"Rap isn't lyrical any more." You hear it enough that it becomes an ugly kind of common sense. It becomes received wisdom, taken as truth: It's 2013, and rappers are gimmicky. Personality has won out over bars.
This list is an argument that lyricism is still very much a part of rap music. As hip-hop's audience has expanded, the rules of what makes a rapper "lyrical" have broadened as well. A fan of Southern street rap might have a different idea of "lyrical" than a fan of underground hero Tech N9ne, who in turn has different values than a traditionalist from New York. The one constant: an artfulness to how each rapper creates his work.
Sure, "lyrical" can be misused in hip-hop, ascribed to the dry technical aspects of MCing. At its worst, calling a rapper "lyrical" makes their art sound more like a math problem. But the term is still useful, because it distinguishes hip-hop from pop music more broadly.
That doesn't mean that rap artists who subvert, mutate, or even undermine that tradition are less hip-hop, or that they don't make good music. In fact, it's their relationship with the "lyrical" that makes "lyrical" something even worth discussing in the first place.
The best rappers, whatever their relationship to "lyrical" rap, make verses that have you hanging on every word, punchline, narrative, image, and/or bit of knowledge. We've taken a look at the last half decade of hip-hop to figure out what "lyrical" rap looks like in 2013. These are The 30 Most Lyrical Rap Songs of the Past 5 Years.
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30. J. Cole "Who Dat" (2010)
Not all hip-hop heads are up on the mixtape circuit—some don't venture far beyond albums they can pick up at Best Buy, and those usually have widely known rappers' names on the covers. When one-million-plus fans purchased Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3 in late 2009, their first exposure to one Jermaine "J." Cole came on track No. 9, "A Star Is Born." They hadn't heard the Fayetteville, NC, native verbally eviscerate tracks on his two earlier mix tapes, The Come Up (2008) and The Warm Up (2009). But when Cole released his first solo, Roc Nation-backed street single, "Who Dat," in May 2010, they realized that this born star was also a lyrical monster.
Over a simple, breakbeat-like percussion arrangement (co-produced by Cole and Elite), Cole rips through "Who Dat" like a man on a mission, perhaps to make sure nobody ever questions he scored such a prime role on a Jay-Z album. Or to just embarrass his next-generation peers with nary a wasted line heard throughout the track's four thunderous minutes. Either way, his flow is assured, the bars packed airtight with multi-syllabic rhymes and clever double entendres. He's both reflective and relentless.
At its most forthcoming, "Who Dat" displays an awareness of Cole's newfound celebrity status: "My life accelerated, but had to wait my turn/But then I redecorated, that means my tables turn." He's also conscious of the fact that he's still unproven to most listeners: "Now I'm a menace, God as my witness, with this pen I'm insane, yup/Hungry like the n*gga who ain't got the taste of fame yet." And just in case his candidness leaves isn't fully convincing, J. Cole also came ready to embarrass fools: "Boy, stick to ya day job, said you was hot, but they lied/Is that ya girl? Well, I just g'd her, no A-Rod."
He's made bigger, more successful records since, but as evidence that the kid who flipped Paula Abdul's pop-cheese 1988 hit "Straight Up" into a crossover triumph, "Who Dat" remains untouchable. Disagree? Allow these words from the song's first verse to represent his thoughts: "Real n*ggas celebrate it, finger-fuck whoever hate it." —Matt Barone
29. Raekwon f/ Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, Method Man & GZA "House of Flying Daggers" (2009)
In the early 2010s, vets sticking to their traditional style is as much a part of hip-hop's landscape as newer artists. Wu-Tang may have shifted to the margins of relevancy, but Raekwon's Only Built for Cuban Linx II was a reassertion of that rapper's unwillingness to let that determine his legacy. "House of Flying Daggers," with its interpolation of Wu-Tang's "Clan In Da Front," was unapologetic in its retro sound and approach. Inspectah Deck, Rae, Ghost, Method Man were the foremost lyricists of the Clan, and everything about "House of Flying Daggers" was a celebration of the Wu.
