The 20 Best Rappers in Their 20s (Right Now)

Young rappers run everything.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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They say rap is a young man’s game. Brash, loud, rebellious, puerile, it’s never been your grandparent’s music. While the sentiment becomes less true, perhaps, as hip-hop enters middle age and many of the genre’s most exciting acts—from superstars like Kanye West to rising rappers like Danny Brown to resurrected stars like Juicy J—are well over 30, rap culture is intrinsically tied to that new shit.

So looking at the crop of young MCs is crucial when assessing the overall health of hip-hop. As 2Pac said, “Say there ain't no hope for the youth and the truth is, it ain't no hope for the future.” With that in mind, we are happy to report, hip-hop’s future looks bright, even as the genre matures. Rap’s young generation is a diverse crop of artists hailing from all regions and all types of socio-economic backgrounds—making music that’s entertaining and vital.

Even as debates rage about who’s the best MC, rap fans often forget to define their terms. Before you can declare the best rapper of 2013, you might need to expand your definition of what a “rapper” is, as hip-hop extends its tentacles and expands its palate. Blame Kanye, probably, but the new generation is helping hip-hop evolve in ways previously unthinkable, as it continues to mutate the DNA of pop culture as a whole. With the splintering “niche-fication” of everything brought about by the Internet, rap has more room for ever for eccentricity and now boasts—for better or worse—a scattershot consciousness, and partisans tend to write off whatever they don’t like as not being “real.”

That’s why listing the best rappers isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Simply put: This is more an analysis of how well rappers in their 20s are cultivating their talent and fulfilling their potential than it is a ranking of pure skill. It’s a temporary thing, too, as any rapper on this list (well, except for No. 1, of course) could shoot up by dropping the right album, single, or even a dynamite guest verse. And of course, the perch at the top spots is precarious.

An important thing to keep in mind is that there are a number of talented rappers too young to make this list: Joey Bada$$, Earl Sweartshirt, Casey Veggies, and Chief Keef. And there are a number of rappers too old too make this list: Lupe Fiasco, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Curren$y, and many others.

So, without further ado, here are The 20 Best Rappers In Their 20s (Right Now).

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20. Kevin Gates

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19. Big K.R.I.T.

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18. French Montana

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Age: 28
Label: Coke Boys/Bad Boy/Maybach Music Group/Interscope
From: The Bronx, New York
Active Since: 2002
Latest Release: Excuse My French
Recent Single: "Freaks" f/ Nicki Minaj
French went from "that guy from the Cocaine City DVDs" to "Max's sidekick" to a star in his own right by following a tortoise-style path: Slow and steady. And his rise from New York underground artist to the toast of his native Bronx wasn't entirely predictable, either; the rapper's distinctive slur has given him national appeal at a time when many NYC rappers play to hometown crowds alone.

French has had a bevy of successful hits over the course of the last couple years, from the street anthem "Chopper Down" to the wheelhouse throwback sound of "Shot Caller" with producer Harry Fraud to the strip club anthem "Pop That." His sense for melody gives his gravelly choruses extra dramatic heft. And, when he wants to, the rapper has bars, despite all arguments to the contrary; witness his verse on 2012's "Headquarters," 2011's Casino Life outro, or 2010's "Money, Weed, Blow."

He's also got a major-label LP released, which is more than many of the other rappers on this list can say. What doesn't he have? A successful one, so far. French's first week sales were nominal, particularly for an artist with guests of the Nicki Minaj caliber.

French Montana indisputably belongs on this list; he just headlined Summer Jam and remains New York's biggest contemporary artist not named A$AP. But his recent LP, which felt like something of a concession to mainstream club sounds, feels more anonymous than a French Montana album should. —David Drake

RELATED: Episodes 1, 2, and 3 of The Combat Jack Show with French Montana
RELATED: A Guide to French Montana's Mixtapes

17. Ab-Soul

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Age: 26
Label: TDE/Interscope
From: Carson, California
Active Since: 2009
Latest Release: Control System
Recent Single: "Terrorist Threats" f/ Danny Brown & Jhene Aiko
Who says politically minded rap has to be focused on opening up the public’s "third eye?" Ab-Soul isn't one of the most popular rappers around by any means, but a few listens to some of his songs reveal that isn't a factor to him. The energy and passion he puts into his tracks are the types of qualities that can appeal to audiences outside the backpacker fan base.

