Who is the King of Rap? Greatest Hip Hop Artists of All Time!

Author: Brian Campbell | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

I firmly believe that hip-hop was one of the most important artistic movements of the twentieth century, and remains equally important today. It’s a beautiful mix of many, deeply human things.

It is of course a form of music. But it’s also pure rhythm, poetry, pedagogy, history, competition, culture, and expression that remains both uniquely black yet universal in its messages.

In this article, I list 18 hip-hop musicians who exemplify hip-hop as world-changing, positive, and thought-provoking music. As with any “greatest of all time list,” it can’t really be definitive. Personal taste does play a big part, and the term “artist” can be taken in a lot of ways.

So, if you’re looking for a definitive answer to ‘who’s the king of rap?‘, I can only refer to Eminem because he was given that title by the Rolling Stone magazine back in 2011. They took into account album sales, among other ways of measuring popularity.

With equal parts taste and objectivity, to the best of my ability, here’s my list!

The Obvious Guys

2Pac

With an unmatched charisma and conviction for justice, Tupac was quickly able to bring his raw emotions and intellect to the musical limelight. He was incredibly perceptive of others’ characters and power systems, and used his music to bring racial injustice to light.

While Tupac might not have had the same verbal creativity as other emcees, his deeply human raps fought for justice without ever sounding contrived.

Tragically killed at 25, we wonder how the world would look if he was alive today at 51. His music transcends music itself, and I believe he deserves to be studied alongside the likes of Malcolm X and Zora Neale Hurston.

The Notorious B.I.G.

Nicknamed Biggie Smalls, the Notorious B.I.G. didn’t wax philosophy like 2Pac or point fingers like Ice Cube.

And that’s okay because he didn’t have to. His gritty storytelling spoke for itself. We can have all the deep thoughts in the world, but at the end of it all, what do we do?

We live our lives, which are preserved in memories and narratives.

Biggie understood this and made you experience his convictions and street life through his stories. He didn’t have to spell out social commentary because he narrated it. He showed you the daily hustle of a drug dealer, minute by minute.

Speaking from personal experience, he wasn’t censoring it or glorifying it. Instead, he was forcing you to grapple with what it meant to be an underprivileged black male in America.

Pair this ethos with his remarkable knack for wordplay, and you have art that will last for centuries!

Jay-Z

Jay-Z is one of the hip-hop legends of the 90s, and he continues to record and impact the industry today. He remains relevant because of his timeless lyrics and acumen for business.

He has always been more than a musician. Growing up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects, he understood the price and value of fighting for equality, representation, and rights.

Using that relentless drive, he became one of America’s leading businessmen. His lyrics reflect on a true-life rags-to-riches story, complete with all the contradictions and dilemmas America brings with it.

Many rappers brag to brag. Jay-Z raps about wealth because he earned and fought for it, and wants to use his money and talents to inspire others to do likewise.

Nas

As a school-hating yet intellectual child, Nas dreamed of making music that spoke his innermost thoughts and experiences. Sincerity took first place, popularity second.

Nas is famous for his storytelling, much like Biggie. However, Nas tends to make his narratives more stream-of-conscious, introspective, and “expressionist,” focusing more on moods and vibes than gritty details.

Nas’s debut Illmatic was released when he was 21, with the majority being written when he was only 18. Dense with provoking ideas and observations, it’s a document that belongs next to a Dickensian novel.

Eminem

Slightly newer on the scene than the others in the “obvious guys” list, Eminem has been dubbed the ‘King of Rap’ by various publications. Ever since his first LP in 2000, he has drastically changed what rap could talk about and who it could appeal to.

Much like Rakim and Biggie, Eminem has an incredible knack for wordplay. He took the ingenuity of Rakim, ramped up its speed, and colored it with an erratic personality. He is arguably the most gifted wordsmith in hip-hop’s history, both in wordplay and verbal technique.

As evidence, his song “Rap God” is officially the fastest rap song ever recorded, with him spitting 9.6 syllables per second in the second verse! He also gets really ticked if you tell him nothing rhymes with orange (watch below).

Lastly, Eminem paved the way for a new brand of rap lyrics that were confessional, dark, and uncensored. Of course, hip-hop always had its share of controversial lyrics and violent content. However, Eminem made his lyrics disturbingly introspective in a new way, often focusing on dark thoughts and personal trauma.

Old School Guys

Grandmaster Flash

Hip-hop started as simplistic dance music with simple spoken rhyme. It started on the streets as a way for inner-city youth to unwind.

Grandmaster Flash and his crew, the Furious Five, changed this. They released “The Message” back in 1982, and its biting commentary remains as relevant today as it did then.

Rakim

Rakim stands out as one of hip-hop’s most creative wordsmiths. Take every poetic device and rhyming scheme, and you’re sure to find it in his lyrics.

In a sense, Rakim’s rhymes are a microcosm of “the hustle.” On the surface, they’re braggadocio. Underneath though, you see a poet using wordsmithing as a larger metaphor for making your way in this world.

Plus, it’s worth noting that Rakim’s music is some of the cleanest in hip-hop. While language and content are a topic for another article, Rakim managed to make stellar hip-hop that was family-friendly.

Chuck D

Chuck D is the founder of the legendary rap group Public Enemy. Public Enemy burst onto the scene as hip-hop’s most vocal, volatile, and abrasively political groups.

