“ Big Tymin’”
Nef the Pharaoh
It never needs to be complicated. Right now, as you are reading this sentence, there are studios full of lavishly paid people—songwriters, producers, engineers, A&Rs, label vice presidents, the artists themselves—attempting to capture lightning by committee. They have all the statistics and metrics that quantify a hit, the chord progressions that incite our lizard brains, and the factory-made melodies to electrify the algorithms. It might make money, but none of it matters.
The beauty of rap is that a song like Nef the Pharaoh’s “Big Tymin’,” the 2015 breakout smash from E-40’s Vallejo protégé, could never be created in a laboratory. There is no formula to replicate the organic thrill of a kid, barely out of his teens, an amateur with big-league talent, creating something with a bunch of his friends from the neighborhood—with their immediate goal to make an anthem to be loudly bumped for a few seasons by everyone within 50 square miles in every direction.
It is Bay Area regional down to the Mac Dre tee that Nef sports in the video. He and his crew throw up their set, sip dirty Sprite, and smoke in front of a rotting trap house, a cookie-cutter subdivision occasionally peeking out in the distance from a corner of the screen. Nef raps with livewire elasticity, a bouncing, flailing Gumby of limbs and fists. It’s a gleeful celebration of balling like Baby and being Fresh like Mannie—a classic tribute to the Big Tymers and Cash Money, right down to the “Still Fly” interpolation, which itself riffs on the Gilligan’s Island theme song.
This is hip-hop at its core, repurposing the stray parts of pop culture ephemera and reconfiguring them into something borrowed but still brand new. “Big Tymin’” doesn’t need a big budget, an expensive feature, or a super producer. All it needs is Nef, his homies, some party supplies, and a certain purity of spirit. It’s a reminder that culture exists only from the bottom up. —Jeff Weiss
“ U Guessed It”
I was working at Complex in 2014. People would play music in the office. And back then, all it took to make the bullpen stop clacking away on laptops was four simple notes on a piano.
Produced by Brandon Thomas, OG Maco’s sparse, angry, gloriously self-righteous viral hit fits right into Atlanta’s complete takeover of rap in the mid-2010s. Its blind abrasiveness and droning discordance stands alongside contemporaries like iLoveMakonnen and Young Thug. Its punk leanings portend the wave of emo rap that’d take over a few years later. It’s a simple song, and a short one, but it packs a hypnotic punch that’ll have you yelling its hook in short order. —Andrew Gruttadaro
“ The Blanguage”
Young Thug & Metro Boomin
“The Language,” the braggadocio single from Drake’s 2013 album Nothing Was the Same, opens with a line aimed at rappers in general (and possibly one specifically): “I don't know why they been lying but your shit is not that inspiring.” The next year, two upstarts took that message to heart, crafting something more than a little inspired by Aubrey Graham—and something that would become even more influential in its own right.
Think of “The Blanguage” like a chain-snatching in which the thieves show off their bounty on social media: It’s as much about the bragging rights and street cred as the material gains. Producer Metro Boomin interpolates the sparse, airy Boi-1da production of Drake’s original and turns it into an exercise in maximalism, adding a flurry of hi-hats and demonic synths. Young Thug, the rising rapper who could’ve just as easily been from Mars as Atlanta, rides the new creation as only he could, smoothing out the choppy, Migos-indebted singsongy flow from “The Language” while adding a half-dozen new cadences in the process. It’s the best early showcase for what the best Thugger verses do: He effortlessly turns on a dime, stopping and starting and pulling new melodies out of thin air, sounding celestial while spitting absurd non sequiturs. (His opening line—“I fucked her then washed off my dick with the curtains inside of the Phantom”—is, if nothing else, inspired.)
“The Blanguage” would never get an official release—it’s hard to see Drake clearing the sample—and today lives on only through its psychedelic, lo-fi video. Young Thug and Metro Boomin would link up again for songs like “Hercules,” but the promised MetroThuggin full-length has yet to materialize. But both artists went on to become the most influential stylists of the decade in their respective crafts, and this song played a key role in that development. The minor tragedy here is that no one tried their own version of “The Blanguage,” but direct inspiration matters only so much—you have to be talented or audacious enough to even attempt to improve on something. With a song as sublime as “The Blanguage,” that’s simply an impossible task. —Justin Sayles
“ 6 Foot 7 Foot”
Lil Wayne (Feat. Cory Gunz)
Come for “Bitch, real G’s move in silence like lasagna” (it’s true!), and stay for literally every other ecstatic and extra-pugnacious word out of Wayne’s mouth on this wondrous Carter IV controlled demolition of the “Banana Boat”–hijacking beat, not to mention the competition. As Bangladesh-produced, semi-hookless tirades go, this is a superior sequel to Carter III’s “A Milli,” the Terminator 2: Judgment Day of Wayne rattling off lines like “Two bitches at the same time / Synchronized swimmers” and “Mind so sharp I fuck around and cut my head off” and (I just love the way he says this) “Tell them bitches I say put my name on the wall / I speak the truth, but I guess that's a foreign language to y'all.” Hell, just his little “I’m going back in!” between the first and second verse is stupendous. Bonus points for the Inception-themed video. —Rob Harvilla
“ Big Ole Freak”
Megan Thee Stallion
She’s become a household name and a pop star since, but it’s important to remember that, even before that, Megan Thee Stallion was a generationally gifted rapper. At 23, she released Tina Snow, a project severely overqualified to be called an EP.
Its most undeniable moment is “Big Ole Freak,” a modern update on classic southern strip club rap. The pounding drums and bass are balanced by a diaphanous sample of Immature’s “Is It Love This Time,” creating a hard-soft juxtaposition that sets the scene for Megan’s vivid, imaginative lyrics.
Though she makes songs about it often, Megan never cheapens sex in her music. It’s something affirming, a source of inner confidence that she clearly relishes. “Nobody know / I fuck with him on the low / We never show up together / But I text him when I'm ready to go,” she raps in one particularly nimble passage. Later, she brags about her “mind control” abilities and dubs herself “the captain and he’s the lieutenant.”
Even though she was a relative newcomer when “Big Ole Freak” dropped, Megan arrived with the skills and poise of a veteran. When LeBron James entered the NBA, he wasn’t worried about making the All-Rookie team; he already knew he could be an All-Star. —Grant Rindner
“ Back to Back”
The rap battle is a tradition nearly as old as the form itself. You can draw a straight line from Grandmaster Caz to LL Cool J to Ice Cube to Jay-Z to Drake as rappers at the top of their professions who have found themselves besieged by lyrical threats from rivals. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a rapper of any notable success who hasn’t had to address a peer on wax, but “Back to Back,” Drake’s unflinching retort to Meek Mill’s “Twitter fingers,” felt like something we hadn’t experienced before.
One might chalk it up to meme culture, as the record’s many quotables and the sheer amount of time we spend online made it feel like we were engaging with the song for hours on end. But it wasn't just that; the three principals involved consisted of two legitimate A-list celebrities in Drake and Nicki Minaj, while Meek had already reached the status of viable rap star. The fame and gossip-ready details of the spat made it so that people talked about “Back to Back” everywhere they went, from barbershops to ballgames. The song became a bona fide hit on both the radio and in the nightclubs, peaking at no. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100—something virtually unheard of for rap disses. The song was everywhere, and most importantly, it dispelled the notion that Drake’s star turn was a fluke that could be extinguished by any credible rapper with the will to do it. “Back to Back” made Drake seem impregnable. —Wosny Lambre
“ White Iverson”
For a zombie outbreak to begin, you need a patient zero ready to infect the world with something so contagious it renders the brain useless. Post Malone, for better and worse, is our current undead forefather and “White Iverson” was the first bite into our unsuspecting meat pockets.
Released at the midpoint of the decade, “White Iverson” operates like a savvy amalgamation of everything that was bubbling up on the fringes of the music industry. A new generation of young Black kids was melting down the borders of hip-hop, R&B, rock, and country and recasting them into bricks of streaming gold. As tends to happen in these scenarios, influence runs downhill. The outlet for this creative sewer was predictably the suburbs, where a portly, braided, gold-grilled Caucasian man with an undying love for Bud Lite saw the future.
Part absurdist fantasy, part infectious parody, “White Iverson” still works, because Post seems in on the joke. Before he became one of the biggest global pop stars, Malone was a struggling white boy with braids who envisioned himself as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. In retrospect, it’s amazing that a song built around the hook, “Saucin’, saucin’, I’m saucin’ on you / I’m swaggin’, I’m swaggin’, I’m swaggin’, ooh,” went eight-times platinum, but Post and his backers forecasted the future. Every generation gets the Kid Rock they deserve. The only thing left for the masses to decide is how high that star flies. —Charles Holmes
“ The Last Huzzah”
Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire (Feat. Despot, Kool A.D., Heems, Danny Brown, & El-P)
They all just sound like such good friends! Degenerate friends, but still! This Brooklyn-centric carnival of nonchalant excellence is the posse cut (and maybe rap video!) of the decade, and don’t let anybody talk you out of it: Despot with his box of Lucky Charms, Kool A.D.’s ad-lib “Sports!,” the stupendous Heems boast/confession “Worst rapper on this track / Third coolest,” Danny Brown threatening to leave you with “a bagel-sized hole,” and El-P casually reeling off as complex and electrifying a verse as anything you’ll find on a Run the Jewels record. And then Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire himself wraps it up with his personal industry philosophy: “Fuck a blog / Fuck a label / Fuck a meeting / Fuck a A&R / Fuck a cosign, motherfucker / Fuck it all.” Then he rhymes Catcher in the Rye with “catch her in the eye.” Degenerate. Stupendous. —Rob Harvilla
“ Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane”
ScHoolboy Q (Feat. Jadakiss)
“Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane” is rap at the highest level. There's not a second of wasted time or momentum or motion on it. It is, quite plainly, a paragon of excellence; unquestionable, undeniable, unsinkable, unpickapartable excellence. The production (a joint effort by Tae Beast and Dem Jointz) is moody and pulsating and vicious and textured and thematic. Jadakiss, who steps in as the closer, gives his most inspired guest verse ever; an absolutely perfectly pitched game of condescension, aggravation, and ability. And ScHoolboy Q, known for shifting speeds and temperatures, does so here with a level of confidence matched only by his own talent. It’s overwhelming and monstrous and deadly in the best possible way. Take a shotgun, stuff it inside a bigger shotgun that uses smaller shotguns for ammo instead of bullets, aim it at your chest, then pull the trigger. That's this song. —Shea Serrano
“ Scarface N---a”
Let’s be honest: There are roughly 47 Roc Marciano songs that justifiably could’ve replaced “Scarface N---a” without a drop in quality. In fact, if you said that Roc Marciano deserved 47 spots on the Top 100 of the past decade, you would hear no argument from me. The ex-Flipmode affiliate from Hempstead invented the contemporary East Coast underground as much as anyone. He didn’t just make a new lane, he tunneled a previously unimagined subway route, inspiring a rapping style that makes it difficult to imagine Griselda, Armand Hammer, and the greater Earl Sweatshirt cinematic universe without Marcberg first supplying the nitroglycerin.
On the surface, Roc Marciano created a modernized update of the classic Queensbridge stab-your-brain-with-your-nose-bone sound, a monotone pimp with a wicked sense of humor channeling Havoc on the boards and Prodigy on the mic. But that doesn’t even begin to explain his innovations. What Marciano did was no less than figure out how to wear a Yankees fitted with a unique tilt, reinvent the Timberland, or invent a time machine (that’s actually a Porsche that runs on Grey Goose and plutonium) to restore the feeling. No Troy Ave.
Marci is as brash and flamboyant as he is subtle and intricate. On “Scarface N---a” rhyme schemes are like gold filigree on a Medieval shrine, ostentatious but meticulous. A warlord whose Benz has four doors. Llamas and revolvers in the lining of his parka, “to spark ya for conspiring my departure.” The beat sounds like a body dumped into the East River in the dead of January. He’s a next-generation Scarface, building on the purple tape scrolls of Rae and Ghost, now draped in thousand-dollar suits, smoother than Pistol Pete Maravich, his flow harder to mimic than Yiddish. It’s the type of rap that Nas claimed was dead just a few years prior, but this time, Roc created a new world out of snow and gunmetal, stripped down to the skeleton, a glow undiminished amidst the grime. —Jeff Weiss
“ Mo Bamba”
In 2021, “Mo Bamba” stands as one of the great rap songs named after an NBA player. But at the time of its release, in 2017, few had even heard of Harlem rapper Sheck Wes or the Texas Longhorn commit who was still a year away from being drafted sixth overall by the Orlando Magic. After being welcomed to little fanfare when the teenaged rapper first uploaded the high-energy track to SoundCloud, it became the sleeper hit of 2018, slowly becoming a staple at parties and clubs alike.
Wes and Bamba grew up together in the same neighborhood in Harlem, and Wes’s ode to his hooper friend would catapult both of their names into popular culture. The song helped Wes sign a joint deal with Travis Scott’s Cactus Jack and Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music under Interscope Records, while Bamba had a rap anthem named after him before he even set foot on an NBA court. Wes has yet to recapture the heights of “Mo Bamba'' in his young rap career, but after a few years of being overshadowed by his own tribute, Bamba is finally starting to live up to his name as he puts together the makings of a breakout season during his fourth year with the Magic. —Daniel Chin
As both Dungeon Family’s enforcer and a mixtape monster dedicated to the grind above all else, Killer Mike spent the first phase of his career highly respected and commercially sidelined. 2012’s R.A.P. Music was his first claim for legacy—a full-album collaboration with avant-rap kingpin El-P that he explicitly likened to Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, the unexpected and logical pairing of Ice Cube’s streetwise truth-telling and the Bomb Squad’s collage of jagged funk samples. “Reagan,” the nuclear core of R.A.P. Music, required Killer Mike to clarify that he sees himself as a “social commentator” rather than a “political rapper.” He takes a moralistic stand against the kind of conspicuous consumption raps that he occasionally indulges in and stumps for a socialist economy on an album released by a joint venture between Warner Music Group and the Cartoon Network. Mike makes a trenchant analysis of the 13th Amendment and jumps to logical conclusions about the past 50 years of American military policy in the Middle East.
In 2016, Mike got flack for suggesting that the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were “voting for the same thing,” when he saw no real difference in his community during the presidencies of Barack Obama and either George Bush. As with Ice Cube, Killer Mike’s rise to fame coincided with a frustrating and ultimately futile quest to extrapolate their personal beliefs into a coherent political platform for hip-hop as a whole. But those two worldviews merge beautifully with Mike’s closing remarks: “I’ll leave you with four words / I’m glad Reagan dead.” —Ian Cohen
“ Walk Away As the Door Slams”
Lil Peep (Feat. Lil Tracy)
“Walk Away As the Door Slams” is built around a subtle flip of a track by Blink-182 offshoot +44, but unlike early Lil Peep records, which are unmistakably built from the bones of old songs (“White Tee” and “Yesterday” on Crybaby), this felt like something new and singular. His vocals come in both lo-fi and dramatically grand, a product of Peep’s unique recording style that created an effect akin to the famous wall of sound. At his best, he could make you feel his bone-deep exhaustion, whether from drug use, social pressure, or the kind of romantic confrontation he details on “Walk Away.” Peep was 19 when Hellboy came out, but his teen angst was contained within an old soul.
The importance of Lil Tracy’s verse shouldn’t be understated, either. It’s at times clumsily sweet (“I know you wanna FaceTime, baby, I have Samsung”), at others yearning (“You told me you loved me, do you still think that?”), and occasionally worrying (“You're a thousand miles away, I snort a thousand lines”). Its range of moods captures how all over the map young romance can be.