This balance of hustle and political consciousness is in full display in "Ab-Souls Outro" off 2011’s Section.80. While succinctly tying together the album's themes, Ab-Soul touches on the inherent problems of President Obama's race, martial law, and enlightenment. It's not that he's able to get through those topics within the span of two verses that makes the performance exciting; it's that he's able to sound empowering instead of condescending and alienating.

The balance is also part of what makes last year's Control System such a standout. You got darts at the powers that be in "Terrorist Threats" and "A Rebellion," and there's the chest beating epics of "Illuminate" and "Soulo Ho3." The whole project ranges from desperate, to angry, to aggressive, and by the end of it you realize there's still a whole career ahead of him. And if your "third eye" opens, that's cool too. —Brian Josephs

16. Action Bronson

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Age: 29
Label: Vice/Warner Bros.
From: Queens, New York
Active Since: 2008
Latest ReleaseRare Chandeliers
Recent Single: "Strictly 4 My Jeeps"
Watching the video to "Strictly 4 My Jeeps" can be an odd experience if you're not up on the who's who of the rap game. There's a 280-plus pound man performing cartwheels, rolling in a Jeep, and doing this weird squatting/hip thrusting maneuver behind a rather large woman. And he cooks, too. Yep, that's the guy who's one of the most exciting rappers around.

Those who are already up on Action Bronson know this is hardly as crazy as it gets for the Albanian out of Queens; the true insanity lies in the lyrics. A listen to any one of his tracks will reveal a rap for rap's sake aesthetic, but what sets him apart is how he seems to always connect surreal imagery and out there references (when was the last time Barry Horowitz was relevant?) effortlessly in his verses. Whether it's through technical prowess, high-energy, or—as in most cases—both, Action Bronson just gets it done in accessible fashion. Claims like "People on my dick because I'm vicious with the diction” feel earned instead of pure shit talk because of this.

The man has a hell of an ear for beats, too. Brosolino has the charisma to carry a mixtape on his own, but his habit of sticking with one producer per project has paid dividends. Dr. Lecter with Tommy Mas bangs, and Blue Chips with Party Supplies is a chaotic piece of work that stands as not just as Bronson's masterworks, but one of NYC's finest. Rare Chandeliers with The Alchemist is also ripe with highlights. Odds say we got another banger on our hands when Saab Stories drops. —Brian Josephs

RELATED: Interview: Action Bronson Talks "Saab Stories," Doing Gymnastics, & Choking A Shark

15. Wiz Khalifa

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Age: 25
Label: Taylor Gang/Rostrum/Atlantic
From: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Active Since: 2005
Latest Release: Live In Concert
Recent Single: "Remember You" f/ The Weeknd
Never underestimate how far charisma can take you. After an initial deal with Warner Bros. fell through, Pittsburgh’s Wiz Khalifa got on his grind and released the independent album Deal or No Deal before breaking through in 2010 with the Kush & Orange Juice mixtape. The massive success of the “Black and Yellow” single led to a deal with Atlantic Records, and he dropped his major label debut Rolling Papers the following March. It sold well, but alienated some longtime fans, who felt that their pothead hero had gone pop.

Wiz responded the best (the only, really) way a rapper should: making better music. Last year, his Taylor Allderdice mixtape achieved a satisfying balance between the loose stoner charm that aided his rise and his slicker, more crafted commercial success. He capped off 2012 by releasing his O.N.I.F.C. album (that with the fantastically Hendrixian cover) and having the Pittsburgh City Council declare December 12th "Wiz Khalifa Day." (That's some boss shit; don't even front.)

