CLEVELAND, Ohio – According to DJ Kool Herc (the man who founded the genre), hip hop began in 1971 with free and peaceful music parties in the Bronx aimed at bringing an end to the violence that was plaguing the Black community.
It was there Herc laid the blueprint for hip hop music by focusing on the “break” of the record and looping the short percussion part of a song that got the party moving. From there, aspiring emcees began rapping over the beat. The rest, as they say, is history.
It’s incredible to think that’s hip hop is that old. In many ways, it still feels like a child that’s still growing up. Much of what rap sounds like today isn’t what it sounded like, say, 20 years ago. Of course, that’s part of the beauty.
It makes ranking the greatest hip-hop songs of all time a tough endeavor. You’re comparing different genres, trends and sounds that, at times, couldn’t sound more different. But we gave it a shot anyway. Hip hop, after all, has driven barbershop debates for decades. So why stop now? Without further ado, these are the breaks:
200. Mobb Deep feat. Lil’ Kim – “Quiet Storm (Remix)” (1999)
No one makes threatening anthems quite like Mobb Deep. Horrorcore rap suited the duo so well and somehow it was accessible. The original version of “Quiet Storm” is a serious banger. But the remix gets the Lil’ Kim treatment. Even next to two very skilled emcees in Prodigy and Havoc, Kim delivers her best guest verse since “All About the Benjamins”: It’s the Q to the B, with the M-O, B-B/Queensbridge Brooklyn and we’re D-double-E-P.”
199. JVC Force – “Strong Island” (1987)
JVC Force proved to be heroes of late 1980s boom-bap off the strength of one single “Strong Island” (though the group’s album “Doin’ Damage” is criminally underrated). “Strong Island” has a playful vibe that occasionally hinges on going berserk. But that was the fun of it, showcasing a more casual style of hip hop that would enter the mainstream through groups like De La Soul and the rest of Native Tongues.
198. Kendrick Lamar feat. Jay Rock – “Money Trees” (2012)
Kendrick Lamar doesn’t bother doing much complex rapping on “Money Trees,” because he doesn’t have to. He’s already armed with one of the great catchphrases of his career in “It go Halle Berry or hallelujah.” Lamar also has a secret weapon in the form of Jay Rock, his labelmate who drives in with one of the best guest verses in rap history.
197. Big Daddy Kane – “Set It Off” (1988)
Though they often featured stellar samples, beats were secondary when it came to Big Daddy Kane songs. This is proven at the opening of “Set It Off.” Kane could spit acapella and you would hang on every word. His speed rap style was mesmerizing, peaking on “Set It Off,” the kind of lyrical showcase that made him an instant legend.
196. Missy Elliott – “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (1997)
First impressions are everything and it’s hard to shake the image of Missy Elliott in a garbage bag in the video for “The Rain.” After all, a one-of-a-kind song deserves a one-of-a-kind video. Timbaland’s production on the song is more Avant-funk than hip hop. And Elliott knows how to cascade around it. The result is a debut single that leaves you in an epic trance.
195. LL Cool J – “I’m Bad” (1987)
Everything about “I’m Bad” is iconic. It’s LL Cool J’s definitive, swaggering statement as a lyricist and the first thing that should come to mind when you think of peak LL. The lead single from “Bigger and Deffer” found LL stepping into a new era with the lyrical force of a typhoon. He was rap’s biggest solo star and no one could touch him.
194. Queen Latifah feat. Monie Love – “Ladies First” (1989)
“Ladies First” is, in part, a history lesson. Coming out of the 1990s, artists like Queen Latifah and Monie Love wanted to educate younger generations on the roles women have played in music and history in general. As a result, “Ladies First” becomes a feminist anthem that boldly challenges the idea of who women are in hip hop, kicking down a wall that had sadly existed for quite some time.
193. Jay-Z – “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” (1998)
Jay-Z has released a lot of big songs and albums since 1998. So it’s easy to forget what he was (or what he wasn’t) before “Hard Knock Life.” Shawn Carter was a gifted lyricist, no doubt. But he had yet to scale rap’s mountain. “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” and its genius “Annie” sample instantly allowed Jay to fill the void left by the deaths of Biggie and 2Pac. Songs rarely unite generations like this to the point where your parents were asking you about that rapper who was rapping about their favorite musical.
192. Whodini – “Freaks Come Out at Night” (1984)
Back when rappers were dead set on either spitting harsh rhymes or dancefloor anthems, Whodini began injecting R&B and funk elements into its hip hop songs. That style peaks on “Freaks Come Out at Night,” a sonic force of nature that would appeal to fans of other genres and create a catchphrase you couldn’t escape in New York.
191. P.M. Dawn – “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” (1991)
It’s easy to go to the word bliss when describing P.M. Dawn’s big hit. But that’s exactly what the song is. P.M. Dawn wasn’t the most welcomed act in hip hop after a while, which is a shame. The duo’s mix of rap, soul and pop would help bring alternative rap into the mainstream at the start of the 1990s. And unlike other pop-rap hits, there was disputing “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” as art.
190. Lil Wayne – “I Feel Like Dying” (2007)
At the peak of his lyrical wizardry, Lil Wayne’s most influential track is a song that features a stream of consciousness narrative about drug use that would reshape the role drugs played in rap music. To say “I Feel Like Dying” is candid (“Only once the drugs are gone, I feel like dying…”) is an understatement. For better or worse, Wayne’s song spoke to an entire generation of hip hop artists who also used weed, molly and Lean, who felt inspired to share their experiences as well. Whether it was the honesty or the raw effects of being “a prisoner locked up behind Xanax bars,” “I Feel Like Dying” influenced some of the biggest hip tracks of the last decade-plus in hip hop.
189. Marley Marl feat. Masta Ace, Craig G, Kool G Rap & Big Daddy Kane – “The Symphony” (1988)
“I don’t care who’s first or who’s last…” “The Symphony” is hip hop’s first great posse cut. Marley Marl brings together four legendary emcees that try and outperform each other over a piano-driven beat. You could make the case the verses get better as the song goes on. But for Kool G Rap, in a star-making turn, takes the top spot in the song, barely edging out Big Daddy Kane. Let the debate rage on.
188. The Notorious B.I.G. – “Hypnotize” (1997)
“Hypnotize” was supposed to be a celebration. The song certainly presents as such. Biggie brags about his rise to the top of the rap game over Herb Alpert’s jazz song “Rise.” The Notorious B.I.G.’s catchy anthem was the lead single from “Life After Death” and went to No. 1. However, B.I.G. didn’t get to see it as he was murdered a week after the track’s release.
187. Beastie Boys – “No Sleep till Brooklyn” (1987)
Every great New York City rap act has to have a song dedicated to its city. And Beastie Boys have one of the best. “Fight for Your Right” may have been the Beastie Boys’ great party record. But “No Sleep till Brooklyn” is the proper showcase of why the group was so popular. It helps when Rick Rubin’s production ramps up the guitars, leading to a shouting chorus that the Beastie Boys would use as a show closer for years.
186. Naughty by Nature – “O.P.P.” (1991)
Right from the opening piano melody, you know “O.P.P.” is a hit. Puff Daddy wasn’t the first to sample melodic pop songs make them for a gangsta rap song. Naughty by Nature was doing it at the start of the 1990s. “O.P.P.” rides a sample of the Jackson 5′s “ABC” as Treach hops into his wicked fast flow to not only sing about sex but create an infectious hook that became a pop-culture slogan.
185. Big K.R.I.T. – “Mt. Olympus” (2014)
While everyone was obsessing over Kendrick Lamar’s verse on Big Sean’s “Control,” Big K.R.I.T. was preparing his response. He didn’t feel disrespected by Lamar in particular, but more so the how the South was being ignored in rap in the 2010s. As the fiery “Mt. Olympus” attests, K.R.I.T. and other Southern rappers had been spitting fire for years and no one cared until “Control.” So what did K.R.I.T. do? Release a way better track.
184. Wu-Tang Clan – “Triumph” (1997)
Fans had to wait four years for another Wu-Tang Clan group album. Whether “Wu-Tang Forever” lived up to the hype is an interesting debate. But its first single lit a lyrical storm in the rap community. The beat on “Triumph” is more subtle than anything featured on “Enter the Wu-Tang.” It’s a wise choice, giving each Wu member, many of whom had already released stellar solo albums, room to unleash some of the most glorious rhymes of their career. The track is also historic. Thanks to an intro and interlude from ODB and a verse from Cappadonna, it stands as the only song to feature every Wu member released on a proper album.
183. Migos – “Versace” (2013)
“Versace” is where contemporary trap rap (some call it mumble rap) took its place atop the hip hop world. The number of artists who started rapping like Migos after the release of the song (and Drake’s remix) was countless. It’s what made the opening lines of “Bad and Boujee” so true: “We ain’t really never had no old money/We got a whole lotta new money though.”
182. Das EFX – “They Want EFX” (1992)
The lead single from Das EFX’s “Dead Serious” may have featured a new school lyrical style. But “They Want EFX” is very much old-school in its sonic technique, coasting on a sample of James Brown’s “Blind Man Can See It.” The song would prove to be Das EFX’s signature track and an introduction to a lyrical technique that would prove very influential.
181. 8Ball & MJG – “Space Age Pimpin’” (1995)
It’s easy to see why “Space Age Pimpin’” was the first 8Ball & MJG song to chart and remains a popular song in the canon of Southern rap. It’s full of pleasure both in its subject matter and in its sound. T-Mix’s production is built around a smoothed-out collection of horns, guitars and bass. This could easily be an Isley Brothers song, as it showcases just how deep and soulful the Memphis sound can be.
180. Fugees – “Ready or Not” (1996)
Fugees were in borrowing mode in 1996. First with an all-out cover of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” They followed that up with “Ready or Not,” a song whose chorus takes the hook from The Delfonics song and gets its ominous tone Celtic singer Enya’s “Boadicea.” Unlike “Killing Me Softly,” each member of the Fugees grabs the spotlight on “Ready or Not.” But once again, it’s Lauryn Hill who takes the top spot with rhymes about being Nina Simone and “defecating on your microphone.”
179. 3rd Bass feat. Zev Lov X – “The Gas Face” (1989)
3rd Bass may be best known for its commercial rap bashing “Pop Goes the Weasel.” But the group was already taking on artists they considered posers with its minor hit “The Gas Face” from “The Cactus Album.” On its own, “The Gace Face” is a stellar song. But it’s also historic in that it features the recording debut of Daniel Dumile (under the name Zev Love X), who would later become MF Doom.
178. Earl Sweatshirt – “Earl” (2015)
To odd future fans and hip hop heads that understand lyricism, “Earl” marked a star-making moment for Earl Sweatshirt. It is one of the great wordplay showcases in recent memory and the reason sites like Genius exist (“Yo, I’m a hot and bothered astronaut/Crashing while j**king ff to buffering videos of Asher Rot eating apple sauce”). Earl might not be Odd Future’s top member from a record sales standpoint. But when it comes to wow moments, no one comes close as an emcee.
177. 2Pac feat. The Outlawz and Prince Ital Joe – “Hail Mary” (1997)
The mythological nature that developed almost immediately following his death was due only in part to the life he lived. Some of it was owed to the music that came out after he passed. And nothing (not even close) matches the chilling nature of “Hail Mary” and the album “The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory.” “And God said he should send his one begotten son…to lead the wild into the ways of man…” It’s quite the opening for a posthumous song that features some of the most vicious rhymes of Pac’s career. It’s a sign of his mindset just before his murder and where his artistry was headed. Ultimately, “Hail Mary” proves eerie in both its imagery and tragic prophetic nature: “Do you wanna ride or die? La dadada la la la la?”
176. GZA – “Liquid Swords” (1995)
Of all Wu-Tang’s solo albums, GZA’s aesthetic matched the magic of the group’s debut. Part of it had to do with the kung-fu samples. But GZA was also the group’s thinking man. On “Liquid Swords” (both the album and the title track), the man known as Genius puts emcees on notice that his lyrical proficiency is unmatched, welcoming all challengers.