It was the creation of mystique through a rush of gripping and—particularly in Ghost's case—viscerally disturbing imagery. It painted a picture of a violent world, criminally-minded, but gave it an especially stylized, signature feel, pulpy and portentous. The only thing to date it: Method Man's verse. He sounds revitalized, his lines full of internal rhymes, but towards the end focuses on the group's legacy ("Got a whole line of classic joints") and expresses his plans to push the music "past the point of no return, til it crash and burn, then placed inside Ol' Dirty Bastard's urn."
It's a fitting conclusion for a track where the clan managed to walk a fine line between sounding at once dangerously destructive, just like the old days, while acknowledging that things had changed. —David Drake
28. Kevin Gates "Dangerous" (2010)
"I don't 'try,'" Kevin Gates told us in an interview earlier this year. "In being honest, you don't have to try ... Whatever flows well together, that's what I do." The Baton Rouge rapper's style of lyricism might be more improvisational than the graphite-past-the-margins notebook scrawl we're used to with New York lyrical miracles, but in many instances, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Dense with syllables and intricately artful rhyme patterns, Gates' lyrics have a particularly evocative qualty due to their poetic imagery: "Passin' through the hood with memories of the block, left hand holding the wheel, our fingers are interlocked/Tinted windows but the rocks still glistening on the watch...."
Gates' lyrics are a collage of snapshots and implied meanings, the kinds of things that cohere into a formal shape when woven together; these ideas keep the listener hanging on each word. It's this sense of creating rather than describing that animates his work, sketching a portrait of a ladies' man, a street soldier, a "well dressed gentleman, but still a gangster." Gates' verses on "Dangerous" are ambiguous but never wishy-washy; his confidence in his art means truth sits between each line. —David Drake
RELATED: Who Is Kevin Gates?
27. Killer Mike "Reagan" (2012)
In two scathing verses, Killer Mike indicts blind or apathetic politicians and entertainers and makes it clear that their popularity is not power. Actual influence, he says, belongs to "the country's real masters," lobbyists funding campaigns and corporations doling out dollars for endorsement deals, manipulating the in-crowd like puppets to control the masses that take cues from them.
Drawing parallels between financially-focused rappers (himself included) and actor-turned-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, whose sound bytes from the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal make him sound like a pawn in his own administration, Killer finds that the price for just going along with the system is steep: "Our people starve from lack of understanding/'Cause all we seem to give them is some balling and some dancing/And some talking about our car and imaginary mansions/We should be indicted for bullshit we inciting."
Who needs critics with this level of angry introspection? —Justin Monroe
26. Joe Budden f/ Crooked I, Joell Ortiz, Nino Bless & Royce Da 5'9" "Slaughterhouse" (2008)
25. Rick Ross f/ Nas "Triple Beam Dreams" (2012)
When most people think about what "lyrical" means, this is what they envision: Nas packing bars into notebooks, words unwinding with boxy precision, deeply serious tales of Nas' dalliances with the streets and Ross' kingpin fantasies. It wasn't Nas' deftest stanza; as he's developed as a writer, the his lines have taken on a less naturalistic flow, thus Yoda-esque quips like "mentally sex-crazed, dysfunctional, they describe us." Nas has always been more of a writer interested in the technical aspects of his work than a naturalistic conversationalist. So dense syllables and twisting wordplay have long-defined the rapper's style.
"Triple Beam Dreams" was well known subject matter for anyone familiar with Nas' work or hip-hop more broadly; it's a tribute to the artfulness of his rococo lyrical stylings that the rapper is able to express the ideas in a new way. It was especially powerful, though, because, rather than writing about the dreams themselves, Nas wrote from a detached perspective about the truth: How he becomes infatuated with those dreams, and the huge gulf between Scarface fantasies and his own modest, unsuccessful drug dealing reality. —David Drake
24. Sean Price "Figure Four" (2009)
23. Action Bronson f/ Roc Marciano "Pouches of Tuna" (2012)
22. Lupe Fiasco "I'm Beamin'" (2010)
Lupe Fiasco ranks among the most self-aware artists in hip-hop, taking the old "Knowledge of Self" concept to new extremes. This bonus track from the deluxe edition of his third album, Lasers, repeatedly calls attention to its own artifice. Lupe telegraphs his writerly concerns by ending the first verse with the line "semi-colon, closed parentheses" and the two subsequent verses open with a reminder that they are, in fact, verses in a rap song that were composed and numbered by a strategic authorial intelligence. Any notion of a spontaneous freestyle is out the window. Lupe doesn't just want his readers listeners to know that he's beaming; he wants them to know he's a writer. And also a rider. With good energy and an inner G. And an old soul. Both Ferrari'd up and conscious too. Yeah, there's a whole lot Lupe wants us to know about him.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Rappers are not generally known for being shy or soft-spoken. Plus there's the whole revenge of the underdog thing. Lupe's song is getting his Kool Moe Dee on, asking the people who doubted him "How Ya Like Me Now?" He's having a Biz Markie moment, watching fools catch the vapors and reflecting smugly: "Damn it feels good to see people up on it." It's a common trope of rap songs, but that would be too simple for Lupe Fiasco. "Beaming" also examines and attempts to reconcile the apparent contradictions in Fiasco's persona. "You see I hood a lot, and yeah I nerd some/Hood's where the heart is, nerd's where the words from." Lupe appears to be perpetuating a stereotype with this line—as if writers (or nerds) don't exist in the hood—but let's not get bogged down with that, because his next line is even more interesting: "Don't represent either 'cause I merged them."