And if the original isn’t enough of a gut punch for you, then just try the acoustic version, which was released as part of the Peep documentary Everybody’s Everything in 2019. —Grant Rindner
“ Rack City”
If you ever need a song for the “Can you separate the art from the artist?” game, you could do a lot worse than Tyga’s 2011 hit “Rack City.” By sheer force of its catchy hook and infectiously bare-bones beat, the Mustard-produced mixtape cut turned Billboard-charting single transformed Tyga from Young Money benchwarmer to the label’s third-most-lucrative star. Instead of leaning into the lyrical bombast of labelmate Nicki Minaj or the globetrotting genre-melding of Drake, Tyga managed to revel in simplicity. Sometimes creating a strip club phenomenon is as easy as repeating,“Rack city, bitch, rack rack city, bitch / Ten ten ten twenties and them fifties, bitch” so much it ceases to have meaning. —Charles Holmes
“ No Role Modelz”
We’ve all heard the brag: J. Cole goes platinum with no features. This song does a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard: It’s Cole’s biggest, with over a billion streams on Spotify alone. “No Role Modelz” is heavy on ’90s nostalgia throughout, beginning with an Uncle Phil reference and ending with an Aaliyah shoutout, which no doubt helped it become popular for fans across generations. My favorite ’90s callback is the George W. Bush interlude, which is funny, but more importantly, it set Cole up for the home stretch. Cole manages to be relatable without being corny by using an old hip-hop trope with a modern twist. This isn’t a song where Cole wows you with his wordplay, like so many in his catalog. Instead, it’s filled with the type of anti-Hollywood, the-industry-is-against-me, don’t-save-these-hoes rhetoric that when done right, will always be a success. The ironic part is this song and this album grew his stardom and solidified his status among those Hollywood and industry people he swore he was against. —Isaiah Blakely
“ Gucci Gang”
Lil Pump had made seemingly dozens of songs that were exactly like “Gucci Gang” and I can’t tell you why that one introduced him into the mainstream conversation. Then again, people like myself are in no position to explain anything about Lil Pump, which is entirely the point of Lil Pump. Sad as it was to see him follow the Kanye-to-MAGA pipeline and have Donald Trump get his name wrong in return, this was the logical endpoint for a guy who saw rap as a loss leader in a greater goal of achieving Ultimate Troll status. And “Gucci Gang” conveniently consolidated just about every trend of the mid-2010s that oldheads took as a sign of our collective societal decline before they became normalized shortly thereafter—the incessant repetition of Migos’s Y.R.N. mixtape hits, Lil Yachty’s absurd hair-care regimen, the blown-out production and nonexistent song structure of SoundCloud, the state of Florida. If nothing else, “Gucci Gang” exists to reiterate that hip-hop is a young person’s game, one that thrives on novelty and disposability coexisting with fits of political consciousness and undeniable artistic genius. “Represents Everything Wrong in the World”—that’s the highest possible compliment a self-respecting hip-hop website could pay to “Gucci Gang.” —Ian Cohen
“ Black Thought Funk Flex Freestyle”
A lot of rap heads came out of these 10 minutes with a sense of awe, because imagine rapping like this for that long. For a few, that amazement was coupled with vindication. Black Thought’s fortunes are the weird sort that’s routinely kept him out of Top Five Dead or Alive mentions. He’s a pillar of the world’s most famous alt-rap late-night band, but its second-most-prolific member. He’s unquestionably one of the most technically skilled to sniff mainstream props, but intricate syntax rarely make for easy cultural touchstones. For Black Thought, the quotables aren’t instant; rather, they reveal themselves like golden strands in a web.
To truly grab the attention of cultural tourists, passersby, and fairweathers with this style is to stretch it to its verbal and physical extremes. People tend to conflate “effortless” with “great.” Black Thought was great in those 10 minutes because of the explicitness of that effort. He’s literally dripping in sweat as he long-jumps from tying Fitzgerald with Pharaohe Monch to reporting on the “Shariah Law on ‘My Cherie Amour’” to a quick history lesson on Henrietta Lacks to shouting out the capital of South Korea. This showing immediately places itself alongside Jay-Z’s Grammy Family Freestyle in the history of great Hot 97 exhibitions—even though the stakes were far lower. At its core, we were watching a guy with a cushy network job who gave a shit. —Brian Josephs
“ Beamer, Benz, or Bentley”
Lloyd Banks (Feat. Juelz Santana)
My single favorite thing about living in New York is that every summer the city has an Official Rap Song, seized upon by the radio stations and the larger sweaty populace alike, and you somehow hear it blasting out of every single car that passes for months. In 2010, that honor went to this immaculate minimalism-as-maximalism Lloyd Banks triumph, with its ominous diamond-raindrop hook and its lewd (and heavily radio-edited) procession of luxury cars and the women who love the men who drive them, often while driving them. (Juelz Santana drops by to shout out the Cuban girlfriend he’s nicknamed “Cigar,” which I’m sure she appreciates.) Simple, louche, majestic. It made a cab feel—or at least sound—like a Maserati. —Rob Harvilla
“ 100 Shots”
The would-be assassins ambushed Young Dolph as he bent the corner of Eighth and N. Caldwell, firing ammunition like a Bourne film in the middle of a busy Charlotte intersection. What they didn’t count on was the Memphis rapper’s SUV being armor-plated. Dozens of shots let loose and no one injured. Later that night, Dolph materialized iced out and without a scratch, performing at a club alongside Migos and 21 Savage. The next morning, he’d tweet “u loose” with the cry laugh emoji.
Twitter was flooded with memes of Dolph’s face photoshopped onto the body of Neo in The Matrix, stopping slugs with his bare hands. One tweet depicted a goat nonchalantly reading a book with its legs crossed, with the caption “Young Dolph in the backseat while they were shooting.” His ability to emerge unscathed after a vicious attempt on his life certified the legend of Dolph, the invincible kingpin from the slums of South Memphis, who, like Ozzy Osbourne, could ostensibly not be killed by conventional means.
But it was the release of “100 Shots” less than two months later that explained why Dolph was one of the preeminent people’s champs of the last decade, both everyman and emperor, sitting outside the corner store in a six-figure car that had no business being in the area. In an act of immaculate contempt, he devotes only the chorus to the failed killers, barking over and over in his bluesy horse-head-in-bed baritone, “100 Shots,” before mockingly taunting one last time: “How the fuck you miss a whole 100 shots?”
The verses are classic Dolph, outlandish flexes about eating Nobu for his last supper and having sex in rush hour, which rightfully linked him with his frequent collaborators 2 Chainz and Gucci Mane. But there was something intrinsically tied to the alluvial Delta soil, the diabolic creep of the beat courtesy of the originator DJ Squeeky, a strip-club-ready Juicy J ad-lib, and the savage Memphis twang. No names needed to be mentioned on the song. This wasn’t about those enemies seething with hatred and jealousy, it was about triumph and survival, the indomitability of Dolph himself, now gone but forever bulletproof. —Jeff Weiss
“ Dis Ain’t What You Want”
If Chief Keef was drill’s foundational star, then Lil Durk was always destined to become the subgenre's most bankable artist. With its melodic menace, brooding nihilism, and overly processed vocals, “Dis Ain’t What You Want” forecasted the future of street rap. Before artists like YoungBoy Never Broke Again and Lil Baby cornered the market on fusing crime stories with the dramatics of R&B ballads, rappers like Future and Durk were experimenting on music’s edges.
To his credit, Durk took advantage of his propensity to be a walking contradiction. His baby face belied his ability to spin bone-chilling stories about abject poverty and crime. Even when his strengths lay in his eerie singing voice, he’d just as easily break into a Meek Mill–esque lyrical tour de force. Eight years removed from his first anthemic hit, Durk is arguably bigger now than he was then and one of the last remnants of a major label gold rush that plundered an entire city before growing bored and departing. In 2013, “Dis Ain’t What You Want” sounded like the future and in 2021, it's impossible to escape the present the song and Durk helped build. —Charles Holmes
“ Ion Rap Beef”
Drakeo the Ruler & 03 Greedo
For a brief stretch between Thanksgiving 2017 and the first week of 2018, 03 Greedo and Drakeo were both simultaneously free, a rarity throughout their adult lives. The Ruler had just come home from serving nearly a year in county jail after the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department discovered an arsenal of guns during a raid on his apartment. Greedo’s liberty was similarly provisional. Earlier that summer, bounty hunters had captured the Watts rapper-producer and extradited him to Texas, where he had been ducking court dates related to a 2016 arrest on the interstate outside of Amarillo, when deputies found 4 pounds of meth and two stolen pistols in his trunk.
Until then, the living legend from the Jordan Downs had never crossed paths with the Cold Devil from the 100s section of South Central. But in that five-week stretch, the duo formed a telepathic bond of cold-blood codeine villainy. The clutch of songs recorded are all regional West Coast masterpieces, anointing Greedo and Drakeo as somewhere between the modern-day heirs to the Amerikaz Most Wanted throne of 2Pac and Snoop, and the L.A. analogs to Gucci Mane and Young Thug.
The greatest of those collabs is “Ion Rap Beef,” a death letter to enemies slumped outside the frame: semi-automatic threats and subtle allusions best explained in court documents, front doors kicked in, and Neiman Marcus sprees that would eventually spur criminal investigations. Drakeo’s one-liners are infrared missiles: “You ain’t do it right if no detectives come”; “They gon have to find a suitable picture for Fox 11”; “Judging by my case files, I’m obsessed with rifles / Had a meeting with the flockers just to say I’m their idol.” It’s a shadowland clinic of hieroglyphic lingo, demonic taunts, and his boa constrictor-on-opiates style—a coiled and slow strangulation of the beat, the counter-clockwise nervous music killstrike that would inspire an entire school of rap from San Diego to Sacramento.
Greedo operates as the ideal counterpart. A missing link between T-Pain and Boosie, unhinged and operatic, he’s as improvised and rapid-fire as Drakeo is meticulous and patient. Over JoogSZN’s creeping anxiety-sweats beat, Greedo’s voice soars and dips like a mercury balloon, alluding to his legal troubles and constant acquisition of weapons and designer fabrics. His sense of melody and bounce are a reminder that Grape Street is as close as you can get to the South in Los Angeles County. In a matter of days, Drakeo would be arrested on another gun charge, hauled into Men’s Central Jail and indicted for bogus murder allegations, which would deprive him of his freedom for almost three years. Several months later, Greedo would be sentenced to 20 years in Texas state prison, where he remains. But for a minute, two of the best from the Westside were in the same place at the same time, scheming for currency, the champagne swapped out for mud, their eyes still on the courtroom waiting for the outcome. —Jeff Weiss
“ Womp Womp”
Valee (Feat. Jeremih)
Valee doesn’t offer the antithesis of Chicago drill’s chilling and chest-caving knock, but his truncated songs tip-toe in the middle of the spectrum it lies on. Typical Valee beats might be called minimalist trap—booming but with so much negative space between the speaker-blowing drums and melodies so soft that the productions feel both foreboding and tranquil. His delivery also operates in a liminal space, floating between a half-whisper and sedate speaking voice as he hops from word to word. Valee gives the mundane gravity like few others can.
“Womp Womp” is a thumping, end-to-end flex of sexual conquests and high-end purchases that pushes all his aesthetics to the extreme. The ping-ponging melody sounds like it could be someone plucking a rubber band to keep time with the song’s slow, yet crushing, in-the-red 808s. (Whether DaBaby borrowed this sonic formula for “Suge” is debatable.) Fellow Chicagoan Jeremih does an excellent Valee impersonation as Valee raps with more energy and bass in his voice than anywhere else in his discography. Together, they exaggerate the syllables like there’s a bouncing ball under every word. They aren’t saying much, but they sound like no one else while confidently turning a Charlie Brown schtick into a hook and making the idea of picking up a date at Walmart sound grand. —Max Bell
Curren$y is spot-on when he calls himself “prolific” at the beginning of “Breakfast”: The sheer volume of the New Orleans rapper’s output has been nothing short of remarkable. His catalog shows that the king of stoner randomness can make songs about anything, mixing pop culture and car-aficionado references with his pothead quirks. “Breakfast” is exceptional because it captures all of the above in a way that exhibits just how bright an MC Spitta is.
The structure is abstract, consisting of a lone stream-of-consciousness verse. Don’t let Curren$y's drawl lull you into thinking he’s rambling about nothing—there are layers to his words. He hangs on to a piece of advice (“Guess I could keep them two cents in my pocket / Add that to these underground rap dollars''), switches his flow mid-track (“Odd number, you are not even on my level / Write that sickness, my ink pen sneezing”) then wraps by comparing a Lamborghini Diablo with its doors up to Daniel LaRusso in the Lotus Position. And with mellow production courtesy of Ski Beatz and Yasiin Bey, it amounts to the perfect distillation of Curren$y’s brilliance in under three minutes. Plus, when’s the last time you thought about that Yancey Thigpen drop? —Julian Kimble
“ Greatest Rapper Ever”
It is audacious to call yourself the “Greatest Rapper Ever”; it is even more so to begin the song with that title by rapping about your friend. But that opening couplet (“My homie a magician with the Tec / Make the chain disappear and reappear on his neck”) is such a clean distillation of Danny Brown: an outlandish spin on street rap conventions, unconcerned with setup or initiation. Over the course of the 2010s, the Detroit native would craft albums with narrative arcs that were clean (XXX’s midlife crossroads) or enticingly conflicted (Old’s party/hangover progression), or others, like Atrocity Exhibition, that marry seemingly disparate genres in airtight ways. But it’s songs like “Greatest Rapper Ever”—doses of raw writing ability and uncontainable personality—that confirm him as the one of the most inspired MCs in his generation.
Taken from Brown’s breakthrough 2010 mixtape The Hybrid—and produced by Quelle Chris, who would himself carve out a career as an acclaimed indie-rap auteur—“Greatest Rapper” is at turns funny (“You wearing Polo / Who are you, Young Dro????????”) and horrifying, as in the vignette about selling a pregnant woman crack, then watching her smoke it, leave, and later return mid-hallucination. At one point he says, in one of the more novel work-ethic flexes ever committed to wax, that he’s “writing 16s like internet child predators.” This song, though, runs more than 50 bars, and climaxes in one that doesn’t even rhyme. “I rap like I bet my life,” Danny says toward its end. “’Cause in all actuality, n---a, I did.” Sometimes the house has to pay up. —Paul Thompson
“ Bloxk Party”
Sada Baby (Feat. Drego)
It’s easy to forget—particularly in serious canonizing archives for the genre such as this one—rap is supposed to be fun. A showcase for gregarious rascals and rambunctious personas. It’s cool to just talk shit on a record for a few minutes, and “Bloxk Party,” Sada Baby’s breakthrough single featuring his fellow Detroit rap peer Drego, is a master class in pure bullshitting on wax. For those unacquainted with the Michigan rap scene, Sada and Drego are two of its finest stars, and on this track their interplay is like prime Miami Heat Wade and LeBron as they go back and forth trying to outwit and out-bombast the other. Picking out a favorite line is like picking a favorite child—maybe it’s “I know he tried to slide ’cause his car loud,” or “big brick of white look like Brock Lesnar,” or “I will pull my gun and get ignorant / I will fuck the party up with my dance moves” (anyone that’s seen Sada dance will buy that). There’s no shortage of punch lines on “Bloxk Party,” and they’re all irresistible to rap along to. —Israel Daramola
“ Shiny Suit Theory”
Jay Electronica (Feat. Jay-Z & The-Dream)
Jay-Z’s verse on “Shiny Suit Theory”—a tongue-in-cheek recollection of a session with a psychiatrist who tells him a simple recollection of his life’s arc makes him sound clinically insane—is the best thing he released in the 2010s, full of the conversational tics to his flow that made his early work so exciting and the gleeful self-mythologizing that would land him in an office like that to begin with. And it barely matters. Despite that virtuosic turn, Jay gets washed by his then-latest signing, a deadline-allergic nomad from New Orleans who, 10 years after “Shiny Suit Theory,” has still not released a true solo album. But this, of course, is the Jay Electronica experience.