175. Dr. Dre feat. Eminem – “Forgot About Dre” (2000)
In between the success of “The Slim Shady LP” and the release of “The Marshall Mathers LP” came Eminem’s feature on “Forgot About Dre.” Em completely obliterates the song’s second verse with rhymes about choking a guy with a Charleston Chew being hotter than a Mercedes with the temp up to the mid-80s. It’s one of the most unforgettable moments in a career of unforgettable moments.
174. Stetsasonic – “Talkin’ All That Jazz” (1988)
Stetsasonic’s groundbreaking single was a turning point for rap. The genre had sampled jazz before. But this was the most straightforward attempt yet to prove hip hop was a genre on par with other musical art forms in America. “Talkin’ All That Jazz” takes square aim at haters, but also makes the case for hip hop’s acceptance as something credible. Stetsasonic was on a mission to put critics in their place while sonically giving the jazz-rap acts of the 1990s a blueprint to go by.
173. Lupe Fiasco – “Mural” (2015)
You can’t blame people for thinking Lupe Fiasco could be rap’s next mainstream star. His scene-stealing appearance on Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky” remains one of rap’s all-time best guest appearances. Even “Kick, Push” had a pop-sensibility to it. But Lupe was always a rapper’s rapper, settling into more of an underground sound during the second half of his career. It’s been to the listeners’ delight, freeing him up to do what he wants to do. That all comes together on 2015′s “Tetsuo & Youth” and the magnum opus that is “Mural.” The one-verse song serves as the greatest lyrical showcase by any rapper during the 2010s by a wide margin. The nine-minute song features 785 different words and never ceases to grip you. Rap as a form of expression rarely gets better than this.
172. Rick Ross – “B.M.F.” (2010)
“B.M.F.” and its earthquake of a beat affirmed that Rick Ross wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, he doubles down on his role as rap’s drug kingpin with the now-iconic catchphrase “I think I’m Big Meech – Larry Hoover.” Ross was placing himself in the conversations with the biggest of the big and the baddest of the bad. His background may be a bit sketchy, but his music allowed you to suspend reality.
171. A$AP Rocky – “Peso” (2011)
“Peso” marked the arrival of a new, compelling persona in rap. A$AP Rocky was that “pretty motherf***er” who rapped about fashion before violence. And while he was a full-fledged Harlem Boy, Rocky brought a different element to his New York sound. The slow drawl of Houston rap separated him from the pack, helping make A$AP Rocky and his crew one of rap’s new cultural phenoms.
170. Nas – “Made You Look” (2002)
Nas may have never achieved the massive record sales of Jay-Z or Biggie. But in New York, no one could create a window down, summer anthem quite like him. “Made You Look” is his finest version of that. The beat from Salaam Remi is a master class it taking it old school. Add in Nas’ breeziest rhymes and a few gunshots and you have a New York City classic.
169. The Pharcyde – “Runnin’” (1995)
The Pharcyde’s “Runnin’” is the rare kind of song where the lyrics chase the beat. J Dilla’s production (arguably the best of his career) combines elements of jazz and samba to give it the sense of motion. Meanwhile, The Pharcyde’s lyrics are some of the most vulnerable of their career. The result is the ultimate escape cut from a rap group that was intent on offering something different.
168. O.C. – “Time’s Up” (1994)
O.C.’s “Time’s Up” is about as pure a hip-hop song as you’ll ever hear. The entire song is about taking rap back to its roots and demolishing rappers who have focused more on the superficial. The production work from Buckwild is subtle in its brilliance, incorporating a sample of Slick Rick, one of hip hop’s pioneers, to emphasize the song’s old-school themes. But it’s O.C. who does the heavy lifting with passionate and lyrically potent verses condemning anyone not respecting rap’s core principles.
167. Three 6 Mafia feat. Young Buck and Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly” (2005)
Three 6 Mafia had crafted anthems before (See: “Sippin On Some Syrup” and “Who Run It”). But nothing exploded the group out of Memphis like “Stay Fly.” The soulful rap song marks the peak of the mid-2000s crunk trend (sorry Lil Jon) with its chopped-up chorus that proved to be a stirring party starter and slick marijuana anthem.
166. The Notorious B.I.G. – “The Warning” (1994)
Biggie could do it all, from making a pop record to delivering vicious rhymes that could make you quiver. He was also a genius storyteller. “The Warning” is his most gripping tale. B.I.G. stages the entire song as a phone call with the message someone in his crew wants to stick him for his paper. Biggie does all the voices himself in what amounts to one of hip hop’s greatest audio stage plays.
165. Scarface – “Seen a Man Die” (1994)
Scarface’s work with Geto Boys made him a legend. But his album “Diary” truly put him on another level as a solo artist. The centerpiece of that album is “Seen a Man Die,” the most thought-provoking song of Scarface’s career. It went beyond mafioso rap, taking you on a journey of death that’s both haunting and mesmerizing.
164. Big L – “Ebonics” (1998)
Big L’s career is a case of what could have been. Gunned down at the age of 24, Lamont Coleman had already established himself as one of the best lyricists in hip hop. The peak showcase of his abilities is “Ebonics,” an independent single that proved Big L’s control of the English language was virtually unmatched in hip hop.
163. Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Dogg – “Still D.R.E.” (1999)
Dr. Dre’s “Chronic 2001” album was all about capturing the magic of his 1992 solo debut while modernizing his G-funk sound for a new generation. The lead single “Still D.R.E.” does just that with its piano melody that sits on top of a laid-back beat that ranks among the best work of Dre’s career with old pal Snoop Doog along for the ride.
162. Rich Boy – “Throw Some D’s” (2006)
Rich Boy’s hit “Throw Some D’s” launched the career of Polow da Don. But his time at the top of the rap world was limited due to overexposure. The truth is no one wanted to turn down a beat from Polow after hearing the triumphant sounds of “Throw Some D’s.” Polow sought to recreate it time and time again, but nothing beat the original.
161. Playboi Carti – “Magnolia” (2017)
Arguably the song of the summer for 2017, Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia” treads familiar territory in terms of subject matter. The song is named for the infamous New Orleans project that Cash Money Records put on the map. Yet, while Carti (and most rappers his age) borrows a lot from Lil Wayne, “Magnolia” is a cascading anthem that glides rather than pummels you. Call him a mumble rapper if you want but the message here is clear – Playboi Carti can get the party started whenever he wants.
160. Drake – “Started From the Bottom” (2013)
As legend has it, after hearing Kanye West and Jay-Z’s bonkers “N***as in Paris,” Drake wanted something equally ridiculous, but just as catchy. The result was “Started From the Bottom.” In a way, “Started from the Bottom” is even more absurd, considering its ambient sample and the fact Drake started very far from the bottom. Still, the goal was to create a meme-worthy anthem and no one does it better than Drake.
159. Common – “The Light” (2000)
“The Light” is a love letter from Common. Only this time, it’s not about hip hop. The heart-melting track may very well be the beautiful thing J Dilla ever crafted and it’s clear by his performance that Common knows it. The social conscience rapper creates one of the few rap songs you could envision hearing at a wedding.
158. Spoonie Gee – “Love Rap” (1980)
LL Cool J earned the status as rap’s first sex symbol after dropping “I Need Love” in 1987. But seven years earlier, Spoonie Gee earned the nickname “The Love Rapper” thanks to his song “Love Rap.” It was the first rap song positioned as a love song to woo a woman. It marked, perhaps, the most influential moment in Spoonie Gee’s career of groundbreaking moments.
157. The Roots feat. Cody Chestnutt – “The Seed 2.0” (2004)
In retooling a song from Cody Chesnutt’s raw-sounding album “The Headphone Masterpiece,” The Roots achieve the greatest showcase of their skill as a rap group with live instrumentation. “The Seed 2.0” makes you feel like you’re a The Roots concert and Chestnutt’s hook can’t help but bring a smile to your face. No other hip-hop act could make this song.
156. A Tribe Called Quest – “Electric Relaxation” (1993)
“Electric Relaxation” is an interesting track. Sonically, it’s as sophisticated as anything Tribe ever did. Its hypnotic beat feels like something that could (and probably did) play at a jazz club. But then you have Phife Dawg dropping explicit lines about Seaman’s Furniture. There’s also the subtle hook (“Relax yourself girl, please settle down”) that, at first, seems rather unremarkable. Then it’s stuck in your head. All of it combined makes “Electric Relaxation” Tribe’s most eclectic masterpiece with a musicality rivaling that of any hip-hop song, ever.
155. Kendrick Lamar – “The Blacker The Berry” (2015)
The first single from Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” was “I,” the album’s most upbeat and pop-savvy single. Lamar went in a different direction with the second single “The Blacker The Berry.” Following the death of one of his close friends, Lamar takes the gloves off and taps into hundreds of years of oppression to get his point across. It’s a contradiction he acknowledges – “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” – making the song even more impactful.
154. Kanye West – “Through the Wire” (2003)
You can call Kanye West a lot of things, but never a slouch. With his career and life in the balance after a devastating car accident, West spit through the wires of a closed jaw for the single that would make him famous. A cleaned-up version of “Through the Wire” would show up on his legendary debut “The College Dropout.” But you can still hear the struggles in West’s voice. Backed by a sped-up Chaka Khan sample, West was evoking emotions no one ever had in hip hop before and he did it while setting a new sonic trend for the 21st century in rap.
153. Meek Mill – “Dreams and Nightmares” (2012)
The intro track from Meek Mill’s debut album sounds like a man trying to rap his way out of the gutter and into greatness. No chorus, no hooks. Just Meek giving you chills with some of the hardest rhymes you will ever hear. And just when you think it’s done, Meek transforms “Dreams and Nightmares” from an emotional powerhouse into something far more menacing. It was a warning shot to all emcees that he’s arrived.
152. Arrested Development – “Tennessee” (1992)
“Tennessee” is a beautiful song that comes from a sad place. Arrested Development’s “Speech” was inspired to write the song after the deaths of his grandmother and his brother. The song pushed Arrested Development and conscious rap into the mainstream thanks, in no small part, to a sample of Prince’s “Alphabet St.” that wasn’t cleared before the song became a hit. Prince gave the group a break, asking for one payment of $100,000 rather than royalty payments on “Tennessee” moving forward.
151. Outkast – “ATLiens” (1996)
Outkast was from Atlanta. But from an artistic standpoint, the duo was truly from a different world. How else do you explain the sophomore album “ATLiens?” It paints Big Boi and Andre 3000 as hip hop aliens, capable of things this world can’t understand. The title track is an impressive merger of Southern bounce and synths that finds Big Boi telling listeners to go get their shine box just seconds before Andre 3000 is examining the future of humanity. Who does that? Outkast, that’s who.
150. Talib Kweli feat. Kanye West, Mos Def, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dogg – “Get By (Remix)” (2003)
When people say they miss the old Kanye, they mean both the rapper and the producer. In 2003, West gave Talib Kweli the best beat of his career, sampling Nina Simone’s classic “Sinnerman” for “Get By.” If Kweli’s original was amazing enough (and it’s pretty friggin’ amazing), the remix morphs into a posse cut where West, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dogg all try to level up to Kweli’s lyricism.
149. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (1981)
If you’re confused about the star power Grandmaster Flash possessed, give a listen to his legendary live DJ mix from 1981. No DJ could work the turntables like Flash and his ability to scratch and mix a variety of records (using three turntables) would inspire a generation of producers to take up rap’s core artform.
148. Ultramagnetic MCs – “Ego Trippin’” (1986)
Ultramagnetic MCs were a hip-hop act unlike any other in 1986. The group, led by Kool Keith, made use of unique samples and lyrics based on odd content and even more unique delivery. But it almost always amounted to something exceptional like “Ego Trippin,’” a signature tune heavy in swagger and even more impressive in its inventiveness. Ultramagnetic MCs’ stunning production and ability to explore different musical techniques would put them at the forefront of moving the genre into new sonic territory.
147. Ludacris – “Southern Hospitality” (2000)
Before Ludacris was dropping hit single after hit single in the 21st century, he helped usher in the new era of Southern Rap with some help from the Neptunes. “Cadillac grills, Cadillac mill’s/Check out the oil my Cadillac spills…” is one of those whoa moments in rap. “Southern Hospitality” and its thunderous beat remain the hallmark of Ludacris’ catalog because nothing knocks harder.
