Determining the best rappers of all time is no easy task. Hip hop fans could spend hours debating who should top this list. The MCs featured below represent pillars of rap across decades with their groundbreaking artistry, lyricism, flow, legacy, and impact.
Rapping requires top-tier skills. Elite rappers showcase versatility, creativity, originality, influence, longevity, and commercial success. The best MCs have signature styles and leave lasting marks on hip hop music.
This definitive ranking analyzes essential factors like cultural significance, commercial performance, technical ability, discography strength, and overall rapping talent to determine the greatest. While personal taste plays a role, the rappers highlighted below earned their spots through dedicated craft and monumental contributions to the culture.
The Top 10 Rappers of All Time
1. The Notorious B.I.G.
The Notorious B.I.G. (also known as Biggie Smalls) remains one of hip hop’s most revered and influential rappers ever. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Biggie first rose to fame with classic 1994 debut Ready to Die. His status as a rap legend grew after his tragic 1997 murder at age 24.
Biggie’s laidback flow, witty wordplay, vivid storytelling and charisma made him a master of effortless cool. Songs like “Juicy,” “Hypnotize” and “Big Poppa” became hip hop anthems. Hits like “One More Chance” and “Mo Money Mo Problems” ruled the pop charts. Along with protege group Junior M.A.F.I.A., Biggie also helped spawn the East Coast mafioso rap subgenre.
With just two studio albums before his untimely death, Biggie showed the monumental impact possible in a short span. His swaggering style and presence as the “King of New York” still influences MCs today. The Notorious B.I.G.’s sprawling legacy secures his spot as one of rap’s foremost legends.
2. Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur endures as one of the most legendary and influential rappers ever over 25 years after his 1996 murder. Pac’s blazing charisma and contradictions as a rapper – sensitive philosopher and raging gangsta – made him compelling. His highly personal lyrical skill brought commercial and critical success.
Tracks like “Dear Mama” and “Changes” revealed vulnerability and socio-political awareness, while hits like “California Love” and “Ambitionz Az a Ridah” highlighted his West Coast thug persona. Along with friend turned rival Biggie Smalls, 2Pac embodied the classic East Coast vs. West Coast rap feud. His Makaveli album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory furthered his outlaw image.
During his life and after his death, 2Pac attained near mythical status in rap as both a prolific hitmaker and complicated cultural icon. His sprawling legacy still feels palpable and contemporary. Many still consider him the GOAT.
For over 25 years, Jay-Z has sustained dominance as one of rap’s greatest MCs and most successful moguls. His acclaimed discography contains classic albums like Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint, and The Black Album. Jigga has the hits to match, including anthems like “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” “99 Problems,” “Empire State of Mind,” and “Big Pimpin’.”
In addition to technical prowess, Jay-Z triumphs through masterful storytelling. His lyrics authentically detail experiences ranging from growing up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects to selling drugs to succeeding in the rap game and attaining vast wealth. Known for his laidback flow, verbal dexterity, and observational wit, Jay-Z is regarded among hip hop’s most respected veterans.
Alongside his mic skills, Jay-Z parlayed his dominance into becoming an entertainment and business mogul. But it’s his lengthy reign as one of rap’s greatest MCs that lands him near the top of this list. With 24 Grammys and over 100 million records sold, HOV’s GOAT credentials cannot be questioned.
Nas’ pen has shaped hip hop history for nearly 30 years. Bursting onto the scene as a teenager with seminal 1994 debut Illmatic, his vivid lyricism put New York rap back atop the genre. Tracks like “N.Y. State of Mind” and “The World Is Yours” set new standards of greatness.
Carrying on as an elder statesman today, Nas’ prolific catalog of classics like It Was Written, Stillmatic, and Life Is Good showcase evolving artistry. His rapping ability remains sharper than ever, graced with a casual fluidity. Nas’ verbal dexterity when crafting unforgettable one-liners, metaphors, and images is unmatched.
While lacking in major pop smashes, Nas has enjoyed consistent critical acclaim and respect for his technical prowess, storytelling, and authenticity. Respected by all generations, his swaggering style and lyrical mastery influenced countless MCs. Nas has crafted a distinct lane as one of hip hop’s finest authors and poets.
As hip hop’s best-selling and most decorated rapper, Eminem has become one of the biggest global music stars ever. His witty, shocking lyrics and impeccable flow skills helped him ascend from underground battler to mainstream phenomenon. Debut The Slim Shady LP and follow up The Marshall Mathers LP are both certified diamond.
Eminem’s technical versatility as a lyricist dazzles across fast, tongue-twisting rhyme schemes. Tracks like “Lose Yourself” and “Rap God” showcase breathtaking displays of verbal aptitude. His provocative persona draws from real anguish stemming from poverty and family turmoil. Hits like “The Real Slim Shady,” “Without Me,” and “Not Afraid” display Eminem’s hook-writing strength for clear pop crossover.
