The POW Best Rap Songs of 2022

The truth, undisputed.
By    December 20, 2022

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Even labors of love come at the significant cost of time. This is the result of hundreds of hours of labor. Three editors and dozens of contributors attempting to capture the spirit of the old weird Internet. Should you value what we do, please consider donating to our Patreon. It is the only way we can continue to survive.

As always, the same rules apply: one song per featured artist, “singles” prioritized over deep cuts, American rap only (sorry), West Coast over everything. Your favorite song didn’t make the list because we are spiteful and eccentric creatures. Thanks for reading. We tried. – Ed

100. Kamaiyah ft. Young Slo – Be – “IT’S ON THE FLO”
99. Band Gang Masoe – “Top Of The Key”
98. Verde Babie – “2 Steppin”
97. Dougie B – “Forever On That”
96. Fly Anakin x Madlib – “No Dough”
95. DaBoii – Bananas
94. Nef The Pharoah – “Big Shit Talker”
93. LUCKI – “Super Urus”
92. Babytron – “King of the Galaxy”
91. Doechii – “Bitch I’m Nice”
90. Jay Worthy x Larry June ft. Roc Marciano – “Maybe The Next Time”
89. Lil Durk – “AHHH HA”
88. Mac J – “BucketList”
87. The Koreatown Oddity – “MISOPHONIA LOVE”
86. YUNGMORPHEUS – “Figure-Four Leg Lock”
85. Defcee – “Summer 06”
84. Wrecking Crew – “Piranha Hands”
83. Megan Thee Stallion ft. Future – “Pressurelicious”
82. Shawny Binladen – “Grinchset Shyt”
81. Chief Keef – “Hadouken”
80. Acito ft. ft. SalahBabyy, Band$, Lil1700Adrian, ABM Spiffy – “No Names”
79. Key Glock – “Proud”
78. Big Sad 1900 – “So What”
77. Maxo ft. Pink Siifu – “48”
76. Allstar JR – “Run Through It”
75. They Hate Change – “Breathing”
74. Hook – “GAMEBOY”
73. Realstasher 50K – “Coming Down”
72. Tony Shhnow – “Show U”
71. Ka – “Counted Out”
70. Papo2oo4 – “Show You”
69. Duke Deuce ft GloRilla – “JUST SAY THAT”
68. YL – “2003”
67. MarijuanaXO x Joe Pablo – “WWE”
66. Saba ft. Krayzie Bone – “Come My Way”
65. Tr3yway6K x YoungThreat x EBK Young Joc x Young Slo-Be – “South Central 2 South East”
64. BlueBucksClan – “Jeeezy WYA”
63. ShooterGang Kony – “Bounce Out”
62. Heembeezy – “Face no Book
61. ILOVEMAKONNEN – “Bet That”
60. Zoe Osama – “Underrated”
59. Ball Greezy – “Comin Thru”
58. Rio Da Yung Og – “Showstopper”
57. Drakeo the Ruler x Ralfy the Plug – “Suicide Dawn”
56. Quelle Chris – “Alive Ain’t Always Living”
55. Saviii 3rd – “Trooped Up”
54. Lil Double 0 – “Mr. Biggs”
53. Luh Tyler – “Law & Order”
52. MudBaby Ru – “Gun Class”
51. Peezy – “2 Million Up”

Archibald Slim ft. Gabe ‘Nandez – “Worldly Ways” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

Archibald Slim came up amongst the influential Atlanta-born Awful Records roster of oddballs that included Father, Zach Fox, and ILOVEMAKONNEN. Perhaps the crew’s most lyrically-focused member, Slim is blessed with a knack for immersive storytelling and respect for genre traditions. He also made a name for being prolific, tapping into an overwhelming creative well that seemingly dried up by the time he moved to LA in 2018. Then the pandemic brought Slim back to Atlanta, where he tapped deeper into his Southern roots and regained the fire that fueled his earlier recordings. Worldly Ways is a love letter to the old Atlanta that the rapper grew up with, rather than the new school that’s since transformed the mainstream.