146. Ghostface Killah feat. RZA – “Nutmeg” (2000)
“Nutmeg” marks the start of a new era for Wu that was owned by Ghostface Killah. Sonically, it’s a simple song built around a sample of Eddie Holman’s “It’s Over.” But not only does Ghost just keep layering references upon references, but he also does it off cadence. The combination of wordplay and flow borders on insane. It demands repeat listens to just make sense of it all.
145. Run-DMC – “Rock Box” (1983)
Before “Walk This Way,” there was “Rock Box.” History may emphasize the former, but Run-D.M.C.’s pioneering of rap-rock begins with the duo rapping over the sweet guitar sounds of Eddie Martinez. When the song was produced, there was some talk as to whether or not Martinez’s guitar was too overpowering. In hindsight, it’s what separated “Rock Box” from every other rock song at that point and began paving the way for Run-D.M.C. to bring hip hop to a bigger audience.
144. Clipse – “Trill” (2006)
If it wasn’t for Pusha T and Malice’s terrifying boasts on “Trill,” you wouldn’t even be able to tell it was a hip-hop song. The bass explodes in and out of the track. It’s a masterclass in the Neptunes controlling chaos and an example of just how underrated Clipse was. Much like Outkast’s “B.O.B.,” “Trill” is the sound of a rap duo moving beyond the parameters of its sound and asking everyone else in the rap game to keep up.
143. Funky Four Plus One – “That’s the Joint” (1980)
“That’s The Joint” is the ultimate example of the formula that made hip hop so catch in the early 1980s. The song borrows from disco, funk and jazz thrillingly, crafting one of the best early instrumentals in hip hop history. Give Funky 4+1 credit though. They knew how to lead a party and not overwhelm a song that was near perfect for the dancefloor on its production alone.
142. Digable Planets – “Rebirth of the Slick (Cool Like That)” (1992)
Digable Planets’ crossover hit “Rebirth of the Slick” is the pinnacle of jazz rap. So much so when it was released, both jazz and rap clubs played it in 1992 and well into 1993. The beauty of “Rebirth of the Slick” is it never feels forced. The trio of Ishmael “Butter Fly” Butler, Craig “Doodlebug” Irving and Mariana “Ladybug Mecca” Viera dig into the crates of albums they love. The idea wasn’t to be a jazz-rap act. But once they hit on a sample of “Stretching” by Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers,” listeners couldn’t get enough.
141. Noreaga – “Superthug” (1998)
Noreaga never claimed to be the greatest lyricist. But he had contagious energy. That’s never more apparent than over one of the Neptunes’ finest beats. The production on “Superthug” is bonkers. No emcee should be able to make sense of it. But Noreaga makes it work. There are trunk rattlers and then there’s “Superthug,” a song that should come with a warning from a production standpoint – don’t try this at home.
140. Double Dee and Steinski – “Lessons 1-3” (1985)
In the 1980s, producers Double Dee and Steinski released a series of sample records under the title “Lessons.” At the time, they seemed like a throwaway; two talented DJs simply having fun. But those fantastic “Lessons” records would prove highly influential in foreshadowing mashup culture and artists like DJ Shadow, Avalanches and J Dilla.
139. The Game feat. 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It” (2005)
Sadly, 50 Cent and The Game had a falling out. They were perfect for each other. Fiddy was becoming more of a mogul by the mid-2000s. But was still capable of writing a brilliant hook. At the same time, The Game possessed the street-savvy nature 50 Cent used to become famous in the first place. “Hate It or Love It” is their most refined collaboration. 50′s sing-song hook could make even Ja Rule jealous. Then there’s The Gamekeeping that hood vibes vibrant: “Kill a n***a on my song and really do it/That’s the true meaning of a ghostwriter.”
138. Eric B. & Rakim – “I Know You Got Soul” (1987)
At a certain point, it felt like everything Eric B. and Rakim were doing was changing hip hop. Unlike most of their tracks, where Rakim’s lyrical talent serves as the driving force, “I Know You Got Soul” is a production record. And a landmark one at that. Rakim’s clever rhymes are matched by a funky sample that would have everyone in rap digging into their crate of James Brown records.
137. Mike Jones feat. Slim Thug and Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’” (2005)
If all you’d ever known of Houston was Scarface and Geto Boys, you were in for quite a surprise in 2005. That’s when Mike Jones and company arrived in the mainstream with the syrupy sound DJ Screw and others had made famous throughout Texas. “Still Tippin’s” hypnotic beat and chorus coast along as Jones, Slim Thug and a standout Paul Wall rap about things much of America had no idea about but would soon be rapping along to.
136. Public Enemy – “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” (1989)
“It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” is a masterclass in production by The Bomb Squad, building on layers of funk samples for a display that’s often dizzying. But “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” is an exception. The noise takes a backseat to the greatest verses of Chuck D’s career, as he narrates the escape of a prisoner who was serving time refusing a draft notice. As Chuck D raps emphatically, “I got a letter from the government the other day / I opened and read it, it said they were suckers.” Public Enemy’s message was always political. But “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” got more specific: “I’m a black man and I can never be a veteran…” In Public Enemy’s quest to prove rap was as artistic as rock, the song and its framing was a huge step forward.
135. The Roots – “The Next Movement” (1999)
Before the release of 1999′s “Things Fall Apart,” The Roots had a reputation as a stellar hip hop band. But industry heads didn’t take them seriously as Questlove would like. So, on its fourth studio, The Roots sought to engage a broader sonic landscape that could start to build its legacy. “The Next Movement” hits it out of the park. It’s everything The Roots would become, from Black Thought’s lyrical skill to the live instrumentation that would separate the group from virtually every other hip-hop act. The Roots would go on to have bigger hits, but “The Next Movement” is the total package, a proclamation of greatness for a group that was coming into its own.
134. Juvenile – “Ha” (1998)
“Ha” introduced the mainstream world to Cash Money Records in an emphatic fashion. The label was similar to Master P’s No Limit only with better rappers who had more captivating personalities. Juvenile led the way, converting his native New Orleans dialect into a clever song with “Ha.” But it’s the beat from Mannie Fresh that turns your head. Those claps and synths were the backbone of Cash Money and New Orleans rap in the years that followed.
133. Pharoahe Monch – “Simon Says” (1999)
Pharoahe Monch came up in the most lyrical rap group of all time, Organized Konfusion. But when he went solo, Monch truly came into his own artistically. “Simon Says” is the track that brought him a bigger audience and does so in bold fashion, sampling the main title to “Godzilla vs. Mothra.” The beat creates the aura of a looming threat and Pharoahe Monch’s lyrics deliver on the threat.
132. Goodie Mobb – “Cell Therapy” (1996)
Given its creepy piano melody and politically charged lyrics, you might think “Cell Therapy” was an odd choice for Goodie Mobb’s debut single. But the group was looking to carve out its niche in the emerging Southern rap scene. Mission accomplished. “Cell Therapy” immediately showed Goodie Mobb was bringing major substance while also putting the group’s ability to craft a catchy hook on full display.
131. UGK – “One Day” (1996)
On its third studio album “Ridin’ Dirty,” UGK brought soulful hip hop to the South. The stage setter is “One Day,” a track sampling The Isley Brothers that lays out the album’s concept of spending a wild weekend in Houston. This was smoothed out Southern hip hop that was every bit as influential to the region’s musical style as Dr. Dre’s G-funk was to the West Coast.
130. Digital Underground – “The Humpty Dance” (1989)
“The Humpty Dance” is a novelty song that serves as a satire on a dance craze while also functioning as a brilliant pop record. “The Humpty Dance” is hilarious, sure. But it’s also genius in its delivery of one-liners and party vibes. Digital Underground did a lot of great things the group should be appreciated for. But, “The Humpty Dance” was the delicious peak.
129. Kool G Rap & DJ Polo – “Ill Street Blues” (1992)
“Ill Street Blues” is the mafioso rap version of “Paid in Full” with the opening lines “I’m right in front of my front steps thinking of a plan.” Kool G Rap and DJ Polo laid the groundwork for mafioso rap on their first two albums (especially the amazing single “Streets of New York”). But 1992′s “Live and Let Die” brought it into full view. “Ill Street Blues” is its most alluring tracks, while also the scariest when you’re sticking people and throwing them off skyscrapers.
128. Eminem – “My Name Is” (1999)
What’s interesting about Eminem’s breakthrough single is despite being clever and a huge hit especially on MTV, hip-hop fans weren’t sure what they were witnessing. “My Names Is” came across as a bit of a novelty. It would take his follow-up songs for Eminem to gain respect from true hip-hop heads. Thus, in retrospect, “My Name Is” is the work of a mastermind ready to become a legend.
127. Tyler, the Creator – “Yonkers” (2011)
Those in the know had been onto Odd Future for a while, whether it was the group’s songs “Sandwitches” and “Oldie.” But it wasn’t until Tyler, the Creator’s “Yonkers” that people of the collective’s core audience took notice. The song earned Tyler comparisons to early Eminem, only somehow weirder and crazier. How else do you explain a guy taking shots at Bruno Mars and recruiting Stevie Wonder to be the wide receiver on his football team?
126. Public Enemy – “Bring the Noise” (1987)
Public Enemy may never have put more into a song than it did with “Bring the Noise.” The track features numerous grandiose statements, from an endorsement of the Nation of Islam to the assertion that hip hop is just as prominent as rock music. It’s also one of Chuck D’s most complex lyrical showcases. “Bring the Noise” became so essential thrash metal band Anthrax would collaborate with Chuck D on a rock cover of the song, which served as a precursor to nu-metal.
125. 2Pac – “Dear Mama” (1995)
Perhaps, no song in 2Pac’s catalog is celebrated more than “Dear Mama” and for good reason. The emotion is overpowering as 2Pac’s love letter to his mother. For a rapper who could evoke a variety of emotions from his listeners, Pac never put you in your feelings more than on “Dear Mama.”
124. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – “Got Your Money” (1999)
It’s interesting that even with his deep connection to RZA, ODB’s sounds more at home over a Neptunes’ beat. The Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo produced “Got Your Money” sets up perfectly for ODB’s playful genius. Sure, Ol’ Dirty Bastard was a character. But he was wise in his ability to use that outrageous personality in interesting ways.
123. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony – “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” (1994)
Cleveland was really into West Coast hip hop in the mid-1990s and you could see it in Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. The group’s debut single “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” is decidedly West Coast, courtesy of L.A. producer DJ U-Neek (and executive producer Eazy-E). But what truly put Bone and the Midwest on the map was the group’s lyrical cadence. There was nothing like the speed mixed with a smooth melodic element that couldn’t be duplicated.
122. Future – “March Madness” (2015)
Future’s “March Madness” never charted on the Billboard Hot 100, which is fitting since it feels like something that shouldn’t exist in this universe. And the song still went platinum. That should clue you into how much of a phenomenon it was. As the go-to song from Future’s “56 Nights” mixtape, “March Madness” made Future a star, setting the stage for “DS2” and one of the best runs of any hip hop artist over the last 10 years.
121. De La Soul feat. Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah & Monie Love – “Buddy (Native Tongue’s Decision)” (1989)
The remix to “Buddy” may be the most important track Native Tongues crew history, as it introduced the world to the entire collective. It’s the ultimate showcase that’s unlike most posse cuts in that it shows the chemistry between each emcee (men and women) with an upbeat vibe based around the universal idea of sex.
120. Jay-Z – “Dead Presidents II” (1996)
Years before their beef consumed hip hop, even Jay-Z knew how good Nas’ “Illmatic” was. One of Hov’s greatest tracks is “Dead Presidents,” a landmark of mafioso rap that brilliantly samples Nas’ “The World Is Yours.” “Dead Presidents II” is a “remixed” version of Jay’s first promotional single with Roc-a-Fella. Both versions are lyrical tour de forces. But it’s that second song from “Reasonable Doubt” that put hip hop on notice a new star was rising. Indeed, Jay turned Nas’ “hot line” into a hot song.
119. Nas – “The World Is Yours” (1994)
Okay, so Jay-Z lied a bit. Nas’ “The World Is Yours” was always a very hot song. It was an immediate standout from “Illmatic,” which is saying something considering the album quality from top to bottom. Pete Rock’s jazz-influenced production is especially enticing while Nas delivers one of his best lyrical. Many rappers were paying attention, including Nas’ future enemy Jay-Z.
