Survival of the illest: Who holds hip-hop’s throne?

By: Saúl Berríos-Thomas | Layout Editor

Listening to music is a very personal endeavor, that is why people get much more upset about music awards than movie and TV accolades. Music plays a role in our psyche, our emotions and our mood. Which is why we are having two different people give you their top five rappers/rap groups. They will be different. You may hate a pick or two, but I hope that at the very least you can agree with a couple of ours and understand why we picked some of the others. As I write this I am relatively sure that none of the rappers on the list have had another secret/accidental release come out today. Let’s get started.

5. Rae Sremmurd
Rae Sremmurd is a duo comprised of Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy. Their name is Ear Drummers spelled backwards, also known as the name of producer Mike Will Made It’s label. They are signed to that label, which guarantees they will be rapping over the best beats for the length of their contracts.

They are not the best lyricists, but what they do have is an ability to create catchy songs that are destined to be hits. Their album Sremm Life was full of hits. They have the chance to create this kind of album over and over again and if they can find enough substance to fill out the albums they make then they will be near the top of the rap ladder for years.

4. Quavo (of Migos)
Quavo is by far the best rapper in the trio called Migos, but he is made better by the group as a whole.

While rap fans have been waiting months for A.S.A.P. Rocky and Kendrick Lamar to release new music, Migos have been releasing new music every moment of every hour of every day. This tactic has worked for them. It makes sense that if you are continually releasing new music, then when you make bad music it goes unnoticed because there is a good song coming behind it.

Migos are creating a library of hits that are catchy clever and addictive. They are climbing the ranks and may become the best rap group of all time.

3. Drake
What I’m about to say about Drake is also very true of Kanye West. Take everything you think about Drake the person/celebrity and throw it away. That is the only way to truly judge his music. Drake’s music is a completely different part of who he is.

The first time I heard Drake rap was on a song called “I’m Still Fly,” a borrowed beat from Big Tymers. My friend was very excited to put the song on in his Mustang. The first words Drake rapped were “responsible for everything you listen to while mediocre talent proceeds to try to condition you.” A bold statement, but one that he has lived up to ever since.

FILE - In this Oct. 24, 2013 file photo, Drake performs during his "Would You Like A Tour" show in Toronto. The Toronto-based rapper, singer and actor will host the July 16, 2014, ESPYs sports awards show on ESPN in Los Angeles. The Grammy-winning rapper gave $75,000 for a recording studio at Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young, file)

FILE – In this Oct. 24, 2013 file photo, Drake performs during his “Would You Like A Tour” show in Toronto. The Toronto-based rapper, singer and actor will host the July 16, 2014, ESPYs sports awards show on ESPN in Los Angeles. The Grammy-winning rapper gave $75,000 for a recording studio at Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young, file)

Drake is the top rapper when it comes to features and club bangers. He basically catapulted I Love Makonnen from obscurity to rising star with one song, “Tuesday.”

He released If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late as a throw away album. It came out of nowhere with no hype. And it was pure gold. “Energy” is, pardon the pun, electric. The song “10 Bands” is a listening experience unlike anything I have heard in years. He starts off rapping slow, but by the second verse he is going just as fast as the beat.

Drake is in a different category behind Kendrick and Kanye, but he is at the top of that class by a long shot.

2. Kendrick Lamar
The interesting thing about the way rap is being made now is how it’s delivered. In Lil Wayne’s prime we got mixtape after mixtape that allowed us to always have something new to listen to. Kendrick has broken that mold. It’s been 17 months since good kid m.A.A.d city was released. It worked for me because it took me about eight months to fully fall in love with every track on that album. Every couple weeks a new song would rise up and capture me in a unique way. I was just getting to the point of really missing Kendrick music when To Pimp a Butterfly came out.

A week earlier it was released out of nowhere Sunday night. I haven’t had enough time to fully digest the album, but it made some things very clear for me. Kendrick Lamar is the best pure rapper right now. He may not even be that interested in rapping, a la Andre 3000. This is not the album that will be the one that I play at the loudest volume in my car as I pull up to the club. It will be the album that I listen to front to back when I’m at home with nothing but time in front of me so that I can fully enjoy it. Kendrick didn’t make singles that would be played over and over on the radio, he made music, the music that he wants to make, that forces you to think about it over and over.

Kendrick is an artist first. He doesn’t care about what Hot 97 DJs think of his music, he doesn’t care what you think of his music. He only cares about making the best music he can. That is what makes him great.

1. Kanye West
Kanye West is a controversial figure who has used the Floyd Mayweather mold of “all publicity is good publicity,” to propel him into the spot of most famous rapper. Fame doesn’t always equal talent, see Kanye’s wife, but in his case his talent was the only thing that made any of this possible. He worked harder than anyone else to get into the music business even after failing to do so many times.

His talent is what got him into the business, not his personality or marketability. He burst onto the scene with what is still one of the best albums ever, College Dropout. I still remember the first time I heard the song “Family Business.” It was the first song of my life that had brought me to tears. I spent the next hour telling everyone in my family how much I loved them. This is a debut album, artists don’t just create things that good on the first shot.

Not only did he follow that with an album of equal quality, he never stopped making albums that good. His “worst” album 808s & Heartbreak would be almost every other rapper’s top album. West is straying from traditional rap in a similar way to Kendrick Lamar, but he still stays true to two things, his lyrical excellence and his ability to relate to his audience. Neither of those things are easy for most people let alone a person as famous as Ye is.

Kanye is the best rapper right now. He has the better career. While Kendrick just dropped his album that was mind-blowing, it opens the door for Ye’s album to get the spotlight and not have to compared to Kendrick’s. West has evolved with the game while still staying true to himself.

