Fuck Hotness. It’s a stupid arbitrary idea and worse adjective—a word best left to Paris Hilton, Al Roker, and Mims. It is the province of US Weekly and planned obsolescence, of web 1.0 ephemera and South Korean boy bands. But hip-hop has the word “hip” in it. So hotness has been paramount since “swag” was “fly.” So much that the industry cropped up around it—one that worships youth like it recruited for Penn St.
We’re 20 years past the point when Rakim and Big Daddy Kane were pushed off an iceberg. Or maybe that was penance for Kane appearing in Madonna’s Sex book. Either way, no other genre values youth, co-signs, and popular whim quite like the rap industry—from labels, to media, to its willingness to allow Iggy Azalea to exist. Let’s face it, the bottom line of the fad 5 (Interscope, Universal, Warner Bros. EMI, and Def Jam) is mostly dictated by the fickle whims of teenagers who think Datpiff is an Ivy League University. Kreayshawn got Dr. Evil money because she had one hot single. If she can’t produce another hot one, she will be a Trivial Pursuit answer (Arby’s Edition).
So when the MTV brass get together to deliberate the 10 Hottest Rappers of the Year, most of the guys on this list aren’t even considered. Everyone with a pulse knows that Kendrick and Danny Brown have been bludgeoning every bar, but somehow MTV thought Maino and Red Café were more vital to the conversation. What’s worse is that if the MTV (or XXL or whomever) staffers were asked to list their personal favorites, it would look entirely different. But we are supposed to believe that BIG SEAN IS THE 8TH HOTTEST RAPPER IN THE GAME, when everyone with taste knows that he’s a tin-voiced hash-tag tart who only got his album released because Kanye West liked his “A.S.S.”
Don’t mistake this for groupthink. Abe Beame nearly seceded from France for our exclusion of French Montana. Tosten Burks would vote Blu for Secretary of Agriculture. Sach can’t stand Shabazz Palaces. Your list is different. That’s why Based God invented comment sections. The rapper order reflects work done in the last year and change. Six months ago, it would’ve looked different. Six months from now, I hope it will seem obsolete. Of course, it is shaded by age and inclination. Our only criteria was to disregard the clutter, ignore ephemeral chart popularity, and third-hand impressions of the street. Truthfully, this isn’t about who’s the hottest, but rather, who is most consistently dropping songs that make you flash the screw-face. But that would be a terrible title for a list. –Jeff Weiss
10. Action Bronson
Action Bronson of Flushing, Queens used to belong to a class of New York rappers jealously championed by puritanical heads as the realest of the real. He rapped furiously and respectably throughout his 35 track morass Bon Appetit …. Bitch !!!!!!!!!!; the project bore J-Love tags, a surefire indicator of willful irrelevance.But at some point last year, the hip-hop bible belt lost Bronson to the blogs, who adopted him, with his homegrown flow and all his recessive genes, as their son. There, he briefly fought a vocal resemblance to Ghostface Killah before coming into his own as a macabre foodie with a beard worthy of an 18th century pirate. A Bizarro Rick Ross, if you will. Perhaps, a Zibarro.
Looking back at the video for “Typhoon Rap,” it seems like it was only a matter of time before he was hosting cooking segments for The Fader. Bronson was much more than an able pre-swag rapper from New York. In the budget-less video for “Typhoon Rap,” Bronson bares his pasty white Albanian chest in front an utterly random pop culture green screen slideshow, flexing his tattooed “pecs” like a rejected luchador. He raps, “Twenty five, but that shit I spit is timeless. / Swimming with piranhas, throw the penis in vaginas.” Such wit, coupled with actual talent, couldn’t go unnoticed by hoarders of potentially viral hyperlinks. If Dr. Lecter’s gonzo raps about dead girlfriends and psychedelic fuzz solidified him as one of today’s best rappers, his upcoming project with Alchemist might establish him as a generational hero.–Evan Nabavian
9. Ish from Shabazz Palaces
Ish is fucking gangster. He is not up for debate. You don’t have to like the music behind Shabazz Palaces, but if you write down Ish’s lyrics and put them over Rick Ross beats, you’d understand the slickness. Listening to Ish is like Iceberg Slim meets Nicky Barnes while smoking coke in a jazz club. With all due respect, you can shake a tree in New York and 10 French Montana’s fall out. Ish is over 40 years old and writing the slickest, sharpest, flyest shit of his life over music that would bang at Low End, something no other rapper has ever done. His writing is elegant, honest, raw, dark, tribal, and haunting. His slang is Uptown Saturday Night/Ironman/Superfly. I loved Digable Planets, but as Palaceer Lazarro, he has reinvented himself as a guy I would not leave my girl nor my cash around. He calls his shit “gunbeats”. Listen to “Bronny on the Breakaway“. That’s why he should be on this list. –Zilla
8. A$AP Rocky
It’s too easy to posture and wax high brow about A$AP Rocky – his fusion of multiple slangs and styles and the inherent clash between twin penchants for fashion couture and black hoodies. Rather, he’s a perfect encapsulation of the American zeitgeist, a de-localized millennial whose Harlem includes segments of Houston and Cleveland, and whose popularity was initiated by a single ear worm of an internet-borne song. He’s a sign of the rap times—so unconcerned about gender that he can call himself a pretty mothafucka and no one’s accusing him of being gay (perhaps because sexual orientation is announced by way of album title these days).
