At least twice each year at Complex—once in June, and again in December—we huddle in a conference room and yell at each other about the year’s very best songs.

While the overall discussion of these mid-year and year-end rankings is contentious, rap’s so-called Song of the Year is, usually, pretty obvious. It’s whatever song has most blatantly dominated the radio playlists and radicalized the dance floor in a given year. It’s the song that you can’t escape and, in any case, wouldn’t want to. Like “In da Club” in 2003, for instance, when 50 Cent and G-Unit had a yearlong chokehold on the culture.

Since we’ve only been publishing online content since 2007, however, these debates only go back so far. Until now.

This year, we’ve debated the past all the way back to 1979, the year of hip-hop’s commercial birth, as we did for our Best Rapper Alive list. From the post-disco flex of the Sugarhill Gang, Soulsonic Force, and the Furious Five; through the big-bang, rock-rap explosion of Run-DMC and LL Cool J; and onward through a quarter century of continued evolution, regional rivalry, mass-market expansion, and post-Napster contraction—hip-hop’s core sounds, techniques, and audience have evolved with each passing year. Note that the best rap songs of 1979, 1989, 1999, and 2009 sound nearly nothing like one another.

Megastars, they rise and fall, but their biggest, genre-defining hits are (hopefully) timeless. Here we present the Best Rap Song, Every Year Since 1979. These diamonds are forever.

Listen to these songs on Spotify.

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