordplay and rapping about the problems of the world; on the other, Drake, rap's id, the people’s favorite, who excelled in club anthems and rapping about himself and his conquests. It was easy to see them as opposites, a classic rap dichotomy in the vein of 2001 Nas and Jay-Z. But it wasn’t necessarily easy to choose a favorite.
A lot’s changed in a year.
In the past 12 months, Drake has enjoyed the most commercially dominant stretch of his career, topping the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 charts for 10 weeks each with new album Views and single “One Dance,” his first solo No. 1. But this list is about rap music, not receipts, and there’s really no question who’s been better at that over the past year: Kendrick.
At the top of 2016, Kendrick released untitled unmastered, a compilation of unvarnished but excellent Butterfly leftovers that by itself is one of the year's best rap projects. Kendrick's appearances on The Tonight Show and the Grammys were among the most memorable live hip-hop performances network television has seen outside of Kanye West on Saturday Night Live. His feature on the Black Hippy remix of ScHoolboy Q’s “THat Part” is one of the most masterful examples of internal rhyme schemes in recent memory. He delivered standout verses on two of the best songs from two of 2016’s best albums, “Freedom” on Beyoncé’s Lemonade and “No More Parties in L.A.” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo.
Kendrick’s appearance on those two albums makes sense—in some ways, Butterfly opened doors for both. All three are unapologetically risky statement records from superstars that bravely challenge the expectations of white America and the music industry; all three eschew radio-ready singles for emotional impact and artistic daring. Pablo mirrored Butterfly in its messy but beautiful bloat; Lemonade bravely followed up its themes of black empowerment and survival in a hostile environment. After those albums, Views, which features Drake once again alternating between his usual sung seductions and rapped boasts, seems safe, small, even petty in comparison. Drake is undeniably hip-hop's commercial king, but in 2016 it became clear that Kendrick is its thought leader.
We don’t know what or when Kendrick’s next project will be, but given the streak he's on it will certainly be the most critically anticipated release of any genre in months. It’s probably cheating to include his backup vocals on “Skyline To,” from Frank Ocean’s Blonde, in this discussion of his dominance in 2016. Still, Kendrick has appeared on all but one of the four best and boldest albums of 2016 (Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book is the notable exception). We don't think that's a coincidence. —Alex Gale
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