Lately a lot of people have wanted to know my opinion on BET's "Top 10 Rappers of the 21st Century," with the rappers who qualified having released work since 1999. Now considering we're only one-tenth of the way through the century it is undoubtedly early to call them the greatest rappers of the ENTIRE century, so for the sake of their list let's just call this the "Top 10 Rappers of the Last 10 Years." Here's the list that BET's expert panel came up with.
2) Lil Wayne
3) Kanye West
4) 50 Cent
8) Young Jeezy
10) Rick Ross
I'll start from the top - I don't have a huge problem with #1. He's commercial, no question. He's a marketing phenomenon, no doubt. The problem is that with all the hatred he gets for both of those things, he can still rap his ass off. With the "Recovery" album in particular really impressed me because he had a point to prove after "Relapse" and I think he showed that he's still one of the best not just with punchlines but storytelling and lyrical dexterity.
Now I probably would have had Lil Wayne in there somewhere, but definitely not #2, so we'll come back to that. The Kanye West question is a hard one to settle because a lot of "experts" think he has a ghostwriter penning his raps. Should that automatically disqualify him from the top ten? Even if you have a ghostwriter (A.) they have to be good and (B.) you have to be good at delivering what they wrote. For both reasons I'm not going to hate on Kanye being #3 because he's one of the most memorable and quotable rappers going today and certainly one of the most fascinating people in hip-hop in general both as an artist and a producer. On my own list he's #2.
For Nas to not be anywhere in the BET top ten is simply RIDICULOUS. He's automatically #3 on my list and fits every criteria of the "Top Ten of the Last Ten" you can come up with. Consistently dropping great albums - check. Large and loyal fanbase - check. Always in the hip-hop media - check. Mainstream awareness - check. Notoriety and controversy - check. Highly respected lyricist - CHECK CHECK CHECK. You have to question the "expertise" of this panel for him to not be in there at all. If you can listen to "Street's Disciple," "Hip Hop Is Dead," "Untitled" and "Distant Relatives" and not put him in there you're smokin' something.
#4 wouldn't have been questioned a few years ago but 50 Cent has slipped significantly in both acumen and popularity of late. HOWEVER, since BET's list is "this century" even though we're only one-tenth of the way into it, he deserves it for his total body of work. Much like Eminem, 50 Cent is one of the most commercially successful rappers of the last 10 years total, and for at least a couple of those years may have been the most popular and/or influential. "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" may seem like ancient history these days but in a decade filled with rap albums, this one alone could carry 50 to a top ten list.
HOWEVER on my own top ten I would put T.I. ahead of 50 Cent so my list so far reads (1.) Eminem (2.) Kanye West (3.) Nas (4.) T.I. (5.) 50 Cent. The trajectory of his career from "Trap Muzik" to "Paper Trail" is astounding because he got better almost each time out, which with all due respect can't be said about Curtis Jackson. If it weren't for all of his legal and incarceration problems slowing him down he could actually have been even higher on the list.
#6 through #10 seem to be the ones that people are having some issues with in their e-mails. I'm absolutely fine with Ludacris at #6 though and arguably he could even be moved up into the top five based on commercial success and continuing popularity. As much as I like Drake though it seems +WAY+ too soon in his career for him to be on a top ten decade list. He's young, he's growing, and in another 5 years would probably be top ten on any list - just not yet. I'm putting Jay-Z in that #7 spot instead. We all know he never really "retired" and his popularity has never waned. Lyrically he's far superior to several people in the top 5 but "The Blueprint 3" was only a "good" album and by his own standards not quite up to par - but still highly enjoyable. The body of Shawn Carter's in the decade still stands tall as does his career overall.
#8 is simply out of the question for me. Jeezy is a very popular and entertaining rapper but at this point in the list commercial sales alone shouldn't qualify you for consideration. If that were the case we'd be putting Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame in the top ten and who would take this list seriously if they're "Top 10" of the century candidates? Jeezy is a better rapper than either one but he's no Jay-Z let alone Lil Wayne.
On my list we're going to split the difference between commercial success and rap prowess and put Black Thought in there at #8. I don't think he has penned one whack verse on any Roots album the last ten years. His distinctive style, powerful delivery, lyrics that mean something and The Legendary Roots Crew that help him get the point across mean even a Roots album that only goes gold is more important in the last decade than a Jeezy album that goes platinum or double platinum.
I'm tempted to keep Rick Ross at the #10 spot since he has shown as much or more artistic growth album to album in the last decade as anybody on this list. Wayne checks in above him though as an artist in general and as a huge commercial crossover success, even more surprising for him given how far he's come since his early career. He has slipped lately with his experimental albums like "Rebirth" and "I Am Not a Human Being" but his total body of work in the last decade still qualifies. For sheer lyricism I have a #10 who fair or not to Rick Ross knocks him out of box and could easily knock ANYBODY on this list in sheer rapping acumen - but he's a tough sell commercially. So to round out my top ten:
2) Kanye West
5) 50 Cent
8) Black Thought
9) Lil Wayne
10) Talib Kweli
That's a comprehensive list taking into account artistic ability, commercial credibility, mainstream popularity, and critical acclaim for their music. There are certainly better rappers that are not on this list (Gift of Gab) and more intriguing rappers (Sage Francis) that are not on this list, but if you're going for what BET was going for with their panel the "Decade List" is ultimately not the greatest emcees - it's the ones who will be most remembered ten years from now for what they did in the last ten years prior.
PS: I received a note from a reader named Paul who mentioned that BET's list was predicated on rappers who DEBUTED since 1999, which is why Nas and Jay-Z among others were precluded. I appreciate the clarification but since they decided to call their list the "Top 10 Rappers of the 21st Century" I'll still stand by mine, because I don't think you need to have debuted this century to be the best in it (and since their list includes 1999 they're already acknowledging that fact).
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