Named after a Slimm Calhoun cut from 2001’s The Skinny, the album marinates in the same psychedelic soul that informed the Dungeon Family’s best work – particularly on the title track, where Slim interpolates a few lines from UGK’s “Heaven” for an introspective hook over an instrumental cut reminiscent of Goodie Mob. Across two uncompromising verses, he locks into an examination of his legacy in the face of mortality. He taps Gabe ‘Nandez, who Slim became a fan of upon hearing the globally-grown rapper’s multilingual single “223,” to apply his own cautionary street talk. Their bars are equal parts combative and contemplative, making sense of how the trials they’ve conquered have only led to further opportunities to become corrupted. It’s a potent pairing, two take-no-shit shit-talkers turning further inward in a culture where conformity pays – taking their stand even with their backs against death’s door. – Pranav Trewn

50. Zahsosaa ft. D STURDY – “Shake Dhat”

Of all the cities that heard Bandmanrill and Project X’s Jersey club and were like “oh man that’s kinda sick let’s do it too,” Philly was one of the few who got it right, probably because it’s always been putting its own spin on club music and also because Philly has DJ Crazy who is a legitimate musical genius and he produced this song and holy shit it’s so good.

This song is pure drip in a quite literal sense, like somebody pours a bottle of water on a watch in the music video before the rapping even starts. The rapping isn’t the point of this song really, or at least the words aren’t, the most important element is the energy and the exuberance and the fact that everyone is dancing always and forever – even and especially when they are rapping. It was probably super popular on TikTok but I don’t have that because I am an adult.

If you heard Lil Uzi Vert’s “Just Wanna Rock” and were like “wow this song is so bonkers and out of nowhere and it’s tight that Joel Embiid to danced to it on the bench after dropping 53 on the Hornets” then you are only right about the Joel Embiid part. That song is just this song filtered through the rave scene in Blade. God wants you to shake that shit even when that shit is just a bottle of antiviral drugs because God is drums and everything is drums. – Drew Millard

49. YN Jay x Rio Da Yung OG x Louie Ray – “Coochie Flow”

Ever since officially entering the greater Flint scene in 2019 with his debut tape, YN JAY, the self-proclaimed Coochie Man, doesn’t need to be dared to explicitly share a recent sexual encounter, he just does naturally.

As one of the clear standouts on Jay’s first (of six) full-length releases this year, Young, Wild & Free, “Coochie Flow” features three of the scene’s best simply having a great time. Joined by Louie Ray and Rio Da Yung Og (#FreeRio), the trio successfully bring their attitude and infectious energy to the forefront. Over a pounding ENRGY beat, they take turns showcasing their sense of humor. Jay first expresses his anger towards people who sip lean but don’t properly appreciate it, followed by Rio choosing to embrace his lean belly because his vice costs him ten racks.

As their scenes continue to grow in popularity, influence and reach, they refuse to change. Jay keeps pushing the boundaries of just how far absurdity can go in rap songs. Humor has long been an important aspect of hip-hop, allowing rappers to flex their charisma and tell their stories in unique ways. But nobody does it like these guys and their influence continues to bleed into the mainstream through tracks like “Coochie Flow.” The next time you hear an out-of-pocket bar from your favorite rapper in an attempt to go viral, remember that Michigan rap is the driving force behind it. – Isaac Fontes

48. BOA QG & BOA Hunxho – “Voodoo”

The Georgia duo, BOA QG and BOA Hunxho burst onto the scene with one of the catchiest songs in recent memory, one with a refrain designed to have you remixing your own thoughts to its cadence. The video sets the tone with one the best acapella sections of 2022, the entire group belting out the hook with such conviction that instantly know you’re in for an instant classic.

Of course, it wasn’t long before they caught the attention of the good folks at QC. Even Game, who never met an idea that he couldn’t filter through his own mediocre prism, decided that he needed this song for his own album. He couldn’t leave well enough alone, though, and much of the original appeal was lost (Game’s career in a nutshell). Not to worry, though, the original is awesome enough.

It’s a song that sits in the pantheon of recent Southern blues-influenced rap music, next to modern classics like NoCap’s “Ghetto Angels” and Rylo Rodriguez’ “Set Me Free.” “Voodoo” might not exactly be thematically joyous, but their gift for melody turns it into a campfire sing along. At a time where pain music is beginning to run its course, this soulful rendition shows that it’s not what you do, but how it is done. –Harold Bingo

47. E L U C I D – “Betamax”

For a rapper routinely misunderstood as overly intellectual and thus gravely serious, E L U C I D’s music is humorous, often pretty horny, and rich with feeling. After casting protection spells and bullying his way through mutant blues on his truly astounding solo LP I Told Bessie, this half of Armand Hammer spends the album’s penultimate track raising his hands in praise.

