Back in December, Rolling Stone ran a feature on the 50 greatest hip-hop songs of all time. Along with the usual list given by averaging the responses industry leaders and experts, they had an even better list just from Questlove of the Roots. I don’t dispute either of Rolling Stone’s lists for greatest. But for someone like me, who was either not around or just too young to know what was going on in the 80’s, the greatest songs may still be from the Golden Age, but the favourite ones aren’t. So here are my 50 favourites. The artist name goes to the rap genius page for the song, and the song title links to the youtube, whenever either are available. Did I mention how great rap genius is before, by the way? I think after wikipedia, it’s the best example of the greatness that can be achieved through collaborative powers of the internet. Anyway, here’s the list. Please comment!
1. Notorious B.I.G. – Juicy – Greatest of all time. A standard-bearer, a one-song introduction to all of rap, and a great feel-good tune. “And if you don’t know, now you know”.
2. Nas – N.Y. State of Mind – Not only a great series of verses in itself, but a seminal cultural touchstone. It’s been pulled apart line by line and quoted by everyone else in rap. “I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death”.
3. Ghostface Killah ft. Superb – Ghost Deini – So my favourite verse ever is delivered by some guy who’s never made a record and seems like a total dick. But for me, you can’t touch the perfection. “My tapes stay at the beginning ’cause that’s how they rewind”. Oh yeah, and Ghostface is there too, not bad!
4. GZA – Fame – This is a showcase of the boundless possibilities of rap. Just toying with the English language like it’s nothing at all. It amazes me. “Acting alone. Drew Barrymore bones”. Kudos to the maker of the linked video, by the way.
5. Gang Starr – The Place Where We Dwell – DJ Premier is the man. Somehow he makes Guru verses that often aren’t even all that memorable into masterpieces with a light touch. In his day, undoubtedly the best producer around.
6. Big L – Ebonics – I’m a big fan of lists in rap form. Big L showcasing his skills on the mic to educate you about slang. R.I.P.
7. Wu-Tang Clan – C.R.E.A.M. – Raekwon and Inspectah Deck rap about the life of growing up selling drugs cause it was the only way to make any money. Rap Genius explains it best: “This emotional-ass song has made me almost cry when I was high like 7 or 8 times. Believe it or not, the original title was going to be “Cash Rules About Probably Half Of Stuff Around (C.R.A.P.H.O.S.A.)” but in the end, they decided to go for something more dramatic. The hook to CRAPHOSA was going to be: “Cash Rules About Half the Stuff Around Me, but sex is important too! And don’t forget friends and family”
8. Ice Cube – It Was a Good Day – The feel-good-est of feel-good rap songs. A lot of it has to do with the sweet Isley Brothers groove.
9. Dr.Dre ft. Snoop Doggy Dogg – Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang – I said Premier was undoubtedly the best producer of his day, but actually Dre is also in the running. I can’t say I’m too impressed by his rapping here, but damn is it ever groovy.
10. Beastie Boys – Sounds of Science – the inimitable Beasties finish off each other’s one-liners, namedrop Galileo, and just generally school you. Contains the first verse I ever tried to learn by heart. “expanding the horizons, expanding the parameters, expanding the rhymes of sucka MC amateurs”.
11. The Roots ft. Erykah Badu and Eve – You Got Me – Erykah sings a hook that just won’t let go and Black Thought is in an introspective mood, and suddenly the idea of a rap ballad doesn’t seem ridiculous.
12. Blackalicious – Deception – The mainstream/underground divide in ’90s hip-hop was mostly a bad thing in every way. This is one of the only good things to come out of that worldview – simultaneously fair and broadminded and clever and hilarious.
13. GZA ft. Raekwon and Ghostface Killah – Investigative Reports – just simply three of the best MCs in the rap game, rapping it up. References galore, and every MC has a line or two that will stick with you. “Change for the better, that be my only vendetta”.
14. Nas – One Love – Nas pens a letter to his friends in prison. Yes, you feel the love, but it’s cold and bleak and about as un-reggae as anything. “guess who got shot in the domepiece? Jerome’s niece, on her way home from Jones Beach”.
15. Kanye West – Jesus Walks – Kanye’s over-the-top production is a perfect fit here for his own earnest, excited, smart flow. “We ain’t goin’ nowhere but got suits and cases”
16. K-Os – Crabbuckit – Yeah, it’s rap for people who don’t like rap, but you know what, there’s plenty such people. Fun and clever and you’re always pleasantly surprised when it is blaring out of your radio. “MC Tragically Hip, ahead by a century!”
