J.Cole is rap game dramamine, and is often derided for being boring. But let’s delve deeper.
J.Cole is inversely talented to how known his work is. His mix-tapes are between good and great and his obscure guest verses on things like DJ Khaled’s Suffering From Success are randomly fantastic.
The problem is that his albums are meh. And, furthermore, that the hit songs from those albums are even worse.
His best mainstream song is “Let Nas Down,” because J.Cole finally managed to tap in to his zone of being a disappointment.
Essential Tracks: Let Nas Down, Dead Presidents, Dollar And A Dream 2.
You know about Drake, but he’s at his best when he’s musically complex and personally challenging/brooding, such as in “Days In The East” or “Marvin’s Room.”
But he’s also at his best when he’s packing in bravado like on “Trophies” or “Lord Knows.”
He’s also at his best with subtle riding songs, like “Dreams Money Can Buy” or “The Ride.”
Wait, also on random verses like “Throw It In The Bag (Remix)” or “Cook It Down.”
The point is that Drake is maligned for his softness but his diversity of styles rings out. From “Headlines” to “Started From The Bottom” to “The Motto,” from his soft, crooning hits to stealing the spotlight on “Pop That” Drake has brought excellence to a wide range of styles.
Yes, he’s an easy target (and the jokes are still pretty funny, which is surprising) but he’s earned his place.
Essential Tracks: Listed above, and “Closer To My Dreams.”
3. Rick Ross
It’s easy to make fun of Rick Ross.
But consider how easy it is to consider Rick Ross, and consider his survival and the “why” turns into “how” very quickly.
First: Rick Ross has done more with less talent than any rapper alive. That’s an insult, sure, but find the hidden compliment. Rick Ross has great production, and an absolutely uncanny knack for getting good beats and guest verses.
He’s not flashy as a talent, but Rick Ross has persevered by giving other rappers a sturdy track to show off on. He’s the talk show host of rap; fine, but his greatness is wrapped up in allowing the greatness of others to shine on a well produced, professional and controlled level.
Essential Tracks: Free Spirit, Triple Beam Dreams, War Ready. Rick Ross provokes amazing guest verses on all of these.
4. Meek Mill
He’s the rapper that’s yelling on the Rick Ross song your friend put on.
His mix-tapes are better than his yelling features might indicate, but don’t confuse being a dumb rapper for being dumb or being bad.
Meek Mill excels in the space provided him, and if you’re down for that, and have lowered the volume in your headphones, he’s a good listen.
Essential Tracks: Tony Story Part 1 and 2, Traumatized, Dreams And Nightmares Intro.
5. Kendrick Lamar
He’s the rapper who you like when you don’t usually like rap, and, as much as I like and respect Drake, Kendrick Lamar is clearly the best mainstream rapper active today.
His most recent album “Good kid, M.a.a.d City” is great but not a good introduction to his stuff. I prefer Section 80 or O.verly D.edicated anyhow, and will now use this as the chance to recommend those further.
Essential Tracks: Rigormortis, Hiiipower, The Art of Peer Pressure.
6. Nicki Minaj
Better than she’s given credit for, Nicki Minaj is theatrical, enveloping and dominant in a way few rappers are. Exempting her more poppy stuff, she still comes off as one of the better rappers out today, and she’ll rap circles around anyone she guests for.
I am poorly educated in Nicki Minaj, but she crucially had the best verse on the best rap album of the past five years on “Monster” so start with that.
Essential Tracks: Monster, Sweet Dreams (Remix), Y U Mad.
7. French Montana
You’re going to hate him. But he’s infectious.
By the end, you will be helpless to his dumb, auto-tuned swagger and charm. And you should let that happen. Life is too short not to appreciate the beautifully dumb for the beauty within it.
Essential Tracks: “Haaaan” (Yes, that’s the name.) “All For You” which samples Lana Del Rey, and “Coke Boyz” featuring Meek Mill.
8. Kanye West
If Kanye West made a bad song, how would we know?
I’m kidding. Mostly.
Since Kanye’s ascension to God from rapper, there’s been a strange stagnation that nobody wants to talk about. His compilation album, Cruel Winter was only “good enough” and Cruel Summer was scrapped. And, as much as everyone loves Yeezus, it’s still a very divisive album musically.
Kanye’s spent a lot of time designing, and, as a figure larger than rap his future as a musician is less clear than we’d like. But, for now, everyone here loves the emperor’s new clothes.
Also: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is amazing.
Essential Tracks: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, all the way through. Maybe “Diamonds” and “Drive Slow” if you’ve got time after that.