Jay Electronica left New Orleans at the end of his teens and lived couch to couch, basement to basement in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Colorado, D.C., New York, and Detroit—wherever he could crash for free, wherever an engineer would record him. After a decade or so of experimentation, he landed on a style that is at once mystical and bemused, and makes it possible for him to rap with a straight face about his place among ancient deities and fully dressed po-boys in consecutive bars.
“Shiny Suit Theory” is that style carried to its postmodern extreme. Over a beat he produced himself—a loop of what sounds like the theme from a gameshow in the afterlife punctuated by children gasping in amazement, the latter sound triggered from a sampler like air horns—Jay Elec raps about “land before time,” before “synagogues and shrines,” then slips seamlessly into the corner booth in a Miami nightclub, where a presumably drunken Puff taunts him for being scared to win a Grammy. He never will, but he’s always been concerned about statues of a grander scale, anyway. —Paul Thompson
Young M.A. originally went viral with a pulverizing freestyle over Nicki Minaj and G Herbo’s “Chiraq.” Of course, the sound eventually took over a scene where she’s been more of an adjacent icon than a driving force, but I’d imagine there are plenty of drill artists aiming for the ubiquity of her signature song. “Ooouuu” doesn’t carry a few of drill’s signatures: It’s stingier with the bass, and the hook—if you can call it that—is just one stressed syllable. Still, pretty much every Gen Y-er with a fondness for Yankees caps would say some approximation of the same thing: The joint is wavy.
What also intrigued folks is the fact that this is an openly gay woman abiding by the bro code and bragging about how she’d “bag a thottie in some bummy shit.” One way to read this is grounded in reality: There aren’t any other openly gay women in mainstream rap abiding by the bro code and bragging about bagging thotties. But it’s easy to forget that bravado is always reserved for straight men once her verse starts. Her presence has a confidence and familiar rudeness that suggest the clothes have always fit. Stephanies have yet to recover. —Brian Josephs
The 1990s was a decade of albums; the 2000s was a decade of mixtapes; the 2010s, defined in large part by the popularization of streaming music, was a decade of songs. I could sit here reminiscing about 2010s hip-hop and celebrating songs all day. But albums? Some days I tell myself and others that the only 2010s rap project that mattered was Tha Tour. Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, and Birdman forged a strange musical partnership ending in ill will but culminating in some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard in my entire life. “Givenchy” is the death-defying intro. “Givenchy” is tense. “Givenchy” begins with tenor threats and somehow ends on cracked, ecstatic high notes. “Givenchy” escalates to Young Thug, then ridiculed as a spewer of gibberish, speaking in tongues but with resounding clarity and impossible confidence in his musical approach. Don’t think. Feel. —Justin Charity
“ Dark Comedy Late Show”
Open Mike Eagle
On “Dark Comedy Late Show,” a five-minute stream-of-consciousness reworking of the opener to Open Mike Eagle’s excellent 2014 album Dark Comedy, the L.A.-via-Chicago rapper imagines himself as a monologue-spewing host mixing puns and self-deprecating humor, referencing everything from the Spin Doctors to shirtless Vladamir Putin and having it all make a certain kind of sense. But the observations that jump out the most aren’t the ones played for yucks; they’re the ones that find Mike grappling with the world around him. The police-vs.-protester clashes in Ferguson, the erosion of privacy in the Information Age, the endless wars in the Middle East—all pop up on “Late Show,” and the canned laugh track that punctuates much of the song feels like a call to take these things all the more seriously. (One particularly harrowing couplet comes early: “You can watch us on the newsfeeds, fucking y'all's mornings up / Until America admits that it likes dogs more than us.”)
A few years after “Late Show,” Mike would play a real-life role similar to the one he imagined here. On The New Negroes, Mike and cohost and cocreator Baron Vaughn blended standup with rap songs, tackling subjects like policing, racism, and consent. It was often hilarious and sometimes raw. Much like “Late Show,” The New Negroes got at a truth about comedy: Sometimes the darkest humor can be the best therapy. —Justin Sayles
“ Money Trees”
Kendrick Lamar (Feat. Jay Rock)
The first time I heard “Money Trees,” I was working in the storeroom of a Hollister in suburban Cleveland. The floor had to play kid-friendly songs but we were in control of the music in the back, and someone had put on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. I’d listened to a bit of Kendrick Lamar before but nothing struck me quite the way GKMC did and, for my money (sorry), “Money Trees” is the best song on that album.
DJ Dahi crafted an immaculate beat (from a Beach House sample) that made you feel as though you were cruising through Compton, even from nearly 2,400 miles away. Kendrick floats through two verses before Anna Wise provides a dope bridge. Then, the whole thing explodes when Jay Rock gets on the beat. He crafts a masterpiece of verse in less than 60 seconds of rhyming, using bars so fire I won’t disrespect them by trying to pick my favorite here. “Money Trees” required multiple listens to really let its decadence sink in, but when it did, you struggled to turn it off. By the end of my Hollister shift that day, I had a new favorite rapper and a new favorite guest verse ever. —Kellen Becoats
“ Mask Off”
Future will forever own February 2017. With the releases of the eponymous Future and Hndrxx—which became the first albums from the same artist to debut at no. 1 in back-to-back weeks in Billboard history—the Atlanta trap rapper reached the pinnacle of mainstream hip-hop. “Mask Off,” his highest-charting single at the time and the standout track from Future, tells the story of Nayvadius Wilburn’s rise from food stamps and drug houses to cruising down Biscayne Boulevard in Maybachs and Range Rovers.
The slow, dirty-Sprite-like Metro Boomin production lulled listeners into an origin story disguised as a codeine-before–Clermont Lounge anthem, and the chorus (“Percocets, molly Percocets”) became a club unifier overnight. Adding to the song’s lore was the virality of the #MaskOff challenge, in which musicians covered its flute sample with instruments ranging from saxophones and cellos to harps and … empty beer bottles?
Perhaps Future’s greatest success with the song, at least in 2021 terms, is that “Mask Off” hasn’t been co-opted and sullied by a certain group for “political” reasons. With that: Get your boosters, folks, because our future enjoyment of “Mask Off” may very well depend on it. —Dan Comer
“ 0 to 100 / The Catch Up”
This is Drake at the peak of his powers. In what could’ve easily been a quick throwaway between what are arguably Aubrey’s two best albums, this loosie only built momentum for October’s Very Own. The song never cracked the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100, but it still permeated the culture—it was literally everywhere in the summer of 2014, from the radio to the clubs to cars passing by. That’s a testament to what he was able to do with Boi-1da’s chest-pounding beat, which was all over the internet, with everyone from your favorite rapper all the way down to hometown rejects trying to pen a verse to it. (Hell, Drake was allegedly originally supposed to ghostwrite a song for Diddy to it.) But Drake’s remains the definitive version—you couldn’t even hoop without some corny dude saying he’s “been Steph Curry with the shot, boy.”
And that shouldn’t be shocking given Drake’s stature, but looking back, it’s a tiny bit surprising that the unconventional song structure was still oh so sticky. The first half of the song is this long verse of pure braggadocio, with the hook playing only once. The second half—backed by a moody 40 and Nineteen85 beat—sounds as if it were pulled into the darkest depths of the ocean. Both parts feed off each other, however: He goes from boasting of his ascent and firing warning shots at would-be competition to taking a mile-high view to describe his place in the game. —Jonathan Kermah
Pusha T (Feat. Kendrick Lamar)
If the thesis of the Book of Pusha is that it’s impossible to have too much of a good thing, then “Nosetalgia” is Exhibit A in that regard. Laced by Nottz and Ye at his most daringly minimalist, the instrumental is the kind of ambient, menacing creation that could soundtrack a duel in a shootout flick, or maybe the aftermath of a C-4 burst in a bank robbery. The guitar is stone cold. The percussive pattern reads like a summoning call. It’s all excellently paced. But that isn’t what fills the seats.
Pusha opining, “We don’t drink away the pain / When a n---a die we add a link to the chain / inscribe a n---a name in your flesh,” just well might be, though. I refuse to live in a world where dropping “Gem Star razor and a dinner plate,” and then three lines later, “’Cuz I let it sizzle on the stove like a Minute Steak,” is regarded as anything other than the highest of art (pun not intended, but welcomed absolutely). We’re dealing with urban legends here—there’s only so much harm in leaning in. Kendrick somehow finds a way to outswim the riptide, delivering the kind of perfectly looped epic that he rode to a Pulitzer and back. Whatever it is they’re selling, I’d buy more. —Lex Pryor
“ Black and Yellow”
Wiz Khalifa's trajectory from king of the backpackers to commercial rap megastardom typically reserved for the likes of Flo Rida and Pitbull can be divided precisely in half, with the dividing line being 2010's "Black and Yellow." His early collection of mixtapes, particularly Burn After Rolling and Kush & Orange Juice (still the best thing he's ever done), and his frat-party-friendly samples (Empire of the Sun's "Walking on a Dream" providing the background for "The Thrill," and the modestly successful single "Say Yeah" flipping Alice DeeJay's "Better Off Alone" to hilarious effect) set the stage for his mainstream crossover. "Black and Yellow," part regional rallying cry and part homage to his Dodge Challenger, brought it all together: Wiz's radio-friendly sound, unique delivery, and iconic laugh broke through in full force, vaulting the song to no. 1. It also features a knack for pop hooks that would set the tone for basically everything he's done since. (It doesn't really get more simple than a chorus that repeatedly shouts "Yeah! You know what it is!") The only Wiz singles bigger than “Black and Yellow” are the one he did with Maroon 5, and the one he did for Furious 7, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about the path "Black and Yellow" set him on. —Cory McConnell
The starts and stops of Kodak Black’s career have mostly been of his own making; he’s served jail time and been on probation for various convictions, including a sexual assault charge he pleaded down to first-degree assault and battery in April 2021. But as a musician, when he arrived as a frog-throated mystery—his voice and rhymes infantile like an actual “project baby”—there was something delicate and vulnerable about his songs that pierced your heart. On his early breakout “Skrt,” he juxtaposed the tenderness in his voice with the gruffness of his lyrics to make an emo rap classic. Black is often nihilistic as he imagines enemies that include past lovers, former teachers, his opps, and pretty much anyone that doesn’t like to see him winning. He’s not unique in that regard, but what separates him from any other number of artists is that voice—imperfect, shaky, and marbled, it can’t help but project fragility. It’s a pain that goes on to inflict its own pain on others, a tragic circle that seems unbreakable. What do you do with these testimonials from those that take part in monstrous behavior? Throwing them away seems just as useless as championing the art despite its collateral damage. “Skrt” is a great song but it’s also a peek into the instability of a young Black male, warts and all. It’s the internal violence that can be made outward at any moment. The song maybe shouldn’t be celebrated as anything more than a cautionary tale. —Israel Daramola
“ I’m on One”
DJ Khaled (Feat. Drake, Rick Ross, & Lil Wayne)
“I’m on One” exists solely to celebrate its own existence, a State of Rap address explicitly structured to establish a succession line of hip-hop royalty, future, present, and past. “I’m just feeling like the throne is for the taking—watch me take it,” Drake spits as the haughty prince, a very unsubtle subliminal and, with Take Care still months away, it would be the last time he would ever be ascendant to anything. Rick Ross is deep within his imperial phase, floating too far above the fray to even show disdain to the pitiful subjects under his Louboutin shoes. And then Lil Wayne, a wizened immortal who can still smite a club full of enemies with half a bar. And then there’s DJ Khaled, who begs the question of what the fuck he’s actually doing here. He did not create the beat. He says his name during the intro and that’s it. Getting Drake, Lil Wayne, and Rick Ross on a track in 2011 is not the work of visionary executive production. Yet the most enduring image of “I’m on One” is not a long-haired, sun-tanned Drake nor Rick Ross burning purple flowers nor Wayne going André the Giant—it’s DJ Khaled on his balcony, pensively staring off into the middle distance of Miami, gripping a Four Loko. It’s the #OnePerfectShot that truly captures what it felt like for the average listener bumping “I’m on One” in their Jetta: a glimpse of living King Shit whether you deserve it or not. —Ian Cohen
Big Sean (Feat. Jay Electronica & Kendrick Lamar)
“Control” is technically a song released by Big Sean that was intended to be on the Detroit rapper’s sophomore effort, Hall of Fame, in 2013 before being cut for sample clearance issues. And yet the song belongs to Kendrick Lamar.
After dropping his studio album debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, in October 2012 to universal acclaim, 2013 was the year that Lamar solidified his status as King Kendrick. The Compton rapper performed on Saturday Night Live and The Late Show With David Letterman, received his first platinum certification, was named GQ’s Rapper of the Year and MTV’s Hottest MC in the Game, and garnered seven nominations at the 56th annual Grammy Awards. (Of course, somehow Macklemore beat out Kendrick for many of those awards, but we’re not here to talk about that.) In August of that year, Kendrick set the hip-hop industry aflame with a single verse on “Control.” Here’s the most memorable part of it, in which he calls out nearly a dozen of the biggest names in rap at the time:
I'm usually homeboys with the same n---as I'm rhymin' with / But this is hip-hop, and them n---as should know what time it is / And that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale / Pusha T, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Drake / Big Sean, Jay Electron', Tyler, Mac Miller / I got love for you all, but I'm tryna murder you n---as / Tryna make sure your core fans never heard of you n---as / They don't wanna hear not one more noun or verb from you n---as
Proclaiming himself to be both the King of the West Coast and the King of New York, Kendrick reinvigorated the competitive fire in every rapper across the map. “Control” inspired rebuttals from those he called out—from Big K.R.I.T. (“Mt. Olympus”) to Meek Mill (“Ooh Kill ’Em”)—and anyone who bore the disrespect of not even getting called out in the first place. As one of the defining voices of the music industry across the 2010s, it’s only fitting that Kendrick propels an otherwise forgettable song onto this list off the strength of one game-changing verse. There’s a reason why they call him the king. —Daniel Chin
“ Look at Me!”
It’s wild to consider that XXXTentacion would become a kind of sensitive bard for emotionally troubled kids given that his breakout hit is so crass and vulgar it feels less like a rap song and more like a South Park bit. In the span of two short verses, the then-17-year-old threatens to “put a hole in your parents,” rhymes “Starbucks” with “throat fucked” and generally raps about sex with the kind of aggression only a teen boy of the internet age could summon.
It’s an uncomfortable listen considering the accounts of domestic abuse by XXXTentacion made by an ex-girlfriend, but as a song, it’s also easy to hear why it became popular enough to almost single-handedly bring the SoundCloud scene to the pop world. XXX raps feverishly, with a tumbling cadence so catchy it created a whole firestorm when Drake used a similar delivery on his song “KMT.”