Praising the spiritual reward of artistry; praising the ancestral history of scraping plates; praising the fact that music always shows the answer to our most profound questions. The song’s fractured, art-damaged gospel—worship music lattice chopped by P.U.D.G.E.—serves as the emotional climax of I Told Bessie, a devotional tribute to the kind of soul searching he spent years practicing in his grandmother’s brownstone. Screaming hymns in the muffled din of upstairs closets, looking for absolution over distorted beats. By the time he gets to the spiritual apex of the album with his refrain of I believe in Black people, guiding the masses with the woozy hand that scribes his poetry, delivered in a jazz drummer’s cadence, a new side of E L U C I D appears. The seeker who might have just found what he’s been looking for. “Betamax” is proof that a person can’t truly absorb the view from the mountaintop if they’ve never sunk into the gallows. – Douglas Martin

46. Westside Gunn ft. Stove God Cooks, Chef Raekwon, Ghostface Killah & Busta Rhymes – “Science Class”

As Westside Gunn settles into a new, less dictatorial phase of his career, he raps only sparingly – and mostly about the business of being the most gifted curator in street rap – possessed by an uncanny ability to craft songs that pair MCs and producers in ways that exceed the expectations created by their constituent parts. Such is the case with “Science Class,” a cross-generational posse cut that feels like there’s a substitute teacher playing oldies on the radio in the corner while the most charismatic kids in class hold court. Underpinning everything is an uncharacteristically earthy Swizz beat, with a prominent vocal sample helping keep time. Busta Rhymes sets things off, sounding free, having fun, pausing to let the sample rock and then filling in the spaces around it. The moment where Bus sings along with the vocal refrain, slightly changing the words to suit his rhyme scheme, is one of the best things that happened in music this year.

Chef Raekwon, presumably cutting Home Economics class, continues his lineage as one of the best feature rappers to ever collect a check for 30 seconds of brilliance. Ghostface sounds extra grizzled, popping in with some sex raps that are perhaps a little too graphic, but hint back at the exuberance he was known for earlier in his career. Gunn and Stove God Cooks (quickly developing a Rae-like ease with how he outshines artists on their own songs) trade phrases in a way that would not be out of place on a rap song from a much earlier time. Gunn himself is somewhat restrained , ceding the spotlight to the younger, more elastic Stove God. Stove is so soulful, extending syllables in a way that could almost be called singing, adding a bluesy undertone to what are objectively funny non-sequiturs about cocaine composition, weighty jewelry and celebrity mingling. – Nate LeBlanc

45. Baby Stone Gorillas – “Keep Goin”

When the Babystone Gorillas go to church, it’s not your typical pious affair. The congregation enjoys a blunt and a few sips of Casamigos, the organist has his pistol set on the top of his piano while he plays, and alms are collected in a New Era fitted. The group have communed to hear “Keep Goin” — a rapped sermon of perseverance delivered over a sunny, effervescent choir sample.

The song is the perfect choice to situate the Babystone’s 2022 run of success in the context of the current state of Los Angeles’ rap scene. Once upon a time, LA was dominated by the traffic rap titans: Shoreline Mafia, 03 Greedo, and Drakeo the Ruler. Shoreline has since broken up, 03 Greedo has been locked away in the belly of the leviathan that is the American carceral system, and Drakeo the Ruler was tragically assassinated. But, for better or for worse, the bittersweet beauty of rap is that it always ‘keeps going.’ There’s always an exciting new act, always a new group bubbling and ready to take the creative mantle.

Hailing from the Baldwin Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, BSG are that next group, with their innovative punched-in and staccato delivery (as well as their championship-level chemistry) leading the charge for LA’s next generation of street rap. They would be the first to tell you that their life up to now hasn’t exactly been easy — “sometimes I wish it was a dream, so I get high as fuck / spark this cookie for my dogs, pour this line up” — but their iron resolve has kept them pushing. In a year where the rap industry has been mired in needless death and legal witch hunts, it’s a powerful message. – Dario McCarty

Tramaine – “Ballet” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

Thoroughbred lineage looms large over Tramaine’s raucous debut “Ballet,” the first single off of his debut full-length, Through Hell or High Waters. The braided Chicago rapper arrives as part of Vince Ash’s Deuce Mob, dropping a memorable verse on “Mafia Music” – a Triple Six-sampling highlight of Ash’s stellar Vito. 

