A terrible “Top 50” list ending up going viral last week, largely because Joe Budden was ranked # 3. Fans’ obsession with lists is inherently a byproduct of the competitive nature of rap. Every emcee will try to convince you they are the best with many carving out whole careers on that premise alone. And that’s perfectly fine, but the problem with trying to create a list of the “Top” anything is that it is going to be contested no matter how much research, science, and immersion in that field one has. We all have inherent biases owing to our own experiences and understanding of the craft. It’s why these lists are often fun to talk about, but ultimately no definitive Top Rapper list has ever been written.

The fact that we are ranking artists rather than their art brings a whole other list of issues, which we will break down in – you guessed it – a list:

  1. Media bias – each rap website or magazine (yes they still exist) has its own audience and if they are smart, they will know their audience. This brings with it a level of expectation and assumptions are automatically made on names that should be included. A Top 50 list from XXL would probably be 50 different rappers to a list that RapReviews made, for example.
  2. Location bias – growing up in a certain city will bring its own biases. The radio stations you tune in to, the live shows available to you, that pride of supporting a local emcee – these all generate a subconscious favourability towards artists. An example of this was Hot 97’s decision to rank Ice Cube below Remy Ma (Ebro) and Fat Joe over Royce Da 5’9” (Rosenberg).
  3. Individual bias – a list from one person brings its own restrictions. You’re only getting one opinion from one person. Their age will influence their list and so will personal tastes. A panel of individuals from different backgrounds, cities, and countries would alleviate some of this, but unless you’re asking a hundred educated rap heads, it’s still going to be a tough ask.
  4. Death – if Biggie was alive today, if Nas died after Illmatic, if… When a career is cut short, it usually works to the rapper’s benefit as their legacy is set. That means that any comparison with an active rapper is doing both an injustice.
  5. Career lengths – you cannot realistically compare the 35-year career of KRS-One with the 9-years of Kendrick Lamar. If you’re including Pun’s 5-years active, then it should be compared with the first 5-years of other rappers. It doesn’t make sense otherwise.
  6. Peaks and troughs – rappers rarely remain at the top of their game throughout their career. Are these lists considering rappers at their best? Are we just including 94-97 Nas or Nas of the past 10 years? If a rapper has had ups and downs, have you considered the significance of these, how often they occur and why?
  7. Mainstream bias – posting a list that only includes famous rappers, or “relevant” rappers is hugely flawed. MTV has done this since 2007 with their “Hottest MCs in the Game” and it is often terrible.
  8. Catalog and its importance – some rappers are nasty on the mic but put out terrible albums. Some don’t even put out albums (Jay Electronica). Rappers are ultimately artists at the end of the day, and they make money from selling and performing songs or albums. But it is never confirmed whether just the catalog of an artist is what is being debated – and one album isn’t enough.
  9. Features/group projects – a further spanner in the works is how a rapper that is part of a group or duo is considered. Andre 3000 seems to pop up in a lot of “Top” lists with his Outkast catalog being used to fight his case. Those aren’t Andre 3000 records. Chuck D without Public Enemy, Guru without Premier, Q-Tip without Tribe. There’s no level playing field with so many collaborators partaking.
  10. Impact – many will cite an artist’s impact as the reason for their inclusion or ranking in such a list, and then proceed to include artists that were put on by other artists. Did they make an impact themselves or were they assisted? Did they impact the culture or the industry? There’s a reason names like Rakim and G Rap remain relevant but nobody cites Grandmaster Caz or Lord Finesse D, who had significant impacts. A lot of the time, people treat impact as popularity.
  11. The Biggie/Pac question – a list will inevitably declare one of these two icons more favorably than the other. This generates its own problems given the tendency in hip hop to pick one or the other – itself a stupid relic from the East vs. West era.
  12. The rapper/emcee question – a list of rappers and a list of emcees mean different things to different people. The term ‘rapper’ tends to bring external factors in whereas an ’emcee’ is generally going to be judged on their skill at rhyming.
  13. Greatest? Top? Best? Favorite? – Different words with different connotations. Sharing your favorite list is fine, but the moment you declare somebody the greatest without a list of the criteria used to define ‘great’ – your list is meaningless.
  14. The impossible task of hearing everything – even before the Internet, hearing every rap song was difficult, so with hundreds of new releases every day it is impossible to listen and compare every rapper. It would be easier to define a time-limited period (ie. Top Rappers of 2002) and try to listen to everything released during that calendar year, but you’d need access to all of the records and then to declare yourself unemployed, so you had time to listen to them all.
  15. International aspect – pretty much every list only includes American rappers, with the occasional Canadian. This overlooks decades of rap music from the UK, Australia, and countless non-English speaking countries. Throwing Slick Rick in doesn’t count.
  16. Where are the ladies? – attending any rap show will highlight the male dominant audience that rap has, but there are countless women that should be in these discussions. For years, women have been viewed separately and these lists only highlight that mindset has barely changed.
  17. Statistics – in sport you can look to trophies, goals or awards for proof of greatness, but rap doesn’t have the numbers to highlight superiority. Sales aren’t an accurate representation of talent and nor is the number of unique words in a rapper’s vocabulary, so meaningful analysis is difficult.
  18. Affability – every rapper has social media nowadays so their interactions and personality off the mic often factor into our views or opinions. 50 Cent might be a funny person to follow, but should that affect his ranking on some list?
  19. Live shows – the very essence of a great performer is based on their ability to move a crowd. It’s one thing not being able to freestyle off the cuff, but not being able to put on a dope show would immediately signal alarm bells.
  20. Entrepreneurs – the amount of money and success a rapper obtains should not influence such a list, but it inherently will, given how often elite rappers go on to become actors or businessmen. LL Cool J and Ice Cube have been actors for so long that some may think of them as actors first.
  21. Sales don’t mean shit – to quote Immortal Technique: “if you go platinum, it’s nothing to do with luck, it just means a million people are stupid as f***”. Even artists that top the charts with genuinely good music, shouldn’t automatically be considered great because of it – you’re supposed to make good music. Yours just happened to be popular.
  22. Comparing eras is hard – throw a battle rapper from 2019 up against one from 1999 and you’ll see a chasm in terms of lyrical ability. The game changes – emcees build on their predecessors no matter how many jaded listeners tell you the opposite. There’s also bad music from every era, but we like remembering just the good stuff.
  23. Emcees’ lists are also bias – if you spend your days writing rhymes, you’ll have experience of the process but inevitably, depending on the emcee, there will be a bias for or against certain emcees. Unless you’re the complete emcee, judgment on all emcees is difficult.
  24. Dart Adams check – If you still think you have what it takes to make a list – run it past rap historian Dart Adams on his Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/Dart_Adams. Many have fell victim to his knowledge and cut-throat responses.
  25. Celebrate the emcees while they are here – A better use of time would be to celebrate the great artists hip hop has gifted us. Why was E-40 overlooked? Should Aceyalone be in the list? Who actually has multiple classics in their arsenal? Listen and explore, because the more you listen and re-listen, the less shit your list will be. But it will still be shit.