So much of SoundCloud rap was about creating mosh pit music, and it’s hard to do much better than “Look At Me!” This is what happens when the song is played in 2021. It’ll probably still be like that in a decade. —Grant Rindner
“ Pop That”
French Montana (Feat. Rick Ross, Drake, & Lil Wayne)
When a tweet popped up this October poking at the why of French Montana, a few of us—i.e., New Yorkers—reacted accordingly: We dutifully defended him and wildly exaggerated the talking points. (Add Cocaine City to the Criterion Collection, cowards!) But in truth, French is a legit hitmaker, and “Pop That” is still undeniable. The Uncle Luke sample explicitly places it in rap’s pantheon of paeans to throwing ass. It still makes people abandon common sense within a fifth of a second. But what gives the song that lasting thrill is French, a dude who’s often been accused of being an ornament on his own songs. The “HAANNs” and “WORKs” are so personifiable it’s as if French himself is slurring in your ear with a Ciroc bottle in hand, and his joyfully lumbering presence realizes the song’s unbridled sense of id. Rick Ross rhyming “drop that pussy, bitch” with “drop that pussy, bitch” and Lil Wayne plugging his clothing brand probably wouldn’t feel like acceptable behavior otherwise. But good ad-libs and brand-name drops aside, “Pop That” is a defining strip club jam in a decade full of them. Like a Benjamin in a pile of Hamiltons, “Pop That” sticks out. —Brian Josephs
“ Try Me”
In the first 40 seconds of the video for “Try Me,” Dej Loaf rises out of bed, slips into her fuzzy slippers, and briskly throws on her robe, as if she’d woken up knowing there was a score to settle. Whatever the beef is, it’s not interrupting breakfast: a bowl of Rice Krispies with an unloaded pistol on the counter. She then walks out the door, bowl in hand as she shoots a quietly gangster glance.
The scene encapsulates the wild dissonance that quickly made “Try Me” a sensation. Yes, Dej Loaf is threatening bodily harm in the sweetest tone, but she’s slyly skillful in a way that doesn’t make it a schtick. Lines like “Turn a bitch to some macaroni'' and “Put the burner to his tummy and make it bubbly” are surreally vivid, like a Gravediggaz song set in the world of Teenage Dream’s album cover. She applies that surreality to the construction of the words themselves, targeting fomilies and stretching syllables to stick inside your skull. “Try Me” doesn’t sound much like the other Obama-era hits that had us chanting homicidal missives (“Dreams and Nightmares,” “No Heart”), but it was no less effective. —Brian Josephs
“ Norf Norf”
The audacity to start a song “Bitch, you thirsty, please grab a Sprite”—which also ended in his getting a drink deal and expertly trolling people hating on it—is both hilarious and apt for Vince. The Long Beach rapper finally broke through with “Norf Norf,” an ode to his hometown that saw Staples showcasing everything that would later make him a star. There’s something intangible about Vince’s voice, that nasally tone he uses that describes everything from the color of cocaine to ditching school because it isn’t “about cash.”
Clams Casino, who produced two other tracks on Summertime ’06, did his thing on the production too. The minimalist beat is eerie, with a siren lurking in the background like the distant whine of a tornado warning. It gives “Norf Norf” a sense of foreboding as Vince talks about the facets of everyday life in Long Beach. The city’s musical reputation is long and storied, and when “Norf Norf” first dropped, it was clear Long Beach’s legacy of producing musical talent was in good hands. —Kellen Becoats
The cover to Travis Scott’s debut studio album, Rodeo, features the rap antihero as an action figure. There are a few cynical readings of that: First, it could be seen as a nod to the crash capitalism of his branding exercises, where he himself becomes the product, attaching his name to Air Jordans or McDonald’s or Hard Seltzer or whatever company dropped him a bag that day. But my preferred interpretation is Travis’s pliability as an artist—a blank screen for Hypebeasts to project their desires upon, talking about vibes and raging but little else. (Straight up.)
Travis first gained notoriety in 2013 as a mysterious Kanye-adjacent figure who made music that sounded more like knockoff Kid Cudi than the testosterone-fueled anthems he’d later get famous for. On the next year’s independent mixtape Days Before Rodeo, he suppressed his more saccharine instincts and found the middle point between Ye and trap, becoming a favorite of the Supreme-sporting set in the process. But “Antidote” is where Travis Scott the Star begins to take shape: It’s woozy and explosive at once, an earworm melody riding a pulverising bass line. It’s the kind of song that gets stuck in your head the first time you hear it—when he debuted it at a music festival in 2015, the crowd was hooked before he got through the first chorus. What was originally intended as a non-album loosie became so popular he had to put it on Rodeo. I mean it as a compliment when I say it’s shocking that a song this vapid—all id and ad-libs—can be this good. The Travis Scott experience has brought with it some troubling aspects—chief among them the tragedy at the November 2021 Astroworld Festival—but his impact on the past decade of culture is undeniable. That may say more about us than it does him. —Justin Sayles
“ All Gold Everything”
“All Gold Everything” belongs to a more turbulent time, an era before meme culture and internet virality became the new normal. To be Trinidad James in 2012 and 2013 meant that you were destined to carry all of the disdain and ill will rap’s mecca (New York) had against the genre’s new geographical center (Atlanta). Trinidad’s innocuous, but true, claim that Atlanta “run y’all musically” was met with ire from the type of rap media personalities that were on the losing end of a war that was decided years prior.
“All Gold Everything” arrived fully formed in June 2012; it was undeniable. Trinidad rapped with the type of amateurish confidence reserved for a newbie rapper unconcerned with anything besides the first thought that comes to mind. “Don’t believe me, just watch / Nigga, nigga, nigga” is as catchy today as it was almost 10 years ago. Somewhere, the echoes of a million drunkards yelling, “Popped a molly, I’m sweatin’, woo” in packed clubs and frat parties still haunt the universe. The Devon Gallaspy–produced beat, best described by Trinidad as sounding like “007 on N64 and shit” hasn’t lost any of its charm. In a world where a new Trinidad James pops up on streaming every other week, it's still nice to know that very few of them will ever release anything as pure as “All Gold Everything.” —Charles Holmes
“ Fuckin’ Problems”
A$AP Rocky (Feat. Drake, 2 Chainz, & Kendrick Lamar)
One of the biggest hits of Rocky’s career, “Fuckin’ Problems” dropped in 2012 and instantly became a party anthem. It remained one for the rest of the decade. But it also has another legacy: one of the few collaborations between Drake and Kendrick, the two defining artists of their generation. (Looking at their relationship now, I don’t see another coming anytime soon.) Put simply, “Fuckin’ Problems” slaps. 2 Chainz lays a catchy hook, while Rocky, Drake, and Kendrick all handle their business in between. Each verse oozes with confidence as we witness three young superstars add to their growing legends. There are no weak links on this track, and with four massive artists on a song, that’s special. —Isaiah Blakely
“ Devil in a New Dress”
Kanye West (Feat. Rick Ross)
If the legacy of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is sublime excess, then what’s a more defining example than a nearly six-minute track with orchestral strings, grand piano keys, and a Mike Dean arena rock guitar solo? If the legacy is unapologetic, asshole-ish buffoonery, then how about the song in which West picks a fight in a restaurant and calls himself “the LeBron of rhyme” and the “Lyor Cohen of Dior Homme”? Or maybe the legacy lies in the way West made Dark Twisted Fantasy a true event, prompting everyone who worked on the project to bring their very best. In which case, listen to the way Rick Ross barks in the grand finale of “Devil in a New Dress.” I shed a tear before this song’s over. —Andrew Gruttadaro
“ Rap N----s”
There is something inescapably discomboluting about listening to the ringing, magnetic “Rap N----s” now. It’s not just because Nipsey was taken from us, though that’s at the root of it. Rap is in part the music of the dead, and I mean that in a connective kind of way. The soundscapes are always linked to what was. Even when past and present aren’t directly wedded, the dance reverberates in influence and homage. And when it comes to language, well, it’s all right there. “We ain’t even really rappin’,” Tupac once said, “we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.”
But “Rap N----s” isn’t prophetic. Nip was as spry as ever, tight and controlled and snarling; he radiated invincibility. I don’t know how to process that—to hear him telling me that he was “nothing like” what populated the rest of the genre—and to register that this message was the calm before the gust. To know that Nipsey was right, that it was true, and that he was snatched like a thing in the wind, nonetheless. —Lex Pryor
“ I’m Different”
Perhaps the best distillation of the broad appeal of 2 Chainz throughout the past decade comes in this Rolling Stone interview from 2012: On any given night, you could turn on any hip-hop, R&B, or pop radio station in any market and hear a song featuring the chalice-swigging court jester of 2010s rap. The artist born Tauheed Epps and formerly known as Tity Boi (which, let’s be real, is on the short list of best rap aliases ever) first broke out in 2007 as part of Playaz Circle, the Ludacris-connected duo who rode a Lil Wayne assist on “Duffle Bag Boy” to a top-20 hit. But when the group’s follow-ups couldn’t match those heights, Epps retooled, emerging solo in 2011 with a new moniker and a pair of minor mixtape classics in T.R.U. REALigion and Codeine Cowboy. He hadn’t changed his aesthetic much—of all the Atlanta trappers, 2 Chainz’s style hews the closest to a traditionalist’s idea of rap music—but the punch lines hit just a little harder, the ad-libs jumped out just a little bit more, the syrup spilling from his cup just a little more purple. Now deep into his 30s, 2 Chainz was suddenly everywhere, appearing on songs with artists ranging from Rick Ross to Drake to Diplo to Justin Bieber. If you had a posse cut in the first half of the 2010s, you needed 2 Chainz on it. (Kanye understood this better than anyone.)
But despite being in such demand, 2 Chainz is short on defining songs of his own for the 2010s. His biggest hit, “It’s a Vibe,” is a low-key, feel-good affair that cedes the foreground to Ty Dolla $ign and Trey Songs. His best-known street singles, “Watch Out” and “MFN Right,” had a short shelf life, and regional hit “Spend It” never caught on like it should have. Even “Birthday Song,” a Kanye-assisted meme track that felt unavoidable in 2012, is mostly remembered today for the absurdity of its opening bar: “She got a big booty, so I call her Big Booty.” (We should all strive for such concise exposition in our writing, this list being a testament to that.) But “I’m Different,” is, well, different—it captures the madcap magic that made him everyone’s favorite accessory. Riding DJ Mustard’s infectious piano hits and 808s, 2 Chainz speaks in slang that is at once easy to grasp and impenetrable. (“Pull up to my scene with my ceiling missing” is clearly about his convertible; “put a fat rabbit on a Craftmatic” required a tad bit more clarification, which 2 Chainz was happy to provide.) It’s funny, it’s playful, it’s undeniable—the type of song that should’ve been inescapable in its own right, but explains how the artist became so himself. —Justin Sayles
Even in a genre that welcomes the weirdos, the legacy of Makonnen still makes for an interesting entry. His earnest crooning and offbeat rhymes gave him a specific charm that allowed internet kids to put their arms around him even if he alienated traditionalists. “Tuesday” was a performance-art piece of a club banger that inexplicably became a real one—it exists on the thin line between irony and genuine that often gets blurred by the best art. As someone who spent a lot of time in the club (sometimes even on a Tuesday) while the song was at its peak, the massive appeal of “Tuesday” is undeniable, in no small part because it’s hard not to want to perform “club going up … on a Tuesday / Got your girl in the cut and she choosey.” The song would quickly be knighted with a Drake remix—a cue to the world that this goofy kid and his song had to be taken seriously. Although the Drake cosign eventually became a curse of sorts, when this song mattered it really mattered. The Makonnen career has been a roller coaster, but you gotta admit he came pretty close to that sun. —Israel Daramola
“ The Race”
The outlaw ballad is nothing new. The ancient Greeks sang hymns to sadistic gods, Mexican narcocorridos have been a cultural phenomenon for decades, and country music consecrated an entire subgenre to the antihero. Rappers Rick Ross and 50 Cent hijacked the personas of underworld kingpins to create invincible self-mythologies. But the saga of Tay-K could have occurred only in the social media era, in a nation haunted by hyperviolence, drugs, and guns—riven by outsized greed, voyeurism, and a collective lust for viral fame.
You’re inevitably familiar with the bullet points: In March 2017, an Arlington, Texas, teenager named Taymor McIntyre cut off his ankle monitor and tweeted “fuck dis house arrest shit fuck 12 they gn hav 2 catch me on hood.” A fugitive from the law, the feds sought him for the home invasion robbery and killing of an alleged drug dealer. For three months, he eluded the manhunt and somehow found his way to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he recorded the 104-second song “The Race,” a platinum hit that would be used as evidence against him by Texas prosecutors, who eventually convicted Tay-K of first-degree murder, which will keep him incarcerated until 2047, at minimum.
The impact of the song is inextricable from the video, which is inextricable from the tragedy that encompasses all aspects of the 16-year-old who recorded it: from an upbringing as a ward of the state, shuttled between foster homes, his own father locked up for much of his life; the victims of the crimes themselves; the sensationalism and lack of shame of both media and consumers, possessed by an insatiable craving for authenticity and true crime. The dark prophecy of Natural Born Killers borne out in real blood.
Without the raps—the fast-twitch cadences and sneakily clever wordplay, the video-game high-score bounce of the Pi’erre Bourne–type beat—it would’ve remained just another semi-anonymous SoundCloud loosie. But Tay-K is all smoke, zigzagging across the track, letting off lethal threats and borrowed ad-libs like Mario Kart banana peels. He’s too young to know the rules he’s breaking and too talented for it to matter. But it’s the video that ingrains it into haunted American lore. He lights a blunt next to his own wanted poster, the baby face killer waving a pistol practically the size of his scrawny adolescent frame. There are low-rent flexes in a roomful of dead-eyed kids, and a final hop into a domestic muscle car to make a clean getaway—even though it was released to the internet on the same day of his capture. The price we pay for entertainment. —Jeff Weiss
YG (Feat. Nipsey Hussle)
Has there ever, really, in the history of rap, been a better opening line than YG clarifying, “I like white folks, but I don’t like you,” at the top of his 2016 screed “FDT”? Really think about it. Ponder your options. You have none. It’s not close. It’s the best.
The title, by the way, stands for “Fuck Donald Trump,” and it’s great. Say what you will about some of the bluntness of a few other assertions made on the track (“I fuck with Mexicans, got a plug with Mexicans”), you will never be able to claim that YG didn’t call a spade, a spade and a white supremacist, a white supremacist. That “FDT” also includes the great Nipsey Hussle, at the peak of his powers, only adds to the precision. Maybe it’s because it was released before the 2016 presidential primaries were over, let alone the general election, but there’s a distinctly do-the-right-thing-when-nobody’s-watching quality to the track. If only the country had followed suit. —Lex Pryor
Nobody traveled a longer, harder road between his first album (2011’s much-derided Blue Slide Park) and his fifth (2018’s thoughtfully praised Swimming) than Mac Miller, who slowly and painfully evolved from a frat-rap clone to Inexplicably Your Favorite Rapper’s Favorite Rapper to the troubled, resilient, and shockingly compelling grizzled-veteran-at-26 whose 2018 death triggered an outpouring of grief animated partly by the thought of how much further he would’ve gone and how much better he would’ve gotten. I thought of the already-mournful Swimming power ballad “2009” the moment he died, and the startling NPR Tiny Desk Concert version especially: the string quartet, the elegiac piano hook, the unfakeable weariness in his voice as he delivers the lines “Yeah, OK, you gotta jump in to swim / Well, the light was dim in this life of sin / Now every day I wake up and breathe / I don't have it all but that's all right with me.”