Still, O.N.I.F.C. lacked the cohesion of Taylor Allerdice, and  the critics' arrows came out again. Wiz is obviously talented, but you get the feeling that he has yet to make the album he really wants to make.—Julian Kimble

RELATED: Wiz Khalifa: Balancing Act (2012 Cover Story)

14. Tyler, The Creator

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Age: 22
Label: Odd Future
From: Los Angeles
Active Since: 2007
Latest Release: Wolf
Recent Single: "IFHY" f/ Pharrell

Perhaps the moment that symbolically captured the semi-helter skelter tempo of a busy 2011 was when Tyler, The Creator and Hodgy Beats performed "Sandwitches" on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Part unrestrained nihilism, part raw energy, the duo made its national debut for the group that was "turning heads in the hip-hop world." About three minutes and a random Mos Def appearance later, a star was born. If the nation wasn't hip to Wolf Haley from when "Yonkers" dropped, they were now.

It's crazy to think some fans didn't catch on with "Yonkers.” It was a brilliant portrait of the paranoia and absurdities of the then-19-year-old's mind. Tyler seemed to come out of nowhere, but that minimalist beat and the ugliness of some of the lyrics managed to make the experience feel claustrophobic. Somehow it was still enjoyable at the same time, and the great accompanying video confirmed that this would be the kid to look out for.

That moment is part of the reason why Tyler's career feels sort of frustrating; he's only flirted with that level of greatness since then. Goblin had its moments ("Tron Cat," "She" f/ Frank Ocean, and of course "Sandwitches"), but the hits never really completely made up for the misses ("Bitch Suck Dick").

He still hasn't totally mastered the art of album making and Tyler hasn't established himself to a wider audience as of yet, but the fact that he's still improving should get people excited. Tyler's production chops have improved on Wolf, and tracks like "Rusty" and "IFHY" are among his best. Just how good can Wolf Haley get as he rides through his early 20s? —Brian Josephs

13. Macklemore

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Age: 29
Label: Macklemore LLC
From: Seattle
Active Since: 2000
Latest Release: The Heist
Recent Single: "Thirft Shop" f/ Wanz
It's been a long climb for Ben Haggerty, a.k.a. Macklemore. The Seattle-born MC has been plying his trade since the year 2000 (back when he was known as Professor Macklemore), steadily building a fanbase—with a short detour for drug and alcohol rehab in 2008—before hitting it big this past year with his producer Ryan Lewis. It’s been an amazing run. The pair sent not one but two songs, "Thrift Shop" and "Can't Hold Us,” to the top spot on the pop charts without a lick of major label support.

Macklemore’s not just independent in the sense of his label situation. He’s a free spirit who seems utterly uninterested in living up to the standard cliches of “cool” rapper behavior. Both an unabashed entertainer, unafraid to throw on a silly wig and a sparkly cape to get the crowd hype, and an earnest "edutainer" who has railed against drug use on his song "Otherside” and endorsed the right to gay marriage with "Same Love."

He backs it all up with impeccable rhyme skills—honed by years of tireless touring—and a wicked pen game. Although he counts Aceyalone and Freestyle Fellowship as key influences, Macklemore is strictly one of a kind. —Rob Kenner

RELATED: 10 Artists You Should Listen To If You Like Macklemore
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12. Wale

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Age: 28
Label: Maybach Music Group/Atlantic
From: Washington, D.C.
Active Since: 2005
Latest Release: Folarin
Recent Single: "Bad" f/ Tiara Thomas
As much criticism Wale gets for neglecting his “real fans,” it’s painstakingly clear that the 28-year-old rapper is aware of his artistic predicament (check his Twitter if you think otherwise). This is also reflected in his music, with the latest single from his upcoming album The Gifted observing the perceptive frequency of his career, “Love you, then they hate you, then they love you again/Hate you, then they love you, then they hate you again.”

Wale is a mercurial artist. Once resolute with the vibrant themes of “Nike Boots” and “W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E.,” as well as an inclination for go-go drums earlier in his career, he has recently become entrenched in a musical approach that draws inspiration from fellow Maybach Music Group luminary, Rick Ross. It’s a stylistic shift that has benefited the D.C. rapper, if not allowed him the freedom to work more comfortably without the calamitous pressures of a major label. Lest we forget, there was a time when he couldn’t move units with the biggest pop star in the world.

