Oh, what a year it's been for rap. Kanye reached new levels of originality, and kinda went off the deep end at the same time, Kendrick put every other relevant rapper on call, and Eminem came storming back. Although this past year was one that focused, in general, on the sonic qualities of rap more than lyric detail, it wasn't hard to find ten great examples of poeticism alive in music. Here are the ten best rap lyrics of 2013.
See also: The fifty best rap lyrics of all time
10. Killer Mike - "Sea Legs"
"Your idols all of my rivals/I rival all of your idols/I stand on towers like Eiffel/I rifle down all your idols"
An audacious, in-your-face attitude is the reason we love Run the Jewels, and this line is the perfect example. Employing a killer understanding of internal rhyme and sound, Killer Mike establishes himself as the assassin of your favorite musicians. There's nothing too deep happening here, but the image and his delivery is so radically awesome that it definitely merits a spot on the top ten.
9. Chance the Rapper - "Smoke Again"
"Lean all on a square/That's a fuckin' rhombus"
Chance wins the award for the fun line of the year. It's not deep, it's not poetic, but it's just so damn clever. Besides the fact that trigonometry is one of the least-cited disciplines in all of rap, Chance captured a cultural phenomenon -- dipping cigarettes (squares) in promethazine and codeine (lean) -- and rebranded it in a bizarrely original way.
8. Jay Electronica - "Control"
"You could check my name on the books/I Earth, Wind, and Fire'd the verse, then rained on the hook"
Jay loves to see himself through a biblical lens, so when he refers to "the books," it's quite likely that it is the holy books that he is referring to, especially when you consider the following line, as well. As a transcendental, mystical figure, he describes his lyricism in terms of the four classical elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Of course, he's also making a pun that compares his musicality to the soul great Earth, Wind & Fire (featuring Denver's own Phillip Bailey) and describes his hook game as he would a torrential downpour.
7. Lupe Fiasco - "Animal Pharm"
"Chop down the trees/We need the axe handles"
Lupe points out the circular logic that not only undercuts our inclination for rationality, but also informs our common sense. Within the context of the song, the line alludes to American foreign policy with regard to war. Lupe is implying that it seems like we go to war to place ourselves in a better position to win wars. This sentiment actually seems totally logical within the context of our imperialistic history, but when you think about it, American wars have always been sold to the citizens as precursors for peace, but when each step is made with the next war in mind, how can any war be the last?
6. Danny Brown - "Torture"
"Gunshots outside was sorta like fireworks/We know they weren't fireworks/It's December 21st"
Although, in these lines, Danny Brown is telling a familiar tale of living near violence, the use of seasonal time amplifies the effect of the lines in a very clever way. Danny initially compares the sound of gunshots to fireworks, setting the scene as a summer in July. Very quickly, he changes the scene, moving from warm and sunny to cold and dreary. The quickness of the shift is unsettling, as you imagine the exposure of a child to violence would be.
5. Kendrick Lamar - "Control"
"I'm usually homeboys with the same niggas I'm rhymin' with/but this is hip-hop, and them niggas should know what time it is/And that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big KRIT, Wale, Pusha T, Meek Millz, A$AP Rocky, Drake/Big Sean, Jay Electron', Tyler, Mac Miller. I got love for you all, but I'm tryna murder you niggas"
This is one of those uncommon rap lines that isn't great necessarily for what was said, but for the way it immediately transcended and captured the entire rap game. If a rapper with a pedigree less than Kendrick's had said it, it really wouldn't have meant much. Hip-hop has always been a competitive practice, and Kendrick was simply keeping his associates in check by saying it's nothing personal, but at the end of the day, there will be no question who is the superior MC between me and you. You know a line is beastly when it's a diss but is still considered an honor to be included.
4. YC the Cynic - "Negus" "You can ask the sphinx what happens to a motherfucking cat that pokes his nose in"
Knowing that sphinxes have the bodies of lions (cats, whose noses don't traditionally point out) with the heads of men (who do have pointy noses), YC the Cynic refers to the Great Sphinx of Giza, which famously has a broken-off nose, to ingeniously illustrate the idiom "Curiosity killed the cat." It's an uncommon line that reaches deep for meaning but works out beautifully.
3. Iggy Azalea - "Work"
Valley girls givin' blow jobs for Louboutin/What you call that?/Head over heels"
This is a deceptively affective line when you consider the meaning of the phrase "Head over heels": uncontrollable compulsion and complete emotional investment. Where at first, the most logical reaction to the valley girl seems to be contempt, when Iggy implies that she's not either in complete control of herself, or in a right state of mind, pity seems more accurate. Besides painting an evocative picture and using intelligent wordplay, "head over heels" having the double meaning for blow jobs for shoes, these lines make implicit statements about the problems of consumerism -- subtle, but very effective.
2. Ka - "Our Father"
"This attack won't bring my man back, the pastor right/But since he popped, now my man got the drop in the afterlife"
Ka drops a wicked line about setting up his partner for payback beyond the grave. The line is especially powerful because the bonds between Ka and his man extend beyond this plane of existence into the infinite: There's a kind of sinister faith in the metaphysical righteousness of street ethics. Loyalty is eternal, and so is revenge.
1. Yelawolf - "1 Train"
"Ain't never been no rapper this cold since 2Pac was froze/And thawed out for spa date at a Coachella show"
Yelawolf takes a typical lyrical conceit in the unforgiving nature of his rhymes and applies it to a bit of pop culture in a way that is both clever and highly relevant. The double entendre of 2Pac as a "cold" rapper works both as metaphor for dopeness and more immediately as a reference to reanimation. Yelawolf ignores hologram technology, opting for a more visceral method of resurrection, which gives his rhyme extra gravity.