If the sorry state of the current pop music charts have taught us anything, it’s that there’s more that goes into producing great music than just getting your songs played on the radio. You’ve gotta have the beat, you’ve gotta have the swagger, but most importantly, you’ve gotta have the lyrics. More than anything, lyrics can make or break an artist, and the emotive and poignant songwriters of the world are most often the ones who manage to truly connect with their audience. With that in mind, we wanted to take a long look at the world of hip hop and isolate some artists we feel make an effort to craft some truly spectacular lyrics, and commend them for taking the time to inject a little poetry into an art form (making music) that’s been stripped of so much of its creativity in recent years. So this is Goliath bringing you 10 Unbelievable Hip Hop Lyricists.
10. Childish Gambino
Some of you reading this may be more familiar with Childish Gambino from his acting career (he moonlights as Donald Glover, comedian and star of work like Community), but this fairly recent addition to the hip hop game has an unreal flow and his lyrics stand with the best of them. Despite his relative freshness, Childish Gambino already has three acclaimed studio albums to his name (2011’s Camp, 2014’s Because The Internet and 2015’s STN MTN/Kauai) and a massive catalogue of independently released mix tapes and LP’s. Childish Gambino, who drew his stage name from an online Wu-Tang Clan Name Generator, is writing some of the fiercest lyrics we’ve seen in quite some time. For proof of that matter, readers should check out singles like “Freaks and Geeks”, “Bonfire”, and “3005” (the last of which was nominated for a Best Rap Performance Grammy Award).
We’ll readily confess that choosing just one member of the Wu-Tang Clan to populate this list was an impossible task. We very easily could have placed RZA or GZA here, with Ghostface Killah and others coming in just slightly lower in our rankings. We’ve chosen to play Raekwon on our list of unbelievable hip hop lyricists on the strength of his contributions to the Wu-Tang’s creative output, but also on the strength of his solo endeavour, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, which remains one of the best solo albums released by a Wu-Tang affiliate. Raekwon, who crafts long and visceral narratives in both his individual songs and over the duration of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, is known for invoking traditional elements of storytelling in his work, and it shows with strong critical acclaim being tossed his way in speaking of the majority of his work.
8. Lauryn Hill
The only female presence on this list, Lauryn Hill’s inclusion is anything but token, as the rapper known best for her landmark album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill remains one of the very best lyricists in the world of hip hop. An individual as storied as she is talented, Hill has maintained a difficult relationship with the fame and fortune the massive critical success that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill brought her, having retreated from the spotlight several times and spoken critically of the record industry’s refusal to allow creativity to flourish. Hill, whose influences stretch far beyond hip hop and extend into genres like soul, R&B and reggae, is a wordsmith on par with most any man on this list. While The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill remains her only solo creative work (she has done work with The Fugees on numerous occasions), it is mandatory listening for fans of the hip hop genre.
7. Jay Z
We couldn’t bring ourselves to keep H.O.V.A off this list, despite the somewhat lackluster creative endeavours he’s put forth as of late (we weren’t fans of Magna Carta Holy Grail, and if we’re being entirely honest we weren’t fans of Kingdom Come either). Regardless of how we feel about some of these recent albums, there’s no denying that Jay Z has released some of the greatest rap albums of all time (which contain some of the greatest hip hop lyrics of all time, as well). His first album, Reasonable Doubt, is consistently cited as one of the strongest hip hop debuts of all time, giving audiences a glimpse as the lyrical density and ultra-cool flow of an infinitely talented rapper. However, it’s 2003’s The Black Album which stands as Jay Z’s finest work. One of the most celebrated hip hop albums of its time (and one that’s destined to be included as the greatest the genre has ever seen), The Black Album sees Jay Z operating at his highest possible plane, and we’ll be damned if it isn’t some of the finest song writing we’ve seen come out of New York City.