Fuck all that. Any artist will reflect his time. Rocky is killing it, because more than anyone else on this list, he knows what cool sounds like. Just look at the beat selection on LiveLoveA$AP. It’s not only that there’s not a bad beat on the thing. Each instrumental contains sounds that with broad appeal, from muzzled webs of noise, to persistent creeping melodies, to perfectly programmed drums. As for the lyrics—too much has been made of his flow, which is admittedly a little less than def(t). But if you familiarize yourself more thoroughly with his catalogue, you realize that there’s not a single word out of place on any song. The lack of laugh-out-loud punchlines is accompanied by a complete absence of throwaway lines. Rappers who can turn your head with a bar aren’t so hard to find today. The best of them made an album in 2011 that was a retro-maniac re-creation of the best album from 20 years earlier. But Rocky doesn’t need triple entendres or a record from yesterday to impress. Instead, he takes ingredients that we’re all familiar with and combines them in ways that make us want to keep listening. — Jonah Bromwich
7. Schoolboy Q
In a recent interview with Schoolboy Q, the rapper claimed to hate his “real true songs” like “Blessed” because he feels like “[y]ou have to do certain records so people won’t categorize you as this [rapper who talks about nothing]”. If you genuinely appreciate rap, you don’t need meaningful content to validate the genre. It should be enough that Q scratches pockets of weirdness in basic boasting, screeching and squealing odd slants on “There He Go” or flipping a bizarre one line rhyme scheme on “niggaHs.already.know.”
You hear Q’s fervor in every bar, but his sincerity resonates more for its rarity. “Blessed” is Q’s “Keep Ya Head Up.” He starts his second verse with the death of his friend’s son, realizes his placating bullshit isn’t enough and pledges his eternal allegiance to friends and family. Even in these 21 bars, Q packs lifetimes into sidenotes; “’Fuck police’ tattoos, that’s what happens when you ditch school”. The plainspoken hood autobiography of “Cycle” retells Game’s discography in 4 minutes. His contradictions run deeper than conscious-gangster stereotypes. Q can kick 16 bars of shit talk better than anyone short of Cam or 2 Chainz. See the cameo on Kendrick Lamar’s “Michael Jordan”. Check his beautifully disrespectful back-and-forth with ASAP Rocky on “Brand New Guy”. I’d pay a crisp 50 for a “While you gone? Shit, Netflix on your couch” t-shirt. TDE, holler at me. –Aaron Matthews
6. Roc Marciano
If you enjoy dusted beats with (angel) dust-ridden voices, if you thought the Big Apple got soft when Snoop came through and crushed the buildings, if you’ve ever canceled your Dictionary.com Word of the Day email because they had the audacity to send you a word you already knew, Roc Marciano should be (or probably already is) your favorite rapper on this list. Capturing the high tension of pre-Rudolph Giuliani New York City in both his oppressively dark, sample-driven beats and his artfully knotty webs of rhymes, Mr. Marcberg has risen far beyond old guard East Coast rappers feebly trying to “bring New York back” because of his steadfast attention to craft.