118. Ghostface Killah feat. Mary J. Blige – “All That I Got Is You” (1996)
Ghostface Killah’s “All That I Got Is You” threatens to move into schmaltzy territory. But it never does thanks to earnest Ghost is. The song is the most in-depth look at life growing up in poverty rap music has seen. Ghostface takes all filters off giving us his life story in tear-jerking fashion.
117. Public Enemy – “Welcome to the Terrordome” (1990)
Public Enemy was already riding high off of “Fight the Power” when it came time to release 1990′s “Fear of a Black Planet.” And the album’s second single, “Welcome to the Terrordome” was the true example of just how much PE had grown since its last album. The song’s swirling sounds mark a high point for The Bomb Squad, and pave the way for Chuck D’s most potent lyrical performance: “Played off as some intellect/Made the call, took the fall, broke the laws/Not my fault that they’re falling off…” Once again, Public Enemy had taken political rap (and hip hop in general) to the next level.
116. Jungle Brothers – “Straight out the Jungle” (1988)
The first classic of the jazz-rap era. The sound of the Jungle Brothers’ debut album came out of necessity as an independent release. To counterbalance any lack of a budget, Jungle Brothers utilize a deep collection of samples. That starts with James Brown, of course, but also brings in a barrage of horns, bass and other sounds that make for an infectious groove on the title track. They maybe didn’t know it at the time, but with “Straight out the Jungle” Jungle Brothers were helping birth a more sophisticated sound for hip hop.
115. Too $hort – “Freaky Tales” (1987)
Too $hort’s “Freaky Tales” goes on for more than seven extremely vulgar minutes (Yes, you read that right). The West Coast legend name drops every woman he’s encountered and his fans have hung on every word. It established Too $hort’s pimp persona that could rival that of Ice-T. From a sonic standpoint, if and when you can get past the lyrics, “Freaky Tales” is a late Eighties masterpiece, functioning less in the rap world and more in the Miami bass sound.
114. A Tribe Called Quest – “Check the Rhime” (1991)
A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album was a landmark achievement in the development of jazz rap. But it was “The Low End Theory” that perfected rap’s highbrow artform. It was clear from the first single, “Check the Rhime,” that Tribe had refined its sound, breaking ground in terms of how hard mellow-rap could hit a year before Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic.” The other amazing part of “Check The Rhime” is the growth of Phife Dawg. This time around the group’s second emcee is every bit Q-Tip’s equal, creating the best interplay between two emcees ever put to wax.
113. Kanye West feat. Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver – “Monster” (2010)
Kanye West and Jay-Z sound quite average on “Monster.” But who wouldn’t after you hear what Nick Minaj does in the song’s closing verse. Nicki embraces her Barbie persona, rapping about rocking gold teeth and fangs, moving effortlessly from horror movie bars and braggadocio rhymes. It’s less a rap performance and more a Tony Award-worthy Broadway scene for the ages.
112. Jadakiss feat. Styles P – “We Gonna Make It” (2001)
Jay-Z passed on the Alchemist’s beat for “We Gonna Make It,” which is understandable considering Jay was already loaded with “The Blueprint.” But one man’s loss is another’s gain. The Alchemist’s production on “We Gonna Make It” is as triumphant as it gets. It’s exactly what Jadakiss needed for the standout song on his debut. And it doesn’t take long for one of the best lyricists in the game to make it a classic alongside partner Styles P: “F**k the frail shit, uh, ‘cause when my coke come in/They gotta use the scale that they weigh the whales with…”
111. MC Lyte – “Paper Thin” (1988)
MC Lyte was the first female emcee who could hang with the boys. That was clear from her lyrical talent. But she took things to the next level on “Paper Thin,” a song that smacks down egotistical men in epic fashion. Not only was MC Lyte now the greatest female rapper of all time, but she was among the five or so best in the game at that point regardless of gender.
110. Busta Rhymes – “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” (1997)
Trying to come up with a beat that matches the craziness of Busta Rhymes seems like an impossible task. But in 1997, a team led by Darrol “Shamello” Durant did just that. It’s mind-boggling to think the rattling beat for “Put Your Hans Where My Eyes Can See” comes from Seals and Crofts song. But that’s the genius of it. Busta’s epic song grew out of a soft rock tune and became one of the great miracles of Nineties hip hop.
109. Three 6 Mafia feat. UGK and Project Pat – “Sippin’ on Some Syrup” (2000)
“Tear da Club Up” was Three 6 Mafia’s breakthrough, “Sippin’ on Some Syrup” affirmed they were capable of cranking out top-notch anthems. And they were violent as hell. The song samples the sweet keys of Marvin Gaye’s “Is That Enough.” But this is no a love song (well maybe to the syrup). You don’t have to condone the use of drugs to get down with “Sippin’ on Some Syrup.” Just join in for the amped-up vibes of one of the best rap anthems of the 21st century.
108. Chief Keef feat. Lil Reese – “Don’t Like” (2012)
There are bangers and then there are BANGERS! Chief Keef’s 2012 anthem “Don’t Like” falls in the latter with one of the hardest-hitting beats of its era. The song brought drill music into the mainstream and made Chief Keef an unlikely star. The Kanye West-led remix is exceptional as well. But it was Keef who first pushed the hype to unforeseen levels.
107. Pusha T feat. Kendrick Lamar – “Nosetalgia” (2014)
It’s not often you get two perfect verses from two different artists on one song. But “Nosetalgia” is no ordinary track. Backed by a beat that feels like someone is pulling ripcord through a guitar, Pusha T goes in with one of the best verses of his career only for Kendrick Lamar to arrive with “You wanna see a dead body?” in an attempt to best the Virginia native. You could argue for days who has the better bars (Pusha T by a slim margin) or just enjoy a modern rap classic.
106. The D.O.C. – “It’s Funky Enough” (1989)
Had it not been for a car crash, The D.O.C. likely would have remained one of rap’s biggest stars for years. Instead, we got just one classic album from the emcee who first made a name for himself writing for N.W.A. The single “It’s Funky Enough” features The D.O.C.’s expert lyricism and swagger, merging his Southern rap style with the West Coast sound he helped build. It’s a one-of-a-king gangsta rap song.
105. Main Source feat. Nas, Joe Fatal and Akinyele – “Live at the Barbeque” (1991)
“Live at the Barbeque” feat. Nas, Joe Fatal and Akinyele weren’t a single on Main Source’s hip hop classic “Breaking Atoms.” But it quickly became one of the album’s standout songs thanks to an opening verse from a young Nas. Three years before dropping “Illmatic,” Nas snatched hearts with lines like “I shoot slugs from my brain just like a rifle,” “When I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus” and “Cause verbally, I’m iller than a AIDS patient.” Upon hearing “Live at the Barbeque,” you wouldn’t want to hear more from the then 17-year-old rhyme spitter.
104. Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane – “Black Beatles” (2016)
Two young guys doing their best to live life like the Beatles. It’s not your typical subject for a hip-hop song. But Rae Sremmurd isn’t your normal hip-hop act. “Black Beatles” is the kind of song anyone of any age can get down to, which is the point. It was also one of the clearest examples of trap music’s pop leanings, which blew the walls of traditional rap off, during the last decade.
103. Mos Def – “Ms. Fat Booty” (1999)
Those more interested in Mos Def’s raw mic skills likely prefer “Mathematics” or “Umi Says.” But as far as excellent songs go, nothing beats “Ms. Fat Booty.” Producer Ayatolla builds the track around a sample of a rare Aretha Song. Mos takes care of the rest on an instant soul rap classic: “In she came with the same type game/The type of girl giving out the fake cell phone and name…”
102. Outkast – “Ms. Jackson” (2001)
“Ms. Jackson” introduced the already legendary hip hop group to a massive new audience who thought “Stankonia” was their debut album. It wasn’t. But Outkast got the last laugh and we don’t mean just Andre 3000′s iconic “Forever ever…” line. Thanks to “Ms. Jackson,” Outkast wasn’t just the best hip hop group around. The Atlanta duo was now one of the top music acts in the world.
101. Camp Lo – “Luchini” (1996)
“Luchini” sounds like it comes from a different era, specifically the Harlem Rennaisance. Bronx duo Camp Lo uses the song to describe just how fly their styles and passions are. And the music affirms it. Ski Beatz’s production sets the stage for a never-ending party centered on a sound that jazz fans, soul lovers and rap heads could all get down with.
100. Cardi B – “Bodak Yellow” (2017)
Say what you will about Cardi B, but star-making turns don’t get much more impressive than “Bodak Yellow.” It wasn’t too long before the release of the song that Cardi B was known for being a cast member on “Love & Hip Hop: New York.” No one would have expected her to become one of music’s biggest stars. It’s a boss move that utilizes the cadence of Kodak Black’s “No Flockin” all way to the bank. Cardi didn’t have to dance anymore. She was making money moves.
99. Luniz – “I Got 5 on It” (1995)
“I Got 5 on It” is a song about drugs. But it could be about anything. It hooks you from the very beginning with its haunting, opening chords. The chorus is just the icing on the cake. Luniz was giving us West Coast rap with an incredible R&B twist. The fact that it was about marijuana didn’t stop “I Got 5 On It” from going mainstream. It probably helped.
98. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” (1995)
Ol’ Dirty Bastard was a grittier, more engaging version of Flava Flav. So, to call him hip-hop’s court jester is misleading. There was a genius to ODB’s frantic nature that kept you on the edge of your seat. His masterpiece is “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” an unhinged track where ODB would establish a catchline that wouldn’t make sense for anyone but him.
97. T. La Rock & Jazzy Jay – “It’s Yours” (1984)
Just from a historic perspective alone, “It’s Yours” belongs on this list. The song served as the first release on Def Jam Recordings with Rick Rubin releasing the “It’s Yours” a few months before LL Cool J’s “I Need a Beat.” Yet, “It’s Yours” doesn’t get enough credit for being a great hip-hop record ahead of its time. T La Rock came armed with complex words and alliteration that would set a new trend for rap music.
96. Nas – “The Message” (1996)
“The Message” finds Nas at his lyrical best, which is saying something considering it comes post-“Illmatic.” But Nas’ storytelling skills only progressed with the song’s second verse ranking among his or anyone’s finest. Musically, it’s the sound of Nas embracing the trend of mafioso rap. The cinematic vibes create a level of tension 2Pac would take offense to (“Fake thug, no love, you get the slug…”). Things get bloody very quickly. Nothing will ever be “Illmatic.” But “The Message” is as good as anything Nas has ever done.
95. Big Pun feat. Fat Joe – “Twinz (Deep Cover ’98)” (1998)
Doing a remake of a classic like Dr. Dre and Snoop’s first single together is a bold move. But Big Pun and Fat Joe were ready. As the story goes, Joe was certain he’d bested his friend Pun after laying his verse: “Creep with me, as I cruise in my Beemer/All the kids in the ghetto call me Don Cartagena…” It was the best verse of Joe’s career. But no one could match Pun who once against stole the show: “Dead in the middle of Little Italy little did we know/That we riddled some middlemen who didn’t do diddly…”
94. Special Ed – “I Got It Made” (1989)
Special Ed may have been a rapper from New York, but his slick style would foreshadow a lot of music that came out of the West Coast in the 1990s. Ed drops braggadocio rhymes on “I Got It Made’s” funky beat. He, like the rest of rap, took EPMD’s phrase, “You gots to chill” to heart. You can hear the influence of “I Got It Made” both in the production of artists like Dr. Dre and Warren G and the style of Snoop Dogg.
93. Gang Starr – “DJ Premier In Deep Concentration” (1989)
The greatest DJ track of all time. Release in 1989, Gang Starr’s “DJ Premier In Deep Concentration” was very much old-school in its emphasis on turntablism. But the song is more than just scratching. It takes you inside the mind of the greatest rap producer of all time and how he builds his incredible, and timeless soundscapes.