Now, mainstream appeal is a foregone conclusion for Wale, which he’s catered toward a female-centric audience (“Lotus Flower Bomb” or “Bad” should ring a bell). It may not be the lane he originally intended to maneuver within, but he’s owned it. Along those lines, Wale’s presence as a formidable guest feature is also evident, with new and old acts alike soliciting his services.

And in his defense, this hasn’t watered down Wale’s prowess on the microphone in the least. In 2012 alone, he gave “Cashin’ Out” a brilliantly poetic makeover, obliterated Big Sean on “Life Should Go On,” and came through in the clutch with the December release of Folarin, not to mention the fact that he took advantage of the limelight with the Self Made compilations. His sophomore album, Ambition, picked up a gold plaque, and his name now meets a certain standard of lyricism and commercial aesthetic not many can replicate.

Wale’s deviant strategy may not be the most pleasant from an outsider’s standpoint (lose one fan, gain two), but the compromise is clearly in the rapper’s favor at the moment. If that’s the case, maybe his actions are simply a self-fulfilling prophecy. “You made me what I am, you made me what I'm not/They gon' love you a little different when you at the top.” Over time, Wale's learned there’s levels to this rap game. If he keeps it up, he just might keep moving up. —Edwin Ortiz

RELATED: Wale's 25 Favorite Rap Albums

11. Meek Mill

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Age: 26
Label: Maybach Music Group/Atlantic
From: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Active Since: 2005
Latest Release: Dreams and Nightmares
Recent Single: "Levels"
Urgency. That's Meek Mill's greatest strength. The urgency in his voice. The way you could practically see his eyes widening, bugging with intensity, and almost feel him leaning into the mic when you first heard him rhyme over the depth-charge beats and click-clack percussion and triumphant fountains of synth that filled his Dreamchasers mixtapes.

Remember the snippet of Mike Tyson ranting that started the second installment? "I'm ferocious, I want your heart, I want to eat his children, praise be to Allah!" Like that. That's Meek's style in a nutshell: hungry, passionate, dangerous. So it was a little disappointing to hear the tamer tones that marked his official debut album, Dreams and Nightmares when it came out through MMG/Warner Bros. last year.

Alongside winners like "Believe It" and "Amen" and, best of all, "Burn" featuring Big Sean, we had to endure a clumsier-sounding Meek trying his hand at Don-Juanism over softer, soggier R&B-tinged material like "Lay Up" and "Who You Around." Here's hoping he sticks to the hard stuff on his next project—the highly anticipated Dreamchasers 3—and leaves the loverman raps to Wale. —Dave Bry

RELATED: Chain Heavy: Meek Mill and the Cost of Success

10. Kid Cudi

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Age: 29
Label: Wicked Awesome/Republic
From: Cleveland, Ohio
Active Since: 2003
Latest Release: Indicud
Recent Single: "Just What I Am"
Four years since Scott "Kid" Mescudi came on the scene with the likes of Ace Hood, Asher Roth, B.O.B., and Wale, it’s difficult to put him in context with his peers. Cudi’s career has taken enough twists and turns to make him the most complicated artist on this list.

After his two albums, 2009’s Man on The Moon: End of the Day and 2010’s Man on The Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, combined to sell more than a million copies, he took a hard left, flouting hip-hop norms with WZRD, a rock collaboration with longtime friend/producer Dot Da Genius, and the experimental, self-produced Indicud. Is it rap? Is it rock? No, it’s just an artist following his muse, concocting tracks to the beat of his Maschine drum pad.

