The 50 best rap lyrics of all time: 50-26
Last week, we took a look at the fifty worst rap lyrics of all time. Going through all the dreck and drivel to get to the crème de la crème of crappiness was tedious and rather exhausting. This week, we even things out by taking a look at the other end of the spectrum and examining rap lyrics to find cleverness and wordplay worthy of being praised. Keep reading for the first half of our countdown to see which rhymes struck as some of the best of all time.
50. Mos Def - "Mathematics"
"Crack mothers, crack babies and AIDS patients/Youngbloods can't spell, but they could rock you in PlayStation."
Mos Def raises the stakes of this rhyme in the first line by presenting the challenges humanity faces in this day in age. He then pairs this with a commentary on the priorities of the day's youth, who are more concerned with video games than practical knowledge. When combined, the gap between what we need and what he have is clear and startling.
49. Wale - "Is There Any Love?"
"You niggas so-so like a seamstress."
Wale is a cool cat, and his wordplay here is seamless. The image of a seamstress sitting at her machine, running through mundane line after line, just seems to fit with a mediocre rapper, so the simile is so apt. And he makes it sound easy and fluent -- like a finger roll in basketball. It's tough to make it look so simple.
48. CL Smooth - "They Reminisce Over You"
"T to the R-uh-O-Y, how did you and I meet?/In front of Big Lou's, fighting in the street/But only you saw what took many time to see/I dedicate this to you for believing in me."
The whole purpose of this song, as indicated in the title, is to honor memory and reminisce about a friend who's passed. The story of how Troy and CL met may seem incidental, but it is those kinds of idiosyncratic specifics that make the story so genuine and the nostalgia so poignant. The believability of the meeting story makes CL's thank-you to Troy that much more powerful.
47. Lauryn Hill - "Zealots"
"And even after all my logic and my theory/I add a "Motherfucker" so you ignorant niggas hear me."
Lauryn Hill gives a taste of her biting wit and humor, commenting on the state of music -- hip-hop in particular. It's a great line, because the "motherfucker" does stand out in Lauryn's otherwise clean verse; it perks you up, but she's still using the word in an enlightened manner, thus getting the point across without compromising the quality of her lyrics.
46. Scarface - "No Tears"
"I got this killa up inside of me/I can't talk to my mother so I talk to my diary."
It's funny how it can be easier to talk to the world than to your own mother. Scarface's rap was his diary, and this song comes off his album named, that's right, The Diary. This line speaks to how important rap is -- how important any form of expression is -- to the artist as more than just a career or way to entertain. Some rappers pour their souls into their lyrics, and you can bet that a rapper like Scarface wouldn't dare use a potentially effeminate word like "diary" unless he was doing just that.
45. K'naan - "Strugglin'"
"My life owes me. Like an overdose, I'm slowly/Drifting into the arms of trouble, then trouble holds me"
This is personification at its best -- unexpected and complex. You would expect trouble to be uncaring and unkind, but K'naan presents trouble as a soothing figure. The inclusion of the word "overdose" also suggests that perhaps trouble is operating as a kind of drug, and K'naan is so accustomed to it that he goes into withdrawals without it. The assonant use of the hard "oh" vowel sound also gives this couplet a pained, longing feel.
44. Hopsin - "The Ill Mind of Hopsin"
"The term real niggas publicly used/And I need to know what it means 'cause I'm fucking confused/Are you one for always busting your tool with nothing to lose/And something to prove to homies up in your crew?/Is it because you're selling drugs to get loot/And brag about how you done been shot and stabbed, like it's fun to be you?/But your life's a struggle, right? And you just hustling through/Nah, you hamster-ass nigga. You just stuck in a loop "
Hopsin calls into question the ideal of "realness" in hip-hop, which has long been affiliated with street cred. Hopsin turns this value on its head and likens those hustling in the drug game to hamsters stuck running nowhere in their wheel. To be sure, the line is cruel and unsympathetic, but Hopsin's never been one for sparing feelings. And the truth hurts: The drug game has no winners.
