The 13 Best Rap Verses of 2013

From Killer Mike to Tyler, The Creator and many more, these are some of the hardest verses we heard this year.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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The word "hip-hop" means lots of different things. But probably its most common usage is as a synonym for "rap music," a genre that emerged in late-'70s New York City and became, less than two decades later, the dominant form of youth entertainment culture worldwide. At its core is rap, a kind of "rhythmic talking" as the squares used to call it. Writing and reciting rhymes to a beat, making songs out of them. The form has evolved over time to encompass an extremely broad (too broad, purists will tell you) range of modes and styles. But it still remains, first and foremost, a form of expression based in words.  

Not that all of the best rap verses of are intense lyrical exhibitions. There are any number of components that can contribute to a noteworthy verse. From the style to the substance, from the writing to the delivery, a lot is at play to create a lasting verse and its performance. That, that lastingness, that memorability ("quotability" is the word often used), that's probably the best barometer. Can an artist write a rhyme, and recite in a way, that everyone will always remember? 

2013 has been a great year for rap music. The best verses of the 2013 provide a window into that greatness—what made it that way. Legends like Kanye West and Eminem returned to form, while titans in the making Kendrick Lamar and Drake staked their claims for the throne. There are also appearances from excitable newcomers like Chance The Rapper and savvy veterans like Killer Mike.

These verses indicate that the music is heading in a direction fans can be optimistic about—contributions from across the map by artists providing more than just the same old song for your dance. Here’s to hoping we get more displays of "rythmic talking" along these lines in 2014. For now, check out The 13 Best Rap Verses of 2013.

Written by Adam Fleischer (@adamfleischer)

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13. Big Sean "All Me"

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Album: Nothing Was the Same

It's taken years, but Big Sean has erased his reputation as "sad-doomed-rapper-signed-to-but-never-coming-out-on-Kanye-West's-G.O.O.D.-Music" and replaced it with one that places him atop the rap game as one of the innovators of flow. It's verses like his on Drake's "All Me" that helped him earn that respect. Switching up the cadence of his delivery multiple times throughout the verse, Sean boasts about his musical, fashion, and sexual prowess, and speaks with a refreshing level of honesty about some of the relationships in his life. He manages to take center stage from Drake and 2 Chainz here, which is quite a feat on its own.

12. Vince Staples "Hive"

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Album: N/A

As much as Odd Future and its members have been noted for the wild antics which they rap about and partake in, they don't usually come off as seriously dangerous. They reside solidly in the realm of fantasy. Saying you're going to stab "any blogging faggot hipster with a Pitchfork" is different than seeming like you might actually pull a gun out of your waistband. But when OF-affiliate Vince Staples' raps on Earl Sweatshirt's "Hive" and rhymes, "Bulletproof outfits, weapons concealed/I'm ready to kill, so test it, all my weapons is real," he bring an aggressive energy that feels frighteningly genuine.

His verse is filled with tough talk—including a Holocaust reference, gun threats and a promise that, in a different era, he would have been signed to Ruthless or Death Row. Staples has been kicking around for a while now but this verse (along with his other contributions to Earl's Doris) made us take serious notice.

11. Meek Mill "Lil Nigga Snupe" (Verse 2)

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Album: Dreamchasers 3

Meek Mill always sound like he's shouting. It's that palpable energy that makes up much of what people love about his flow. But here, on one of Dreamchasers 3's standout cuts, it seems he's raised his voice a few amps for a different reason than usual. Besides being angry and impatient, here, the Philly rapper is hurt, and helpless.

"Lil Nigga Snupe" is an atypical rap ode to a fallen friend, as Meek laments the loss of his protégé not over a delicate beat or with soft rhymes of reminiscence, but with an aggression that comes off so real it can be painful to listen to. Opening the verse observing the cycle of violence in his own hood, Meek can't help but gloat about making it out. But then it's his inability to pass along that same chance to Snupe, as he was in the midst of doing, that builds the frustration. "Where the love at? Where the love at?" he wonders. "I'll give up all this money to get lil cuz back."