Lupe follows this up with a nifty rhetorical pivot, shifting his focus on other people from the hood, urging them to get out and see the world: "Don't come back until you're learned some." He then critiques a girl with nice hair and nails, saying she's dumb, and challenging her to "Become a top model and Sojourner too." Then comes the crossover as Lupe flips back to self-referential mode.
The final verse contains his neatest trick of all, making his solipsistic navel-gazing a universal with a reference to Homer's Odyssey. "It's never cyclops, it's never I alone," Lupe asserts, adding "I'm telling your story wherever I perform." He tells your story because he got skills like that. That's why he's beaming. If you're looking for him, he'll be "out in the bright lights right where I belong." [Drops mic.] —Rob Kenner
21. Ab-Soul f/ Danny Brown & Jhene Aiko "Terrorist Threats" (2012)
Ab-Soul grew up in the burbs of L.A. while Danny Brown grew up in the hood of Detroit. As such, these two brilliant wordsmiths' concepts of what constitutes a terrorist threat diverge in fascinating and revealing ways. In this cut off Ab's fourth independent TDE release, the beat is so minimal and abstract that there is no threat of listeners nodding their heads or dancing—nothing to distract from Ab and Danny's dense lyrical mindspray.
Ab opens the track with an obscure reference to the historic figure Aleister Crowley, a nineteenth-century poet and mystic who was dubbed "The Wickedest Man Alive." Ab then goes on to reference Rasta orthodoxy ("Wish I could see out of Selassie eye" aka Emperor Haile Selassie I) and ("Out my window all I see is Babylon") as a pretext for his grand revolutionary aspirations. In the song's chorus Ab repeatedly states his belief that getting all the street gangs together would be an effective way of overthrowing the government.
By contrast Danny Brown has no time to ponder whether Barack Obama is a puppet. He's more concerned with practical day-to-day matters like avoiding homelessness and putting food on the table. "Nose candy rain like Soul for Real/My baby needs some enfamil/ So bags get stuffed like Oprah grill." In other words, it's all real in the field. And terror is where you find it. —Rob Kenner
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20. Tech N9ne "He's A Mental Giant" (2011)
Tech N9ne didn't build up a massive cult following—perhaps hip-hop's biggest—by lacking in theatrics. He relies heavily on touring parts of the country that most rappers prefer not to visit, building a loyal fanbase through hustle and, of course, the music. His reliably flawless double-time is different from your typical rapper, though, due in part to Tech N9ne's dramatic flair. On "Mental Giant," one of the highlights of his All 6s and 7s, the rapper embodies a character dictated by the sample; referring to the hook, Tech N9ne said in an interview, "That sounds like a bigheaded dude, I get to be cocky on this song. It's really narcissistic, know what I mean?"