While some criticism comes for offensive content, Eminem’s best material highlights verbal skills rivaled by few. His crucial role popularizing hip hop worldwide can’t be denied. With over 220 million records sold and 15 Grammys including Best Rap Album, Eminem stands firmly among rap’s elite.
6. Snoop Dogg
Snoop Dogg’s laidback flow and magnetic charisma have kept him a cultural fixture for over 25 years. Discovered by Dr. Dre, his slick delivery made him an instant West Coast rap star on Dre’s 1992 classic The Chronic. That same year, Snoop’s magnetic debut Doggystyle cemented his rise with smash hits like “Gin and Juice” and “Who Am I (What’s My Name?)”.
Snoop’s rhyme style glides effortlessly. Vivid storytelling and an ability to coin catchy slang made him a household name beyond just rap. Throughout various career phases, Snoop adapts his flow while staying true to his Long Beach roots. Lead single “Drop It Like It’s Hot” off 2004’s R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece topped charts in his third decade.
From death row inmate to huggable pop culture icon, Snoop Dogg’s longevity speaks to his broad appeal. His laidback charm, consistent touring, and media ventures like hosting and acting keep him relevant. Over 26 million albums sold and versatile catalog of party anthems help Snoop sustain acclaim as rap royalty.
7. Ice Cube
As frontman of seminal West Coast gangsta rap group N.W.A. and later a thriving solo MC, Ice Cube left an immense impact on hip hop’s development starting with landmark 1988 album Straight Outta Compton. Following disputes with management, Cube embarked on a stunning solo career.
Socially conscious 90s albums like AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate, and The Predator contained provocative commentary and gritty tracks like “It Was a Good Day” and “Check Yo Self”. Ice Cube blended rage with satire and intellect. His solo work and N.W.A. catalog helped shape identity and attitudes within West Coast hip hop.
Cube also prospered in Hollywood as an acclaimed actor and filmmaker while still regularly touring and recording new music. His fierce rapping delivery and lyrical content highlighting injustice towards African Americans became a blueprint in rap’s political realm. With over 10 million albums sold, Ice Cube remains a revered rap pioneer.
8. Kendrick Lamar
The greatest rapper of his generation, Kendrick Lamar’s artistry and lyricism have garnered unprecedented critical respect. His concept albums good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp a Butterfly, and DAMN. display social awareness through masterful storytelling. Lamar is the only rapper to earn a Pulitzer Prize.
Penning lyrics described as “confessional” and “literary”, Lamar explores institutional and racial struggles. His vocal delivery shifts fluidly from crisp and technical to melodic and auto-tuned. From radio hits like “HUMBLE.” to more jazz-inflected tracks like “King Kunta”, musicality elevates Lamar’s messages. He’s brought profound artistry to modern rap.
With 13 Grammys and over 20 million albums sold, the Compton native became a superstar ambitiously pushing hip hop forward. Still only in his early 30s, Kendrick Lamar seems destined to rank among the greatest ever as his career progresses.
The God MC. As rap’s premier lyricist and stylist in the 80s, Rakim raised standards for elite rhyming and flow. Paired with producer Eric B., his 1987 debut Paid in Full showcased intricately crafted bars and laidback delivery still studied today. Ra injected hip hop with a slick intellectualism.
Songs like “Follow the Leader,” “Lyrics of Fury,” and the title track evidenced Rakim’s mastery. His complex internal rhymes, unpredictable rhythmic patterns, and descriptive imagery awed listeners. While fellow 80s contemporaries like Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One boasted formidable skills, Rakim’s combination of substance and style still ranks supreme.
With four classic albums before his initial 1992 retirement, Rakim set a template for future hip hop stars. Upon returning in the late 90s, his performance quality persists. Rakim’s perpetual relevancy and technical innovation help him crack the top 10. His rich catalog continues impacting new generations of MCs.
10. André 3000
As one half of iconic Atlanta duo OutKast, André “3000” Benjamin helped expand possibilities for lyricism and originality in rap. His funky aesthetic and candid introspection on albums like ATLiens and Aquemini brought artistry to 90s hip hop radio alongside hits like “Ms. Jackson” and “Hey Ya!”
André 3000 dissociates himself from rap trends and cliches. His rhymes often acknowledge own quirks and insecurities. Songs like “Prototype” and “Pink & Blue” portray unique perspectives on relationships. 3000’s distinct southern drawl adds flavor to his animated flow and wordplay. Guest appearances reveal how André 3000 inspires peers with his skill and creativity.
For over 25 years, OutKast’s music brought joy and invented new slang. André 3000 provided the creative force and stylistic versatility to produce timeless hits. By containing multitudes as a rapper, André Benjamin’s influence maintains longevity.
The Rest of the Top 50
- Chuck D (Public Enemy)
- Kool G Rap
- LL Cool J
- Lil Wayne
- Melle Mel (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five)
- Dr. Dre
- Lauryn Hill (The Fugees)
- The D.O.C.