10. Chance The Rapper "Paranoia" (Verse 2)

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Album: Acid Rap

He might not have had the commercial success of some of his peers, but it's hard to argue against Chance The Rapper as this year's standout rookie—the name who you can bet your iTunes library will be around years down the line. And performances like his on the second verse of "Paranoia" that highlight his potential. It's a short verse, but powerful in its directness and outspoken bluntness. Seemingly simple lines ("They be shooting whether it's dark or not") are able to carry a heavy load as the native Chicagoan paints a picture of the famous violence in his hometown. (Which, actually, good news: is on pace to have the fewest murders there since 1965).

As he observes the conditions around him and asks questions ("They murder kids here/Why you think they don't talk about it? They deserted us here/Where the fuck is Matt Lauer at?"), there's a straightforwardness and poignancy to the rhymes that is simultaneously striking from an artistic standpoint and tragic from a real-world one.

9. Killer Mike "Sea Legs"

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Album: Run the Jewels

The praise for Killer Mike and El-P's Run the Jewels release catapulted them into best-album-of-the-year discussions, and with "Sea Legs," they make clear that taking names and snatching respect was indeed in the plans. The song's closing verse is quintessential Killer Mike, at once merging his technical prowess with his grounded principles and critical views of society and rap.

Early on in Mike's verse, he proclaims, "I'm the killer of kings and fools," before later promising that, "There will be no respect for The Thrones." Yet, maybe the most unswerving point of the prose comes when the ever-informed, opinionated, and outspoken Atlanta native can't help but wonder, "Am I a victim of my convictions?" Thankfully, though, as his meditation comes to a close, Mike remembers why he's here, "Do what I do for the good of my people/Holding my lane, smoke Jane in a Regal."

8. Childish Gambino "Pound Cake (Freestyle)"

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Album: N/A

Donald Glover as Renaissance Man is a bit of a played out narrative at this point, but few songs of his reinforce his talents as more than just a rapper and singer better than "Pound Cake (Freestyle)." A graduate of NYU's esteemed Tisch School of the Arts, Childish Gambino is at his performance artist best here, breaking into conversation mid verse only to snap back into rapper mode (much to the surprise of Sway, who was ready to reengage).

The rhymes built around this interlude—which somehow seems both organic and calculated—find Gambino at his most commanding. He's able to relay confidence ("Keep telling people the truth, you could be iconic"), wittiness ("Niggas quit being hot man, cold turkey"), and regular guy honesty ("Try to stay inside, I don't really like appearances") through nonchalant candor that creates an accessible listen. This is deeper than rap.

7. Tyler, The Creator "Rusty"

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Album: Wolf

Even as far as ascents in hip-hop's Internet age go, Tyler, The Creator's was pretty damn quick. In a few shorts months a couple years ago, the California native went from an unknown teenaged talent to a cultural icon. The rise wasn't without its bumps—feuds, mediocre debut album sales, and controversies around his lyrics.

With his lengthy "Rusty" verse, from his sophomore retail release, Wolf, Tyler showcases a new found perspective on his rise to fame, while maintaining his position as a champion of rap's counterculture. He indicts the mainstream's obsession with Molly, kids' obsession with computers, and critics' obsession with his content, all while proving he's not here just because of shock value—he can rhyme, too.

6. Danny Brown "1 Train" (A$AP Rocky)

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Album: Long. Live. ASAP

How do you stand out on a super-talent-filled posse cut? Here's one way: You could be Danny Brown. With his one-of-a-kind voice and delivery, it's no wonder the Detroit native is able to hold his own, even among peers like A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Action Bronson and Big K.R.I.T., as he does on Rocky's "1 Train."

It's not just the sounds of Danny's voice that make this a memorable affair; the verse itself is the eccentric at his finest, from his tightly-packed wordplay ("That molly got me nauseous, aw shit, no off switch") to drug references to comedic lines, it's some of the most remarkable chaos around. He does more than hold his own. He holds the pole position. 

5. Pusha T "Nosetalgia" (Verse 1)

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Album: My Name Is My Name

Somehow, over a decade deep into his rap career, Pusha T finds new ways to reflect on his drug dealing days. The latest example: his "Nosetalgia" verse, which plays alley for Kendrick Lamar's eventual oop. As the title suggests, the Virginia MC uses his bars to weave together reflections on his youth and paint "a million megapixels of the Pyrex."

