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. Selecting the very best lyrics from a library of oh so many is a tough task. Is technical skill the prime consideration? Poetic quality? Historical significance? Keep reading for the full 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.
25. Raekwon - "C.R.E.A.M."
"No question I would speed for cracks and weed/The combination made my eyes bleed."
This is such an arresting image -- it makes no logical sense, but is somehow incredibly emotionally resonant. Maybe the red eyes draw the likeness to a demon. Or maybe it's the pure suffering, which manages to reach near-Biblical proportions. We pity Raekwon's character in the most repulsed way, like a fallen angel.
24. Aesop Rock - "Daylight"
"Life's not a bitch. Life is a beautiful woman/You only call her a bitch because she won't let you get that pussy."
Aesop takes one of the most treasured tropes in hip-hop and skillfully denies it by extending the metaphor of life as a woman and trading cynicism for wonderment. And not only does he reverse the perception of life, he puts a microscope on the word "bitch," suggesting that the label is less indicative of what's labeled and more the labeler's own insecurity.
23. Lil Wayne - "I Feel Like Dying"
"I can mingle with the stars and throw a party on Mars/I am a prisoner, locked up behind Xanax bars "
The first image in this rhyme is of Wayne floating beyond this world, seemingly without limits. Then, immediately after, he cleverly uses the ironic slang term for Xanax pills (bars) to enrich his commentary about his relationship with the drug, as a prisoner. The lack of a transition between these images suggests that they are happening concurrently. Wayne is on a trip, yet he's ultimately confined -- the tragedy of drug use.
22. Kendrick Lamar - "HiiiPower"
"The sky is falling, the wind is calling/Stand for something, or die in the morning"
Kendrick borrows biblical images of the apocalypse to give importance and immediacy to the words that follow: Stand for something, or die in the morning. He is symbolically suggesting that judgment is coming tomorrow and that only the righteous will be saved -- or perhaps he's implying that judgment comes each day and every day you don't stand for something, you're virtually dead.
21. Notorious B.I.G. - "Who Shot Ya?"
"I can hear sweat trickling down your cheek/Your heartbeat sound like Sasquatch feet/Thundering, shaking the concrete."
By magnifying usually unnoticeable phenomenon like the sound of sweat trickling and a heart beating, Biggie suggests either that his foes are in a supernatural state of fear or that he's an extraordinary predator. Either way, it's pretty terrifying. I certainly wouldn't want to be his prey, and it's understandable why 2Pac flipped his wig after hearing this.
20. Blu - "The World Is (Below the Heavens)"
"Every man has his own heaven/The difference is the way that he envisions it/So if you make your heaven pictureless/By the time you die, you'll be drifting in an imageless field/So fill your heaven full of blessed thoughts/.../I got a question: If a man can make his own heaven/Then can he make his path to get to it too?"
Blu is a true poet that doesn't need music to keep your attention. His words are laced with a kind of bohemian wisdom that inspires more questions than it can hope to answer, but the ride is nonetheless enlightening. Here he wonders about a non-denominational heaven, and you can never quite tell if he interprets it literally or figuratively, which is probably purposeful and likely the most useful imagination.
19. 2Pac - "Hail Mary"
"I ain't a killer, but don't push me/Revenge is like the sweetest joy, next to getting pussy."
2Pac has always been one for keeping things simple, at least on the surface, but what this rhyme suggests about the nature of man is insidious. Our drives for pride and violence can change the most fundamental parts about ourselves, and to characterize revenge as a sweet joy next only to sex makes it all the more menacing.
18. Ice-T - "99 Problems"
"I've got 99 problems, but a bitch ain't one."
Believe it or not, Jay did not come up with this line. You may be surprised by how many of his lines are actually other people's. Regardless, the line is simply the pinnacle of pimpology. Sexist though it may be, you gotta give Ice-T props for marginalizing women in the most efficient way possible, and, yes, you gotta give Jay-Z props for bringing sexist back -- and Rick Rubin for that beat (god damn!).