17. Noize MC – 10 Суток (Сталинград) – Just when you think you’ve figured out Noize’s antics, he hits you with a protest song so sharp it proves you haven’t. Yes, hip-hop is often used as protest music but it’s rarely this pointed and sardonic and good.
18. El-P – Deep Space 9mm – it’s a perfect match between the dystopic syncopated beat and El-P’s paranoid, clipped delivery. Forces you to sit up and listen. And, unlike some El-P songs, you can actually listen to it.
19. Lauryn Hill – Final Hour – for me the favourite thing about rap isn’t the beats or the hooks or the narrative or even the punchlines. It’s when you hear a turn of phrase that just sticks with you and that you just keep turning over and over in your brain. Lauryn Hill is great at that, and that’s why she is a great rapper. “diplomatic immunity in every ghetto community”.
20. DJ Quik ft. AMG – I Useta Know Her – Somethin’ new. Somethin’ different. Maybe there’s nothing particularly special about this song, but to me, this song IS the summer of 2002. I was too serious, thinking that anything that wasn’t Illmatic wasn’t real hip-hop. T-Roy and C-Roy and Dru showed me the way.
21. Jay-Z – Lucifer – once again Kanye’s spirited production fits religious-themed lyrics, this time a highly versatile turn from Hova who manages to mention everything from tithing to the meek inheriting the Earth. “I’m from the murder capital, where we murder for capital”.
22. Kendrick Lamar – Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst – K-dot is great at inhabiting characters, as he shows in the first two verses, including rapping from a prostitute’s point of view. But by far the best part is “Dying of Thirst” where Kendrick lays down all the overflowing frustration of Compton life in giant, propulsive verses.
23. Madvillain – Money Folder – What’s amazing is that this, like everything else he does, sounds like DOOM isn’t even trying. But it’s at such a high level, it’s scary to think what he could achieve if he wasn’t dicking around. He’s matching Madlib’s production tricks and throwing off puns that take three or four listens to get: “what a call, what a real butterball, either I get a strike or strike out, gutterball”
24. Public Enemy ft. Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube – Burn, Hollywood, Burn – My favourite song on the best rap album of the 90s. Chuck D is unhappy with the media for negative portrayals of blacks. Big Daddy Kane adds a verse about the roles being offered to black actors. And Ice Cube acquits himself well, though, as Rap Genius comments, “like many young men, he’s only in politics for the ladies”.
25. Gang Starr – Soliloquy of Chaos – another Primo production, where he makes the Guru sound grand and authoritative. And Guru doesn’t dissapoint, starting with an extended crew shoutout and putting down two verses which can be (and are, by me) quoted for long stretches at a time.
26. Jay Electronica – Renaissance Man – Jay Elec is really into himself more so than is normal even for a rapper. But the man’s got skills and that can’t be denied. “and I don’t think the revelation from the supreme being’s residin’ or hidin’ out in Bill Cosby’s head”
27. OutKast – B.O.B. – OutKast can somehow manage to be everything to everybody, and you really can’t NOT be impressed by the intricacy of Dre and Big Boi’s flows here. At the end of the aughts, most critics had this as the song of the decade, even though the song is pretty clear it’s set in one-nine-nine-nine. The only thing crazier than this song, by the way, is its video.
28. Кровосток – Простые слова – lots of true facts here, in hilarious list form. Every single line is quotable. “начало перспективней конца / помидор круглее огурца”
29. Kanye West ft. Rick Ross – Devil in a New Dress – You’ve got to laugh any time Rick Ross is mentioned for best rapper alive (and this fact is brought up anytime he is mentioned for best rapper alive) but somehow listening to his verses, he makes it all work though all the ingredients are ridiculous. That’s truest on Ross’ verse here. And then there’s Kanye with his one-two punch of religious thematics and over-the-top production that, based on this list, I’m a total sucker for.
30. Public Enemy – Pollywanacracka – Chuck D is really on another level. Here he explains why he supports interracial marriage, and yet has his characters undermine his message by being tools. The point is that tolerance is like civil liberties: it’s not there for the obvious cases of the good guys. It’s there so that you deal fairly even when you don’t want to. That shit is deep.
31. Fettes Brot – Da Draussen – I don’t get anything that they’re saying (unless it’s in English) but somehow it’s still obvious that they’ve got skills and it sounds awesome. “Heilige Strohsack!”
32. Danny Brown – Scrap or Die – I remember reading a P-fork interviewer tell Danny Brown that “your next album is supposed to be more serious than XXX, but a lot of XXX isn’t very funny” – he meant that as a compliment. “You be laughing at it cause you know this shit is true” goes the hook here, as the gangsta machismo of rap is retooled to look more ridiculous than ever, being applied to a family of junkies stripping copper and wiring from abandoned houses. It’s actually funny, just not “haha” funny. A great song.