One thing that’s for sure is that Cudi has a rabid fan-base. With virtually zero press or radio play, Indicud sold 140,000 copies its first week. Are his moves puzzling at times? Yes. But in recent years, Cudi has put straight up "rapping" on the backburner to focus on other ventures like acting, producing, and rocking out. So the next time you find yourself scratching your head, just know it’s all part of the method to Cudi’s madness. —Joe La Puma

RELATED: Born Again: Kid Cudi Talks Making Indicud, Leaving G.O.O.D. Music, and Where He Goes From Here

9. Future

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Age: 29
Label: Freebandz/A1/Epic
From: Atlanta, Georgia
Active Since: 2009
Latest Release: Black Woodstock
Recent Single: "Karate Chop" f/ Lil Wayne
Hit after hit after hit: "Tony Montana,” “Same Damn Time,” “Magic,” "Turn On The Lights,” "Karate Chop.” A year since Future dropped his first album, Pluto, the ATLien rapper/singer shows no signs of letting up. From his own material, to guest spots, whether crooning the chorus on Rihanna's "Loveeeeeeee Song," barking the hook for Ace Hood’s “Bugatti,” or spitting a verse with Wayne on "Karate Chop”—everything that Future has touched has turned gold.

On recent mixtapes like F.B.G.: The Movie he’s featured a growing army of artists who emulate his sound—seems like he might be setting up a sing-songy, Autotuned empire. We've been salivating over the prospects of his second album, Future Hendrix, for months—wondering if he’s going to be able to keep his hot streak going. Will he change direction? Push himself more towards rap, or R&B? Or continue to blur boundaries. Plus we really want to see the album artwork. —Lauren Nostro

RELATED: Future: To Infinity and Beyond

8. Chance The Rapper

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Age: 20
Label: N/A
From: Chicago
Active Since: 2012
Latest Release: Acid Rap
Recent Single: "Juice"
Chancelor “Chance The Rapper” Bennet has popped onto the national radar over the last month, thanks to his critically acclaimed Acid Rap mixtape. But his inclusion on this list is less the result of the hype than it is the tremendous growth he's shown.

Though it came and went largely undetected last year, 10 Day, Chance’s previous tape, was a solid effort of its own. But Chance took his rawer, more emotive early material and polished it until it shines like the vivid writing that marks “Acid Rain,” a wistful, stream-of-consciousness exploration of the difference between grown-up life and childhood. “My weed seedless,” Chance says, “My trees leafless/I miss my diagonal grilled cheeses.”

Only 20 years old, Chance is really still just a kid. But one who can make you catch your breath at the cleverness of a couplet, craft catchy hooks, and rock one of the best live sets in the game. Someone who projects himself through his music as a person who is genuinely excited about where his talent has taken him thus far. And where it’s sure to lead him next. —Dharmic X

RELATED: What Makes Chance The Rapper's New Tape So Hot? 

7. Mac Miller

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Age: 21
Label: Rostrum
From: Pittsburgh
Active Since: 2007
Latest Release: Macadelic
Recent Single: "SDS"
Everything about Mac Miller is to the extreme. He’s got an extremely dedicated fanbase that buys his albums, goes to his shows, and watches his TV show. On the other end of the spectrum, he’s extremely hated by rap fans who question his skills and write off his success as white privilege. But here’s a reminder to everyone who hates on him and says he’s only successful because he’s white: You only hate him because he’s successful.

If Mac was only mildly successful, like say a T. Mills (who has over 600,000 likes on Facebook even though we couldn't name a single song of his) or one of the growing legion of white rappers who get no blog love but manage to move units independently, he wouldn't receive the hate he does. Instead, in 2011 his debut album, Blue Slide Park, became the first independent album to debut at No. 1 in over a decade. Oh, and in 2012 Forbes claimed he made $6.5 million.

Mac has managed to ascend beyond most of his white rapper contemporaries and into the general rap consciousness, not just because he’s successful but because he’s a perfectly capable rapper. It’s come with tribulations but like Marlo Stanfield once said about the crown, “The point is they wore it.” No one said it was going to be easy.