By: Sam Fatula | A&E Editor

5. Killer Mike
Slowly but surely, Atlanta’s Killer Mike has become one of hip-hop’s most underrated wordsmiths. One half of duo, Run the Jewels, Mike and producer El-P have consistently released some of the best rap material of the past two years, though Mike’s résumé runs much longer than the past 24 months. Mike’s reputation as a rapper is one that has an extremely quick word-flow, but is packed with quality lyrics and excellent rhyme structure. It’s like examining the work of Twista, or even Action Bronson without the numerous food references or innuendos and replacing them with societal issues and things that affect people on a larger scale.

4. Nicki Minaj
Five years before Nicki Minaj became the platinum selling hip-hop, R&B and pop crossover that she is today, she was little more than another female emcee trying to be the next Lil’ Kim. Now, she is one of the highest grossing female artists while still attempting to be faithful to her hip-hop roots. With such a jump into writing more radio-friendly hits like “Super Bass,” one might forget just how talented Minaj is as a rapper.

It doesn’t take too far of a look back to reminisce; the wordplay on “Only” (The Pinkprint) significantly outdoes guest verses from Drake and Lil’ Wayne. She’s arguably the most versatile women in music today, never hesitating to occasionally test the pop genre waters every now and again to sell millions. She is today’s queen of hip-hop, and not having her in top five discussions would be a disservice to her struggle to be taken seriously as an artist in predominantly male genre.

3. Drake
No one could have foreseen TV show Degrassi’s Aubrey Graham as being one of hip-hop’s most recognizable faces, ever. But following one of the larger commercial successes of 2011 (Take Care), Toronto’s own Drake has since proved time and time again that he belongs in talks of best rapper in the scene, despite various partisan beliefs.

Say what you will about Drake’s soft side, a la “Marvin’s Room,” or his obsession with area code “The Six,” but it remains difficult to find another rapper that can cross genres easier than Drake and still have it perform strongly on any top 40 chart. Few can do it better and more consistently.
Drake has also shown that he is fully capable of generating material quicker than most mainstream rappers, releasing full-length projects like If You’re Reading this it’s too Late and Nothing was the Same in quick succession. Both of these were received well from critics, so not only does it validate his creativity as an artist, but also implies his strong effort to constantly supply new content. And if Views from the Six has a release date in the near future, Drake being the third best rapper might be an understatement.

2. Kanye West


Kanye West poses as he arrives to attend Dries van Noten's Fall Winter 2015 /2016 Ready to wear fashion collection as part of Paris Fashion Week in Paris, France, Wednesday, March 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Binta)

Kanye West poses as he arrives to attend Dries van Noten’s Fall Winter 2015 /2016 Ready to wear fashion collection as part of Paris Fashion Week in Paris, France, Wednesday, March 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Binta)

If this list of top five rappers were published approximately two years ago, Kanye West occupies the top spot without question. There would have been absolutely no debate on the matter. From 2010-2013, no one was producing better samples or had more commercial success in the genre. Yeezy released his opus, My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy, subsequently completed compilation album Watch the Throne with Jay-Z, started his own record label (G.O.O.D. Music) and finally released Yeezus, his most ambitious album to date. West turned from being just a hip-hop phenomenon to a cultural image; touring across the world to showcase his music and eventually fashion. West even said it himself, he became one of the most influential people on the planet, and it was hard to argue that he was wrong.

Fast forward to 2015, West is on the verge of completing another full length album, So Help me God, which already has elite singles like “All Day” and “Only One” releasing just a few weeks ago. Additionally, West also did guest features for one of the biggest pop anthems in recent memory on “Four Five Seconds” with some people named Rihanna and Paul McCartney. Despite all recent success, Kanye needs So Help me God to be a critically acclaimed success to cement his career through 2015, or the man featured in the number one spot will reign for several years.

1. Kendrick Lamar

With every generational gap, there seems to be voice that speaks on behalf of millions. For some adults, they sought action through songs via Bob Dylan or John Lennon. Decades later, Tupac Shakur and Nas had similar influences on groups they represented. Call them scholars, poets or simply musicians, but these men were certifiable prophets because they were able to make a difference on so many lives. Now, this generation needs a voice; a voice like Kendrick Lamar’s.

Lamar’s rise from Compton kid to ultimate stardom was catastrophic. Eyes were on the now-27-year-old since his first official mixtape (Section.80) via Top Dawg Records hit the internet in 2011, with breakout singles like jazz-fused “Rigamortis” and “A.D.H.D.” showing his ability to create catchy hits. From there came 2012’s masterpiece good kid, m.A.A.d city, a short story on Lamar’s youth in Compton that cited his experiences in gangs, drugs, alcohol abuse and even murder. The change in direction took a serious take on one of America’s most dangerous neighborhoods, and introduced him as a serious contender for hip-hop’s throne from just his first full-length debut.

If not for the early release of To Pimp a Butterfly on Monday, Kendrick may not be number one on this list. However, with this release, Lamar may have put his name into legendary status, as To Pimp a Butterfly may be the greatest hip-hop album of all time. The album takes the listener on an emotional roller coaster ride of anger, sadness and guilt in perspective to race and other heavy issues, ultimately coming towards resolution on the 16th and final track. You hear Kendrick at his most vulnerable state as well as his strongest and engages you as a listener to the point where an hour feels like five minutes. It’s not perfection, but currently it’s the closest thing to it.

For now, let the coronation begin. King Kendrick has arrived.

(Follow @Sam_Fatula on Twitter for daily music & arts news)

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