He talks about his come up through typically vivid Push imagery, metaphors, and plays on words. But there's also an unparalleled candor to Pusha's delivery when he spits lines like, "If he dies he dies." The biggest criticism leveled against Pusha T is that his subject matter is limited in diversity—yet, with a performance like the one he gives here, he reminds why he's been able to do it for so long.

4. Drake "Versace (Remix)"

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Album: Young Rich Niggas Mixtape

It's an authoritative spot to be in when you can create momentum for your album and hold down the summer all with one verse. It's possible, though. Just look at Drake on "Versace." On an exciting night in June when Drizzy took to the 'net to drop four new songs and reveal Nothin Was The Same's release date, one joint stood out above the rest.

With perfect precision, Drake emulates Migos' flow for the Zaytoven production, where he scatters boasts ("Niggas be wanting a verse for a verse, but man that's not a swap to me") and lines that might have been aimed at Kanye ("I do not fuck with your new shit, my nigga, don't ask for my take on it"). This is Drake at his most fun. Not only did build anticipation for NWTS to a fevered pitch, but it brought Migos to the mainstream and ushered in a wave of "Versace" remixes.

3. Eminem "Rap God" (Verse 3)

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Album: The Marshall Manthers LP2

Few songs this year had as clear a purpose as Eminem's "Rap God." Taken from his The Marshall Mathers LP 2, the song is an open declaration of Em's dominance on the mic. No verse better accomplishes this mission than the dizzying final stanza, which finds Em spewing venom for three minutes and twenty seconds straight—substantially longer in this one verse than most rappers rap on their entire three verse songs.

Within the seemingly never-ending verbal waterfall, Em touches on just about anything he could, should or would: his underground origins, the criticisms of his lyrics, the positive power his words have had for so many, and pop culture references. It's all done with impeccable technical tact, including a brief section of triple time mayhem. In other words, this verse captures exactly why the man's become a Rap God.

2. Kanye West "New Slaves" (Verse 2)

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Album: Yeezus

Kanye West took rankings into his own hands mid-year when he tweeted, "I open the debate... The 2nd verse of New Slaves is the best rap verse of all time....meaning ... OF ALL TIME IN THE HISTORY OF RAP MUSIC, PERIOD." We're not quite there, but it was surely one of the year's best.

May 17, 2013 was a thrilling night. West was set to premiere the first song from his upcoming album, Yeezus, by projecting a video across 66 buildings worldwide. The visual featured a tight shot of West hostilely rhyming the words to his new song. Soon it became clear, though, that the rollout for "New Slaves" would only be topped by the song itself; it was West channeling his socially-minded "Kanye-To-The" days in an updated and more aggressive, angry way.

The second, and lengthier, verse on the track finds Yeezy unpacking weighty issues of materialism, racism, classism, and the Prison Industrial Complex, as well as his relationships with corporations and the media. The minimalist beat allows his words to be the star throughout, and the verse sets the tone for Kanye's latest opus. His words are like windows, we can see the blood on the leaves.

1. Kendrick Lamar "Control"

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Album: N/A

There are any number of singular reasons that Kendrick Lamar's verse on "Control" could have landed atop this list: It's the best verse of the year from the year's best rapper. It got everyone involved with hip-hop in any capacity—artists, fans, critics, managers, labels—talking. It brought forth tidal wave of musical responses and seems to have served as a wake up call to an entire art form. But it was not one of these things. It was all of these things.

What could have been a normal night when Big Sean released a song that didn't make the cut of his album turned into a Twitter takeover and something close to mass hysteria—a storyline whose legs, in many ways, still haven't fallen off. What was the most remarkable part of Kendrick's verbal spectacle? His proclamation that he's "King of New York?" His calling out (both as a show of respect and a challenge) of J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha T, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electronica, Tyler, The Creator and Mac Miller? The fact that the verse continues to follow those names in damn near every interview they have? His calling himself a "Black Beatle" or "new Marley?" Or putting himself in the company of Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem and Andre 3000? How 'bout the lengthy imagery at the end of the verse about how high he's raising the bar?

How 'bout the fact that none of those claims feel particularly off-base, given Kendrick Lamar's skill, output, body of work, and potential?

Before the name-calling, K. Dot warns, "This is hip-hop and them niggas should know what time it is." Consider "Control" a time check.

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