In 2018, talking to Vulture’s Craig Jenkins in one of his last interviews, Miller explained the thinking behind one of the song’s most-quoted lines: “And sometimes, sometimes I wish I took a simpler route / Instead of havin' demons that's as big as my house.” Jenkins asked if that simpler route might’ve avoided rap altogether; Miller said it might’ve. A stable home. A normal job. “There’s that moment of peacefulness, when you think about it,” Miller continued. “But I would never actually do that. I’m also very attracted to my own demons.” You can hear both sides on “2009”: the peacefulness and the war he was always fighting to hold on to it. It’s glib to call this song his eulogy; as with everything Mac did, it pointed a way forward just as beautifully as it looked backward. —Rob Harvilla
“ Bad and Boujee”
Migos (Feat. Lil Uzi Vert)
“I really wanna thank the Migos. Not for being in the show, but for making ‘Bad and Boujee.’ Like, that's the best song … ever.” Donald Glover said that. He did so during an acceptance speech at the Golden Globes in January 2017, four months after the group had put the song out. And, frankly, when it happened, it felt a lot like Glover was telling the truth. “Bad and Boujee,” the opening single from the group’s second album (Culture) and still their signature song half a decade later, is a brilliant bit of song making. It’s smart and perfectly packaged and floats into your ears with an almost imperceptible ease. Quavo and Offset are masters on it, as is Lil Uzi Vert, as are the producers (Metro Boomin and G Koop). The song feels alive, and endless, and undeniable—so much so, really, that it was able to ascend past Earworm status, and then past They Play This Song So Much Everywhere That I’m Kind of Tired of It status, and land firmly in the This Song Will Forever Mark a Moment in Time and So It Is, in Fact, Timeless Now status. Migos have been good a ton of times. But they’ve never been better than this. Few people have. —Shea Serrano
Presence is a make-or-break intangible for rappers, and A$AP Ferg has a knack for changing the shape of every song he appears on. Take his verse on A$AP Rocky’s “Kissin’ Pink,” in which his off-kilter entrance alters everything. But “Work,” his solo debut and a minor spaghetti-at-the-wall hit, is special because it offered an even better look at the artist he’d become by giving his eccentricities additional room to breathe.
“Work” showcases the charisma that makes Ferg dynamic: It’s what he says and how he says it. His delivery of lines like “And your bitch I got her, she like my Tommy boxers / N---a I ain’t no boxer, I let that Tommy box ’em” gives this mosh pit anthem an idiosyncratic jolt that only he can provide. He has so much personality that bars that would be pedestrian coming from anyone else are animated coming from him: Check the different ways he says “Celine Dion,” “Mariah Carey,” and “Nick Cannons.” Like Ferg himself, “Work” is an anomaly that you can’t forget because you didn’t see it coming. —Julian Kimble
“ 4:30 A.M.”
At the beginning of the 2010s, before paid streaming platforms became ubiquitous and Billboard changed its rules to more fully integrate YouTube plays, there were wildly popular rappers and scenes that went almost entirely ignored by the national press. (This is still the case to a degree, but the numbers lie a little less.) This is perhaps best evidenced by Baton Rouge, which consistently has some of the genre’s most arresting narrative raps, its biggest personalities, its smartest integrations of rap’s dance roots and glowering menace.
Kevin Gates emerged from that city a genuine star before he had a hint of industry support. A year after scoring a regional hit with 2012’s “Satellites” and becoming a fixture on the club circuit, he grabbed rap by the throat with a pair of staggering mixtapes. Both The Luca Brasi Story and Stranger Than Fiction find Gates working at his now-familiar manic pace, his guttural raps and charmingly polished singing the ideally pliable vehicles for songs that bare the sort of thoughts that most of us could not admit to ourselves, much less a rabid audience.
The latter tape includes “4:30am,” which opens in shocking manner: Gates is slumped over a toilet, “gums hurting from an old bullet” while he vomits and replays the scene where a friend holds a pistol to his face and pulls the trigger. “I didn’t die,” Gates raps, “My life a movie.” The song is muscular, as if the rapper’s psychic trauma is driving the beat itself. —Paul Thompson
Kanye West (Feat. Big Sean, Pusha T, & 2 Chainz)
“Mercy” has no business still being this good. I don’t know how Big Sean got away with opening the song rhyming “ass shake,” “ass quake,” “ass-state,” and “ass tray.” And 2 Chainz—the anchor of this G.O.O.D. Music relay race—elected to start his verse with some bars about condiments. If rap gave out penalties like soccer, those are at least deserving of yellow cards. But still, a jolt of excitement courses through my body when those Fuzzy Jones vocals hit in the intro. Then there’s those 808s accompanied by that pitched-down YB sample—just off the instrumental alone, “Mercy” was destined to be a banger.
Also: Let’s just take a moment to thank Pusha T’s verse (specifically the lines “Check the neck, check the wrist / Them heads turnin'—that's exorcist”) for washing the song clean of all Big Sean’s sins. —Jonathan Kermah
“ Welcome to the Party”
“Dior” turned Pop Smoke into a mainstream sensation, but the steady rise of “Welcome to the Party” made it clear he was the kind of rap star that New York hadn’t seen in a long time. Gradually, the song went from Brooklyn favorite to a staple of in-the-know DJs, eventually jumping to local radio and major playlist placements. There was a creeping inevitability to its success that matched Pop’s baleful baritone and producer 808Melo’s slithering synth bass and skittering drill drums.
Pop was never a remarkable lyricist, but he had plenty of other technical skills as a rapper, and what’s most impressive about “Welcome to the Party” is the contrast between the steely cool of the hook—he raps like a horror movie villain stalking a scared teen in the woods, knowing they’ll slip and snap their ankle—and the thunderous way he approaches the verses. “Big 092MLBOA” is not an easy acronym to remember, but you hear him rap it forcefully once and you’ll never forget exactly how it’s said.
Nicki Minaj and Skepta both did commendable jobs jumping on remixes—better than most MCs who tried their hand at Brooklyn drill—but the original “Welcome to the Party” will always be the indispensable one. It could’ve been the only song Pop ever put out and his legacy in New York would still be worth celebrating. —Grant Rindner
“ Bank Account”
Before the financial literacy program and the Sesame Street memes and the crooning IG sessions, “Bank Account” arrived in 2017 as a distillation of the placid appeal that made 21 Savage the most ruthlessly compelling character in 2010s rap. It’s not his top song. It doesn’t have his greatest bars. It’s from a record, Issa Album, that probably isn’t his best. “Bank Account,” though, is the outing that most captures the degree to which 21 operates by virtue of sparsity and grimness. He created the beat for the track, a haunting bit of strings accompanied by a trembling drum loop, on his own, before handing it over to virtuoso running mate Metro Boomin to finish off. Given the technical display—the execution, the cadence, the verbiage—it’s laughable that this is what was once branded mumble rap. There is nothing obscure, nor illegible, about it. “Bank Account” cuts straight to and through the heart. —Lex Pryor
“ Drip Too Hard”
Lil Baby & Gunna
Over the past decade, collaborative albums have gone from being blockbuster events (see: Jay-Z and Kanye West) to afterthoughts (see: Future and Lil Uzi Vert), with the two artists rarely using them as an opportunity to push to new highs. One thrilling exception is Lil Baby and Gunna’s Drip Harder and its irresistible centerpiece “Drip Too Hard,” a song that may well be certified diamond in a few months’ time.
The two Atlanta upstarts were on their way to the A-list already, thanks to Lil Baby’s Drake-featuring “Yes Indeed” and Gunna’s role as Young Thug’s right-hand man. But, by joining forces, they not only brought out each other’s best, but further drove home the stylistic differences that made both their voices feel fresh. Though both use woozy, singsong flows, their appeals differ. Baby is no-nonsense, his hustler mentality so entrenched he’s got blinders on. “I know they hatin' on me—but I don't read comments,” he raps on the song’s opening verse. Gunna, meanwhile, is extravagant, and he’s the scene-stealer here with lines about flying private to avoid TSA scrutiny and needing a wet floor sign to warn onlookers about the dangers of his drip.
Bolstered by an excellent beat from Turbo, which gives each MC room to roam, “Drip Too Hard” can either make you feel like you’ve been outside in the same white T-shirt for four days or draped in a Versace fur coat the length of a wedding dress train. It’s your pick. —Grant Rindner
Tyler, the Creator is Odd Future’s leader and most decorated member, but Earl Sweatshirt’s “Earl” brought every rap obsessive into the collective’s anarchic fold in 2010. This was before Tyler’s “Yonkers” and the infamous Fallon performance, before Earl’s mom shipped him to Samoa. “Earl” was digital arson, the musical and visual equivalent of incinerating the school, the church, and every possible establishment. Nothing was sacred, and rap would never be the same.
A remarkable lyrical display, “Earl” is two and a half minutes of dense, alliterative, and quasi-horrorcore rhymes over a blowout and skull-crushing boom-bap. Earl kills Catholics, pokes at hip-hop’s homophobia, indulges in Eminem-esque gross-out humor and sexual violence, and threatens rap blog 2DopeBoyz for writing off OF music. You could dismiss “Earl” as puerile and provocative for juvenile sadism, but that would miss the point. This was rebellion with teeth and a purpose, a fire so large that you’d have to pay attention to everything that came after.
The grainy and gruesome “Earl” video complemented every disturbed bar. Earl raps while sitting under the heat of a hair-salon dryer before he and the OF crew drink a blended cocktail of cough syrup, pills, powder, weed, and liquor that ostensibly leads to blood pouring from every orifice, mouth-foaming seizures, and death. Today, the music video is the only way to officially listen to “Earl,” which never made it to streaming services. Future generations will have to experience the song like their predecessors did, likely still shocked and entertained and wanting to probe beyond. They may have to research Asher Roth, Steve Harvey, and 2DopeBoyz, but cultural context is secondary and can be learned. Rebellion is intuitively and eternally understood. —Max Bell
“ Hands on the Wheel”
ScHoolboy Q (Feat. A$AP Rocky)
What made Kid Cudi the face for Gen Y big feelings from the offset was how palpable he made the thrill of the party and its nightmarish comedowns, with releases that tended to be hip-hop only in aesthetic. The apotheosis was 2009’s “Pursuit of Happiness,” an afterparty dispatch about the hell cycle of addiction. It’s a lonesome struggle that’s universally translatable, a truth that Lissie's stripped-down guitar cover conveyed.
That said, there’s no way we’d be talking about Lissie’s version a decade later if it wasn’t the sample on 2012’s “Hands on the Wheel.” And yes, “Hands” is very much not a song about the throes of self-destruction; ScHoolBoy Q and A$AP Rocky are very much about good times that can kill you (“I love drunk driving, man I'm something else”). The duo had already linked up a year prior on LIVE.LOVE.A$AP’s almost-as-debauched cut “Brand New Guy,” but the stakes of a major label helped anoint them as two of this era’s most essential characters. A$AP’s brand of jigginess was here to stay, and ScHoolBoy—a self-aware amoralist known for giving the tracks he touched a tangible energy, sedated or not—would continue to see his stock go up. But wherever their careers took them, “Hands on the Wheel” was never far behind. —Brian Josephs
Nicki Minaj (Feat. Drake, Lil Wayne, & Chris Brown)
This song is so quintessentially mid-2010s. It features: Nicki Minaj at the peak of her powers, Young Money still intact and possessing one of the best rosters of talent since the turn of the century, and Drake thirsting after someone he’s literally on a song with. But not even some corny one-liners can sink this one. Drake and Lil Wayne on the same song had been a recipe for success for years—please see: “Right Above It,” “Miss Me,” “The Motto,” and “HYFR”—and having Nicki start the song was like ordering from your favorite restaurant and discovering they’d given you a delicious appetizer for free. The beat—and mostly slick rhymes—made it a necessary add to playlists.
This song also drips with sexual bars, something Nicki was doing better than almost anyone at the time. This was the boom times of Young Money, but the sheen was already starting to dull. “Only” is a reminder of how dominant YMCMB was, and that when the label put its top artists together it usually amounted to hits. But it wouldn’t last much longer. Also, the less said about the odd lyric video and its seemingly anti-Semitic imagery (that Nicki apologized for), the better. —Kellen Becoats
“ Bandz a Make Her Dance”
Juicy J (Feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz)
I’m not here to try to rehabilitate “Bandz a Make Her Dance.” It is an ode to strippers that is actually not all that nice to strippers; choice lines include 2Chainz calling women who do not “swallow kids” basic, and Lil Wayne saying, “Make a movie with your bitch / Steven Spiel-n---a.” It does not shock me that society has moved beyond the need for this kind of rap song. (On the other hand, Juicy J is advocating for heavily tipping your servers.) But with a Mike WiLL Made-It beat that’s good enough for Stephanie Tanner, it remains hard to deny the puerile pleasures of “Bandz,” and especially hard to fend off the nostalgia for a time when some of the biggest names in Southern hip-hop would join forces to trade bars over a subject as trivial as this. —Andrew Gruttadaro
“ Black Beatles”
Rae Sremmurd (Feat. Gucci Mane)
Looking back, it’s wild to think “Black Beatles” may not have made this list if not for the #MannequinChallenge. Brothers Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee already had one platinum album under the Rae Sremmurd moniker before releasing SremmLife 2 in August 2016, but their seminal song featuring Gucci Mane didn’t take off until it joined forces with an internet trend that required standing as still as possible. Ironic!
When the track hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 list in November of that year, it became the group’s and East Atlanta Santa’s first top-charting hit. Sure, the Mike WiLL production made for a club banger in its own right, but its presence as a social media sensation pushed the tune to legendary status. It even got Paul McCartney’s approval.
In 2021, TikTok song charting rules the day, with record labels perhaps drawing from the novel strategy implemented by Pizzaslime and Interscope in the fall of 2016. The mannequin challenge lasted a few months, but the method of pairing music with viral content—and the “crowd pleaser” hook—will last a lifetime. —Dan Comer
“ Bible on the Dash”
The features for Rick Ross’s third album, 2009’s Deeper Than Rap, read like a roll call of the biggests acts in hip-hop and pop at the time: Kanye, Lil Wayne, T-Pain, Nas, Ne-Yo, Robin Thicke, The-Dream. But only one received a song in his honor, and it was the most anonymous person on the guest list: The then-unknown South Florida rapper Gunplay pops up on Track 10, also named “Gunplay.” (A rap version of the song “Black Sabbath” on the album Black Sabbath by the band Black Sabbath.) Gunplay quickly shows why the Maybach Music boss wanted to feature him so prominently. In 16 bars, he threatens competition, internet gangsters, and the Wizard of Oz with the same zeal, sounding equal parts menacing and charismatic. Think of it as a minor version of Busta Rhymes on “Scenario” or Redman on “Headbanger,” just cut with Comet—the energetic newcomer upstaging his famous host and becoming a critical and industry darling in the process.
