When you talk to hardcore hip-hop heads, it almost always comes down to one thing: lyrics, lyrics, lyrics. And while lyrics are obviously the keystone of rapping, the hook is essential as a respite from often dense, less accessible lyrics. Great hooks are among the most underrated aspects of making great music, mainly because those who do it best make it look so easy. From Mary J. Blige to Future, there are infinite ways to hook an audience, but regardless of the method, here are the ten best to do it in rap.
See also: The ten biggest tropes in rap music
10. Akon Akon blew up in 2005 when his smooth, distinctive voice contrasted Young Jeezy's rough vocals on "Soul Survivor." Although he no longer commands the mainstream respect that he did when he was recording hooks on tracks like Wyclef's "Sweetest Girl" and DJ Khaled's "We Takin' Over," and his solo career is nowhere near where it once was, he's still recording hooks for T.I., Wiz Khalifa and other heavyweights.
9. Future Future has been everywhere as a featured artist since breaking out with last year's Pluto. In the same vein as T-Pain, but more melodic and subtle, Future's proclivity for subdued Auto-Tune and simple but effective songwriting has made him a first-rate hook man. Hate Future's shameless mainstreaming if you like, but his talent on the hook is undeniable, including on YC's "Racks" and Ace Hood's "Bugatti."
8. Mary J. Blige Although Mary J. Blige is best known as a multi-platinum R&B singer, she got her start singing backup for a rapper called Father MC in 1990. Despite her massive success as a solo act, she never stopped backing up rappers on the side. She's appeared on some of the best albums of the '90s, including Method Man's Tical, Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt, Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and even appeared on Kendrick's Good Kid, m.A.A.d City last year.
7. R Kelly Kelly is such an essential hook man, he's done hooks for some of the other artists on this list such as Future and T-Pain. No hook work Kelly could do could touch solo masterpieces such as "Ignition (Remix)" and Trapped in the Closet, obviously, but he's been a fixture in the rap game for well over a decade, and he shows no signs of stopping -- though you could say fairly that he's slowed. Highlights include "Satisfy You" with Puff Daddy and "Go Getta" with Young Jeezy.
6. Drake Drake is not the kind of singer who sells himself off as some sort of hook mercenary like most of the other artists on this list. Most of his best hook work has been saved for his own projects and within the Young Money family, but penning compelling hooks has been one of the primary reasons that Drake has seen such remarkable success. Often railed on by hip-hop purists as "too effeminate" for rap, that same soft crooning has secured him possibly the largest female fan base of any rapper, which is not a sleight. Hip-hop would be in a much better place if it were more accessible to females; Drake's on the forefront of that movement.
5. T-Pain T-Pain has been the butt of many a joke in hip-hop circles and beyond, but from 2006 to 2010, his unmistakable "shawtayee" was everywhere on the radio. His commercial peak came as a guest on Flo-Rida's "Low," but it's hard to argue that his artistic peak wasn't on Kanye West's incredible "Good Life." T-Pain became such the assumed, throwaway hook singer, he was even able to lampoon himself to great effect on the Lonely Island's "I'm on a Boat."
4. Pharrell What can't Pharrell do? He's one of the most successful producers in hip-hop history as half of the Neptunes, and solo, he's produced film soundtracks, he's founded rock bands and companies, and he's even dabbled in rapping a bit. But the talent we're focusing on is his knack for singing catchy, silvery hooks on hit tracks such as "Beautiful," "Shake Ya Ass" and "I Just Wanna Love U" for Snoop Dogg, Mystikal and longtime collaborator Jay-Z, respectively.
3. Kid Cudi Kid Cudi thinks in terms of melody, and rapping, in the strictest sense, has never been his focus. Even his off-the-top freestyles eventually move into something melodic. Since dropping A Kid Named Cudi, before he had a name in the industry, Cudi has been making hip-hop-centric music in which the hook is a key component. Rappers whose hooks are the highlight (even on the non-singles) are surprisingly rare, and songs like "The Prayer," "Heaven at Nite," "Man on the Moon" and Kanye West's "Gorgeous" demonstrate Cudi's understated musicality.
2. Rihanna Recently featured on Eminem's "The Monster" on the new Marshall Mathers LP 2, Rihanna has a monster of a voice and the ability to make any track sound epic and stadium-ready. By the time she recorded her first platinum rap record in 2008 with T.I. On "Live Your Life," it was clear that she was fully capable of crossing over into hip-hop. Since then, almost every rap single on which she has featured has gone platinum as some of the top singles of their respective years, including Jay-Z's "Run This Town," Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie" and Kanye West's "All of the Lights."
1. Nate Dogg The number of hits that Nate Dogg has featured on is almost overwhelming, and were he still alive today, there's little question he would still be one of the premier hook men in the game. Nate Dogg is one of those uncommon roses that grows from concrete; he combines a tough, streetwise mentality with a voice as smooth and soft as can be. He is a West Coast staple and has worked with mostly every legend out of California during the '90s: Dre, 2Pac, Snoop, Kurupt, Ice Cube, as well as heavyweights from across the country like Eminem, Pharoah Monch, 50 Cent, Mos Def and Ludacris. Getting Nate Dogg on one of your songs was almost requisite.
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