92. Kanye West – “Flashing Lights” (2007)
There is no other Kanye West song quite like “Flashing Lights” in its orchestration, synth sounds, braggadocio rhymes and humor. It’s everything West has become known for, released a decade before he would work his way into every facet of popular culture. West was foreshadowing the heights his artistry would reach. He always recognized his greatness before anyone else.
91. DMX – “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” (1998)
When DMX arrived on the scene, it was a scorched earth moment for hip hop. His debut album “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot,” along with the menacing lead single “Get at Me Dog,” put rap’s shiny suit era on notice that things were about to change. Yet, if “Get at Me Dog” was still too hardcore for some fans, “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem” was able to bring any doubters on board. It was a song still knee-deep in the hardcore hip hop genre that came with the kind of hook that turns rappers into superstars. From that point on, mainstream hip hop had a new top dog and one with a serious bite.
90. Run-DMC – “Peter Piper” (1986)
It’s been said that Run-DMC’s one-two punch of a single “My Adidas” and “Peter Piper” was the hip hop equivalent of “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields.” That’s dead-on. “Peter Piper” is the better cut and the awesome opening of Run-DMC’s biggest album “Raising Hell.” The song would introduce everyone to Run-DMC’s new peak, which, at that time, meant a new high mark for hip hop.
89. Common – “I Used to Love H.E.R.” (1994)
Few songs will make you love hip hop more than Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” By laying out the reasons he used to love hip hop, Common expresses why the genre so easily hooked us in the first place. The concept of framing hip hop as a woman was pure genius, a technique that would be copied time and time again but never to greater heights.
88. Method Man feat. Mary J. Blige – “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need to Get By” (1995)
Method Man had the most star potential out of the Wu-Tang Clan in part because of his softer side. His thug love nature comes out in full force on “I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By,” a remix of a rougher track from Meth’s album “Tical.” The Grammy-winning single, produced by Puff Daddy, would mark a crucial moment for the merger of hip hop and R&B that would dominate the 1990s.
87. Roxanne Shante – “Roxanne’s Revenge” (1984)
“Roxanne’s Revenge” starts with a simple premise. It’s a woman’s response to U.T.F.O.’s “Roxanne, Roxanne.” The rhymes aren’t all that elaborate. Though, Roxanne Shante certainly holds her own, recording the entire thing in one astonishing take. The song would prove a landmark for rap music, paving the way for women to become forces on the mic.
86. T.I. – “What You Know” (2006)
“What You Know” is a victory lap. For years, T.I. had been crowning himself King of the South. By the time he was set to release 2006′s “King,” he had reached the top of the rap mountain. Fittingly, the album’s lead single comes armed with DJ Toomp beat that packs on the cinematic effect. It’s an epic anthem befitting T.I.’s status as a rap icon.
85. MC Shan – “The Bridge” (1986)
Marley Marl and MC Shan never intended to start a war with “The Bridge,” a song shouting out Queensbridge as the place hip hop was born. But KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions took exception to “The Bridge” and the rest is history. MC Shan’s excellent track hit a soft spot because it was catchy enough to make people (include every future emcee from Queens) believe every line. From that point on every Queensbridge emcee felt pride, despite Boogie Down Productions’ diss,
84. Jay-Z feat. UGK – “Big Pimpin’” (2000)
Everything about “Big Pimpin’” is an on top of the world moment, as the song’s title would suggest. If it’s not Timbaland’s greatest beat of all time, it’s certainly his most accessible. Then you have the scene-stealing guest verses from Pimp C and Bun B that brought the Southern rap pioneers into the mainstream. Jay-Z doesn’t mind taking a backseat to his guests or producer. He knows what he has on his hands and would rather sit back, pop bottles and celebrate his status as rap’s king.
83. EPMD – “You Gots to Chill” (1988)
EPMD was very much a New York hip hop group foreshadowing the sounds of West Coast hip hop. A handful of years before Dr. Dre brought G-funk to the masses, Eric Sermon and Parrish Smith delivered “You Gots to Chill,” the epitome of funky rap with the iconic opening line “Relax your mind, let your conscience be free…” It ran contrary to the harsher boast raps coming from other New York emcees, which made EMPD innovators.
82. Rammellzee and K-Rob – “Beat Bop” (1983)
The origins of alternative hip hop begin here. Rammellzee and K-Rob’s landmark 1983 single was meant to be a test pressing. But the song and its abstract style caught on. Its off-kilter style would prove a huge influence on future rap acts like Beastie Boys, El-P, Cypress Hill and numerous others, further proving rap had no limitations.
81. Bobby Shmurda – “Hot N*gga” (2014)
The appeal of “Hot N*gga” might seem simple. The beat from Jahlil Beats is insane, while Bobby Shmurda drops the kind of lines that invade your brain for weeks. But “Hot N*gga” is just as much hardcore rap as it is trap. There’s serious menace (and real-life) to Shmurda’s unforgettable lines about “selling crack since the fifth grade” and Mitch catching a body “bout a week ago.” This is one heck of a song.
80. LL Cool J – “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1990)
He said don’t call it a comeback. Indeed, 1989′s “Walking with a Panther” album was a top-10, platinum-selling hit. Yet, even if LL Cool J felt like he had nothing to prove at the start of the 1990s, the man came out swinging. The title track to 1990′s “Mama Said Knock You Out” aimed at anyone who dares challenge rap’s biggest solo star of the 1980s. It was scorched earth time for LL. If for some crazy reason, he wasn’t already cemented as an all-time great, his vicious tirade on “Mama Said Knock You Out” removed all doubt.
79. Schoolly D – “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?” (1985)
If there’s still confusion in some circles about who created gangsta rap, there’s shouldn’t be. It happened in 1985 when Schoolly D released “P.S.K. What Does It Mean,” a song about Philadelphia’s Park Side Killers gang that tackled everything from guns to drugs. And Schoolly D did it all with a smooth flow dripped in a swagger that would become the inspiration for the future work of Ice T, Scarface, The D.O.C. and numerous others.
78. Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock – “It Takes Two” (1988)
You know it. Your mother knows it. Even your grandmother has probably danced to it. During a year that included landmark albums and tracks from the likes of Eric B. and Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Big Daddy Kane, EPMD and others, it was Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock that delivered hip hop’s most refined single. “It Takes Two” may very well be the perfect mainstream rap song of the 1980s.
77. Craig Mack feat. The Notorious B.I.G., Rampage, LL Cool J and Busta Rhymes – “Flava in Ya Ear (Remix)” (1994)
Craig Mack’s original version of “Flava in Ya Ear” is a dope song that put Sean “Puffy” Combs’ new label Bad Boy Records on the map. But the remix takes things even further. Once The Notorious B.I.G. spits his verse over the Easy Mo Bee verse, the song no longer belongs to Mack. Rampage, Busta Rhymes and LL Cool J would also add verses that rank among the finest of their respective careers. Puff Daddy didn’t invent the remix, but he certainly upped the ante when it came to how you could extend the life of a single.
76. Missy Elliott – “Get Ur Freak On” (2001)
“Get Ur Freak On” is pure chaos. Credit to Timbaland for the bonkers beat that was the talk of the hip hop world in 2001. But the legacy of Missy’s crazy tune is how it represents her desire to push things to their absolute breaking point. For any other artist, hocking a loogie in the middle of a song might seem like an absurd gesture. For Missy, it’s just another day at the office.
75. Biz Markie – “Nobody Beats the Biz” (1988)
Sure, you know Biz Markie’s comedic classic “Just a Friend.” But he had classics before that. For “Nobody Beats the Biz” (a play on a popular commercial jingle at the time) producer Marley Marl samples Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle.” It makes for the perfect groove for Biz Markie’s rhymes to take on a life of their own. At one point, the playful emcee even reveals he didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan. “Nobody Beats the Biz” would become a favorite of the era and become a popular sample for some of the great producers of the 1990s.
74. Souls of Mischief – “93 ‘ Til Infinity” (1993)
It isn’t too much to say Souls of Mischief redefined West Coast rap from a lyrical standpoint. “93 ‘Til Infinity,” the title track from the group’s debut album, is every bit as sonically impressive as other anthems from the G-funk era. But the lyrical complexities on “93 ‘Til Infinity” turn things up a notch by merging with a melodic tone that drew listeners into the group’s sound. The track marks the peak of the early 1990s underground and indie rap.
73. Junior M.A.F.I.A. – “Get Money” (1995)
Some would say Junior M.A.F.I.A. reached success merely by riding the coattails of The Notorious B.I.G. They’re not wrong. But the group had its star as well in Lil’ Kim. And on the crew’s best song, both Kim and B.I.G. put on a show. Biggie goes first in a true player role before Kim’s comes in with the kind of Queen Bee verse that female emcees like Nicki Minaj, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion have shaped their careers around. Kim could hold her own with Biggie because she knew him better than anyone else. “Get Money” is unapologetically vulgar, something Kim and company rode to platinum status.
72. Beastie Boys – “Shake Your Rump” (1989)
“Shake Your Rump” was the B-side to “Hey Ladies,” the most popular song on Beastie Boys’ landmark album “Paul’s Boutique.” But “Shake Your Rump” was the song that most embodies the Beasties’ playful aesthetic, which was pure genius from a musical standpoint. It’s a stunning display of sampling with old-school hip hop transitioning in out of soul, funk, rock and R&B. The Beastie Boys are less the focal point and more a trio of engaging hypemen able to keep the party going.
71. Lauryn Hill – “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (1998)
Don’t get it twisted. Lauryn was just as good a rapper as she was a singer. The genius of Hill was her ability to merge the genres unlike anyone else. “Doo Wop (That Thing)” masquerades as a neo-soul song with doo-wop influences. But the uplifting rhymes (“Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem”) are unforgettable.
70. Raekwon – “Criminology” (1995)
Every great mafioso album needs a great crime caper of a song. On “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx,” it’s “Criminology.” You have to remember that Raekwon’s debut is very much a collaboration album with Ghostface Killah. “Criminology” is the perfect song for the duo’s chemistry, kicking off with its iconic “Scarface” sample before whipping into a barrage of horns, snare drums and keys. The rhymes come in at a rapid pace. It’s like two great basketball players passing the ball off for back-to-back alley-oops.
69. Black Star feat. Common – “Respiration” (1998)
At the time of its release in 1998, Black Star – Talib Kweli and Mos Def – were fish out of water. The two lyricists found themselves in a genre now ruled by materialism. Thus, for six minutes, Talib and Mos, along with Common, push all the bling and shiny suits to the side. “Respiration” is a showcase of wordplay with incredible depth. It’s a song that paints a vivid portrait of urban life. “Respiration” would become a vibrant symbol of what critics would dub “backpack” rap. But it was more than that. It was hip hop on a higher level.
68. Eric B. & Rakim – “Follow the Leader” (1988)
Perhaps no track is more responsible for the shift in the art of being a hip-hop emcee than “Follow the Leader.” For the fierce, urgent title track from sophomore album, Eric B. & Rakim refined their sound, moving from the hard-hitting beats typical to hip hop of the 1980s to a more bass-heavy sound with elements of jazz and funk. More importantly, Rakim reaches lyrical perfection by combining speed with flare. As far as lyricism in hip hop goes, there’s are two distinct early eras: Everything that came before “Follow the Leader” and what came after.
67. Madvillain – “All Caps” (2004)
Diehard MF Doom fans could spend weeks (maybe months) deciding on his greatest song. But to step away from the emotion of it, nothing compares to “All Caps,” the standout track from the masterpiece that is Madvillain’s “Madvillainy.” It clocks in at just over two minutes, but “All Caps” is Doom at his lyrical peak over Madlib’s layered samples. The song is the embodiment of what Doom represented in his adherence to wordplay over everything. “Just remember ALL CAPS when you spell the man name.” Always.
66. Big Daddy Kane – “Ain’t No Half Steppin’” (1988)
Rakim gets a lot of credit for moving rap into its lyrical era. But Big Daddy Kane deserves an equal amount of credit. “Ain’t No Half Steppin’” is the peak of his uncanny rhyme style. Kane could go slow or super fast. He finds a middle ground on his signature tune. If the boastful rhymes on “Ain’t No Half Steppin’” would become a blueprint for how to ride the beat. Kane was oozing with charisma (“I’m different, so don’t compare me to another…”).