But thus far, Gunplay hasn’t followed in the platinum footsteps of those other scene-stealers. In the few years after the Deeper Than Rap spot, he released a handful of mixtapes—a few excellent, some forgettable—and in 2012, he was arrested on armed-robbery charges that would eventually be dropped because the witness refused to cooperate with authorities. “Cartoons and Cereal,” a stellar collaboration with Kendrick Lamar reportedly set for the three-times-platinum Good Kid M.A.A.D City, was cut because of sample-clearance issues. When his much-delayed Def Jam debut, 2015’s Living Legend, finally arrived, it captured some of the prowess, but little of the magic of what made him so sought-after. The rapper, however, has left one indelible mark on the culture: “Bible on the Dash,” a single from 2012’s 601 & Snort that finds him dialing back the firepower to contemplate salvation. Over an instrumental borrowed from Shy Glizzy’s “Southside,” Gunplay laments how both music and the drug trade have changed around him. (The couplet “When a brick was 17 and you ain't have to rob your plug / When rapping was an art, now this shit a juug” is on the short list of the best sounding lyrics of the decade.) He has conversations—with himself, with his pastor, with his lord—before driving off with only his belief in the scriptures protecting him. It’s haunting and beautiful—the kind of song that makes you keep your faith in him as an artist, no matter where his career ends up. —Justin Sayles
“ Love Sosa”
“Love Sosa” is a Chicago anthem as much as it is the culmination of Chief Keef’s first act—the exclamation mark to the ascendant and tumultuous year he had before its release. By the end of 2011, the 16-year-old Keef was a local legend on the governmentally neglected and gang-ravaged blocks of Southside. Cuts from his earliest mixtapes rang out across the city, and by the time Back From the Dead’s “I Don’t Like” broke nationally, police were shutting down his shows. Though Keef was arrested on several charges and placed on house arrest in 2012, he landed a deal with Interscope. “Love Sosa” was the second single from his Interscope debut, Finally Rich, and it made him the face of Chicago drill. A quantum leap for Keef and producer Young Chop, “Love Sosa” moved them beyond the Waka Flocka Flame and Lex Luger comparisons, respectively. Keef crafts an indelible melodic hook that sticks the first time you hear it, and each boast in his verses has an assurance well beyond his years. Chop scored it all with a thunderous and funereal suite that evolved the sound of drill. At just 17, Keef made one of the most enduring songs of his generation, one that influenced drill in Chicago, New York, and worldwide. —Max Bell
“ Twist My Fingaz”
YG (Feat. Slim 400)
On June 12, 2015, YG was shot in the hip outside of a recording complex in Studio City. He drove himself to the hospital and checked himself out the next day; after police questioned him about the incident, they reported that the victim was “very uncooperative.” He would brood later—his brilliant second album, the next year’s Still Brazy, is suffused with paranoia, and includes a patient contemplation of who the gunman might have been—but that was not his first response. Instead, less than a month after leaving that hospital, the Compton native returned with “Twist My Fingaz,” a summer anthem that waved away the attempt on his life as one might a mosquito.
In fact, the song, produced by L.A. jazz linchpin Terrace Martin, does not even mention the shooting until midway through its second verse. YG seems more miffed by industry Bloods and old acquaintances asking him for loans. He also takes what can only be interpreted as a healthily competitive jab at Kendrick Lamar and other L.A. stars, like the Game, who had relied on Dr. Dre’s cosign to break nationally. In many ways, it’s the platonic ideal of a statement single: bold and full of ideas, yet compulsively danceable.
What is perhaps most interesting is the way “Twist My Fingaz” fits into YG’s stylistic trajectory. When he started turning heads in the late 2000s it was as a member of the jerkin’ movement, the minimal, lighthearted offshoot of hyphy and snap that centered dancing and briefly dominated Southern California rap. By the time his Def Jam debut, My Krazy Life, came out in 2014, he and DJ Mustard were spearheading jerkin’s mutation into ratchet music, which was a little grimier and folded in influences from Louisiana. “Twist My Fingaz” is a hard break from that trajectory, a bit of G-funk revival that is neither stale nor too reverent. —Paul Thompson
“ Backseat Freestyle”
You know a song really hits when it gets the backseat drivers’ unanimous vote to set the night’s vibe off right. One such song is Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle.” One night, it transformed my wife’s Prius into a seance, with everyone entranced from the moment K-Dot proclaimed “Martin had a dream!”
But first, let’s talk about those rumbling bells. They’re hypnotizing. They need you to feel them. If the bells don’t catch your attention, the snare certainly will. It snaps like a Charles Oakley elbow to your neck. There’s also a haunting echo layered on top that implores you to clap along. And then there are the verses. For three and a half minutes, Kendrick floats, damn near levitating over Hit-Boy’s production. We couldn’t help but float too. By the time Verse 3 hit, the entire car was screaming “BEEOTCH” in unison. This song became our anthem on this drive. It was an out-of-body experience, and one that I return to whenever I hear the phrase “Martin had a dream!” —Keith Fujimoto
“ Stay Schemin”
Rick Ross (Feat. Drake & French Montana)
After whiffing completely on his debut and being deemed too big to fail, Drake finally got it right with Take Care, finding a natural home in the Weeknd’s scumbag gloom. But that album’s most enduring hit is “Marvins Room,” which is mostly a showcase for his singing abilities, and its best rap verse is the show-stopping Rick Ross guest spot on “Lord Knows.” Less than five months after that sophomore set, the Canadian returned the favor, snatching Ross’s “Stay Schemin’” out from under him. This Drake verse has all the hallmarks of the famous ones that would follow: There are lines made in a lab to be aggregated on gossip blogs and plastered under Instagram pictures; it gets deep into the record industry weeds and deeper into chain steakhouses; Drake raps about guns and about how novel it is that Drake is rapping about guns. It also functions as an extended, subliminal diss—and amusingly pays off Drake’s backpack roots, as the target is Common, from the days when they were beefing over Serena Williams.
But this is not “Control.” While the song is structured for Drake to play iso ball—Ross opens with an eight-bar verse and French closes it with 12, making room for Drake’s extended run in the middle—those bookends are supremely memorable. Ross, master of economy that he is, begins: “Damn … life’s so short / Fuck it, I don’t wanna go to court!” and French raps first cockily, then poignantly, about his friends in prison, noting Max B’s since-reduced 75-year sentence. (French also voices the song’s unforgettable growl of a hook.) While it hints at much duller things to come—Xeroxes of Xeroxes—“Stay Schemin’” is one of one. —Paul Thompson
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib
In 2011, Freddie Gibbs was the thug antihero signed to Jeezy’s label, a half-step removed from serving time while serving mixtapes of grim, athletically delivered street rap colder than Indiana steel. Madlib, the omnivorous loop digger who scored Madvillainy, was gifting psychedelic boom-bap to post-backpack trio Strong Arm Steady. Perhaps only the seriously stoned could’ve imagined a timeline in which Gibbs’s and Madlib’s seemingly disparate careers would intersect and their talents would mesh.
“Thuggin’” was the duo’s first single, a salvo of freaked soul-jazz pulled from a library record that Gibbs imbues with chilling menace and pained regret. Glinting but gutter, the beat sounds like starlit midnight outside of a trap house, both alluring and ominous. Gibbs saunters in with forceful yet relaxed cadences, narrating home invasions and the many hustles he needed when critical acclaim didn’t pay the bills. Though he maintains that felonious activities “feel so good,” by the final verse, he’s weighing the profits against the loss of drug-addicted family members. The tensions on “Thuggin’” presaged those on two albums—Piñata and Bandana—that proved among the best in both artists’ catalogs. Madlib’s unquantized drums and tempo shifts pushed Gibbs to new technical heights, and his samples inspired greater emotional depth. Gibbs’s dexterity, pointed writing, and unflagging swagger matched the virtuosity of Madlib’s beats. Today, their collaboration seems less like a blunted fever dream and more like a foregone conclusion. —Max Bell
GoldLink (Feat. Brent Faiyaz & Shy Glizzy)
The emergence of the DMV as a consistent producer of talent is one of the better developments of the 2010s, as the greater hip-hop community began recognizing what everyone who lived inside the Capital Beltway already knew. “Crew” is both one of the biggest songs to come out of that area during the decade and one of the genre’s very best, period, because it perfectly captures a mood thanks to flawless execution.
GoldLink, batting leadoff, imbues “Crew” with the rush of newfound success. It’s an ode to being on top, recognizing how some people look at you differently as a result, and the willingness to engage in a little bit of toxic fun regardless. Shy Glizzy kicks the song into overdrive when he grabs the baton, but Brent Faiyaz’s satin-tongued hook (“She see money all around me, I look like I’m the man …”) is the glue holding everything together and the extra flourish that puts it over the top. “Crew” is a perfect homage to the fusion of hip-hop and R&B that helped define ’90s radio, as it takes the essence of that era and builds upon it, creating something that has its own identity. Songs that do that rarely get stale and “Crew” still sounds as fresh as it did the day it was released. —Julian Kimble
“ Sicko Mode”
Travis Scott (Feat. Drake)
If you're old and washed up like I am, you lived through the era of rap music when it was seen as an event when artists collaborated with one another. In the 2000s, Lil Wayne used the feature as a tool to make himself omnipresent and completely flipped this paradigm on its head, so the notion that features were events died with this shift in attitude about them within mainstream rap. “Sicko Mode “is the rare collaboration where the names on the marquee suggest a major event is afoot and those names make good on the promise. The intro begins as though the sky is opening up for two intergalactic beings to land in your ear drums. The beat switches, the 2 Live Crew sample, the very thinly veiled Kanye shots, the fact that Kanye is still extremely pissed off about it all (if his Drink Champs interview is to be believed), all add up to two first-ballot Hall of Famers in Drake and Travis Scott delivering one of the most impactful rap songs of the millennium. —Wosny Lambre
“ The Story of Adidon”
The risk of beef is that you can never be certain how far your opponent will go to bury you. Pusha T and Drake traded barbs for years, and by 2018, the latter had grown accustomed to emerging victorious from conflict by manipulating public opinion—i.e., playing by his rules. He erred in assuming that he and Pusha were playing the same game, because goddamn did “The Story of Adidon” prove that they were not.
Borrowing the instrumental for Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.,” Pusha unleashes a barrage of low blows targeting Drake’s entire existence. In one coldblooded verse, he attacks Drake’s parents and racial identity, then, with mounting enthusiasm, reveals that Drake fathered a child with a woman Pusha accused him of being ashamed of—and keeping both of them secret. “You are hiding a child, let that boy come home / Deadbeat motherfucker, playin’ border patrol,” he raps with menacing glee. Just when you’re convinced Pusha won’t fight any dirtier, he twists the knife by ridiculing the health of Noah “40” Shebib, Drake’s close friend and the main architect of his sound who suffers from multiple sclerosis.
Aside from the collateral damage of Pusha’s exposé, “The Story of Adidon” is proof of his ruthlessness and a reminder that you can’t fuck with somebody armed with facts who will stoop to depths you can’t fathom to make their point. —Julian Kimble
“ Type of Way”
Rich Homie Quan
In a more just world, Rich Homie Quan would be remembered as Trap Nate Dogg—a crooner who added a touch of soulfulness to the chaos around him. While he may have lacked Nate’s vocal talents, he compensated with his ear for melody: “Lifestyle,” “Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh),” and “My N---a” remain three of the more infectious songs to hit the Top 40 in the past 10 years. But just as quickly as his star rose, it faded—perhaps hip-hop became too vibey and moody in the middle of the decade for an artist as vibrant as Quan, perhaps his falling out with onetime hubby Young Thug effectively kneecapped his career. But even if his influence is felt more than his new music today—what is Rod Wave if not evolutionary Rich Homie—there’s still “Type of Way,” his breakout solo song and the best hashtag-turned-anthem of the 2010s. It’s a testament to Quan’s talents that he’s able to take a decidedly ambiguous emotion—feeling some type of way—and bring it to life. It’s proud, it’s boastful, it’s electric. It’s also a perfect song, and it makes you wonder whether he stopped going in or whether we stopped going in for him. —Justin Sayles
Kanye West (Feat. Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, & Bon Iver)
The biggest piece of this song’s legacy is obviously Nicki Minaj’s verse. And for good reason: It heralded the arrival of a new rap star and a woman who could shine brighter than even the established men she shared the track with. Today, it stands as a reminder of how the convergence of pop and rap music would change in her image in the following years. Nicki’s opening lines—“pull up in the monster, automobile gangsta / with a bad bitch that came from Sri Lanka”—give such a jolt of energy that it still inspires memes to this day. But while Minaj is a big reason for this song’s power, Kanye West’s Frankenstein of a hit single is layered in its majesty, from Bon Iver’s vampiric intro to its operatic Charlie Wilson–aided ending. It’s the classic representation of Kanye in this decade, full of too-muchness, perfected and fussed over to the point of losing almost all of its personality—a song engineered to be a hit on an album engineered to blow up and win Grammys. Kanye is at the peak of his powers here, and even Jay-Z’s inability to keep up with the beat can’t hinder his skill. Even at Kanye’s most indulgent, there was something magical and theatrical happening that you couldn’t argue with. You can only fall further under its trance. —Israel Daramola
The thing about that “I be that pretty motherfucker / Harlem’s what I’m reppin’” line that opens “Peso” is that it’s extremely straightforward for an upstart with obvious contradictions. A$AP Rocky repped Harlem but told The New York Times that he didn’t call himself a “real New York rapper.” He takes his birth name from one of New York hip-hop’s most vaunted figures, yet his breakout theme song barely carries his lineage’s soul-sampling style—an heirloom the region was desperately clinging to in its fall from mainstream relevance. “Peso” instead cloaks itself in the purple-hued haze of Houston and skates on a hook that feels more aligned with indie rock. (That latter detail is hard to pull off. It stills sells “Peso” but dates his fellow blog-era alum Kendrick Lamar’s debut.)
It’s the type of post–Real New York stew the early-’10s internet encouraged, and the kind of post-regional vibe that’s essentially the standard now (see: Cardi B, Brooklyn drill). What makes this a New York song—besides the obvious fact that it comes from a guy who’s actually from New York—relies on the specificity of A$AP Rocky’s swagger. The high-roller audacity he embodies had shades of Cam’ron and Mase, and it was every bit as convincing. —Brian Josephs
Looking to Playboi Carti for emotional, spiritual, or philosophical profundity would be like going to an amusement park gift store and asking for a Kierkegaard anthology. You won’t find it. Neither will you find tight songwriting or traditional verses in the Atlantan’s SoundCloud-honed catalog. Carti’s songs succeed on aesthetics, not substance. They are undemanding delights, roller coasters of linguistic abandon, spacey yet slamming beats, and unpredictable ad-libs. If Carti’s slender discography were a gift shop, you’d find shelves of potent weed and cough syrup, racks of designer clothes, and bins of USBs loaded with Pi’erre Bourne beats.
“Magnolia” introduced Carti to the masses and remains the greatest example of his greatest strengths. First, there’s his ear for beats. Bourne pairs what sounds like a vintage Nintendo game soundtrack with sub-frying bass and trap percussion, the beat drifting as much as it hits. It’s the sound of Super Mario in a Maserati (“Masi”) on the way to the strip club, at once whimsical and bouncing. Carti floats over the airy suite, moving between purposefully stilted, slinking, and sped-up cadences. He never runs one flow into the ground, the repetition of the hook (“In New York, I milly rock”) is hypnotic, and his many ad-libs always fill any space. (The exhaled/whistled “phew” ad-lib is the perfect aural approximation of the sweeping hand movement one makes when milly rocking.) All of the above makes “Magnolia” so catchy that you almost forget Carti’s ostensibly slanging rerocked crack and shooting at the opposition. Perhaps that’s the point. —Max Bell
In 2006, Jay-Z returned from his brief retirement with Kingdom Come, a mostly forgettable collection that saw him repositioning himself as more wise than wizened—now as much a businessman as a business, man. No track on the album summed up this outlook more than “30 Something,” a song about respectability politics and maturity that turned a phrase better suited for a Hallmark card into a hook. Thirty may not have actually been the new 20—and at the time, Hov was actually closer to 40—but Jay tried his damnedest to convince us that rap was not just a young person’s game. Getting old is cool, he said, ignoring the fact that aging is a lot easier when you’re on your way to becoming a billionaire.