43. Run-D.M.C. - "My Adidas"
"My Adidas walk through concert doors/And roam all over coliseum floors."
With this line, Run-D.M.C. gave their Adidas life and personality. They turned shoes into something more than the leather and rubber they're made from. You get the sense that the shoes of Run-D.M.C. have lived more than most people have.
42. Shad - "I Don't Like To"
"Y'all cowards couldn't rap this dope with a Zig-Zag."
Shad's wordplay is so subtle, so effortless, you don't even realize he's doing it at first, and when you do, you think back and say, "Damn, Shad. That was dope."
41. J. Cole - "Villematic"
"You hate it before you played it. I already forgave ya."
J. Cole retroactively forgives those who would judge his music before even listening to him, thereby removing all power from potential haters. The ultimate IDGAF line.
40. Masta Killa - "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'"
"Homicide's illegal and death is the penalty/What justifies the homicide when he dies?"
Somewhat ironically, given his name, Masta Killa meditates on the difference between homicide and the death penalty, and implies that civic systems that practice the death penalty may be acting hypocritically.
39. Cage - "Ballad of Worms"
"I tell her keep her head up/Even though I gotta hold it up for her/And she seizure when she try and get up."
Nobody can describe hopelessness like Cage can. How do you keep your head up figuratively when you can't even keep it up literally, and how do you keep yourself together when your body falls apart every time you try to stand?
38. Kid Cudi - "The Prayer"
"And if I die before I wake/I pray the lord my soul to take/But please don't cry/Just know that I have made these songs for you."
This is one of those lines that you have to hear to appreciate. It's the kind of line that borders on narcissistic -- and Cudi is kind of a narcissistic guy -- but the personality with which he delivers the line makes it sound so genuine, and it comes off as more humble than anything. You really feel as though he's made the song just for you.
37. Prodigy - "Shook Ones (Pt. II)"
"For all of those who wanna profile and pose/Rock you in your face, stab your brain with your nose bone."
Unlike a lot of MCs who act tough in their raps, Prodigy gets very real very quick in a way that's brutal and shocking. Part of the power of the line comes from its brevity; it comes at you so fast, it hits you like a blow to the face. And it's so easy to picture -- and that picture is not particularly pretty.
36. MC Ren - "Fuck the Police"
"Fuck the police, and Ren said it with authority/Because the niggas on the street is a majority."
Ren playfully but decisively inverts the relationship between police and the racial minorities by pointing out that, in his streets, the minority is the majority and has strength in numbers. Police may have the advantage most times, but not in his neck of the woods.
35. Common - "Retrospect for Life"
"I look into mother's stomach, wonder if you are a boy or a girl/Turnin' this woman's womb into a tomb/But she and I agree, a seed we don't need/You would've been much more than a mouth to feed/But someone I would've fed this information I read/To someone my life for you I would've had to leave/Instead I led you to death."
Common explains the profound pain that went along with the decision to get an abortion. He contemplates the joy of raising a child, thinking about being responsible for another life, another mind and a path through which he could extend his own life, before ending abruptly with death.
34. Jay Electronica - "The Pledge"
"The radio is just a stereo like a house ain't a home."
An object is not simply a form, a collection of components. Its true value lies in what it can be used for and what it means to the people who use it. When your home burns down, you lose more than just a house; you lose your sense of security, belonging and whatever else comes with having a home. For Jay Electronica, the radio is a tool with which he can reach millions of ears. The proliferation of his music isn't simply transmission of sound; it's his mode of expression, and, as the rest of this section of the song explains, a tool to teach and connect people.
33. Earl Sweatshirt - "Chum"
"Trying to make it from the bottom. His sins/Feeling as hard as Vince Carter's knee cartilage is."
