What does it take for you to be one of the five greatest rappers of all-time? It starts with the lyrics. What are they saying about themselves, their fears, the world around them, the past, the future, their inspirations, the advice that they would recommend, stories of having fun, word puzzles that offer you new meanings after multiple listens, a voice that no one else seems to have, a rhythmic or melodic flow that sounds like its own instrument, and someone who pushes you to be your best self, in whatever it is you want to accomplish in your lifetime.
That is a whole lot to ask of one rapper, right? Not really because that is why these five are among the greatest in the first place, because they challenge themselves to get better so that we can have amazing public speakers to listen to when our minds need a little nudge, a sparkle to marvel and be amazed by.
Anyone can rhyme the ABCs, and cat with hat. Anyone can mumble the first thing that comes to mind like they are talking in their sleep. But these five rappers take their craft of rap seriously and have been standing the test of time for a reason. Give them your undivided attention, because the show is about to start… right now!
- Cole is from Fayetteville, North Carolina and is the youngest rapper on this list, born on January 28, 1985. Cole has spoken about how he respects the great rappers that came before him like Nas, Jay-Z, Eminem, Andre 3000, and 2Pac. He studies the greats with a competitive spirit to make them proud and to be spoken of highly like them one day.
- Cole isn’t afraid to be himself. He respects women, he graduated from college, he has a wife and two children, he supports the betterment of black people, and he raps about all of these things with complete confidence and zero embarrassment. In fact, J. Cole makes it cool to be well-read, to not be a misogynist, and to prioritize the betterment of your community over selfish materialism. It is extremely hard not to follow the shock value of sex and violence in music. But J. Cole owns his morals and ethics and still will out rap whoever.
For anyone that is impressed by data and numbers when they measure a rapper, J. Cole checks this box as well because he has been known for quite some time because he is able to compose platinum-selling albums without relying on other rappers to make guest appearances on all of his songs to get people interested in his projects.
- Cole’s 2014 album, Forest Hills Drive, was actually the first hip-hop album to sell over one million copies in the United States alone without having any guest features on it in 25 years. This means that it never happened in the 2010s and never happened throughout the entire decade of the 1990s.
Standout J. Cole Songs: “Everybody Dies” and “Middle Child,”
Starting out as “Common Sense,” now he is simply “Common” with one of the most uncommon levels of lyrical ability known to man. He became the first major rap star from Chicago back in the 1990s, paving the way for other intellectual creatives from his famous Windy City like Chance the Rapper, Lupe Fiasco, and Kanye West. He wrote a song about hip hop that made you think he was talking about a girl the entire time until the very last line of the very last verse.
Common has gained the respect of giants like Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Jay-Z, who famously said in a song that he wanted to be able to rap like Common if audiences would accept it from him. He made it cool to be socially aware, compassionate, and still be perceived as strong. Let’s also not forget that if you go back and compare, Common probably has the most classic albums that can be played without the fast forward button getting involved: Like Water for Chocolate, Resurrection, One Day It Will All Make Sense, Finding Forever, and Be.
Standout Common Songs: “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and “The 6th Sense.”
If you watch comedic host Jimmy Fallon on his late-night show, you are aware of the greatest hip hop band of all times, ever…ever.ever…. The Roots from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their lead rapper Black Thought, who recently experienced the loss of ex-member Malik B when he died in 2020 (Rest in Peace Malik B), is able to make up innovative and entertaining rhymes off the top of his head when musical guests come on the show.
Black Thought is able to go on one of the most popular radio stations in New York City (Hot 97) and rhyme for 10 minutes straight while DJ Funkmaster Flex was amazed, then have the YouTube clip of that video get so many millions of views that it is currently one of their ten most seen YouTube videos ever.
Black Thought is able to rap about politics, oppression, mental health, economics, and education, and that was way before any of those things were trending topics on Twitter. Black Thought even has a video clip where he raps an utterly amazing verse at Harvard University that floors the host that he is having a public discussion with.
The completely awesome thing about Black Thought is he has created a life of his own design, on his own terms, without having to become a corny pop rapper to make a few bucks. He is getting that large TV money simply because he continually showed he could put words together better than most.
Standout Black Thought Songs: “Thought vs. Everybody” and “Conception.”
Nas’s first album is still a classic to this very day… Illmatic. Say no more.
But seriously, that 1994 museum of poetry was proof that if you are one of the greatest rappers of all time, all you need is some solid production, and an imagination that can turn vivid lyrics into 3D listening sessions of the mind.
Straight out of Queensbridge Houses, the largest housing projects in the United States and Canada, came a Queens, New York rapper who fused the great rappers before him like Rakim, Kool G Rap, and Slick Rick and made newer rappers want to gain his respect like J. Cole.
Nas also wasn’t afraid to battle the best to be the best. His epic verbal brawl with Jay-Z had Nas sending out the sting-fest that was heard around the world with “Ether,” proving that steel does sharpen steel.
How many rappers have a documentary movie about their life while they are still currently active? How many rappers can create an entire album with one of the most popular songs of the icon Bob Marley? How many rappers can even tell a story…or a story backward like his song “Rewind?”
Standout Nas Songs: “N.Y. State of Mind” and “If I Ruled the World.”
Hip hop culture keeps you young when you have an open mind, and you are not trying to force yourself to fit into what all the kids are doing style-wise. Rakim remained who he was in the 1980s, and he is still 100% himself today, a spiritual being having a human experience with the microphone.
His lyrics have the flow of John Coltrane’s trumpet, which is exactly what he aimed to achieve when he listened to jazz heavily early on in his career.
When Run DMC and The Beastie Boys were employing a more straight-forward, in your face simplicity to their lyrics in the late 80s, Rakim was melting the mic like a scientist who has more radioactive vocabulary then he knows what to do with. Rakim literally made everyone around him stay sharp or get left behind, including a young Nas.
How many rappers are so good that they had to write a book about it? In July 2019, Rakim released “Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius,” where he dissects his writing process and shares what inspired some of his best songs.
Even with the process of recording and releasing music being as easy as having a mic, a laptop computer, and internet access, Rakim still doesn’t flood the market with his music, forcing us to reevaluate these mesmerizing pictures that he painted with words in the past.
Standout Rakim Songs: “Know the Ledge” and “Follow the Leader”
After listening to these five greatest rappers Rakim, Nas, Black Thought, Common, and J-Cole, you are probably starting to feel five times smarter. The interesting thing about them all is that they seem to link back to Rakim.
Why? Because they all have socially-conscious concerns and insights, they are wordsmiths that truly appreciate using the depths of the complex English language to their advantages while still incorporating regional slang and making up their own words if they feel like it. Also, they still get talked about by their peers in the greatest rappers lists.
When you look at the tense racial, health, and economic dynamics that the world is being divided and shaken up by, it is reassuring to know that these five lyricists are still alive, and can provide new ways of approaching old problems. Plus, let’s not forget, they say some pretty memorable things that are worth repeating and even researching further.