The Greatest Rappers of All Time
Determining the greatest rappers of all time leads to a lively debate as hip-hop fans make a case for their favorites. From West Coast rappers to East Coast emcees, and everything in between, the battle for the best of the best continues to rage on. However, most “best of” lists include these top 10 rappers. Here’s to hip-hop heavyweights and the fans who got them here.
Jay-Z, born Shawn Carter, hails from NYC, a fact he raps about consistently over the course of his nearly three-decade career. He quickly rose to fame in the mid-1990s when he released his debut studio album Reasonable Doubt from his own record label Roc-A-Fella Records. He has since released 12 more albums, all receiving critical and commercial acclaim and success.
With 23 Grammy Awards to his name, it is the most by any rapper, and he holds the record for the most solo artist number-one albums on the Billboard 200. Plus, his music has led him to be named one of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time by both Rolling Stone and Billboard. With such accolades under his belt, his self-proclamation as being “the best rapper alive” could very well be the truth.
#2 Lil Wayne
Lil Wayne is one of the leading rap artists to put a Southern-style type of rap on the map. He started his career at a young age, signing with Cash Money Records at the age of 12, and also rising to fame in the mid-90s. Before debuting his solo album in 1999, he released a group album with Hot Boys with its popular single, “Bling Bling.”
Though already popular among hip-hop fans, he gained greater airplay with his fourth and fifth studio albums, Tha Carter, released in 2004, and Tha Carter II, released in 2005. Continuing the trend with his sixth album, Tha Carter III, in 2008, he sold over one million copies in the U.S. in just one week and went on to win the Grammy for Best Rap Album. Since then he has added several other albums to his full discography and has sold over 120 million albums worldwide making him one of the greatest rappers of a generation.
#3 Kanye West
Controversial antics aside, best selling rapper Kanye West has made a resounding mark on the hip-hop community and often makes the list of greatest rappers of all time. His debut studio album, The College Dropout, received immediate critical and commercial success when released in 2004. As a “Chi-town” rapper, he explored his upbringing in the Windy City and draws heavily on his personal experiences for his lyrics and music. He’ll make you wonder, “is rap poetry?”
His rap-pop follow-up albums, Late Registration and Graduation, solidified his presence on the rap scene, only to be further cemented by his well-received 808s & Heartbreak album in 2008 and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010. Always one to experiment with rap styles and never shy from a bold statement, musically or otherwise, West has received numerous awards and accolades throughout the span of his career and continues to make waves in the industry.
#4 Kendrick Lamar
As the youngest rapper on this list of top 10 rappers of all time, Kendrick Lamar makes up for it with his speedy rise to the top. Prior to his mainstream debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City in 2012, Lamar had already begun a rap career in his teens, releasing and performing a mixtape that immediately received record label attention. From there, he slowly built up an online following and recognition reached critical acclaim with his first major-label album.
Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City has been certified triple platinum, a successful warmup to his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, which earned him his first number-one album spot on the Billboard 200. Elevating his status even further in 2017, Lamar’s album, Damn, topped the charts, was a standout among critics, and earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Music, the first non-classical and non-jazz album to receive the recognition.
#5 Notorious B.I.G.
The Notorious B.I.G. a.k.a. Biggie Smalls is often listed as one of the top 10 rappers of all time despite a career cut short by his death at the age of 24. As the face of the East Coast rap scene in the early 1990s, this rap god produced and performed under Sean “Puffy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records. He was met with the resounding approval of critics and fans alike with his debut album, Ready to Die in 1994. Singles including “Juicy” and “Big Poppa” are still a significant part of hip-hop culture today, and his album earned him the Rapper of the Year award at the 1995 Billboard Music Awards.
His follow-up double-disc album Life After Death was released two weeks after his death and eventually reached the number one spot on Billboard 200. Though his time was cut short, Rolling Stone, The Source, and other major music media outlets have called him the greatest rapper of all time and his name will go down in the books as one of the best.
#6 Tupac Shakur
What Biggie Smalls represented for East Coast rap, Tupac Shakur represented for the West Coast. Their highly publicized feud only fueled their music careers and loyal following. Shakur is considered one of the most influential artists, inspiring fans across the country. He’s best known for his social justice lyrics and activism throughout his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, California.
Though he made a significant creative switch from his earlier albums with his 1996 double-disc LP All Eyez On Me. This best-seller took a gangsta rap approach popular during the decade that was met with high critical and commercial acclaim. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017, one of the few rappers to receive the honor. He is known for being one of the most influential artists and his musical legacy continues to inspire.
#7 Dr. Dre
West Coast rap continued its popularity with the debut of Dr. Dre’s solo effort, The Chronic, in 1992. Previously performing as part of the gangsta rap group, N.W.A., he continued his success with a solo career under Death Row Records. The album earned him a Grammy Award as well as plenty of attention and accolades for his single, “Nuthin’ but a “G’ Thang.”
Throughout the 90s, he continued his work as a producer, mentoring many of the rappers who would come after him, and released his wildly popular album, The Chronic 2001 in 1999 under his newly established Aftermath Entertainment label. Having reached success both as part of N.W.A, a solo rapper, and a producer for many of the best in hip-hop, Dr. Dre is considered one of the most influential artists of all time.
#8 Snoop Dogg
As a hip-hop artist on Dr. Dre’s Death Row Records, Snoop Dogg built a name for himself with his debut album, Doggystyle, in 1993, which debuted number one on the Billboard 200. It sold 800,000 copies in its first week and went on to become certified quadruple-platinum by 1994. His second album followed the same road to success with a number one charting debut of Tha Doggfather in 1996, which became certified double-platinum.
Though signing with other record labels into the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Snoop Dogg’s presence has remained a mainstay among hip-hop and pop culture. His music has woven in other music genres, such as pop and reggae, to his initial gangsta rap musical persona. In 2018, he was presented with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame which prompted his 17th studio album, I Wanna Thank Me, a line he spoke repeatedly during his star ceremony.
#9 Missy Elliott
It’d be remiss to have a list of top 10 rappers of all time and not include Missy Elliott. Her debut album, Supa Dupa Fly, reached the Billboard 200 in the top three spot in 1997 and was the highest-charting debut of a female rapper at the time. Her follow-up, Da Real World, in 1999, produced her hit, “Hot Boyz,” which went on to become a remix that spent 18 weeks in the number one spot on Hot Rap Singles and broke the record for most weeks at number one on the U.S. R&B Chart.
She reached international acclaim in the early 2000s with a trio of albums, including Under Construction, which delivered popular singles including, “Work It,” and earned her the Grammy Award for Best Female Rap Solo Performance. She, too, has earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, has been named the best-selling female rapper in Nielsen Music history, and is considered, by and large, one of the greatest rappers of all time.
#10 Slim Shady
Under the mentorship of Dr. Dre, Eminem a.k.a. Slim Shady put Detroit on the map as a central place for hip-hop music. The Slim Shady LP debuted in 1999 and gained immediate mainstream popularity to set the tone for his follow-up albums, including The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show album. Known best for his explicit and controversial lyrics, music videos, and performances, he became a worldwide sensation before taking a brief hiatus in 2005.
Upon his return to the hip-hop world in 2009 with his album Relapse, he then went on to release Recovery in 2010, which became the best-selling album that year and earned him numerous accolades. Throughout his expansive career, he has earned himself a spot as one of the greatest rappers of all time.
Whether any of these artists make your top 10 list of greatest rappers of all time, it’s always a unique listening experience playing them on vinyl. Check out the Victrola record store and scope out your favorite hip-hop artist past and present as you curate your own list of favorites.