Besides the impeccable sound of the second line, replete with assonance, consonance and internal half-rhyme, the desperate but pitch-black funny Vince Carter metaphor is so powerful. Earl speaks about trying to climb out of something dark, but the figurative weight of his sins is keeping him down like Vince Carter's old knees (Vince Carter could once fly like even Air Jordan couldn't). Earl takes something very abstract and makes it very real and visceral.
32. 2Pac - "Changes"
"First ship 'em dope and let 'em deal to brothers/Give 'em guns, step back and watch 'em kill each other/'It's time to fight back,' that's what Huey said/Two shots in the dark, now Huey's dead."
This line encapsulates the paranoia that informs the belief system of the revolutionary. Whether or not you believe Huey Newton was a good person is irrelevant to the tragedy of his death, given what he was trying to do and that he died at the hands of a rivaling revolutionary faction. 2Pac used this tragedy brilliantly to push the importance of coming together, regardless of differences.
31. Lil' Wayne - "I Feel Like Dying"
"Swimmin' laps around a bottle of Louie the Thirteenth/Jumpin' off of a mountain into a sea of codeine/I'm at the top of the top, but still I climb/And if I should ever fall, the ground will then turn to wine."
Lil Wayne is a master of surrealism, and "I Feel Like Dying" is one of the best examples of surrealism in rap. Wayne describes his experience with drugs as if he's in a dream, and it all seems to make sense in both the literal and figurative senses, as it does in dreams. The line about wine is particularly resonant in that, when people fall into depression, they find comfort in the bottle. The experience of drug-taking is rarely so vividly described, and nuanced both with the joy of experience and the despair of dependence.
30. Cage - "Agent Orange"
"Pour beer out for yourself because you're walking dead/I'll burn your house down like a fucking Talking Head."
The word "ill" was invented for rhymes like these. The gist of what Cage is saying may be simple: I'll burn your house down and kill you. The way he says it is completely fresh, combining the two familiar idioms of pouring liquor out for the dead homies and a dead man walking, then coming full circle, telling you how you'll die with a dark and funny Talking Heads reference and a perfect rhyme.
29. Eminem - "The Way I Am"
"And since birth I've been cursed with this curse to just curse/And just blurt this berserk and bizarre shit that works/And it sells and it helps in itself to relieve/All this tension dispensing these sentences/Getting this stress that's been eating me recently/Off of this chest and I rest again peacefully."
Besides the content of these lines, which is powerfully descriptive, and the tone, which echoes the stress and frustration of the first few lines and the release of the last, the collage of sound that Eminem constructs, with alliteration, assonance and internal and multisyllabic rhyme, is impeccable. Most rappers can't rap with the conviction nor the technical skill that Eminem does, and Em pulls them both off at the same time.
28. Snoop Dogg - "Gin and Juice"
"Rollin' down the street, smokin' indo, sippin' on gin an juice/Lay back with my mind on my money and my money on my mind."
Yeah, it's a simple line, but rolling like a g is a simple joy, and nobody has put it to music better than Snoop Dogg did here.
27. Big Daddy Kane - "Ain't No Half Steppin'"
"Brain cells are lit. Ideas start to hit/Next the formation of words that fit/At the table I sit, making it legit/And when my pen hits the paper. Ahh shit!"
Big Daddy Kane beautifully illustrates the creative process and delivers the lines as if he's dictating what's happening as it occurs. You can almost see the words floating around in the air, rearranging themselves until they make sense and culminate in indescribable epiphany. Ahh, shit!
26. Ice Cube - "A Bird in the Hand"
"A bird in the hand is worth more than a Bush."
Ice Cube brilliantly reworks the idiom, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," as a critique of then president George H.W. Bush and government more generally, including civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. When the law doesn't work in your favor, and your back is against the wall, it's easy to justify drug dealing as a means of survival (a "bird" is slang for roughly 36 ounces of cocaine). Ice Cube's wordplay is especially effective because his message also works in the context of the original idiom that it's better to use what you have rather than count on help that may never come.
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