For Tech N9ne, taking on a narcissistic persona allows him to indulge in the excesses of his craft. A flawless delivery of dense, multi-syllabic intensity is a grandiose statement, a celebration of fluency and self-control. Ironically for someone so intricate, there is no use for subtlety. Instead, his gestures are maximalist, designed to impress through their explosiveness; he is the consummate showman. —David Drake
RELATED: Tech N9ne's 25 Favorite Albums
19. Elzhi "More Colors" (2009)
18. Meek Mill "Dreams and Nightmares" (2012)
Meek Mill's rap style is frequently praised for its dexterity and athletic energy. If any artist's rap style could be compared to a basketball player's, it's Meek's. There's a propulsiveness that no doubt came from years of practice and repetition, the flawless execution of highly trained muscle memory. When most people talk about "lyrical," this is what they mean: evident dexterity and technical prowess. But that dry technical expertise is useless without purpose.
Many rappers rely on style, charisma or cool. Meek is not one of those rappers. His rapping builds upon a searing sincerity, one he expresses by rapping with anxious, alarmed energy. His verses are raw, an exposed nerve; when he raps, it cuts through. This style isn't what makes Meek a "lyrical" rapper; it's what allows him to be one. A tense bundle of contradictions, Meek's music is at once an uninhibited scream and the epitome of absolute control. Because despite the density and musicality of the way his words are put together, he's always to the point, and literal. Wordplay and imagery are almost beside the point, and if he has punchlines, they're brutal, not funny.
His underlying purpose is to celebrate the spoils of victory while conveying the moral and personal cost. He makes that tradeoff visceral, his traumas existing concurrently with his accomplishments. "Dreams and Nightmares," with its two-part structure, makes this implicit tension in his music explicit; it's the moment where his lyrics, spit with rapid-fire directness, create an intense urgency. —David Drake
17. A$AP Rocky f/ Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T. "1Train" (2013)
The best evidence of the scattershot nature of the hip-hop consciousness. This song is stacked with stars—yet they're mostly only stars on the rap blogs, with many of the names on the song unbeknown to casual rap fans. But each and every one one of them have distinct sounds, styles, and worldviews. They're all at different points in their careers so they all approach the song differently.
For A$AP it's time to show that he's more than just a "fashion rapper," that he can hang with rap's brightest. For Joey Bada$$ and Action Bronson, both of whom had been riding a steady wave of success, it's standard fare (though Joey does boast a Roc Nation signing).
Meanwhile, for Kendrick Lamar and Danny Brown—both in the prime of their careers-it's another top notch display of word play wizardry with the latter providing, "Lawless, obnoxious, on that suck my cock shit/That is my synopsis, ostrich posh shit/Hoes on some goth shit, stop it! You not this!/Novice, regardless, heartless, and awkward."
But it's Yelawolf and Big KRIT who go the hardest and have the most to prove. They both had Internet buzz that failed to result in commercial success and with their career windows closing, they threw all they could at a high profile feature. Yela spits in the face of chasing sales rather than an artful craft, "Radioactive's going gold and so? GREAT. Do I give a flying duck/If I'm applying love to my rhyming?" When you hears bars like this, how can you not love it? —Insanul Ahmed
RELATED: A$AP Rocky's 25 Favorite Albums
16. Jadakiss f/ Lil Wayne "Death Wish" (2009)
Though Jadakiss is mostly heralded as an accomplished but somehow still underrated MC, he did declare himself "top five dead or alive," and to this day, he sometimes still spits like he's worthy of that assertion. "Death Wish" is about the grim realities of street violence, namely fatalities, and 'Kiss completely loses himself in the Alchemist production with an alarming deftness.
The multis roll off effortlessly: "Loyalty is thin, the tension is thick/Look at a broke nigga's face when you mention a brick/Stick up kids come around when they sense that you're rich." There's a cohesive narrative that's also wholly supported by valiant lyricism on Jada's behalf, which leads into an equally dizzying chorus that exposes the morose detail of a casualty: "When your heart stops and your body gets breathless/And help don't come in enough time, that's a death wish."
The song amps up a notch when Wayne borrows the rhyme scheme of the chorus and begins his verse: "I be on that way left shit/Better get right or get left shit/Better hit right or get left hit." It sounds like basic slick talk, but the subtle nuance of "hit right or get left hit" is what makes Wayne verses such a delight. By the next line, he's telling an unknown opposition "motherfuck your guest list" and settling on the fatal decision of "let's just kill him and get breakfast" with sobering calmness. Wayne justifies this stark viewpoint with an unsettling note about his hometown: "I'm from the mecca of the reckless, with a record-breaking death list/The reckless and the neglecters think the election won't affect us," making sure to rhyme every word along the way.