- Big Daddy Kane
- Slick Rick
- Busta Rhymes
- Big Pun
- Black Thought (The Roots)
- Snoop Dogg
- Big Boi (OutKast)
- 50 Cent
- Lloyd Banks (G-Unit)
- Nicki Minaj
- Lauryn Hill
- Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest)
- Childish Gambino
- 2 Chainz
- MC Lyte
- Raekwon (Wu-Tang Clan)
- GZA (Wu-Tang Clan)
- Method Man (Wu-Tang Clan)
- Too $hort
- Guru (Gang Starr)
- Chance The Rapper
- Missy Elliott
- J. Cole
- Tech N9ne
Criteria for Ranking the Top Rappers
Many factors get weighed when attempting to rank rappers against each other. The criteria below helped shape these rankings:
- Technical skill: Advanced lyricism, witty punchlines, versatile flow, rhyme schemes
- Discography: Quality, consistency, and influence of an artist’s full body of albums
- Songwriting: Penning iconic songs, catchy hooks, storytelling prowess
- Originality: Distinct style, personality, perspective, creativity as an MC
- Cultural impact: Sales numbers, chart dominance, popularity, global resonance
- Influence: Pushing the genre forward, sparking new styles and trends, inspiring other artists
- Longevity: Sustaining acclaim and success across different eras
- Live performance: Displaying charismatic rapping talent during concerts and shows
The rappers featured in the Top 50 have all checked most of these boxes during their careers. Separating them comes down to small differences in degrees. But the composite skills and artistry exemplified by each MC can’t be denied based on their enduring mark on hip hop music.
The Evolution of Rapping and Hip Hop Culture
To properly contextualize any rankings of top rappers, it helps to first understand hip hop’s origins and history. Here is a brief overview of the culture and art form’s development:
Rap music arose within inner city neighborhoods of 1970s New York City alongside other elements like DJing, graffiti, and breakdancing. Pioneering DJs like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa began isolating percussion breaks at dance parties for MCs to toast or rap over these beats. Early rappers drew influence from the smooth rhyming styles of soul musicians like Isaac Hayes.
Throughout the 1980s, rap grew in popularity and artists developed their technical skills through live performances and recordings. Releases by Run-D.M.C, LL Cool J, Public Enemy and others helped rap crossover to mainstream recognition. The genre expanded its musicality through sampling and drum machines. New styles branched out across America’s coasts and cities.
The 1990s kicked off another Golden Age for rap, producing legends like Tupac, Nas, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan and more. Gangsta rap controversies arose but didn’t derail rap’s dominance. Hip hop fully permeated pop culture through fashion, TV, and film. Labels signed million-dollar deals with new stars.
Rap burst into the 21st century as one of music’s most popular and profitable genres. Veterans like Dr. Dre and Eminem thrived alongside new talents like Kanye West and Nicki Minaj. Fragmentation into sub-genres expanded rap’s artistic breadth. The internet opened doors for independent artists to build fame. Hip hop’s legacy and progression shows no signs of slowing.
While just a snapshot, the above overview provides context on rap’s origins and ever-widening influence. The iconic MCs ranked as the greatest rappers of all time have helped document and progress hip hop history through skill and artistry.
Greatest Hip Hop Groups
Along with solo rappers, rap groups with multiple MCs have also left lasting marks on hip hop music’s landscape. Here are 10 pioneering groups recognized for technical skill and classic material:
- Wu-Tang Clan
- Public Enemy
- Run D.M.C.
- A Tribe Called Quest
- Geto Boys
- Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
- Beastie Boys
- Mobb Deep
Most Influential Female MCs
While hip hop is male-dominated, these skilled female rappers have shaped the genre:
- Queen Latifah
- MC Lyte
- Missy Elliott
- Lil’ Kim
- Lauryn Hill
- Nicki Minaj
- Cardi B
Rolling Stone, Vibe, Billboard, Complex, MTV, and other publications have created lists ranking the top rap stars ever. But skilled analysis from a rap historian perspective provides a more definitive evaluation. This article avoids recency bias to honor foundational rappers alongside newer voices.
While no rankings are definitive, the research conducted here aims to be more comprehensive and analytical in assessing each rapper’s skills, lyrics, influence, and legacy. Rather than quick “hot take” rankings, this list takes a critical deep dive into why each rapper earned their spot among hip hop’s elite.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you determine the best rappers of all time?
Many factors get weighed like lyricism, flow variety, discography strength, cultural significance, longevity, commercial success, influence on future artists, and rapping ability live and on record. Different criteria lead to different rankings, but the above shows one well-researched consensus.
Who is considered the most lyrical rapper?
Rakim, Chuck D, Kool G Rap, Nas, Andre 3000, Black Thought, and Eminem are often cited among the top lyricists. Great storytelling, wordplay,