Easily one of the most technically gifted rappers in the game right now, Marciano’s verses are little marvels of rhyming skill. With the stringent economy of rhyming sounds in them, it’s almost as he’s tossing them off frivolously, like getting a roll of quarters and pitching them into a water fountain, one by one. But that’s only half the story; having a broad talent for stringing words together can still result in unsatisfying music. (Anybody remember Canibus on a day other than March 9th?)
Marciano uses his own version of Raekwon’s pelican cockatoo feather gambino slang while frivolously tossing rhyming words with panache. He’s funny, (“While these niggas legs rubbing like errand runners), he has incredibly expensive tastes and won’t settle for anything less (“Never wore Sauconys, nor a pair of Ponys”), he’s borderline sociopathic (“Twinkie filling [will] start spilling out your wid-dig”), and actually kind of gross (“Whores offer to drink my urine”). He conjures images of bodies being chopped and wrapped in duct tape. He smokes blunts laced with angel dust. His team will press your queen like a keyboard. He’ll send ten coyotes to run out to Wyoming. You can write a whole review by quoting his own lyrics back to him. No need to draw up a hagiography about how he’s one of the best MCs around, the work speaks for itself. His discography is godly. — Douglas Martin
Curren$y has it figured out. He embodies the spirit of the game kicked by my granddad: if it doesn’t cost you money, don’t worry about it. He smokes the most expensive chronic. He fucks the baddest bitches. He pushes the flyest whips. And he’s overcome the slight polio that was being named “Shante.”
Consider Curren$y Buddhist by way of circumstance. He’s been re-incarnated four times by the age of 30. While other benched big-league rappers absorbed the bad habits of the stars, Spitta soaked up the secrets of the best rappers on No Limit and Cash Money: work ethic, style, how to build a squad and how to survive. His mixtapes are as inspirational guides. Stressed over work or women? Double down your hustle. Stay focused on self-betterment and if you get there, relish the spoils. As he explains on “The Briefing,” we did it all courtesy of good weed, bad bitches, and cold champagne. We had a good time.” The American dream reified in the form of a drawling, dollar-thin Crescent City native, transplanted to slick-talking diamond-supplied Manhattan.
The revelations usually come as asides, tossed-off thoughts (“Don’t check bags/leave the bullshit in the past”) or through clever inversions of rapper cliché. To Spitta, Sosa is the one who had it figured out. After all, he wins. At his best, Curren$y blends the silky-smooth strut of Camp Lo with the polished hustle of late 90s, Jay-Z. “She Don’t Want a Man” might be the best cynical interpretation of gender relations since “Hey Papi.” He sells out shows and pumps out product with enviable consistency—aligned with a major but the hustle is independent and inexorable. He realizes you just need to be prepared for whatever, stay cool, and never smoke middle-class grass. —Jeff Weiss
4. Rick Ross
While this list is intended to remedy MTV’s laughable view of Hip Hop’s current landscape, the dirty secret the Passion gang doesn’t want you to know is they got #1 right. Rick Ross currently casts a shadow over his craft, he is at the pinnacle of his abilities and genre, to deny that would be focusing on a young tree with admirable spit and a world of unrealized potential, as the forest burns around it. Ross has forged a singular vision of style, one immune to his past or background, the limits of earthly wealth and the laws of physics.
To label his music as Kingpin shit, CEO shit or presidential shit would be belittling. Ross is a Hip Hop Galactus, a planet devouring monolith peeling off classic anthems and tightly focused albums with previously unseen drive and consistency. No he’s not one of these prolific mixtape a week dudes, but when a song is released with Ross’ name attached the Internet stops and listens, because his track record demands such respect and attention. The temptation is to guess that he’s finally found his high watermark, that there’s nowhere to go from here and much like Wayne before him, a style that somewhat leans on an element of surprise will inevitably backslide into formula. But that, my friend, is a wager you place at your own peril. — Abe Beame
3. Freddie Gibbs
It’s simple really. Freddie Gibbs is the best gangster rapper of his generation. It’s easy to downplay the impressiveness of that title because his generation is one that reduced gangster rap to the lowest vocal register and the lowest common denominator. But there are few equals to Freddie’s authenticity and flexibility from any era.