"Death Wish" is a toe-to-toe, verse-to-verse competition, and the listener who's a fan of rap ultimately wins. —Ernest Baker
15. Jay-Z f/ Rihanna & Kanye West "Run This Town" (2009)
No other rapper's lyrics have been decoded (shout to dream hampton!) as exhaustively as Jay-Z's. His virtuosity is a given. The fact that he packs his bars with oblique references and multiple layers of meaning is so well known that it's a challenge to make anything subtle. By contrast, Kanye West (who was once considered primarily a producer who aspired to rap) presents his lyrics pretty much at face value, laying his cards flat on the table. Both are master craftsmen, and super famous to boot, and their real-life narratives are so well-known that their celebrity informs their lyricism.
The third volume of Jay-Z's Blueprint trilogy was a declaration of sovereignty. Having retired his retirement and resigned his presidency of Def Jam, Jay was now in military mode as the emperor of Roc Nation, demanding pledges of allegiance and all-black uniforms with loyal henchmen Rihanna and Kanye West at his side. When Jay says "I gave Doug a grip and lost a flip for five stacks" the Rap Genius crowd knows right away that he's talking about paying Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris $5 million to buy out his own recording contract so he could launch Roc Nation. (And the fact that he reportedly flipped a coin to decide certain aspects of the deal.) Jay's nonchalant about it at first ("I'm a couple bands down and I'm tryin' to get back") but then he doubles back to emphasize exactly how many commas and decimal places he's talking about—just so you know who you're dealing with. In his next verse Jay throws in a show-offy double entendre ("They should throw their hand in 'cause they ain't got no spades" refers to the rules of the card game and the rules of balling in the club with expensive bottles.)
But the real stunt is how Kanye comes in and steals the whole show with a single verse. And he does it with the passion of his lines like "Next time I'm in church, please: no photos, "a reference to the paparazzi staking him as he mourned his mother's death. The rest of the verse is a meditation on the dilemma of celebrity that plays off Rihanna's wailing hook in ways too complex and profound to enumerate. "This the life that everybody ask for" Ye asserts, even as he admits that his stunting ways will make it impossible to find true love. "I can spend my whole life goodwill hunting" he raps but he knows he'll never find it. What he will find is physical beauty, expensive shoes and cars, and endlessly flowing Riesling. It could be worse. —Rob Kenner
14. T.I. "I'm Illy" (2008)
T.I.'s "I'm Illy' isn't just a case for why T.I. is a great lyricist; it makes a case for why you can't reach your lyrical peak unless you write down your lyrics. Early in his career T.I. was dubbed "the Jay-Z of the South." A title he earned because, despite his heavy Southern drawl, Tip had enough wordplay to make his East Coast counterparts jealous. Yet, Tip rose to prominence in the 2000s after his debut I'm Serious dropped and he abandoned writing lyrics down. As Joe Budden once said, "More niggas said they didn't write down lyrics/The more it started to sound like they didn't," and on occasion flashes of Tip's lackadaisical output became apparent and all the more frustrating.
Right after getting caught with tons of guns and facing a hefty prison sentence, Tip went back to the pen and pad, a move that inspired his album's title, Paper Trail. Determined to prove that he hadn't lost any muster despite his legal cases, Tip hit the mic harder than Kobe hit the court after his rape trial.
"I'm Illy" is a typical rap song that isn't really about anything besides boasting, yet it addresses so many issues at once. Tip drops everyday boasts that could work on any rap song like, "Caked like Entenmann's, blowin' that celery/Stack that cash like the U.S. Treasury" and "You couldn't fuck with me with a Brazil hoe." He mixes that with exceptional multi-syllable rhymes, "Rarely out my element, barely out the ghetto with/One foot out and one foot in, intelligent as fellas get." But still finds time to touch on his legal troubles, "Of course this case lost all my endorsements." But the craziest part was, fresh off doing some real life gangsta shit, his threats like, "I'm out my fucking mind, need counseling/Please don't doubt me, trust me, drama ain't nothing/It's all fun and games 'til somebody start busting," felt way too true.