Five years later, a rapper on the opposite end of the financial spectrum tapped into the idea of aging in hip-hop. For him, there were none of the tuxes or chromed-out SUVs that Jay rapped about—just anger, anxieties, and addictions. Detroit underground MC Danny Brown’s XXX is the preeminent album about getting old as a rapper, and its title track is its thesis statement: Hear the frustration crackle through Danny’s voice as he bellows, “Say I'm getting old, time's running out / Repeating instrumentals, tryna figure patterns out / I never leave the house, ain't slept in three days / Poppin' pills, writin', drinkin', and smokin' haze.” It’s like witnessing someone come down while the party still rages around them, and while it’s a much different vision of 30 than the one Jigga espoused, it packs its own kind of wisdom. Hearing the hunger of XXX today plays somewhat ironically—its success catapulted Danny to another level of his career, and while he may not be a billionaire, he’s far from the Adderall Admiral of his breakout tape. But as long as rap itself—and everyone reading this—continues to succumb to time and gravity, it will remain vital text, especially for anyone staring down the barrel of 30 realizing their 20s aren’t coming back. —Justin Sayles
“ Trap Queen”
“Trap Queen” is the kind of record you need to observe played in a room full of people only once to understand its power to transform crowds into choirs. Released in early 2014 independently by Jersey City’s Fetty Wap, the song was initially a slow underground burn that spread throughout the modest local club scene. Eventually DJs in NYC caught wind of the infectious record and started playing the song in both clubs and on the “open format” mix shows of NYC radio. By December 2014, Fetty would sign a deal with Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment, and with some corporate marketing muscle, “Trap Queen” finally took over the entire country the next year and peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for three consecutive weeks. The lasting legacy of “Trap Queen” will probably be the fact that Fetty was never able to carry his moment into long-term relevance, but at least we’ll always have those moments when we screamed the word “bando” at our friends in unison. —Wosny Lambre
“ Cartoons and Cereal”
Kendrick Lamar (Feat. Gunplay)
A nearly seven-minute time warp through analog static and the deceptions of memory, animated water fowl and stray bullets finding the wrong target, a multipart suite about boyhood innocence and casual traumas mutating into post-adolescent numbness, and the understanding that it’s not paranoia when enemies are always lurking across the intersection. “Cartoons and Cereal” occupies its own genre: a blurry outline briefly becoming sharp as the antennae are adjusted, the liminal space between two pirated channels, the devil interrupting the Disney Afternoon.
Purported to be the original opener on Good Kid, m.A.A.d City (but allegedly cut due to sample issues), this is as a prog-rap remembrance of things past—where Kendrick juxtaposes a stuttering sense of doom, the need to escape before the hood takes him under, and the days waiting in welfare lines at the County building with the sugar-coated bliss of a bowl of Apple Jacks and Darkwing Duck. Gunplay stomps across the third verse like the killer outside the door in a coked-out fugue state, unable to see the back of his eyelids for 72 hours, roaring about the trauma sustained, the damage done, and the pain that only death can extinguish.
Warner Bros. animation director Chuck Jones created Wile E. Coyote in homage to the coyotes described in Mark Twain’s Roughing It. The author described those Western scavengers as “a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton" that is "a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.” Adult Kendrick sees him everywhere on the Compton blocks, in the chain-snatching jackers and those eager to earn their stripes. The desires and needs and residual afflictions that plague the permanently hungry. It’s all here: the idyllic purity of childhood snatched away while the TV plays babysitter, the fallen heroes and the stains of the dirty money in the distant future. The grim reminder that the cycle is always starting anew—a slightly different show on the same channel. —Jeff Weiss
“ No Type”
True story: When Rae Sremmurd had released only “No Flex Zone,” I saw them live at a music festival. The brainchild of superproducer Mike WiLL Made-It, the brother duo of Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi seemed fully formed from the jump, as they translated their party-rap energy into their live performance and showcased an array of catchy records. But one song in particular set the roof on fire at their set, even in its debut performance. It was the only time I‘ve ever experienced a bunch of people realizing they were listening to a surefire banger simultaneously. That song was “No Type,” and as anyone who has ever heard it can tell you, it’s irresistible from its first bass drop. The opening of Lee’s chorus, “I don’t got no type, bad b-----s is the only thing that I like” is certainly a lot of fun to shout along to. Rae Sremmurd can take on the energy of a hip-hop Andrew W.K., pumping up an idea of living life as “lit” as possible with music to dance and lose your mind to. With that mindset, it’s a total blessing from heaven that they linked up with Mike WiLL, whose punishing drums are like the footsteps of a giant T. rex in Jurassic Park quaking in your direction. That marriage of Rae Sremmurd’s precocious energy and braggadocio with Mike WiLL’s sound has crafted some of the most infectious and irresistible club records of the decade, but none shine as bright as “No Type”—it’s a track that still makes you lose your mind. —Israel Daramola
“ Danny Glover”
It’s hard to argue against the idea that Young Thug was the brightest star to emerge out of the 2010s in music. He seemed to crash-land onto the planet as a fully formed artist and worked to bend rap music to his will with the gravitational pull of his technical prowess and his off-kilter gender-bending persona. Originally released in 2013 as “2 Bitches,” Thug’s “Danny Glover” was an instant classic. Its intergalactic keys, which seem to trumpet the arrival of a martian, was the right foundation for his dexterous, slippery rhymes. Writers love to discuss Thugger because he raps like jazz, pushing the bounds of what it means to treat your voice like an instrument. On “Danny Glover,” his voice contorts and croaks and strains and bellows, picking you up by the ear and taking you along for the ride. It's confusing how anyone could be dismissive of trap once they hear the mad genius of Southside’s beat. It’s hard to imagine anyone else even knowing what to do with a record like this (as evidenced by Nicki Minaj trying her best to keep up on the song’s remix), but Thug is just as mad a genius—he turns in an Olympic-level experiment in challenging the ideas of what rap can be. It’s an abstract painting put on wax; a club banger that pushes past the limits of human understanding. Just feel it and let it ravage your senses; no one was better at it than Thug at his absolute peak. —Israel Daramola
Azealia Banks (Feat. Lazy Jay)
Who is this magnificently lewd young lady wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and casually turning “I’ma ruin you, cunt” into an indelible hook? Nobody in the early 2010s went viral with more vicious aplomb than Harlem’s own incorrigible agent provocateur Azealia Banks, who hijacked a Belgian hip-house track and transformed it into a genuinely shocking demo/highlight reel that is very arguably one of the best debut singles in rap history. From the sheer torrent of joyous, lascivious syllables (“Your bitch’ll get you cut and touch your crew up, too, Pop”) to the triple-threat ominousness of the sung bridge (“They'll forget your name soon / And won't nobody be to blame but yourself, yeah”), she arrived as a conquering hero, a game-changer, an all-timer if she played her cards right.
Which … well! I’m afraid to even summarize the next 10 years of the Azealia Banks experience: Here is a partial list of her innumerable feuds that predate the whole Grimes–Elon Musk fiasco. Don’t Google the thing about her cat. But let’s agree that her eternal status as first-ballot Twitter Villain Hall of Famer is truer to the promise of “212” than if she’d rattled off 25 straight no. 1 singles. She is one of one, if only because the world couldn’t handle another. —Rob Harvilla
“ Lucid Dreams”
If “Look at Me!” brought the SoundCloud aesthetic to the pop charts, Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams” is what proved that it could hang with Drake, Ariana Grande, and Maroon 5. The song’s opening lines, “I still see your shadows in my room / Can't take back the love that I gave you,” read like the thesis statement to emo rap itself: lovelorn, haunted, angry. In 2018, it became en vogue for young artists to gush about their love of Panic! At the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and Paramore, but it was abundantly clear Juice really studied them.
Producer Nick Mira also deserves plenty of credit here, even if the failure to clear the song’s interpolation of “Shape of My Heart” resulted in Sting earning a reported 85 percent of the track’s revenue. The delicate guitar loop is a perfect canvas for Juice’s pained crooning, and while sometimes samples and trap drums fail to gel, the 808s here create a cavernous sensation that sounds like the young singer’s heart plummeting.
The song has a verse, but really it’s another handful of hooks that could easily be the foundation of their own multiplatinum singles. Juice WRLD released a staggering number of hits in his brief career, but none of them hit with quite the force of his career-making smash. —Grant Rindner
“ March Madness”
While there’s plenty of debate about who the best rapper of this decade was, the two artists that have proved most influential in terms of where rap was headed are Chief Keef and Future. In the case of the latter, the Atlanta-born rapper has constantly reinvented and inverted his style seemingly at whim, breaking down the borders between rapping and crooning, shouting and whimpering, party records and sad songs, love and hatred. “March Madness” is not the best Future song, but it is a great distillation of his appeal. It punches you in the chest and wakes up your soul. The anthemic 808 Mafia–produced club record grabs you, even with Future’s lackadaisical introduction of “dress it up and make it real for me … whatever that fuckin’ means”—no one is better at threading the needle between earnestness and performative disinterest. It’s music that appeals even to those who are too cool to care. The lines “we ballin like the March Madness / all the cops shootin’ a n---a, tragic” also capture a classic Future staple: wanting to stunt and flex even when you're staring down the abyss. The marriage of aspiration, nihilism, and survivor’s guilt that colors much of his work is on display here. There is something profound in the idea of partying through the inevitable armageddon that dooms us all, and here Future gives us a most spirited record to do just that. —Israel Daramola
“ N----s in Paris”
Jay-Z & Kanye West
There’s a long tradition of Black Americans rooting themselves in France. The most famous example is James Baldwin, who didn’t cross the Atlantic just to write bangers. In short, he felt being Black in America had tied him to a bleak fate; France was a way for him to see himself outside of that context. Kanye West’s reasons for being there are a little less fatalistic, and “N----s in Paris” is a little more surreal. Instead of searching for a fertile space, for three and a half minutes, Kanye and Jay-Z bend the world around them into their high-luxury funhouse.
With an aggressive efficiency and that synth, the duo were remixing a wide breadth of culture and general reality at will: the Nets, the Michaels, the letter “Z,” Blades of Glory, British royalty, fish. There’s a 99 percent chance you’re reading this at home without ever having felt an Audemar on your wrist, but for all the fantastical, dubstep-infused flexing, Jay-Z’s Paris is actually kind of grounded in the realities Baldwin wrote about: “I'm supposed to be locked up too / You escaped what I escaped / You'd be in Paris getting fucked up too.” —Brian Josephs
“ Marvins Room”
Drake’s omnipresence is a self-made prison. For 10-plus years, he could appear anywhere and sound like anyone—emo rappers, early-’90s mafiosos, Afro-pop royalty, U.K. drill artists. Drake pursued it all, and in the process, he became the defining artist of the decade. But it’s this same chameleonic attribute that makes it so difficult to ascertain what exactly Drake’s signature song should be. “God’s Plan”? “Hotline Bling”? “One Dance”? “Hold On, We’re Going Home”?
Logistically speaking, that’s how “Marvins Room” ends up at 15 on this list, despite how transformative and prophetic the Blogspot loosie turned Take Care single became. “Marvins Room” isn’t indicative of everything Drake can do, but it’s representative of what he does best. Drake was already there before we could fully process how petty, broken, and ghoulish romance would become in the face of the 2010s technology boom.
Simping, dirty macking, and softness (thankfully) became concepts of the past. Leaving a cringeworthy voicemail telling a woman “You can do better” would become the new normal. Hell, voicemail is too indirect of a medium when IG comments are right there. A classic Drake-ism like, “I think I'm addicted to naked pictures / And sittin' talkin' 'bout bitches that we almost had” has become an Olympic-level sport for vast pockets of the population.
“Marvins Room” is the sound of shamelessness personified. Drake’s wobbly singing voice sounds intoxicated. 40’s muffled drums are a mixture of regret and the type of hangover that leaves you with a collection of morning texts you’d rather not open. A decade ago, Drake showed us the worst version of himself before we knew we were ready. In 2021, every interaction might as well be a mini–“Marvins Room.” —Charles Holmes
“ B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast)”
Rick Ross (Feat. Styles P)
Be honest: Who really accepted Rick Ross’s fantastic drug dealer boasts as fact, especially after he claimed to know Pablo Escobar and Manuel Noriega on his breakout single? Enjoying his music requires a suspension of disbelief and embrace of the fictional sazón he sprinkles atop it, but no one could have anticipated the 2008 revelation that he briefly worked as a correctional officer when he was younger. However, not only did the news fail to sink his career, it led to him becoming even bigger. “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast),” in all of its brazen glory, was a major part of Ross’s ascent.
Bellowing over Lex Luger’s thunderous death march, Ross submits to the adrenaline rush of pure recklessness. The title is a nod to the Black Mafia Family, major drug traffickers who used hip-hop to clean their money. Instead of knowing Pablo and the real Noriega, Ross boldly announces that he feels like BMF’s architect, Demetrius “Big Meech” Flenory, and former Gangster Disciples leader Larry Hoover. Add Styles P (equipped with “guns from Red Dead Redemption”) to the equation and you have a perfect ode to street legends, fiscal irresponsibility, and the invincible feeling of drug kingpin fantasies. “B.M.F.” was a perfect fit for Teflon Don, emphasizing Ross’s flair for positioning—persona included—and that sometimes, the best PR strategy is simply being great at your job. —Julian Kimble
Many listeners were introduced to Migos through the group's 2013 single, and what an impression it made. Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff are instantly noteworthy for the way they harmonize; each of their verses and ad-libs seem to be constructed to allow them to float seamlessly with one another as though they’re one. But that’s nothing compared to what they do with the word Versace in this track, as they showcase the hypnotic and delirious power of repetition. They repeat Versace to the point it becomes goop that is stretched out into utter, glorious meaninglessness. Between the chaotic glee of shouting Versace until it sounds like fuh-sachee and the luxurious bubbling and plinking xylophone notes of Zaytoven’s production, it’s impossible to not be seduced by the track’s playfulness. Future often talks about borrowing the format of nursery rhymes to unlock his melodies. It’s a smart tactic for structuring a pop song. Migos’s “Versace” similarly deploys it in the way words are repeated over and over and the seemingly simple melody nevertheless worms into your ears and stays there. Even the way they rap “Medusa, Medusa, Medusa” has the pitter-patter of a schoolyard double-dutch tune that you won’t forget. Migos excel at that kind of elementary school melody, but don’t take that as a slight to their talents—it takes a world of skill to be able to write something that sounds this easy. —Israel Daramola
“ I’m God”
When he was still in high school, the Berkeley-bred Lil B earned a degree of fame as a member of the Pack, whose “Vans” became an unlikely hit just as hyphy’s fever pitch was beginning to wane. But it was a retreat into the blue light and information overload of the internet that would turn B into one of his era’s most singular artists. “I’m God” is the oldest song on this list (it surfaced online near Christmas 2009), but few 21st-century rap records are more prescient about—and directly influential over—what would follow.
After “Vans,” B developed a style he dubbed based music. According to him, the word was a philosophical descriptor for music that was radically positive, to the degree that its sunny exhortations would read as ironic to the uninitiated. But its formal markers (freestyles that alternate between tight, constant repetition and long passages of near-talking) spread quicker than that underlying ideology, and have proved more durable. For example: One of 2021’s most exciting new acts, RXK Nephew, recalls B on a stylistic level, but sees the world through a far grimmer lens.