Every emcee wanted what he had but couldn’t touch him.
65. Kanye West – “Jesus Walks” (2004)
“Jesus Walks” is the song where Kanye West reached for the stars and grabbed them. West famously played “Jesus Walks” for several record labels who turned him down. But how could they know what they had? “Jesus Walks” functions as a gangsta-rap gospel song with Yeezy asking people to praise the Lord while telling them how young and restless the Midwest is. If it was so amazing you’d think the guy was crazy too.
64. Kendrick Lamar feat. MC Eiht – “m.A.A.d City” (2012)
You could make the case the two best verses of Kendrick Lamar’s career come on “m.A.A.d City,” the spark plug of a track on his sophomore album. Both versus feature Lamar rapping in a different tone than he does on the rest of the album. “m.A.A.d City” shows Lamar a master emcee on the mic fully in the zone. As a bonus, we get a cameo from West Coast legend MC Eiht. West Coast to the fullest.
63. Jay-Z feat. The Notorious B.I.G. – “Brooklyn’s Finest”
Quick, rank the 10 greatest emcees of all time. Next, come up with a song that features two of them together while they’re both alive and in their prime. Good luck with that. Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” wasn’t a huge success upon its release. It’s been hailed as a classic in the years since, which allows us to fully grasp the monumental collaboration that is “Brooklyn’s Finest.” This is, arguably, the two greatest emcees at their peak powers going toe-to-toe in a game of who’s better. And the interplay is insane: “Have the paramedics breathing soft on ya/What’s ya name?’” “Who shot ya?/Mob ties like Sinatra.” Seriously!?
62. Ice Cube – “No Vaseline” (1991)
The film “Straight Outta Compton” makes it seem like “No Vaseline” was Ice Cube’s first response to N.W.A. dissing him on the group’s albums after Cube left. Not true. Ice Cube took some soft jabs at his former group on 1990′s “Kill at Will” EP. But clearly, he had a lot more to say. “No Vaseline” is the most brutal diss track of all time. Even if you a song like 2Pac’s “Hit Em Up,” it feels almost mild compared to the things Cube says on “No Vaseline,” which can’t even be written here. Without Ice Cube, N.W.A. no longer had the artillery to match it. Game over.
61. 50 Cent – “In Da Club” (2003)
50 Cent’s rise to power was unprecedented, peaking with the Dr. Dre beat to end all Dr. Dre beats. The production on “In Da Club” is perfect, a cinematic march that 50 Cent would capitalize on with an opening (“Go, shorty. It’s Your birthday…”) that would topple the “Happy Birth to You” as the era’s go-to celebration song. Fiddy may have had an endless number of beefs in the early 2000s. But there’s nothing his foes could do. The bulletproof vest he wore was merely a symbol of how unstoppable he was.
60. Melle Mell – “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” (1983)
Most know “White Lines” as a Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five song. That’s the way it was credited. But Grandmaster Flash had nothing to do with it. The song was actually crafted by Melle Mel and Sugar Hill Records house band. “White Lines” (and its thick bassline) proved to be a landmark moment in hip hop. It was rap’s first song about drugs. The track was very much rooted in the 1980s (given its party themes and disco-influenced sound). But it pointed towards a new direction subject matter-wise for hip hop.
59. Outkast – “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” (1998)
No song in Outkast’s catalog better paints the Atlanta duo as a one-of-a-kind act in the hip hop universe better than “SpottieOttieDopaliscious.” It’s an infectious song that merges elements of a marching band, jazz and funk with rap taking a backseat if you can believe that. The result is, perhaps, the most Atlanta song ever comparable to the way New Orleans musicians would transfer the vibe of their city on wax during the 1960s and 1970s. Big Boi and Andre 3000 eventually show up to put their stamp on “SpottieOttieDopaliscious.” But it remains focused on creating an engrossing atmosphere. And no one did that better one than Outkast.
58. De La Soul – “Me, Myself and I” (1989)
De La Soul’s “Me, Myself and I” – a humorous anthem aimed at the hippie label thrust upon the group – became popular with white fans who didn’t get the satirical elements. Thus, the group stopped performing it. But that doesn’t take away from it becoming a trademark song in the group’s catalog, showcasing De La Soul’s ability to deliver its message in awesome ways. “Me, Myself and I” reluctantly remains De La Soul’s signature song for one simple reason – It’s the group’s catchiest.
57. Jeru the Damaja – “Come Clean” (1993)
It’s clear right from the start that Jeru the Damaja’s “Come Clean” is something different. How DJ Premier thought to find that water dripping sound from a sample of Shelly Manne’s “Infinity” is mind-boggling. Jeru brings a captivating flow over one of DJ Premier’s finest beats. “Come Clean” came right as the East Coast was looking to take a bite of the West Coast’s dominance in the early 1990s. Few emcees and producers, if any, were doing something this one-of-a-kind on either coast.
56. Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Doggy Dogg – “Deep Cover” (1992)
Before “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang,” Dr. Dre introduced the world to a young, laid back emcee named Snoop Doggy Dogg on “Deep Cover/” The bass-heavy song from the Laurence Fishburne film of the same name. “Deep Cover” feels very much like an extension of N.W.A.’s run. But Snoop’s arrival is a landmark moment. With every word he spits, you can’t wait to hear more and his chemistry with Dre as a producer was untouchable.
55. Eminem – “Lose Yourself” (2002)
Hip hop’s Rocky Balboa moment. Eminem needed a song to go with his much-anticipated movie “8 Mile” and wrote “Lose Yourself” on set. The track kicks off from the perspective of the main character B-Rabbit. Eventually, things shift into Eminem rapping from his perspective. In truth, there isn’t much difference. Over an epic beat driven by a guitar line, Eminem describes the mentality of an emcee better than anyone ever had. “Lose Yourself” was the cinematic anthem for a rap’s most cinematic moment.
54. Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force – “Planet Rock” (1982)
The troubling child abuse allegations against Afrika Bambaataa rightfully discredit his status as a legend and remove any celebration of his legacy. But you can’t make a list like this and not acknowledge the massive influence of “Planet Rock,” a hip-hop record that brought the genre into the electronic world and made a huge impact on pop music as a whole.
53. Public Enemy – “Rebel Without a Pause” (1987)
“Rebel Without a Pause” first track recorded for “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and relentless in its intent and delivery. The beat is urgent in every way, from its sample and menacing loop to Terminator X’s scratching. But it all takes a backseat to Chuck D’s socially charged statements that no other emcee would dare make in 1987. Flava Flav had Chuck’s back. As did a nation of listeners who were now hanging on Chuck D’s every word.
52. Wu-Tang Clan – “Protect Ya Neck” (1993)
Wu-Tang Clan’s debut single opens with a guy calling in to a radio station requesting “Protect Ya Neck” for the umpteenth time. As soon as the beat drops and Inspectah Deck drops the lyrics “I smoke on the mic like “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier…” you know why. Right out the gate, Wu-Tang Clan was on fire, choosing the perfect anthem to highlight each emcee’s talent. Introductions don’t get much more impactful than this.
51. N.W.A. – “F*** Tha Police” (1989)
“F*** tha Police” feels like the working title of a song before the record label, manager or someone in the group comes to their senses. But N.W.A. wasn’t about that. The jaw-dropping title and slogan remain (unfortunately) a rallying cry to this day. “F*** tha Police” is sonically staged in a courtroom putting the police on trial. By the time Ice Cube is done delivering his emphatic first verse, you’re ready to convict. “F*** tha Police” would earn N.W.A. the label as the world’s most dangerous group. It also proved they were one of the best.
50. The Sugar Hill Gang – “Rapper’s Delight” (1979)
“Rapper’s Delight” was a dance song at a time when dance songs were all the rage. The fact that a hip hop track in 1979 could hold its own against the barrage of disco tunes is jaw-dropping in retrospect. The production is a masterclass in sampling (illegally jacking Chic’s “Good Times”) that would lay the blueprint for crafting a pop-rap song and mark the first, but certainly not the last time rap would invade mainstream culture.
49. The Notorious B.I.G. – “Who Shot Ya?” (1995)
There’s a mythological aura to “Who Shot Ya?” As Jay-Z’s tells it, Biggie first played his friend the song during a drive around Brooklyn. It was the moment Jay realized the rap game had reached a new lyrical level. The rest of us would come to the realization a short time later. Whether or not it was a diss record directed at 2Pac, “Who Shot Ya?” took on a monumental feel. Producer Nashiem Myrick’s beat (with those keys) is a showstopper. But the magic of “Who Shot Ya?” is B.I.G.’s lyricism. 2Pac’s response record “Hit Em Up” would prove the most scathing thing to come out of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry. But B.I.G. had set his sights on other things, like cementing himself as the greatest rapper of all time.
48. Black Sheep – “The Choice is Yours (Revisited)” (1992)
Black Sheep may go down as a one-hit-wonder. But that one hit was, arguably, the greatest single achievement of the highly celebrated Native Tongues crew. The duo of Dres and Mista Lawnge built “The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)” around a looping upright bassline to go along with several other key samples. It’s the liveliest thing jazz rap ever saw. Add in Dres’ amazing lyrics and multiple hooks delivered with flawless precision and there’s no arguing the catchiness of “The Choice Is Yours.” It holds up to this day.
47. Warren G feat. Nate Dogg – “Regulate” (1994)
“Regulate” accomplishes various things. It makes a violent mugging and drive-by somehow seem pretty chill. It proves no one, save for Dr. Dre, was better at the G-funk sound than Warren G. And, most importantly, it cements Nate Dogg as the greatest hook man in rap history. Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre had proven vital to the West Coast’s sound. But Nate Dogg was just as paramount to Death Row’s historical impact. Warren G gave Nate the platform to prove it over a smooth sample of Michael McDonald.
46. Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew – “The Show”/”La Di Da Di” (1985)
Two songs impossible to separate in their interplay with each other and their impact on rap music. The A-side of Doug E. Fresh and MC Ricky D’s (aka Slick Rick) iconic single may be “The Show.” But it’s the B-side edges it out in terms of influence. “La Di Da Di” is the most sampled hip-hop track of all time with an instrumental that comes from Doug E. Fresh beatboxing. Matched with Slick Rick’s smooth lyrics, “La Di Da Di” is hip hop’s greatest performance track.
45. Lil Wayne – “A Milli” (2008)
When you talk about rappers at their peak, it doesn’t get much bigger than Lil Wayne from 2006-2008. The mixtape run that affirmed him as the “Best Rapper Alive” culminated with the blockbuster album “Tha Carter III” and the 21st century’s greatest trunk-rattler “A Milli.” Bangladesh’s beat is as bass-heavy as it gets, opening things up for Weezy’s stream of consciousness raps that simply could not be contained. The one-liners (“I don’t ‘o’ [owe] ‘u’ [you] like two vowels”) come one after another. To say Lil Wayne was in the zone in 2008 is like saying Michael Jordan was simply feeling it during the 1990-91 NBA season.
44. Kurtis Blow – “The Breaks” (1980)
Rap’s first single to ever be certified gold wasn’t supposed to be a hit. Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” received very little promotion on Mercury Records. But it became a mainstay on dancefloors in the 1980s, merging elements of disco and the new sound that was hip hop. And you can still feel the allure of the bassline and funky guitar riffs today.
43. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony – “Tha Crossroads” (1996)
Who invented the fast-paced Midwest lyrical dialect might be a point of contention between Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Twista and Three 6 Mafia. But when it comes to singing and rapping out of any region, Bone Thugs wins out. The two art forms weren’t mutually exclusive. But no rap act was pushing harmonies out of their mouths like Bone. The peak of that, both artistically and commercially, is “Tha Crossroads.” The reworking of a track from the group’s sophomore album dedicated to Eazy-E became a massive hit 15 years before Drake made singing cool again.
42. De La Soul – “Eye Know” (1989)
De La Soul’s “Eye Know” samples Otis Redding, Lee Dorsey and Steely Dan. Think about that for a second, especially in the context that producer Prince Paul was doing all this pre-1990. The musicality of “Eye Know” is unfathomable, even if it seems commonplace now. De La Soul brought hip hop there. Every song on 1989′s “3 Feet High and Rising” falls into that mold. But the beautiful “Eye Know” is precious. Genuine love songs in hip hop are hard to come by. But when they’re this authentic, they invade your soul.