Still, it felt frustrating. After killing both of his verses, Tip assures at the end, "Just remember, I do this shit when I want to." Well why don't you want to do it more often? —Insanul Ahmed
13. Danny Brown "XXX" (2011)
Danny Brown is kind of a trip (in the way that Tara Reid is "kind of" a joke), and the first half of XXX is a tour de force of the absurd. Perhaps the reason why "XXX" resonates is because of how it takes Brown's ridiculous character and molds it into this humane figure. Within the span of a verse, Brown mentions Squidward, The Matrix, slavery, and Sam Cooke. It's wide-ranging, but manages to never sound cluttered. Danny Brown sounds focused, and most importantly, grounded in the middle of a storm. —Brian Josephs
12. Gucci Mane "Wonderful" (2009)
11. Pusha T "My God" (2011)
When you first heard this song, it felt like the second coming. Pusha T had hit his lyrical zenith on Hell Hath No Fury, but after losing a step with Til the Casket Drops, going solo, and hooking up with Kanye West and G.O.O.D. Music, he had to show and prove. The marching band snare and blaring horns set the stage for King Push to deliver that raw in an era when rap had suddenly gotten too emotional.
His bars were launched with such startling conviction, like a man possessed by the same voodoo he used to pen his words. "To me it's one of those rapper's rapper-type of records," he told Complex, shortly after the song first dropped. "Sonically, it has the sound that keeps you interested, but it still gives you that flat canvas that you can just black out on, as an artist." Blackout he did.
He not only touched on his personal tribulations (rhyming without his brother Malice, trying to deliver hardcore material for his hardcore audience) but classic dealer dilemmas like buying fancy cars with no credit. You can put down Pusha by saying all he does is rap about coke, just don't tell us he doesn't do it damn well. —Insanul Ahmed
10. Big Boi f/ Andre 3000 and Raekwon "Royal Flush" (2008)
Aside from Frank Ocean's "Pink Matter" remix from the top of 2013, "Royal Flush" is the only song with verses from both members of OutKast in the past five years. Big Boi leaked the song in anticipation of Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, but label conflict kept the record off his debut solo album. That in no way lessens the impact of the song. Ten years after their Aquemini collaboration, "Skew It on the Bar-B," the same trio of MCs take up residence over a no nonsense Royal Flush production and gel almost as flawlessly as they did before.
Big Boi addresses nuclear warfare with a slick simile: "North Korea got that shit that make L.A. look like Japan." Raekwon goes for what sounds like an easy 12 bars, but a closer look at the way he holds the same rhyme for the entire verse heightens the appreciation. Then Andre 3000 steps to the plate, blacking out for more than double the length of both previous verses combined, and for all the greatness and necessity of Big Boi and Raekwon's contributions, 3 Stacks packs even more punch into his lyrics.
He analogizes himself with cooked cocaine: "Crack and I have a lot in common/We both come up in the 80's and we keep that bass pumping," interpolates the "Hokey Pokey" for the purpose of life lessons, and introduces the concept of hustling to score your daughter a Nintendo Wii, without missing a step. It's a brilliant undertaking, and makes you wish these three, or at least OutKast, would make more music together. —Ernest Baker
RELATED: Big Boi's 25 Favorite Albums
9. Earl Sweatshirt "Earl" (2010)
8. Rick Ross "Mafia Music" (2009)
On "Hustlin'" Ross shoved his way through the door. But for many rap heads, he remained a one-dimensional figure. Sure, he had the look of a kingpin, the beats to match, and a booming rapper's voice that befit a self-styled boss. But Ross was missing one important thing, and that absence kept him a marginal figure. Persona is key, but to be a truly great rapper, you have to be an engaging lyricist. And "Mafia Music" was the first time Ross took everyone by surprise.
The beat was as epic as "Hustlin'" but functioned completely differently. The "Hustlin'" instrumental was an epic slam-dunk, with a melodic hook that was as intense in its instrumental form. The beat to "Mafia Music" was more of an epic alley-oop just waiting for the right rapper. The beat's slow, scene-setting pace was a blank canvas. There was no hook for Ross to hide behind, so he had to deliver. And did he ever: a four-minute song with no chorus, "Mafia Music" was the first indication of the artist behind the shades and the endomorphic image.
