Perhaps hip-hop’s most enduring question is regarding who takes the mantle as its greatest artist. That question has been debated in bars, clubs, and on websites such as RapTV ever since the genre’s earliest days, and it shows no sign of stopping.
Although selecting rap’s undisputed king (or queen) is always going to be a subjective choice, there are several artists whose success and influence have irrefutably changed the game forever.
In order for a rap artist to be considered one of the best, it’s important to consider what impact their work had on rap at the time and which direction hip-hop went in after they burst on the scene. With those things in mind, let’s take a look at who qualifies as one of rap’s three most premier artists.
Big L achieved a lot during the 24 years he was alive. He has been called one of rap’s most underrated lyricists due to his candid, personal, and revealing style and possessed bags of charisma to go with it.
East Coast rappers such as Nas and Jay-Z knew how Big L was destined to become. Nas himself said that he was ”scared to death” after hearing one of his tapes, knowing that there was no way he could compete with him.
What makes Big L worthy of a place on this list is his pioneering lyrical style since dubbed ”horrorcore”, utilizing complicated metaphors and dark, imposing imagery. His God-given verbal skills are worth mentioning, too.
Big L perhaps hip-hop’s biggest case of ”what if?”. Just as he was announcing himself on the big stage, his life was senselessly taken away from him
Any rapper worth their salt knows how important Rakim is in the tapestry of rap music.
Whilst his peers relied mostly on simple, improvised rhyme schemes, Rakim was the first to consider mature, complicated lyrics in his work, raising the bar of the genre in the process.
Perhaps no other rapper was as important in setting an artistic blueprint for others to build upon. Whether your allegiance is with the East or West Coast, there’s no denying the scope of Rakim’s legacy.
There simply can’t be a list of the greatest rappers without Rakim. It’s hip-hop blasphemy to not do so.
West Coast hip-hop was dominated by the G-Funk movement in the early ’90s. For all its success and cultural influence, it was lacking the intimate touch that made the genre so successful in the first place.
This is where Tupac Shakur came in. Instead of rapping about material goods and Brentwood mansions, Tupac put rap’s focus back on the deprived areas that the genre originated from.
An icon of social equality, Tupac exposed the grim living conditions that millions were still living in and spoke in a way that was somehow both harrowing and relatable.
A lifelong admirer of Shakespeare and other poets, Shakur was an immensely talented wordsmith who was able to break down complicated ideas, issues, and problems into soundbites the public could relate to. His music is the perfect hybrid of artistic substance and commercial appeal, and his untimely death at age 25 left a gaping hole in rap music that has never been properly filled.
Tupac has cemented his place as a household artist with a name value on-par with John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley. It would be a crime not feature him on this list, as his influence has spanned multiple generations and he has passionate fans in every corner of the world.
As rap music continues to evolve, new artists will set the tone for its evolution and take it to places we never thougt possible. Not bad for a genre that was only conisdered a passing fad thirty years ago.