6. Talib Kweli
One of the lesser known stars on this list, Talib Kweli has worked with some of the most recognizable names in hip hop after rising to prominence as one half of the Brooklyn born duo Black Star in the mid 1990s. Kweli, who has achieved mainstream success both with Black Star and as a solo artist, remains one of the most complex and gifted lyricists in the world of hip hop, utilizing a distinctive vocal style and some of the smoothest flow you’ll ever see to craft absorbing rhymes that often speak to issues plaguing the world (Kweli is a vocal activist for a wide variety of causes, most all of which influence his artistry in some way or another). While we had a tough time figuring out which half of Black Star should place higher on this list, ultimately we decided it was best to place the two side by side, so as to conflate our affinity for the celebrated hip hop project. Of course, that brings us to…
5. Mos Def
Casual fans of hip hop may be surprised to see this Brooklyn born rapper so high on this list, but it’s a well kept secret of hip hop aficionados that Mos Def can throw down with the best of them. Talib Kweli’s former running mate (the two were the creative forces behind the much celebrated Black Star project), Mos Def has been a force in hip hop since the release of his first album, Black on Both Sides, in 1999, and along the way he’s managed to cultivate a dedicated fan base on the strength of his slick rhymes and infinitely cool flow. Born Yasiin Bey, Mos Def paces his Black Star compatriot in Kweli on this list, although it was a damn tough call as to who to place higher (how can you choose between two people this cool? It’s an impossible task). We’re of the mind that Mos Def has a stronger solo creative output, so we’ve slotted him here at number five. Check out this underrated rapper immediately for some of the best lyricism you’ll see in the genre.
You had to know we’d find room for Slim Shady on this list, but we’ll be honest in admitting we didn’t expect him to rate all the way down at number four. Eminem, who should require no introduction as he’s been an absolute force in popular music since breaking out with The Slim Shady LP in 1999, was never in danger of missing a list of hip hop greatest lyricists. Rather, the challenge with the celebrated linguist and king of bending words and phrases to fit his rhymes is finding where to place him in relation to his compatriots. A slim man who casts a big shadow, Eminem is known for his complex and intricate rhyme schemes and his ability to organically work a diss into most any song, and we’ve no doubt that he’ll continue to produce top quality hip hop so long as he’s active.
3. The Notorious B.I.G.
The king of original flow, The Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls could’ve very easily placed higher on this list were there a more extensive creative catalogue for us to draw on. The late rapper, who only ever released two studio albums before his untimely death in 1994 (although two more were released posthumously), remains one of the most celebrated rappers and hip hop lyricists of all time, and he remains lauded for his ability to produce complex but smooth rhymes delivered with his trademark deep voice. Biggie, who remained the figurehead for the East Coast in the much-debated rap feud of the early 1990s, is an undeniable legend and one of the most influential and often-copied rappers in the history of hip hop.
2. Andre 3000
Were this a question of who our favorite MC in the history of hip hop was, we’d have a hard time putting anyone above Andre 3000, the more famous half of acclaimed hip hop duo Outkast. Together his compatriot Big Boi, Andre 3000 has been supplying the world with slick Southern rhymes since Outkast released their debut album, Southernplayalisticmuzik, in 1994. Widely influential and incredibly celebrated both critically and commercially, Outkast have achieved a great degree of success, in no small part due to the considerable linguistic capacity of both members (although it Andre 3000 who elevates his flow to the elite status of the members on this list). While the duo have branched out to include other forms of music into their sound, including funk, soul, gospel and jazz, they remain rooted in hip hop and are capable of providing some of the best song writing that the genre has to offer (for a special treat, settle down and listen to all of The Love Below and marvel at Three Stacks’ ability to string a sentence together).
The title for the best lyricist in hip hop is a well contested crown, but we don’t think we could live with putting anyone but Nas at the top of our 10 Unbelievable Hip Hop Lyricists. Nas, who has inspired more imitators than damn near anyone in the history of the genre, is known best for his absolute dynamic first record, Illmatic, which was released in 1994. The album, which remains one of the most critically acclaimed in the history of the genre, introduced audiences to Nas’ distinct linguistic sensibilities, which saw the artist telling stories of inner-city experiences and growing up in Brooklyn with the tact, vocabulary, and storytelling capability of a gifted poet. Nas, whose lyrical sensibilities remain revered by hip hop and music fans alike, is definitely the most unbelievably awesome songwriter in the history of the hip hop genre.