Dense with internal rhymes and intricately composed lyrics, his newfound grandiloquence seemed to perfectly match the persona he had cultivated. It was baroque rap for an artist whose entire approach was about grandiose largesse. —David Drake
7. Eminem "Underground" (2009)
It's always going to be unfortunate that Eminem dissed Relapse on his No. 1 single "Not Afraid." That allows the masses to write that album off like Eminem didn't come correct lyrically on a number of songs. Sure, "We Made You" was a bit dated and ultimately regarded a misstep, but Eminem is straight flexing his rhyming muscle all over songs like "3AM," "Insane," "Same Song & Dance," "Stay Wide Awake," and "Medicine Ball." Em's always had a grasp on multis that rivals and, in many instances, bests that of anyone in rap history.
All of the aforementioned songs are remarkable displays of that style, but the closer "Undergound" is the album's finest example. Eminem is rhyming nearly every other word he raps on this entire song. There are no one-word rhyme schemes. He makes sure that every word in one bar directly aligns and rhymes with every word in the following or preceding bar—it's wildly impressive.
Read these lines to yourself: "(He can't say that!) Yes he can/I just did, f*ggot, now guess again/Better text message your next-of-kin/Tell 'em shit's about to get extra messy, especially when/I flex again and throw a fuckin' lesbian in wet cement." A decade after his mainstream debut, Eminem was still spitting sinister raps, and antagonizing politically correct naysayers, but by the time "Undergound" came out, much of the shock had worn off. This didn't lower the acclaim because the song was such a return to form for Eminem, by lyrical standards and structure alone.
For the veteran Eminem, the content is still important, but it's these moments where he maintains the veracity of his youthful self that brings the most joy. No one else would start a verse with, "Six semen samples, 17 strands of hair/Found in the back of a van after the shoot with Vanity Fair," and simultaneously make you turn your head at the oddball hilarity of the scenario, but also, the stroke of genius that leads to someone rhyming "strands of hair" with "Vanity Fair." Many look to Em's chart-toppers of the following year as an affirmation of Eminem's return to dominance, but it's on "Underground" that the comeback was achieved. —Ernest Baker
6. Drake "9AM in Dallas" (2010)
5. Lil Wayne "A Milli" (2008)
Wayne is in such flawless form here. You remember where you were the first time you heard this song the way your parents remember where they were when Kennedy got shot. The fact that 367,486 other MCs rapped over this beat and not one surpassed Wayne's initial efforts is a true testament to what was accomplished here lyrically.
There are dozens of mixtape tracks, ones like "Upgrade" off Da Drought 3 or "Scarface" off Tha Carter III Sessions, which satisfy a more traditional, and to some, more impressive, style of lyricism, but "A Milli" is almost avant garde, and it was still a single. In a time when Auto-Tune and sparkly Jim Jonsin beats—a formula Wayne himself carried to success on "Lollipop"—were du jour, Weezy rapped over snares, bass, and a chopped vocal sample for three-and-a-half minutes straight, sent it to radio—and people were captivated. Understandably. One part goes: "They say I'm rapping like Big, Jay, and 2Pac/Andre 3000, where is Erykah Badu at," and at the time, you couldn't really deny that Wayne was putting out work on par with the greats.
Flow is one part of being lyrical, and it's admirable the way Wayne just floats all over the track with total disregard for any form or convention except his own awesomeness. With a support structure like that in place, Wayne's actual rhymes don't even need to have much purpose or logic. Every bar is truly stream of consciousness and free association ad nauseum. One minute dude is talking about goblins; the next it's how there's a Maserati on a bridge pussy popping. It's all seamless and rhymes impeccably. There's a lot of setup and context to why this song is important, and what it really meant for Wayne at this point in his career, but at the core of this argument lies the fact that Wayne was simply rhyming his ass off. "I open the Lamborghini/Hoping them crackers see me/Like, 'Look at that bastard Weezy.'" Are you kidding?
Wayne manipulates completely random words and scenarios into rhymes with such breathless efficiency on this record. No matter what he's done since, it's "A Milli" and its lasting impact on his legacy keep him in the conversation with some of the best to ever do it. —Ernest Baker
4. Kanye West f/ Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj & Justin Vernon "Monster" (2010)
Nicki Minaj's verse on "Monster" is easily one of her most celebrated, and with good reason. Although the rapper had plenty of lyrical moments earlier in her career—particularly on the now-classic Beam Me Up Scotty —and was an adroit rapper from a technical standpoint, "Monster" was the moment where she outshined the competition on a large stage without abandoning the very characteristics that made her rapping distinctive. Instead, she doubled-down on everything that made the haters hate, and the fans love her: the split personality raps, the valley girl vocals, the unapologetically female-oriented references (i.e. Giuseppe heels—that's the monster shoe).