17. Lil Wayne - "6 Foot, 7 Foot"
"Real gs move in silence like lasagna."
I didn't get this lyric for a long time -- until I saw it written, and that's when I realized how genius it was. Real gs don't need attention. They're content to remain unnoticed and operate thankless.
16. Eminem - "Renegade"
"See it's easy as cake, simple as whistling Dixie/While I'm waving the pistol at sixty Christians against me/Go to war with the Mormons, take a bath with the Catholics/In holy water, no wonder they tried to hold me under longer."
Eminem finds a balance of bitterness and humor that characterized his relation with religious morality in the early 2000s. He takes baptism, the Christian tradition symbolizing cleansing and resurrection, and turns into a means for attempted murder against him. He uses assonance and internal rhyme throughout, but in the last line he reverses the internal rhyme from "water, no wonder" to "under longer," signifying a switch from holy water to something far less than holy.
15. Notorious B.I.G. - "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)"
"You're nobody 'til somebody kills you."
Flipping Dean Martin's "You're Nobody til Somebody Loves You," the impact of these lyrics have been enhanced by Biggie's untimely death, making it feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy -- especially given the title of Biggie's album, Life After Death. The lines still resonate today, especially in light of recent media blitzes around attention-seeking mass-murderers. We are fascinated by death, and the more tragic it is, the more fixated we are. Die in the right way, and you become immortalized.
14. Public Enemy - "Fight the Power"
"Elvis was a hero to most/But he never meant shit to me. You see/Straight up racist that sucker was, simple and plain/Motherfuck him and John Wayne."
Among the most memorable lines in hip-hop purely for its audacity and bravery. Elvis and John Wayne are the consummate American heroes, so this middle finger to them is essentially a middle finger to mainstream America. But Public Enemy aimed to ruffle feathers. Mission accomplished.
13. Kanye West - "Family Business"
"As kids we used to laugh/Who knew that life would move this fast?/Who knew I'd have to look at you through a glass?/And look, tell me you ain't did it, you ain't did it/And if you did, then that's family business."
How does Kanye turn such a bitter situation into such a poignant expression of unconditional love? In only two lines, Kanye's cousin moves from childhood to prison. This abrupt shift doesn't allow the listener time to let Kanye's cousin grow, so when he's suddenly behind glass, we can't believe it either. Further, it doesn't even matter if he's guilty because the innocence of childhood remains. We forgive him.
12. Nas - "The World is Yours"
"I'm out for presidents to represent me (Say what?)/I'm out for dead presidents to represent me."
Where most ordinary people find power in democracy, Nas makes the point that since the politicians of the world don't look out for the ghetto, he has to make his money look out for him. The flip is unexpected and borderline disrespectful: A dead president is more useful than a living one.
11. Lil B - "Real Life"
"Wanna move out the hood and defeat that cancer/I ask how she stay on her feet like dancers/How she keep on adding paint to a life-size canvas."
For all the awful lines Lil B has uttered, the fact that he can write something this beautiful is truly amazing. For the woman in Lil B's story, survival is an art. Not only does she manage to stay on her feet, she moves with the elegance of a dancer. Not only does she continue living, she lives with colors. Lil B imbues this dying woman with grace and dignity.
10. Kendrick Lamar - "Poetic Justice"
"If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?"
This single line basically encapsulates the concept of a good kid in a mad city, and it cuts into one of the most essential moral questions in human existence: Can good come from evil? The best part about the line, as is true of the best poetry, is that it doesn't answer the question it asks. For Kendrick's immediate purposes, he's the flower and the city is the dark room. The question is: Can you trust him?
9. Rakim - "Paid in Full"
"Thinkin' of a master plan/Cause ain't nothin' but sweat inside my hand."
The hip-hop mission statement. Many have attempted to articulate their thirst for money, but none have done it as endearingly as Rakim does here. So eloquently does he communicate that his hard work has not, thus far, paid off; the master plan becomes something of a Cinderella story in the making.