Political music can be perceived as dangerous, overly angry, and overly whiney without grounded arguments. Not so with Chuck D. He grounds his lyrics on real political ideas and thought-out goals and uses his music as a loudspeaker for black communities.

Funnily enough, Chuck D’s well-grounded ideas are often labeled even more dangerous and angry because of this. That’s only because the authorities are afraid and know that he’s right!

Ice Cube

As a founding member of N.W.A, Ice Cube is known for his gut-punch lyrics that are direct, confrontive, and angry.

N.W.A. remains controversial for its lyrics that appear to glorify criminal behavior.

Those in favor of N.W.A. say they’re narrating the realities of inner-city life. Detractors say their explicit, detailed lyrics are unnecessary and provocative.

No matter your opinion, here’s something to consider; during interviews and conversations, Ice Cube is one of the sincerest, calm, and politically aware people you will find.

His “Ice Cube” persona is just that – a persona, used to comment, reflect, and provoke.

Ms. Lauryn Hill

Ms. Lauryn Hill’s talent is immense by itself, but her crowning achievement is her studio album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

Hill’s album title is a reference to The Mis-Education of the Negro, a book that illustrated how American culture and education had repeatedly failed black communities. Hill took this idea and made it personal, pondering on negative ideas that she was unknowingly forced to believe as a child, simply because of her skin.

Although it might sound depressing and painful, Miseducation is the absolute opposite. Miseducation will live on not as a depressing account of racism, but as a deeply empowering and positive manifesto.

Kendrick Lamar

 

If there was one modern-day rapper that people would say is carrying on 2Pac’s legacy, it’s Kendrick Lamar. Never afraid to voice his perspective on matters, Lamar remains deeply grounded in humility, introspection, and an open mind.

Lamar made waves with every album he released. To me, his greatness lies in his ability to create characters and albums that are as rich as entire novels.

Oh yeah, and DAMN. won a Pulitzer. No big deal.

The Underground Guys

Black Star

Okay, I kind of cheated here. Black Star is a duo, consisting of Talib Kweli and Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey). Like Nas, they decided that intellectual pursuit would take the front seat, and popularity would be a byproduct.

Black Star’s only album Talib Kweli & Mos Def Are Black Star (creative title, I know) muses deeply on black consciousness, self-awareness, and history. Like James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon, they purposely reference outside sources, which all come from the African American creative canon.

Black Star fuses astounding wordplay with densely layered meanings and references, all of which will give you a college course’s worth of psychology and history if you let it!

MF Doom

I’ll be honest, MF Doom isn’t my favorite. But that’s okay because he’s still extremely talented!

For MF Doom, everything is secondary to creating flawless lines of wordplay. To him, the rhyme schemes and assonance, and iambic pentameter are the reason he writes.

To some, that can be hard to understand, since he isn’t always telling stories or cohesive thoughts. However, his astounding creativity still ranks him among the best in hip-hop.

The Producers

RZA

Rappers get most of the limelight in hip-hop, but they wouldn’t get anywhere without the producers that make their beats. The best producers are able to create hooks, layer beats, and sample tunes that perfectly compliment the rapper’s tone and message.

For the supergroup The Wu-Tang Clan, RZA was the obvious choice.

RZA was a music and television nerd and used those passions to create unrefined, unpolished beats for the Wu-Tang Clan. These beats perfectly matched the Clan’s stories of murder, drug dealing, and strife.

Using anything he could – from scratched-up vinyl to PVC pipes – RZA’s beats manifest the fighting spirit of hip-hop at its most raw.

J Dilla

J Dilla is often regarded as hip-hop’s greatest producer. In fact, he’s so influential that the Smithsonian Institute decided to put his drum machine on display alongside Jimi Hendrix’s vest!

J Dilla was the closest a producer ever got to a “classical” composer, without formal training. By using every tool his machine offered him, and breaking a TOOOON of unspoken rules, J Dilla broke ground in the production scene as much as atonalists and modernists did in classical music.

Kanye West

Love him or hate him, Kanye West is a remarkable producer. Like J Dilla, he has a remarkable ear that knows how to blend beats and samples perfectly.

From my perspective, hip-hop beats before Kanye focused heavily on the beat. This makes sense since hip-hop is fueled by propulsive beats (I know, it’s almost too obvious to say …)

However, Kanye was able to keep the beat and make instruments and singing equally important to the overall effect. Even if he doesn’t sample as much soul as he did twenty years ago, Kanye West still uses genius sound design to make his songs inherently musical.

Conclusion

While there are many more hip-hop artists I could name, I will stop at those few. Hopefully, this list gave you a good primer on obvious names, as well as some less popular ones.

As you listen to hip-hop, make sure to look at the bigger picture of history, American ideals, and race. The best artists and tunes always will.

Until next time, enjoy listening to some new tunes, and always, ALWAYS have fun!

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About Brian Campbell

Brian has been playing piano since elementary school and started learning guitar in 7th grade. He teaches K-8 students in Columbus, Ohio, and writes lessons covering a broad spectrum of genres. As a child, he moved back and forth between Colorado and West Africa. He credits those experiences with opening his eyes to the cultural and artistic diversity he appreciates today. Several of his favorite musicians include J.S. Bach, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Radiohead. When not doing music and teaching, you can find Brian reading, hiking, traveling, or making just one more shot of espresso.

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