What contributes to a rapper's underrated status? Is it the unwillingness to compromise? The inability to compromise? An early demise? Bad promotion? Possibly all of these things and more? Whatever the case, with these rappers, it's certainly not for a lack of talent. We put together a list of the ten most underrated rappers of all time, ranked by their status as compared to their skill level. Continue on to see who made the list.
10. Black Thought Black Thought would rank higher, but the Roots are one of the most beloved crossover hip-hop acts today, and everybody knows who they are as a group, but Black Thought himself is not a household name -- which is a shame, because he's the complete package as an MC: His flow is like a multi-layer tapestry of constantly switching schemes and internal rhyme; he's never at a loss for important things to say; and the words he uses are fresh, original and arranged in unexpected ways. He's even a proficient freestyler, which is quickly becoming a lost art.
9. Cage Cage is not an easy pill to swallow, and that's probably what prevented his career from really taking off -- that and an untimely beef with Eminem. But if you're in a bad mood, and you feel, for whatever reason, like you need to be surrounded by hateful things, it doesn't get any better than Movies for the Blind, particularly "Agent Orange," which is brutally violent yet startlingly precise. With few exceptions, the whole album is on point. But whatever hardcore fans Cage gained from Movies, he lost a fair few by turning from bitter vitriol to a more contemplative MC, and then, tragically, with his latest release, emo. But the early Cage of the Weathermen and Leak Bros fame was a sight to behold, a beast in the truest sense of the word.
8. Mac Dre Don't let Mac Dre's ordinary-sounding name fool you: He's one of the most innovative, charismatic hip-hop artists in recent history. One of the pioneers of the irresistibly idiosyncratic hyphy movement, Mac Dre is still a hero in the Bay Area, where his renown is comparable only to the likes of an E-40 or Mistah F.A.B., both of whom could also be contenders for this list. Dre became a legend when, while serving time in prison, he recorded many of the vocals for his Young Black Brotha album over the phone. Dre recorded twelve solo albums before he was shot and killed while riding in his car. It's not a case of quantity over quality with albums like Ronald Dregan: Dreganomics, which have massive crossover appeal. Once you fall in love with his style, most all of them slap.
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7. Big Pun Often when artists die, everything they did in their lifetime is enriched with a mystique that, deserved or not, elevates them to legendary status. That never happened with Big Pun, an even bigger man than his name suggests, whose death from cardiac arrest was about as unglamorous and expected as they come. There was a time when it was widely acknowledged that Big Pun was one of the best rappers in the game, possibly ever. Unfortunately, that time is gone, unless you talk to the right people -- because anybody who knows '90s hip-hop knows that Big Pun's talent is undeniable. The only real critique one can make of his body of work is that it was extremely small, but then again, so was Biggie's. Pun's work with the Terror Squad, while limited, was both commercially and critically successful, and his solo debut and only living album, Capital Punishment, is one of the finest of the decade.
6. Z-RO For all the contributions the South has made to hip-hop, especially stylistically, it's always been under-appreciated to some degree. Even true greats like Scarface aren't held in the same reverence as a 2Pac or Jay-Z above a certain latitude. But of all the unheralded rappers of the South, Z-RO is probably the most so, especially given the fanatical devotion he has earned locally. He's a true gangsta rapper, but in the least conventional sense, at least from today's perspective; the depth of depression he reaches as a result of what he perceives as a deplorable lifestyle is one hundred percent genuine. His music is enriched by a melodic inflection in his voice, similar to a 50 Cent or 2Pac. With The Life of Joseph W. McVey, Z-RO finally got some semblance of mainstream attention, but never in accordance with his skill level.
5. Kool Keith Mainstream fame and fortune was never in the stars for Kool Keith. He's too strange to be an MTV fixture or a major radio mainstay, but in certain circles, his influence has been monumental. During the somewhat monotonous gangstafied '90s, Dr. Octogonecologyst, released under the pseudonym Dr. Octagon, an alien gynecologist, expanded the hip-hop communities' collective consciousness like an acid trip and sparked an independent hip-hop renaissance. Kool Keith was a trailblazer is many ways: His exploration of extraterrestrial themes has influenced artists such as Deltron 3030; his penchant for surrealism predated Wayne's leaned-out musings; his detail-oriented characterization was later emulated by DOOM; and his absurdist, anti-rhyme flow is now being revived by internet phenom RiFF RaFF.
4. Shad Shad hasn't released a whole lot of material -- only three albums so far -- but the stuff he has released is all really, really good, especially his second album, The Old Prince, and it's hard to understand why he hasn't caught on more. On the one hand, he's almost pathologically self-aware, but he seems to find the bright side in most things; even when he pokes his own wounds, he bleeds sanguine. He's also incredibly funny. Shad, who is Kenya-born, London-raised but Canadian, released his first album with the money he won from a radio contest scouting potential musical innovators, and that's exactly what Shad has become, even if most of the world doesn't know it yet.
3. The D.O.C. When the D.O.C., a Dallas MC with West Coast leanings, first entered the rap scene, he wasn't unheralded at all. After the release of his Dr. Dre-produced debut, No One Can Do It Better, he was celebrated as a key component in rap's future. The album would eventually be certified platinum. Not a bad start, right? Unfortunately, five months after his album dropped, the D.O.C. was in a near-fatal car accident that left his vocal cords irreparably damaged, and though the rapper would go on to release two more albums, the only commercial success he found was as a ghostwriter for hip-hop mainstays like Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. And ghostwriters, as the name implies, are not the most visible of artists.
2. AZ Best known for a short verse -- the only guest verse on Nas's legendary Illmatic album -- AZ has released plenty of great material on his own, but somehow, he never made it big like most of the rest of the New York elite, and it's pretty unexplainable. Granted, there was a lot of talent coming out of New York in the mid-'90s, but AZ's flow, technically speaking, is untouchable. Plus, after nailing the feature of the century on Nas's "Life's a Bitch," he put out a top-notch debut, Doe or Die. Since then, he's released several albums that by all rights should have gone gold. Still, the only time he gets notice is as the best rapper you may never have heard of; it's a joke among heads how unsung this guy is.
1. Masta Ace As a member of Marly Marl's legendary Juice Crew, which included hip-hop giants like Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap, it's easy to see how a talented artist could get lost in the shuffle. Masta Ace was one of the earliest purveyors of dense, multi-syllabic rhyme, a master of enjambment and a gifted storyteller. His Disposable Arts album is an overlooked classic. Masta Ace's style was likely a contributing factor to Nas's impeccable Illmatic flow, and Eminem points to Masta Ace as a heavy influence on him, as well. Check the video above for an example of just how close Eminem and Masta Ace sound.
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