41. Ice-T – “6 in the Mornin’” (1986)
Ice-T’s signature song is such a landmark of gangsta rap. So much so that many insist it was the first song of the genre. Of course, Ice T would reveal he was influenced by Schoolly D (more on that in a bit). Still, “6 in the Mornin’” clearly took the art of being a gangsta to the next level. It created the persona and vivid details (“6 in the morning, police at my door/Fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor…”) that would serve as the centerpiece of the genre moving forward.
40. Slick Rick – “Children’s Story” (1988)
From the beginning, hip hop was about storytelling. But no one took that more literal than Slick Rick. His greatest song “Children’s Story” shapes things as a fairytale. But it wasn’t just the written words. Rick’s delivery, which morphs into different characters throughout, is something to behold. His amazing performance overshadows just how great the production on “Children’s Story” is. This is a refined classic and a one-man show from one of hip-hop’s most influential figures.
39. The Diplomats – “I Really Mean It” (2003)
From a style standpoint, no one ruled over early 2000s hip hop quite like The Diplomats. They found a unique niche in every aspect of the culture. Of course, it wouldn’t have happened without the music first. “I Really Mean It” is Dipset’s come-to-Jesus moment in gangsta rap form. The Just Blaze beat explodes out of your speakers, dripping with swagger and sentiment thanks to its luscious soul sample. And Cam’ron knows exactly how to use it, “letting Just live” at various moments. When he does rap, Cam’s lines are also the stuff of legend: “F**k it, bucket by Osh Kosh B’gosh,” “Gave her her son like Ricky from ‘Boyz n the Hood,’” and “First movie ever, murked out Mekhi Phife.” It’s the sound of a movement at its peak.
38. Eazy-E – “Boyz-n-the-Hood” (1987)
“Straight Outta Compton” put N.W.A. and gangsta rap on the map in a way no song ever had. However, the blueprint for that style began with Eazy-E’s “Boyz-n-the-Hood.” The song is, in many ways, N.W.A.’s true first single, showcasing Eazy-E’s vision for the group with production from Dr. Dre and DJ Yella and lyrics written by Ice Cube. Eazy-E was never the greatest rapper, but the group knew charisma was everything. “Boyz-n-the-Hood” had it in spades.
37. Gang Starr – “Mass Appeal” (1994)
Perhaps no song showcases DJ Premier’s purpose more than Gang Starr’s “Mass Appeal.” The track’s theme and bubbly beat were created to mock rappers sacrificing their integrity to land on the pop charts. Premier purposely created a beat that had catchy elements, hooking mainstream music fans just so Guru’s purposeful rhymes (“Because I don’t need gimmicks/Gimme a fly beat and I’m all in it…”) could drop knowledge on them.
36. Audio Two – “Top Billin’” (1987)
You don’t have to take anyone’s word for it that Audio Two’s “Top Billin’” features one of the greatest beats in hip hop history. It’s there in the numbers. “Top Billin’” has been sampled nearly 300 times by a wide variety of artists thanks to its innovation which, in 1987, sounded different from everything else coming out of New York. The abnormal, yet catchy drumbeat would change the scope of what could be done on a drum machine and, thus, in hip hop.
35. Lil Uzi Vert – “XO Tour Llif3” (2017)
Welcome to the era of SoundCloud rap. The disruptive genre that emerged in 2017 may never have taken off if not for Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3.” The song, the quintessential example of emo-rap, proved SoundCloud hip hop wouldn’t be dismissed as a niche trend. The combination of low-fi production and emotive lyrics and themes makes it relatable to a younger generation craving something affective. It helps that “XO Tour Llif3” is one of the catchiest rap songs in quite some time. Lil Uzi Vert turns into an Alien-like character willing to spill his guts out on a musical masterpiece perfect for the streaming age.
34. The Pharcyde – “Passin’ Me By” (1992)
Few songs have ever arrived like a breath of fresh air in hip hop in the way that “Passin’ Me By” did. The Pharcyde was a West Coast hip hop group that arrived during the peak of gangsta rap. But the members were more comedians than gangsters. The group’s debut single “Ya Mama” suggested a novelty. “Passin’ Me By” was fully formed. The Pharcyde’s artistry and playful nature all come together on a breezy track that was enough of a hit to define alternative hip hop for an entire region.
33. Jay Electronica – “Exhibit C” (2009)
Part of the legacy of “Exhibit C” lies in just how much hype it built for Jay Electronica only to have fans waiting forever for his debut album. But none of that would have mattered had it not been a song for the ages. Greatness should leave you craving more and Jay Electronica showed off a combination of lyrical ability and retrospection that hadn’t been seen in quite some time. He had numerous backers, including Puff Daddy. But Jay Electronica’s greatest collaborator was Just Blaze who laces him with a soulful beat that ranks among the producer’s very best.
32. UGK – “Int’l Players Anthem (I Choose You)” (2007)
Even if UGK had never tapped Outkast to guest on “Int’l Players Anthem,” the Southern rap legends would still have had a monumental track on their hands. Of course, what would a celebration be without the icing on the cake? That’s exactly what Andre 3000′s endlessly quotable opening verse over a soulful instrumental is. Pimp C takes it from there, bringing “Int’l Players Anthem” into its main portion before Bun B and Big Boi round things out. Before the song’s release, UGK was best known in pop music circles for an appearance on Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin.’” Now the group had its track worthy of such an amazing legacy.
31. Snoop Doggy Dogg – “Gin and Juice” (1993)
Following his show-stealing performances on Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic,” Snoop Dogg was positioned to be the biggest star in rap. And, boy, did he capitalize on it. “What’s My Name?,” the debut single from “Doggystyle,” was a top-10 hit. But it was the follow-up “Gin and Juice that became a pop culture fixture in the years that followed. “Gin and Juice” cemented Snoop as the biggest thing in hip hop and further proved Dre’s G-funk was now the signature sound in all of rap.
30. M.O.P. – “Ante Up (Robbin-Hoodz Theory)” (2000)
Anyone familiar with M.O.P.’s early work would probably have wagered the group would never score even a modest rap hit. The style was just so aggressive. So how does that explain “Ante Up?” The beat, built around a sample of Sam & Dave’s “Soul Sister, Brown Sugar,” moves things ever so slightly away from hardcore hip hop to a bit of soul. But the hook is the real game-changer. M.O.P. turns a menacing street phrase into something anyone of any age can use to amp themselves up.
29. Beastie Boys – “Paul Revere” (1986)
Rap greatest “Hello, nice to meet you” moment. “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” was the big anthem from Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill.” But even before then, Beastie Boys had made an impression that would cement their status as one of the great rap acts of all time. “Paul Revere” is a fictional story, of course. But it’s so enticing you’re willing to suspend reality for three and a half minutes. The song was essential in establishing Beastie Boys as characters and the mythology that would stick with them for nearly three decades.
28. Cypress Hill – “How I Could Just Kill a Man” (1991)
Odds are you’ve found yourself nodding your head or even dancing to Cypress Hill’s “How Could I Could Just Kill a Man” only to realize you’re feeling yourself off a track about murder. It’s just so good! Cypress Hill gets a lot of credit for becoming the first Latin hip hop group to make it into the mainstream and rightfully so. But to fully understand the group’s impact, you have to remember that Cypress Hill’s debut album came out a year before Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic.” DJ Muggs’ classic melodic beat and B-Real’s nasally flow on “How I Could Just Kill Man” established laid back, fun-loving (yet terrifying) gangsta rap you could play at parties.
27. Salt-N-Pepa – “Push It” (1987)
Even Salt-N-Pepa and its team didn’t know the monster they had in “Push It.” Not only was the original version of the song not released on the group’s 1986 album “Hot, Cool & Vicious.” The song was issued as the B-side to “Tramp.” But history lessons don’t matter. Once “Push It” made its way to DJs’ ears, there was no stopping it. Salt-N-Pepa become the first female rap act to go gold and platinum, the group established a new blueprint for pop rap.
26. Eminem – “Stan” (2000)
There was something so darkly alluring about “Stan” to the point where it became the unlikely third single from the diamond-selling “The Marshall Mathers LP.” Back in 2000, few would have predicted the song would become more celebrated than “The Real Slim Shady” or “The Way I Am.” The clever sample of Dido’s “Thank You” is an earworm, while “Stan’s” concept of telling a story from a crazy fan’s perspective would create a new pop culture phrase. Eminem can rap as fast as he wants these days. But it’s a song like “Stan” that showcases his lyrical genius more than anything.
25. Tribe Called Quest feat. Leaders of the New School – “Scenario” (1992)
The beat for “Scenario,” built around a sample of Brother Jack McDuff’s “Oblighetto,” is set up perfectly for a group of emcees to freestyle over. From there, the song becomes all about the chemistry among the members of A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders of the New School. You can feel it in their exchanges, passing the mic back and forth as if they were kindred spirits. The song concludes with Busta Rhymes’ star-making verse. It’s a raucous final statement on the greatest posse cut in rap history.
24. Run-D.M.C.’s – “Sucker MCs” (1983)
“It’s Like That” may have been Run-D.M.C.’s first single. But it was the song’s B-side that changed hip hop. “Sucker M.C.’s” brought everything Run-D.M.C. was about (and what hip hop would be about moving forward) to fruition. The minimalistic production, style, harder rhymes and storytelling were all game-changers, moving rap out of its ancient ways. By modern standards, Larry Smith’s production seems dated. But it was perfect for the statement that needed to be made. Run-D.M.C. was cool and if you wanted to be cool too, you needed to get down with them.
23. The Clipse – “Grindin’” (2001)
That beat. Those words (‘I’m yo Pusha!”). My god. Even by the Neptunes’ previous standards, “Grindin’” was incredible. The song comes without many of the bells and whistles the Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo had put forth on their previous hits. “Grindin’” may be minimalistic. But its thumping drumbeat comes with accenting sounds – from bubbles bursting to Pharrell’s deep breaths to that mesmerizing shuffle. Add in two great emcees detailing their drug dealing exploits and one heck of a hook, and you have suburban kids singing about grindin’ without realizing what it truly means.
22. LL Cool J – “Rock the Bells” (1985)
It starts with “LL Cool J is hard as hell/Battle anybody I don’t care who tell…” And a legend is born. “Rock the Bells” wasn’t the first single from LL Cool J’s debut album. But it was the star-making moment for both LL and producer Rick Rubin. It’s the song that brings it all together, from Rick Ruben’s emphasis on the downbeat and b-boy culture to LL Cool J’s ferocious rhymes. Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys were already successes. But LL Cool J, with songs like “Rock the Bells,” placed rap firmly in the new school era.
21. 50 Cent – “Many Men (Wish Death)” (2003)
It’s a bit surprising “Many Men” is the 50 Cent song that’s endured the most. After all, “In Da Club” had the beat and the “It’s your birthday” tagline. But “Many Men” had everything else. The song’s cinematic vibe and 50′s singalong hook have become the go-to for that turning point in the gangster lifestyle. And you can’t help but hum along even as the song’s message means things could be coming to an end for a gangster. You just can’t resist the urge to pretend you’re Paulie in “Goodfellas” with lines like “Death gotta be easy, ‘cause life is hard…” “Many Men” was the pinnacle of gangsta rap for the 21st century.
20. Boogie Down Productions – “The Bridge Is Over” (1987)
“The Bridge Is Over” is so laid back and minimalistic, you might make the mistake of underestimating how formidable it is. “South Bronx,” Boogie Down Productions’ initial response to MC Shan’s “The Bridge,” was enough to get the point across. But KRS-One was out to prove a point that rap came out of the Bronx. Thus, the next record “The Bridge Is Over” would take hip hop and the art of battling to the next level. Not only does Scott La Rock sample a “The Bridge” producer Marley Marl’s drums. KRS spits most of “The Bridge Is Over” in a reggae voice, something no one else was doing in hip hop back then. This battle between two boroughs was now a war and there was a clear winner.