33. Big L – ’98 Freestyle – Yeah, a lot of this stuff is standard issue bragging and misogyny, and I dunno how much of a freestyle it really is. And for quantity, the standout punchline track is (also Big L’s) Lifestyles ov da poor and dangerous. But ’98 Freestyle has probably the greatest punchline of all time: “got mad hoes – ask Beavis – I get nothin’ but(t) head”
34. Choclair – Skyline – CanCon rules, the generally sad state of The Beat 94.5 in 2004 and the fact that I worked at a place that blared that station all day for most of the year, combined to mean I associate the beginning bars of this song with the big relief of “finally, a song that doesn’t suck”. Great hook, and Choc telling us of his experience growing up and blowing up. “Greenhouse, green baggie and a green lawn”
35. N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton – Just plain scary.
36. Lupe Fiasco ft. Skylar Grey – Words I Never Said – although Lupe goes in for some conspiracymongering, this is a succinct summing up of his political worldview and includes the bonus line “when you turn on TV all you get’s a bunch of what-the-fuck” which is as good a summary of TV as there’s ever been.
37. PartySquad ft. Brainpower – Non-Stop – obviously not among the 50 best rap songs of all time, it’s one of my favourites for party-time in the Zonnehuis reasons. 2007, yo! (yes, I know the song says 2006).
38. Das Racist ft. Despot – Rooftop – a lot of Das Racist lyrics are just stupid, like “I’m whack like ‘You, Me and Dupree'” but in kind of an endearing way. What I like more about them is their masterful quoting: in this song at least both “My Name Is…” and “Made You Look” were repurposed hilariously, making Das Racist sort of the Tarantinos of rap.
39. Ноггано – Застрахуй – hilarious storytelling here from Noggano about convincing his none-too-bright buddies to sacrifice one of their own for medical insurance money, with an appropriately shanson-y beat. “А шо нам хулиганам надо? Немеренно бабок, и еще столько же вдобавок”
40. Talib Kweli – Get By – Kweli was for a time in the early aughts, a byword for lyrical skill. He shows why here as he expounds on the universal theme of getting by and getting high with a great Nina Simone-based beat from Kanye. The remix is also good.
41. Tomer Yosef – Little Man – Balkan Beat Box’s very own in-house MC over a great beat, sings for most of it, but does get to rapping after a while.
42. The Streets – Geezers Need Excitement – I’m a big fan of Mike Skinner’s rapping because he’s chosen to do something different. These realist slice-of-life picture-raps with none of the put-on machismo that’s in 99% of all other rap may seem weak at first, but then you realise he’s just invented almost a brand new genre.
43. Jay Electronica – Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) – Like I already said, Jay Elec is really into himself, but you can sort of see his point. This multi-part epic includes a breakup song, spaceships, religious tolerance, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and a truly genius reference: “Call me Jay Dogon, I’m on some serious shit”.
44. Insight – Bother Me – Insight is funny and likable in an over-the-top recounting of all these people trying to freeload off him.
45. Ghostface Killah ft. Raekwon – R.A.G.U. – If I was honest, there’d be a lot more Ghostface and Raekwon in this list than there currently is. Something about their ability to have that unexpected narrative or that crisp-sounding line.
46. Sean Paul – Get Busy – I don’t think there is any better club music than Sean Paul. There, I said it.
47. Lord Finesse feat. AG – Keep it Flowing – Honestly not the greatest verses of all time from Finesse and AG on this track, but there’s something to be said for their simple similes. And it has the great “You think I’m good? I feel that I’m excellent” line, and a first-class DJ Premier (I think?) production.
48. Buck 65 – Riverbed Pt. V – introspective, lonely, lovely 90-second vignette from Buck, who sometimes decides he’ll just take rap in a comletely new direction, and succeeds here with a melancholy acoustic guitar and something-that-vaguely-resembles-a-theremin backdrop.
49. LL Cool J – Shut ’em Down – I always assumed anything LL-related would be cheesy, but this is pretty great with super-high speed rhyming and funny punchlines like “nigga you too sweet ‘n low, you ain’t equal”. Maybe I should check out his golden age era stuff which I’ve ignored completely.
50. Geto Boys – Mind Playing Tricks on Me – Paranoia, paranoia. The spelling out of the obvious truth that behind the braggadocio, there’s a lot of anxiety to the gangsta rap lifestyle. A great low-key beat, and good storytelling.