Yet, as our cover story from earlier this year revealed, Mac is acutely aware of his perception. He’s moved to Los Angeles and has been working nonstop on his sophomore set, Watching Movies With The Sound Off. And he’s been hanging out with a new crowd of rappers from TDE and Odd Future as well as producers like Flying Lotus and Pharrell. He’s spoken about a dedication to the craft of MCing and has a genuine longing to be respected.

That’s why Mac has the most to gain with the impending June 18 showdown. Kanye is already a legend, Cole is well respected. Both of them have the prestige Mac sorely craves. If Mac can release an album that shows considerable growth both musically and lyrically while maintaining his fanbase, he can finally quell the haters. You can question whether or not he’ll hit the mark, but remember we’re talking about a guy who has accomplished every goal he ever set. —Insanul Ahmed

RELATED: 25 Things You Didn't Know About Mac Miller

6. ScHoolboy Q

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Age: 26
Label: TDE/Interscope
From: Los Angeles, California
Active Since: 2008
Latest Release: Habits & Contradictions
Recent Single: "Yay Yay"
Quietly, there are some of us who, despite the masterful artistry on display all over last year's consensus "best rap album in the universe," good kid, m.A.A.d. city, actually preferred the darker, druggier sounds of Habits & Contradictions, the debut of Kendrick Lamar's Top Dawg Entertainment stablemate Schoolboy Q.

Schoolboy may not be a lyricist on the level of Lamar (he's not, at least not yet; his rhymes lack the thematic breadth and emotional depth of his more famous colleague's), but there's something about his music that's more inviting—a looseness, maybe, a hazy, narcotic vibe that better lets shine a distinctly, definitively Californian charisma.

Half goofball/half tough-guy, Schoolboy charms and chills in equal measure. And judging from the seething, sinuous awesomeness of "Yay Yay," the first song we've heard from the upcoming Oxymoron album, he's got more of the same in store. —Dave Bry

RELATED: Mac Miller, ScHoolBoy Q and Action Bronson's Hilarious Vine War
RELATED: Interview: ScHoolboy Q Talks Bucket Hats & Taking DMT

5. A$AP Rocky

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Age: 24
Label: A$AP Worldwide/Polo Grounds/RCA
From: Harlem, New York
Active Since: 2007
Latest Release: Long. Live. ASAP
Recent Single: "Wild For The Night" f/ Skrillex & Birdy Nam Nam
We were so excited when A$AP Rocky first hit the scene with “Purple Swag” and “Pe$o” in 2011. Great music, great songs, great videos. He had the vision, the aesthetic, the look, the charisma, the rhymes—the full package to achieve rap superstardom.

Sure enough, his debut mixtape, Live. Love. ASAP, delivered on the promise, and his first full album, Long. Live. ASAP hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200. Yet, somehow, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Rocky has underperformed. We’ve never questioned his microphone technique. His flow is smooth as purple syrup pouring into a Sprite bottle, the beats he chooses, state-of-the-art.

What’s troubling about Rocky is that, despite releasing an all-around solid album, he wasn’t able to expand his scope. Effortless stardom isn’t an excuse for passivity. He needs to challenge himself, and make music that goes beyond the magic of those first early singles.

Rocky’s rhymes are consistently good, but never yet great. He needs to drop our jaws with a blackout verse. Spit some shit like we’ve never heard before. He’s definitely a star. He’s done everything right so far. But it would suck to think he’s already reached his ceiling. —Insanul Ahmed

RELATED: A$AP Rocky's 25 Favorite Albums

4. Big Sean

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Age: 25
Label: G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam
From: Detroit, Michigan
Active Since: 2005
Latest Release: Detroit
Recent Single: "Guap"
Back in 2005, Sean Michael Anderson heard Kanye West was in town. The 17-year-old Detroit native wasted no time running up on Ye at a local radio station and spit him his best freestyle. Whether it was the kid's rhymes that impressed Kanye or his sheer hustle doesn't really matter now. The bottom line is Sean got down with G.O.O.D. Music.

"I would be nervous around him," Sean remembered in a Complex interview last July. "He was my idol. So, for a couple years, I didn’t know what I was doing. If you listen to a lot of my early mixtapes, you’ll see I was rapping like Kanye because I didn’t have my own identity. Now, I’ve got my own ad-libs, my own wittiness."