“I’m God” channels the reckless freedom of B’s based freestyles into a slightly more conventional form. It also effectively spawned another subgenre: cloud rap, whose airy, weightless songs sound like the human parts of an otherwise mechanical future. Clams Casino’s flip of Imogen Heap’s “Just for Now” is nearly desperate, but lush enough to lay down inside. B lurches between the digital and corporeal—the ice cream paint jobs and vampires that come out at night, the “killers putting cash on Halo.” Like the rest of his unfathomably vast catalog, “I’m God” bridges the gap between what is real and rapidly becoming real, with all the uneasiness that entails. “Is this what you really want?” he raps in the song’s final verse. “You got me in the flesh now.” —Paul Thompson
“ Hard in Da Paint”
Waka Flocka Flame
In 2013, Complex published a list of the 75 Greatest Tunnel Bangers, a sprawling tribute to the hyperaggressive and highly provincial hip-hop that ran concurrently and often in conflict with the Shiny Suit era. Cipha Sounds’ composite sketch of a typical night at the Tunnel imagines someone getting clocked with a bottle of Armadale and robbed for their Rolex, the ruckus drowned out by “Hate Me Now.” Nearly all of this music came from New York City, so it was surprising to read Cipha lament that the Tunnel closed before they could play Lil Jon’s earliest hits. He seemed to understand what most New York purists didn’t when they portrayed Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard in Da Paint” as the embodiment of everything wrong with rap, particularly from the South, in 2010—a flow that’s all elbows and ad-libs; Lex Luger’s arrhythmic, synthetic, and domineering production. But as Flocka wisely pointed out on Flockaveli, he had “Rotten Apple blood” in his veins, a born New Yorker who relocated to Atlanta and took the equally violent and vibrant Tunnel Banger mindset with him—a one-man Bad Boys Pistons, a chaos agent who won by bending the rules of the game to fit his specific skill set. —Ian Cohen
“ XO Tour Llif3”
Lil Uzi Vert
The latter half of the 2010s saw the rise of SoundCloud rappers and emo rap, with Lil Uzi Vert helping lead a new generation of artists that pushed the boundaries of hip-hop and found alternative avenues to mainstream success in the streaming era. Uzi broke through in 2016 with his debut single “Money Longer” and a guest spot on Migos’s megahit “Bad and Boujee,” but his ascent to superstardom began the following year with “XO Tour Llif3.” Originally released as part of a four-song EP on SoundCloud, the TM88-produced track became one of the most surprising, defining hits of the decade.
Fueled by its dark, infectious hook of “Push me to the edge / All my friends are dead,” “XO Tour Llif3” is a far cry from the boastful raps of songs like “N----s in Paris” or “Lifestyle” that helped define the earlier half of the decade. The song is hardly a traditional rap song at all, with Uzi infusing emo and punk rock into lyrics that encompassed heartbreak, Xanax misuse, and suicidal ideation. With Uzi gliding and straining his voice over TM88 and JW Lucas’s instrumental, “XO Tour Llif3” is as cathartic as it is devastating, and it stands as a showcase for one of the most distinct young artists in all of music. —Daniel Chin
“ Codeine Crazy”
In much the same way that rappers have, for decades, been accused of glorifying violence, Future has often faced allegations that his music encourages drug use. This is not lost on the artist. During their first studio session together, Juice WRLD, the Chicago native 15 years Future’s junior, told him that it was his music that piqued his interest in lean, a substance that would haunt Juice’s work throughout his too-brief life. “What the fuck have I done?” Future recalled thinking. “How many other sixth-graders did I influence to drink lean?”
Future’s music does not flatly endorse drug use, but it does follow addiction’s contours—its rote ugliness and its diminishing returns, sure, but also the escape it can provide. “Codeine Crazy,” from the 2014 mixtape Monster, is its rock bottom. The song sounds less like a drug experience than its hangover, a hollow morning after. There is no relief, just a pounding head and pulsing thoughts: Dark as its writing gets, “Codeine Crazy” moves ceaselessly forward, Future stumbling through callous boasts and pained revelations as he works to keep up, his confidence building during tightly wound verses that are punctured by a hook in a pleading falsetto.
While Atlanta produced numerous stars in the 2010s, Future did as much as anybody to make his hometown the center of the rap universe. He bent his voice through Auto-Tune in ways that hid, and then accentuated, his humanity, and pulled radio and several strains of the underground into orbit around him. He seems to chart at will. But Monster was released during an early-career nadir, after the comparatively sunny Honest was met by lukewarm reviews. And for once he seems brutally, heartbreakingly out of control: “I'm an addict and I can't even hide it.” —Paul Thompson
“ Bodak Yellow”
Before the summer of 2017, Cardi B was just a regular degular former dancer who was kind of known for popularizing phrases like “regular degular” on Love & Hip-Hop: New York. After “Bodak Yellow” dropped, it was immediately apparent that we were in the presence of one of the biggest stars on the planet. “When I was recording it, every bitch that I don’t like came to my head,” Cardi told Billboard. “Every bitch that I hate came to my head. I was picturing me rapping it to them.” That feeling, that hunger, that urgency—it’s all palpable. Cardi’s conviction is so strong you have no choice but to believe her.
In the 2010s we had a nasty habit of comparing every up-and-coming woman rapper to Nicki Minaj. Cardi B wasn’t spared this treatment, so much so that a beef developed and climaxed with Cardi throwing a shoe at Nicki at the Plaza Hotel. In retrospect, it’s all pretty regretful. If only we had listened to the words of “Bodak Yellow,” because they all came true. —Gruttadaro
Tyler, The Creator
Do y’all remember when there was a legit competition between “Yonkers” and Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci” to win Best New Artist at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards? Like, there was a serious question between those two videos. (The rest of the field included Big Sean, Foster the People, and Wiz Khalifa, if you want to feel old.) Tyler, the Creator, and indeed all of Odd Future, was making music that I’d never heard before. The beat from “Yonkers” sounds like an audible strobe light, and, just like the song title, was intended as a joke to imitate New York’s style.
But what started out as a joke turned into a megahit and made Tyler a household name. Of course, you can’t talk about “Yonkers” without talking about the video—and problematic language toward poor B.O.B. and Bruno Mars. A camera that goes in and out of focus follows Tyler as he sits on a stool, eats a cockroach, quickly pukes it up, and strips down before hanging himself. It was bombastic, daring, and instantly something you and your friends rushed home to watch on YouTube. It’s been over a decade since Tyler dropped “Yonkers” and he’s undergone multiple evolutions since, but the song that introduced him to the general public is just as hypnotizing now as it was in 2011. —Kellen Becoats
“ Hot N---a”
“Hot N---a” was as organic as they come in its life cycle as a mass-media phenomenon. Ackquille Bobby Shmurda Pollard was not under the tutelage of some seasoned A&R hack at a major record label when he found Jahlil Beats’ now legendary track (which was originally given to Lloyd Banks, of all people) and decided to lay vocals to it. There’s obviously no “treatment” for the video he shot with his GS9 crew in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. The video is all playful menace and dance moves in front of parked cars and in alleyways—not exactly a Hype Williams affair. The video would premiere on WorldStar in March 2014. Barely anyone noticed until June 2014, when a Vine (remember Vine?) was uploaded that captured a hat flip and dance move that would ignite the imagination of pop culture. Very soon after, Beyoncé and Rihanna would be spotted mimicking Bobby’s moves, record labels came calling, and what looked to be the beginning of a superstar rap career was taking off.
The latter would not actually happen: In December 2014, Shmurda and his GS9 crew would be charged with a myriad of crimes ranging from racketeering to attempted murder. In six dizzying months, Shmurda would go from rap miracle to ward of the state, and by virtue of having not turned state’s evidence, Bobby became a street legend in the process. It’s a chain of events that still seems too crazy to even believe. “Hot N---a” would peak at no. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, but that can’t possibly measure the impact of a song that seemed to play everywhere for every occasion beginning the moment it broke into the public consciousness. It’s the kind of ubiquity that’s basically unheard of from an artist that nobody had ever heard of and who had zero marketing behind him save for six seconds on Vine. The song still holds up seven and a half years later in a way that defies logic. —Wosny Lambre
“Lifestyle” was the lead single from a classic mixtape that it never actually appeared on, which was named after the Rich Gang tour that never actually happened. The dates were not locked in. Part 2 was announced but never formally released. Rich Homie Quan’s claim that he and Young Thug were the “best collabo since Outkast” was accurate, but only if André and Big Boi had dropped Aquemini and immediately dipped in separate spaceships lacking rearview mirrors. Pure magic is fleeting and irrational. Even the greats have to stop going in one day. Heroes eventually die, etc.
But “Lifestyle” is about the moment long before the sun goes down. It’s the rap song as platinum light beams pulsing at high noon, when the potential of day and night are limitless. A psalm about hitting the lottery and putting a million-five on the Visa card. The feeling that everything good remains in front of you; that your success has been realized because of both divine right and unseen struggle. “Lifestyle” is a beatific state of grace, the elusive condition of genuine joy, an anthem of celebration to eclipse even Madonna and Kool & the Gang.
The emotional depth comes from what’s merely hinted at, the pain and duress endured to puff clouds atop the mountain. Young Thug’s gravitationally unbound yelp about how he’s living like this because his dead brother never had the chance. Rich Homie Quan alluding to his sleepless grind (“Sunday Through Monday”) in his Atlanta dancehall blues bellow. It’s about the Chanel, 100 bands, and Corvette, but also about their daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, and mothers now financially stable, forever, hopefully.
If perfection is an overused cliché about an impossible pursuit, this is the rare incident when it’s actually true. “Lifestyle” is perfect in its sloppiness and eccentricity, its equipoise of heaven and hell. Thug’s weird aside about sexual dysfunction, the comic ad-libs in the background (“Quan voice”), Birdman’s outro about sitting in the middle of the ocean (Pacific, that is). The UFO takeoff noises that match London on da Track’s levitating beat, with its synth line that sounds like G-Funk submerged in a styrofoam cup of Easter pink. It is the sound of the best moment of your life, the apex reached for a few ephemeral moments, Orpheus emerging from the underworld, unable to stop himself from looking back. —Jeff Weiss
It’d be a waste to hang this one up in the Louvre. Better to let it sprout from the remains of the swap meet of yore. What is it that can be said about “Alright” that hasn’t already been uttered? Even on a record as dizzyingly layered, searingly defiant, intergalactically funky, and cosmically jazzed-up as To Pimp a Butterfly, Track 7 stuck out like the Great Pyramid. It is, and I don’t mean this lightly, a perfect song.
The beat is an absolute menace—chiming, bursting, grooving, pattering, pulsating, positively electrifying. It’s a revival. It’s a baptism. And Kenny rules the pulpit. He chats with Cerberus. He pleads the fifth. He writes until he’s right with his God.
What sets the song apart is what elevates him as a seer, the kaleidoscopic critiques—of himself, of his world, of his faith. “Ain’t a profit big enough to feed you,” K. Dot rues. He’s adrift and unsparing. But he knows he’s fastened to something too. That’s the real revelation at hand: That he’s a part of a lineage. A line, once assembled to be broken, that has never been fully cleaved.
It’d be a misinterpretation to call “Alright” a promise; it doesn’t believe in destiny. The song is testimony—a reminder that the process of breaking a people is a lie in the first place, that as long as one of us breathes we’ll find a way to be OK. —Lex Pryor
“ Dreams and Nightmares”
Forget about Meek becoming cause célébre with white billionaires rushing to free him from prison for a bullshit probation violation. Forget about the Philadelphia Eagles adopting “Dreams and Nightmares” as their anthem en route to their first Super Bowl victory. Forget every additional meaning this song has taken on through the years and remember that it’s the manifesto of a man who understood how unlikely it was that he’d have any type of success based on his circumstances. The odds seemed insurmountable, but a kid from Berks Street in North Philly who was “raised by the stop sign” made it out and wanted everyone to not only understand the trajectory of his life, but also to hear him scream “Fuck you” to the world that boxed him in for the majority of it.
Everyone knows the moment when “Dreams and Nightmares” rockets into another stratosphere. It arrives 95 seconds in, when the Beat Bully’s blend of keys and strings erupts into chaos as Meek announces that he’s not done yet. It’s the drop people wait eagerly for and the reason DJs have to play the record in its entirety. But the moment you get the full scope of what this song is about and who Meek is comes near its end when he screams “THEY GON’ REMEMBER ME!” There’s a reason this was chosen as the intro for his debut album: If you never listened to another Meek Mill song or he never rapped again, you’d walk away with a clear understanding of who he is. This isn’t sports montage music; it’s Meek’s life on wax. Of course it’s a Philly anthem, but you don’t have to be from the city to feel where he’s coming from. —Julian Kimble
“ I Don’t Like”
Chief Keef (Feat. Lil Reese)
“I Don’t Like” was the calamity from the skies. “I Don’t Like” was a demon summoned from the darkest, hottest depths of hell. It wasn’t just some good or great song that’s earned a bit of nostalgia now that we’re ranking songs for posterity. “Don’t Like” was the bell that’s yet to cease ringing in contemporary hip-hop. In 2012, Keef and his producer Young Chop couldn't have recorded a more thundering and spectacular omen for hip-hop in the 2010s. Keef, then a 16-year-old gangbanger who took gunfights with the cops, couldn’t have sounded any closer to oblivion. His ashen voice reeked of tyranny and vice. But this voice also sounded so new and beautiful in the moment. On “I Don’t Like,” Keef barked so many terrifying promises that hip-hop would never again be the same. He and his collaborators in the drill scene got to work. They delivered.
In his own career Keef lurched between the underground and the universal, but in general he was right. His emergence marked a broad genre upheaval, an ethical crisis in rap criticism, and a minor political crisis for Chicago. The drill movement has a long and complicated story, populated with many indispensable figures but none more pivotal and enigmatic than Keef. Atlanta and Los Angeles stole the show for the rest of the decade but Keef, drill, and “I Don’t Like” opened the portal to our current dimension. —Justin Charity
Kanye West (Feat. Pusha T)
For the past decade, we’ve been in a never-ending, self-flagellating toast. Daily, the same process unfolds. We wake up, buy an expensive bottle of metaphorical champagne, and perpetually scroll, while cheering on our wealthiest and worst enemies. Kanye tried to warn us.
“Runaway” was a Sesame Street–sized yellow canary in the world’s smallest coal mine. The instruction in the chorus was simple: “Run away fast as you can.” But the genius of Kanye is that he knew we wouldn’t. Unable to look away, we’d run to the fire. We would happily toast to every douchebag, asshole, scumbag, and jerkoff that the celebrity world gave us. This list is a monument to that reality. Those opening keys are haunting for a reason. “Runaway” is a cautionary tale of a symbiotic, but toxic relationship. As Kanye himself sums it up, “And I don't know how I'ma manage / If one day, you just up and leave.”
The backlash to Kanye running up on Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards might’ve been the impetus for the Chicago musician’s pseudo-comeback the following year, but it was never the driving force. Soon every day would be the 2009 VMAs and every rapper would exist in an economy where the celebrity of it all wasn’t just part of the music, but one of its most integral parts. The maximalist instrumentation of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and its ilk quickly receded, but the emotional bombast never did.
For nine minutes, Kanye brews in a world reshaped in his image. His singing voice is off-key and desperate, while the sparse beat anchored by triumphant strings and snowy keys unfolds like a wasteland. By the time the six-minute mark comes around, we’re treated to the end of one time and the beginning of another—the sound of a wounded sheep bleeding out. The vocoder sounds like a requiem for us and a celebration for Kanye. The Kanyes of the world won. And helpless, the rest of us are still running toward that same intoxicating fire, warnings be damned. —Charles Holmes