8. AZ - "Life's a Bitch"
"We were beginners in the hood as Five Percenters/But something must have got in us cause all of us turned to sinners."
These lines speak to the idealistic exuberance of youth and the slow, inconspicuous poison of cynicism and sin that creeps into a person. Posed as opposites are the sinners and Five Percenters, the spreaders of religious truth and morality, though they are connected through rhyme. The power of the lyric comes from the mystery of the word "something." What compels a person to fall from grace?
7. Eminem - "Lose Yourself"
"His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy/There's vomit on his sweater already: mom's spaghetti/He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready/To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgetting/What he wrote down. The whole crowd goes so loud/He opens his mouth but the words won't come out/He's choking, how? Everybody's joking now/The clock's run out, time's up, over -- blaow!"
The best part from most technically tight song in rap history, these lyrics and, indeed, the rest of the song, are the anthem for anybody stepping up to face their ultimate desire. Eminem leans heavily on internal rhyme to build palpable tension until, suddenly, it's gone, along with the dream.
6. Jay-Z - "Moment of Clarity"
"If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be/Lyrically, Talib Kweli/Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did 5 mill' -- I ain't been rhyming like Common since."
Jay said this in 2003, but it's more relevant now than it's ever been. More than just a commentary on rap, this is a commentary on capitalism and how the motivation it provides can be misguided. Talib Kweli and Common are the classic conscious rappers who try to reinforce the positive aspects of rap like self-awareness and intelligence. But why rhyme like that when there are millions of dollars to be made, and high brow rapping is more likely to estrange the mainstream than make you rich.
5. Notorious B.I.G. - "Juicy"
"We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us/No heat. Wonder why Christmas missed us/Birthdays was the worst days/Now we sip champagne when we thirst-ay."
This is Big's expression of the American dream. The picture at the beginning of this rhyme is so bleak; Christmas and birthdays are pointed out as low points because Big's family can't afford to celebrate. The juxtaposition of this poverty with the image of Big indulging in fine champagne when water would suffice presents the full picture of a made man.
4. 2Pac - "Dear Mama"
"And even as a crack fiend, mama/You always was a black queen, mama."
When "Dear Mama" was inducted into the Library of Congress, 2Pac's mother reacted by saying this: "It is a song that spoke not just to me, but every mother that has been in that situation, and there have been millions of us. Tupac recognized our struggle, and he is still our hero." Using rhyme, 2Pac connects two unlikely images, moving beyond simply humanizing his mother to exalting her as only a son could.
3. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five - "The Message"
"Don't push me cause I'm close to the edge/I'm trying not to lose my head/It's like a jungle. Sometimes it makes me wonder/How I keep from goin' under."
These lyrics are informed and enriched by the rest of the song, whose vignettes detail the grim life in the inescapable concrete jungle. "The Message" was just that -- a prophetic message that the boiling point in the neglected New York neighborhoods was coming soon.
2. Rakim - "I Know You Got Soul"
"I start to think, and then I sink/Into the paper like I was ink/When I'm writing, I'm trapped in between the lines/I escape when I finish the rhyme."
Rakim raises the stakes of his creative process by embracing the Tao of poetry writing. He becomes one with his words, and as long as the rhyme is incomplete, so is he incomplete. He falls into his own words -- like a trip down the rabbit hole that won't release you until he reaches the elusive epiphany. Rakim's thought finishes with the rhyme, echoing his words.
1. Nas - "N.Y. State of Mind"
"I never sleep 'cause sleep is the cousin of death"
To be fair, Nas wasn't the originator of this idea. Sleep as Death's brother dates back to Homer's Iliad, but Nas recontextualized the idea in such a menacing, streetwise manner, it has become a mainstay in the hip-hop canon. And Nas doesn't necessarily mean sleep literally -- it's a part of the N.Y. state of mind: Don't rest. You may pay the ultimate price.
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