Big Sean has come a long way since then, turning in scene-stealing verses on star-studded posse cuts like "Mercy" and "Clique." In the process he has established his own distinctive, conversational flow—displaying an appeal that’s outlasted the “hashtag rap” style he pioneered as a mixtape artist and proving that he wasn't just talking reckless when he said: "I knew I could be the greatest. I was listening to Jay. I was listening to Wayne. I was like, 'Man, I can do that. I could do it better than them.’”

Recently, Sean’s kept his standards high with standout cuts like "Mula" off his Detroit mixtape and "Guap" off his forthcoming sophomore album Hall of Fame, swerving very comfortably into his own lane. —Rob Kenner

RELATED: Big Sean's 25 Favorite Albums

3. J. Cole

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Age: 28
Label: Roc Nation/Columbia
From: Fayetteville, North Carolina
Active Since: 2007
Latest Release: Truly Yours 2
Recent Single: "Power Trip" f/ Miguel
What good is being "The One" when you're the only one that knows it?"

Jermaine Cole pondered this on the intro to his Friday Night Lights mixtape in November of 2010 before launching into "Too Deep for the Intro," a soul-searching catalogue of his first 25 years on this planet. A year after becoming the first signee to Jay-Z's Roc Nation label, J. Cole still had that underdog mentality; that fire burning inside of every high school bench-rider who knows he should be in the game.

Finally, in September of 2011, he found himself center stage. Cole World: The Sideline Story sold 218,000 copies its first week out, topping the charts and surprising many doubters on the way to earning Cole a nomination for Best New Artist at the Grammys.

Earlier this month, he surprised people again, boldly announcing that he would release his second album, Born Sinner, on June 18—the same the same day that Kanye West returns with Yeezus. It may seem crazy, but it's a testament to the confidence and competitive nature he cultivated on the basketball court at Fayetteville, North Carolina’s Terry Sanford High School. Even after tasting success, Cole still raps with the hunger of an artist whose moment has yet to come. —Julian Kimble

RELATED: The Making of J. Cole's Cole World: The Sideline Story

2. Drake

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Age: 26

Label: Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Republic

From: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Active Since: 2006

Latest Release: Take Care

Recent Single: "Started From The Bottom"

We recently called Drake the LeBron James of hip-hop, a comparison that seems more apt by the day. Like LeBron in the 3rd quarter of Game 5 against the Pacers, when Drake harnesses his powers he can seemingly do anything he wants to do. In today’s pop landscape, crossover hip-hop hits are something of an anomaly. Drake notches one after another, with apparent ease.

In fact, he’s become a graceful facilitator, rap’s new kingmaker, bestowing his Midas touch on any lucky collaborator. Or, as he put it in his recent single, “5 AM in Toronto”: “Give these niggas the look, the verse, and even the hook/That's why every song sound like Drake featuring Drake...”

As expected, there’s been a backlash. People (sometimes even us) find fault with his outfits, his hand gestures, his haughtiness, his upbringing. You can call him emo, say he’s more of a singer than a rapper, or that he’s an actor and not even a rapper at all. But honestly, who can see him on the microphone? Drake isn’t the most dexterous MC and he doesn’t have the biggest vocabulary, but he says more in each of his verses than just about any of his peers.

His main subject matter is, increasingly, his own fame. But he has an uncanny ability to render his own unique situation into relatable, if not quite sympathetic, narrative. His fame is not a gimmick. His success is hard earned; his status well deserved.

There’s no album not named after the son of God more highly anticipated than his forthcoming Nothing Was the Same. The snark from sidelines will continue, no doubt, but like he says on “Lord Knows,” “I know of all the things that I hear they be poking fun at/Never the flow though, they know I run that/Fuck you all, I claim that whenever/I changed rap forever.”

A bold claim. But it’s legit. —Insanul Ahmed

RELATED: The 50 Best Drake Songs

1. Kendrick Lamar

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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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