He is at once both confessedly and unashamedly real. In a time when Lil Wayne hood fairy taless goes platinum, nothing is romanticized. In a time when Rick Ross is entirely false yet ubiquitous, nothing is photoshopped. “Reality is sad, but it’s true/So what can a nigga do when you’re people don’t support you?” He’s the rare reporter with more than enough self-awareness to editorialize appropriately and meaningfully. “59 fifty to the left, but I’m in my right mind,” is as concise of a character thesis as anything I could write, and also a better play on words than anything Young Money has said in years.
That both of those lines were spit on Madlib beats only further supports that Gibbs is operating on another plane. In the past two months, Freddie has also shredded throbbing Nick Catchdubs dance-hop and sunny League of Starz slap. A$AP and Kendrick may best epitomize the sound displacement of the game’s new post-regionalism, but no one covers as much ground as Gibbs. Thematically, he may be chained to the streets, but technically and sonically, he can do whatever he wants. It’s just simple. — Tosten Burks
2. Danny Brown
Danny Brown gave us an easy talking point when he proclaimed himself the hybrid. Here was an emcee that dropped a mixtape with Tony Yayo while extolling the virtues of Aesop Rock and got hipster haircuts while teaming up with backpack hero Black Milk. In other words, he was like us: a rap omnivore whose relationship to the art wasn’t limited by media-defined sub-genres. Gleefully patching together his influences until they became unrecognizable, Danny spent the past two years becoming a rap Frankenstein who did everything wrong but got everything right. Who else would passionately advocate Grime beats but then rhyme on them with a crunk flow? Or draw for Paul White’s sampledelic haze but also Brandon DeShay’s Final Fantasy pastiche? Ditto for the flow: critics have compared Danny’s voice to Monch, Eminem and (most commonly) an angry, wounded dog but the truth is, there’s nothing quite like it as he shifts from a growl to yelp on a moment’s notice.
But all of this stylistic gunplay would be for naught if Brown had nothing to say. Instead, 2011 saw him drop XXX, an album as gut-wrenchingly painful as it is entertaining, capturing a perfect balance between hedonistic anthems and the dark side of an increasingly unhinged lifestyle. While some were self indulgent (ahem, Tyler) and others shallow (double ahem, Yeezy) Danny Brown infused his rhymes with 30 years worth of bitterness and disappointment, making us believe that this really was his last chance to “not fuck up at life.” Detroit has always bred a particularly weary rapper, one disillusioned not only by his hometown’s crumbling desolation but also a media focus that would paradoxically rather call attention white interlopers or the sophisticated Techno of America’s blackest city. In Danny Brown however, not only has Detroit found a voice, but also every hard working and disillusioned Midwesterner who desperately wants things to get better but knows they probably won’t. More than a Hybrid, he’s a whole new strain. —Son Raw
1. Kendrick Lamar
Since that autumn when Tupac Shakur stopped breathing, every would-be messiah and wannabe savior of hip hop has tried to wear that crown and capture that voice of a generation spirit that Tupac effortlessly embodied. A few have even gotten their fingers on that spirit but its a Sisyphean, maybe impossible task. It’s possible that no rapper will be able to ever capture the essence of a generation anymore. No amount of naked ambition can bring it back. Thus, the highest compliment that I can muster is that only the truly great rappers can make that labor seem vaguely possible. And Kendrick Lamar touches on that possibility.
Like many of his predecessors, Kendrick Lamar may never get there (and in all fairness, probably won’t) ,but its remarkable how easy this generation-defining stuff comes to him. Like Pac, there are artists who are better pure rappers, as well as people that are hotter in the streets, but nobody is making music with such soulful conviction. Kendrick is 24 years old, straight out of Compton and operating on a level that none of his peers are working at. It’s a testament to his ability that you simply don’t cringe when lofty hyperbole is tossed his way.
The beauty of Section 80 was that nothing sounded forced (well, other than a few of those rock hooks). Neither as pedantically preachy as Common or annoyingly condescending as Lupe Fiasco. Section 80 brimmed with warmth and displayed a mastery of various styles. Whether rapping about the endemic self destruction of kids born out of the crack epidemic or the hidden beauty of women masking their insecurities behind a wall of cosmetic products, everything is spirit-stirring. It doesn’t need to arrogantly declare itself the “voice of generation” because it already it is. That’s what happens when your age don’t exist. –-Doc Zeus