19. 2Pac feat. Dr. Dre – “California Love” (1996)
Whether you’re a fan of swaggering 2Pac or the more socially conscious version of the emcee, there’s no denying “California Love” was his signature track. The song reaches classic status before you ever hear Pac’s voice. Dr. Dre’s thumping beat and opening verse deliver the goods along with Roger Troutman’s vocals. But make no mistake – This is 2Pac’s song. He arrives in the second verse to snatch the crown (“Out on bail, fresh out of jail, California dreamin’”). It’s a brief, yet forceful statement and all that was needed to let everyone know 2Pac was back with a whole new mindset.
18. Jay-Z – “99 Problems” (2004)
When Jay-Z went to record his “farewell” album, he intended to work with every legendary producer he could. Some of those collaborations didn’t pan out on “The Black Album.” But the one that did and remains the most affecting is with Rick Rubin on “99 Problems.” The song combines the two greatest taste-makers in hip-hop history. Rubin brings the old-school rock-driven beats he used to make LL Cool and the Beastie Boys famous. Jay-Z brings the concept and swagger, weaving together a tale with an edgy catchphrase tailor-made for T-shirts. Even on his “final” album, Jay-Z was showing he wasn’t a businessman. He was a business, man.
17. Puff Daddy feat. The Lox, Lil’ Kim and The Notorious B.I.G. – “It’s All About the Benjamins (Remix)” (1997)
“I’ll even let you rhyme to the Benjamin beat.” Those are the words of Big Pun, one of rap’s greatest lyricists who knew how fierce the production on Puff Daddy & the Family’s amazing track was. Fittingly everyone brings their A-game over Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie’s swirling beat. Puff delivers his most iconic verse (written by Jadakiss) to open things while The Lox does what The Lox does. Biggie’s closing rhymes over a switched-up beat are epic. But it’s Lil’ Kim who trumps everyone with the greatest female rap verse of all time. Rumble with the Bee, indeed.
16. Ice Cube – “It Was a Good Day” (1993)
Ice Cube’s rap career was initially built on in-your-face lyrics delivered at a punishing volume. But “It Was a Good Day” made it also clear no emcee could do laid-back hip hop as good Cube. In the vein of Ice-T, Cube’s lyrics paint the image of a day in the life of a West Coast hustler while the beat from DJ Pooh could give Dr. Dre’s G-funk sound a run for its money. But it’s the conceptual nature of “It Was a Good Day” that’s given the song longevity that eludes most records. Bloggers have spent years trying to figure out the exact day Cube is rapping about on “It Was a Good Day.”
15. Missy Elliott – “Work It” (2002)
By the time her 2002 album “Under Construction” came out, Missy Elliott was in hit-making mode. Yet, what may have gotten lost in enjoying all the singles was just how much Missy and her production partner Timbaland were stripping rap back down before building it into something refreshing for a new era. “Work It” brilliant samples Run-D.M.C.’s “Peter Piper,” Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three’s “Request Line” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” Missy’s song is a throwback jam that also sounds futuristic, an accomplishment that shows the genius of a
songwriting/production team that was capable of accomplishing anything they wanted.
14. Gets Boys – “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” (1991)
Geto Boys and other Southern rappers had been lurking in the underground for a few years. But 1991′s “We Can’t Be Stopped” is the moment where the South truly arrived on the national hip hop scene. “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” would seem like the unlikeliest of singles to accomplish such a feat. When you think about horrorcore, you think of something much more menacing. But “My Mind Playing Tricks on Me” builds its fear off of paranoia. Digging deeper, especially into Scarface’s lyrics, you realize there are themes at play, such as depression, loneliness and PTSD, that hip hop hadn’t touched on up until that point. “My Mind Playing Tricks on Me” was very much ahead of its time.
13. Pete Rock & CL Smooth – “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” (1992)
No song recalls rap’s 1990s golden era more than “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.).” Pete Rock and & CL Smooth accomplish their amazing nostalgia trip in two ways. The production comes first. Pete Rock’s beat is blissful, making his samples sound atmospheric. Where other producers might feel the urge to overpower the listener with the sound, Rock makes sure every part of “They Reminisce Over You” accents the others. CL Smooth’s fantastic lyrical performance, which shouldn’t be underestimated, comes next. His words come loaded with emotion and imagery as he tells an emotional story that transports you better days.
12. Kanye West – “Runaway” (2010)
Listening to Kanye West’s “Runaway” is a history lesson in how far hip hop has come. By most measures, had a song began with so many piano notes in the 1990s, rap fans would immediately turn it off. But in 2010, West was setting the tone for a different decade in all forms of music. The layered production, which will call progressive rap, is astonishing on multiple levels. Picking it apart (with elements of pop, art-rock, dance music, trip-hop and R&B) could take weeks. No other artist in hip hop could pull this off. The only thing more stunning is just how self-deprecating West’s lyrics are. In picking himself apart, West becomes even more relatable than he was early in his career. “Runaway” is West’s greatest song because it’s the track where his vulnerability unlocks a level of genius that has gone unmatched.
11. Public Enemy – “Fight the Power” (1989)
Released in 1989 as a single on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” Public Enemy’s anthem served as a perfect match for the firepower the film had to offer. Yet, even on its own, “Fight the Power” was something special. Chuck D keeps his intensity held back like a coiled spring, building to an impressive midpoint “I’m hype, plus I’m amped. Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp…” he then aims at Elvis and John Wayne, two of white America’s greatest, yet flawed icons. Everything Chuck D (with Flava Flav by his side) feels like truth slapping you in the face, which is why “Fight the Power” morphs into a protest for you to join into. It’s alluring and blistering, which one might say represents everything hip hop should be about.
10. Wu-Tang Clan – “C.R.E.A.M.” (1993)
Hip hop was born in New York, but it had taken a hit in the nears leading up to 1993. Dr. Dre’s “Chronic” made the West Coast the center of rap’s mainstream. New York rappers were playing catchup. Enter the Wu-Tang Clan. The singles “Protect Ya Neck” and “Method Man” put the group on the map. But “C.R.E.A.M.” was an entirely different beast. RZA’s heavy bass and haunting piano melody paved the way for iconic verses from Raekwon and Inspectah Deck’s. But the icing on the cake was Method Man’s hook, a chorus permanently stamped in your head. Wu-Tang Clan had introduced the world to hardcore hip hop that managed to have just enough pop appeal for the masses.
9. Eric B. & Rakim – “Paid in Full (Seven Minutes of Madness – The Coldcut Remix)” (1987)
When hip hop began, it borrowed a lot from dance music. Songs like Rapper’s Delight and were structured like disco songs. What’s interesting about Eric B. and Rakim’s “Paid in Full” is that it suddenly was a song being sampled for dance music. It makes sense. The beat glides and Rakim delivers a seismic lyrical performance that makes for some great one-liners to be sampled. English electronic duo Coldcut would create a remix of the song that would turn heads in Europe, making rap a force for the first time overseas.
8. Mobb Deep – “Shook Ones, Pt. II” (1995)
There’s something immediately terrifying about “Shook Ones, Pt. II.” That slow drum beat and those sirens seemingly ripped out of a horror film. For “Shook Ones, Pt. II,” Mobb Deep’s Havoc combined three equally mercurial jazz samples: Herbie Hancock’s “Jessica,” “Daly-Wilson Big Band’s “Dirty Feet” and Quincy Jones “Kitty With The Bent Frame.” The songs are so obscure (at least to hip hop fans), their presence in the track remained somewhat of a mystery for a decade and a half. That makes sense. After all, what makes “Shook Ones, Pt. II” so timeless is that it’s also somewhat generic. It’s the sound of a looming threat that could exist in any era. And Mobb Deep’s Prodigy delivers on the threat with his astonishing first verse: “Rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone…” It’s the kind of thing that should get you locked up for life. But who’s going to confront this guy? After all, as Prodigy then warns, “Now, take these words home and think it through/Or the next rhyme I write might be about you…”
7. Outkast – “B.O.B.” (2000)
When Andre 3000 made the now legendary statement “The South got something to say” at the 1995 Source Awards, no one could predict what would come next. The South (more specifically Atlanta) would have a lot to say in hip hop. But no one shaped more trends and delivered more amazing music than Outkast. The peak is the whirlwind of a song that is “B.O.B.” It’s a politically charged anthem that (sadly) predicted America’s future, while sonically merging elements of rap, drum and bass, rock and more. Everything “B.O.B” has to offer is quite overwhelming. The beat is impossible to rhyme over unless you’re a rap group consisting of two of the greatest emcees. In the end, “B.O.B.” opened doors for the alternative rap movement of the 21st century. But unlike just about every great song in hip-hop history, no one ever attempted to copy it. How could they?
6. N.W.A. – “Straight Outta Compton” (1989)
N.W.A. might have felt the need to open its iconic song with a proclamation: “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge…” But it wasn’t necessary. “Straight Outta Compton” is a song that skyrockets off Ice Cube’s opening lyrical salvo: “Straight outta Compton, crazy mother***er named Ice Cube/From the gang called N***az With Attitudes
When I’m called off, I got a sawed-off/Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off…” There’s a shock value, of course. But there’s an artistry to it as well thanks to the swirling production. “Straight Outta Compton” is all about the urgency of its message and the appeal of its sound. N.W.A. didn’t invent gangsta rap, but the group brought it to white America in a way it could no longer be ignored.
5. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – “The Message” (1982)
From an influence standpoint, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” can’t be understated. Before it, hip hop almost felt like an extension of disco in its unwavering commitment to party jams. “The Message” changed everything by serving as a social commentary in the vein of America’s greatest Black poets. But it’s more than that. Nearly 40 years after its release, “The Message” shouldn’t still sound this good. The beat still sounds as alluring as it ever did, which is why it’s been sampled time and time again. “The Message” was hip hop’s very first work of art. And like a fine painting, its value only goes up with age.
4. Kendrick Lamar – “Alright” (2015)
Songs like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” don’t come around all that often anymore. Rarely does a politically charged song of this uncompromising become such a universal anthem. The world hasn’t seen one since “Fight the Power.” Timing is everything, of course. The message in “Alright” would only be magnified by the police brutality of the last decade. And yet, while “Alright” focuses on the tragic issues affecting the Black community and the frustration that follows, there’s a sense of comfort that comes with Lamar’s instant classic. The phrase “We gon’ be alright!” is something to go back to time and time again. After all the pain and heartache, hope remains…God willing.
3. The Notorious B.I.G. – “Juicy” (1994)
“Juicy” is hip hop’s ultimate rags to riches story. And what made it resonate so much over the years is that going from rags to riches is what hip hop became about in its golden era of the 1990s. The Notorious B.I.G. embodied that. There was a vulnerability to his music, a self-awareness that stayed true to the phrase “ashy to classy.” Sean “Puffy” Combs deserves credit for recognizing it and pushing Biggie to rap over a sample of Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit” sample, even though it didn’t appeal to his hardcore tendencies. But that soulful feel, combined with B.I.G’s relatable rhymes and pop culture references was everything.
2. Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Doggy Dogg – “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” (1992)
Dr. Dre had toyed with elements of the G-funk sound on N.W.A.’s second album. Likewise, other hip hop acts (EPMD and Public Enemy) had utilized funk samples in their music. But up until “The Chronic,” hip hop was all about the heavy rhythm and a hard beat. Then Dre smoothed everything out on “Nuthin’ but a G’ Thang.” Dre made hip hop melodic, tailoring it to the mainstream in a way that no one had before. It’s truly a monumental track both in its groundbreaking production, which reshaped rap for the 1990s, and the introduction of hip hop’s next big star in Snoop Doggy Dogg. In the 21-year-old, Dre had the star that could drive his new vehicle and it was one heck of a ride.
1. Nas – “New York State of Mind” (1994)
“New York State of Mind” wasn’t much of a cultural event in 1994. The track wasn’t even a single from Nas’ debut album. In retrospect, it’s all here. The greatest producer and lyricist in rap history joining forces on, arguably, the greatest hip hop album of all time. The beat alone is so amazing it might seem daunting for your average emcee. But Nas rises to the occasion, weaving together two of the greatest verses in rap history. The complexities of his rhymes, a mix of Kool G Rap’s mafioso rap, LL Cool J’s swagger and Chuck D’s political tones, are next level. “New York State of Mind” is hip hop in every aspect at its absolute peak. You can’t ask for more.