The verse also had shape, a structure. It starts with a scene-setting introduction: She pulls up in a monster automobile, before laying out her statement of purpose: You can be the king, but "watch the queen conquer." And she proceeds to do exactly that, with each portion of her verse building in tension, ratcheting up another degree by the time she rhymes "climb it" with "climate," slipping into fake patois, schizophrenically switching between different vocal styles, claiming the throne ("Besides 'Ye they can't stand beside me") until climaxing with a series of double-time rhymes that build to the verse's peak: "Pink wig, thick ass give 'em whiplash/I think big, get cash, make 'em blink fast...."
Being lyrical, then, isn't just about dexterity, but it's not just personality, either; it's about embodying all the things that you do well, and doing it at an exceptional level. —David Drake
3. Nas "Queens Get the Money" (2008)
2. Kendrick Lamar f/ MC Eiht "m.A.A.d city" (2012)
Kendrick Lamar's major label debut was the most talked-about rap album of 2012, but with mass praise comes contrarian objection. Some have argued that good kid, m.A.A.d city is a cool art project but lacks the bangers that are requisite of most hip-hop classics. Obviously, those folks haven't heard "m.A.A.d city." This is an album cut and it actually gets played in nightclubs. Patrons lose their breath trying to rap along to every word, but most succeed in the emulation. "m.A.A.d city" has that kind of hold on its listeners.
While it does fit into the linear narrative of the album's short film format, this song stands all on its own—particularly the frenetic first half of the record. The spastic flows make moments like Kendrick simply rhyming his friends' names, what street they're on, and the tragic outcome an art of woven word: "It was Me, L Boogs, and Yan Yan, YG, Lucky ride down Rosecrans/It got ugly, waving your hand/Out the window, check yo self, uh, warriors and Conans/Hope euphoria can slow dance/With society, the driver seat the first one to get killed."
Kendrick keeps that spectacular pace for the rest of the verse, barely stopping to rest as he details the harsh circumstances of a Compton existence. The bars are so sharply interconnected that the main impression is that of a story being screamed at you. The rhymes don't even protrude because they're so smartly buried into the pocket of the beat. But the rhymes are there. Kendrick raps with an Eminem, Lil Wayne-like tenacity here, while also creating a lane for a style that's all his own. —Ernest Baker
1. Jay Electronica "Exhibit C" (2009)
Yes, that's right, the most lyrical song of the last five years was (supposedly) made in 15 minutes just so Jay Electronica and Just Blaze would have something to debut when they went on Angela Yee's show. Funniest thing is, they never made it to Yee's show. Instead, Jay fell asleep and forgot all about it. That is, until Just Blaze played it on Tony Touch's radio show.
The original radio rip of "Exhibit C" was laced with Mr. Magic's classic radio drops (He passed away shortly before the song's release.), giving it the vintage feel of a cassette tape of a radio recording. The song grew legs, took off, and was eventually released on iTunes. The song's cover art of Nikola Tesla sitting at his Magnifying Transmitter was befitting: This song was truly lightning in a bottle.
Jay Elec testified about his life to the hip-hop court and made a passionate plea about why he's the chosen one. With deft delivery of complex lyrics and symbolism (a man asleep on a train), Jay tells the story of a man in search of his identity, a nomad who finds his home in hip-hop. When Jay drops the greatest Islamic rap reference ever, it's both a revelation as he discovers who he is and it's a straight up lyrical orgasm: "They call me Jay Electronica, fuck that/Call me Jay ElecHanukkah/Jay ElecYarmulke/Jay ElectRamadaan Muhammad Asalaamica/Rasoul Allah Subhanahu wa ta'ala through your monitor."
The song created a tremendous buzz for Jay, who failed to capitalize on it by ever delivering an album. But maybe he's better off. This song was a magical moment—one he nor any other rapper in the past five years could top. Maybe the best third act is a disappearing one. —Insanul Ahmed