Memphis looms large here too, as Tramaine bellows drawled threats to all challengers with a bellicose magnetism reminiscent of Sosa-era Keef over a Project Pat flip. Even the grim reaper won’t catch him sleeping without the heat in his pillowcase. Follow-up single “Outside Alpo’s” highlights Tramaine’s breadth with a more playful West Coast sensibility and really we should all be pirouetting at the prospect of the album. And with Ash himself following Freddie Gibbs’ path to LA and getting picked up by Paul Rosenberg’s imprint, the 652 feels unstoppable – less a mid-point on the map than an ever-expanding crossroads. – Joel Biswas

44. Damedot – “FUCK YO SUMMER”

When I asked Damedot to describe what the rap music coming out of Detroit sounds like, his response spoke volumes to the authenticity of its music. “It’s really self-explanatory. We don’t make a mood, we don’t make you feel like something. We tell you exactly what it is. This is a rich n**** summer. I’m not tryna be poetic about it. I’m not using no metaphors.”  Perhaps no song better reflects this sentiment than his FUCK YO SUMMER tape’s eponymous lead single. “Fuck yo summer, this my summer!” he raps with a calming aura of confidence, asserting his dominance and care-free attitude.

Although it didn’t quite turn out to be the biggest song of the summer, it was a hit in local clubs and online. Simply put, this is straight-to-the-point, shit-talking rap music at its finest. There’s no bullshit behind anything Dame raps here, and that’s why it works. There’s no convincing needed or pleading from Dame to take him seriously because he doesn’t care what you think. This is his reality and his life, so he puts it all in his songs.- Isaac Fontes

43. ASM Bopster – “Like the Way You Move”

In the spring of 2022, a picture of ASM Bopster in a purple hoodie and trucker hat became inescapable on L.A. Instagram stories. Tapping into a snippet of “Like the Way You Move” felt like a weekly occurrence. By the hot months, thundering car systems and late night party soundtracks confirmed a new song of the summer had launched from the ’30s neighborhood: ASM Bopster had entered.

This single ascended from a Soundcloud collection of loosies that Bopster, 20 then uploaded as the Welcome 2K ASM album. Through its streaming and TikTok popularity, “Like the Way You Move” spawned a life of its own and landing major label looks. It’s both menacing and playful in equal measure, an R-rated Facetime love letter that’s danceable. ASM raps about wanting to sleep around without strings attached, various roster highlights, and recounts someone so passionate she’d rather fight him than fuck. There’s also the tenacious shit-talking, deeply ingrained in the budding ASM crew’s catalog. The sluggish taunts feel lived in and fresh.

After penning a deal with New York’s 300 Entertainment, becoming the first West Coast artist to sign with the Warner Music Group label, “Like the Way You Move” was re-released featuring Blueface, a video, and new cover art courtesy of Gallery Provence. While the big budget video somehow feels less authentically intriguing than that original Youtube image, which for many was the first association with the ASM chasm, it’s satisfying to see the full package forming around a local artist’s organic momentum. – Evan Gabriel

42. G Perico – “10 Digits”

Be it the homies banging out keystroke eulogies to their slain hood heroes, or the hack carpetbagging columnists squawking about how terrifying downtown Los Angeles looks, it seems most folks acknowledge that “there’s a war in the city” right now. These imagined battlefields look wildly, comically different depending on who’s handing you the chainmail. But the spirit is functionally the same: there’s a critical mass of public suffering dotting LA, and something’s gotta give. When South Central’s G Perico says “there’s a war in the city,” he prefaces by reminding us he’s an unchippable trophy. It’s not so much THE war he’s concerned with, but HIS war.

The city’s insatiable jealousy streak, deep wealth inequalities and helicopter-toting police force make “Los Angeles rapper” a dicey occupation, especially if you’re this damn icy. In response, “10 Digits” is a cerulean-tinted S-Class, bass fuzzing and shaking the adjacent vehicles as it swerves through FOUR lanes of traffic on the 110 South. It’s a languid, sun-drenched celebration of a former Broadway Gangster Crip surviving multiple trips to the pen. It’s a legit, Black-owned brand minted from a lifelong hustler who graduated from the corners at 13 years old. Perico’s vocal cadence brings back a Raiders-fitted Eazy E, and his brash prolificacy makes him something like contemporary LA’s Ice Cube. But “10 Digits” is single-and video-worthy thanks to League of Starz’ Godammit Dupri, whose swung, boosted drums and muted mafioso horn loop takes survival-mode shittalking to cinematic levels. “The hood ain’t do shit on the day I got shot up,” Perico spits. You expect these two to merge the Benz timidly? – Steven Louis

41. Yeat – “Poppin”

Yeat flexes as the world burns. As hip-hop fans around the globe became increasingly fascinated with rage beats in the last couple years, the Irvine-to-Portland-back-to-LA rapper captured the popular imagination with deceptively dark psalms about wealth and addiction. Yeat reached his highest peak yet commercially on 2 Alivë, and “Poppin” was the ideal introduction for the uninitiated. BenjiCold’s production rattles the nerves, hi-hats scraping against the drums at an uneasy rate, as if Yeat borders on flatlining from a drug-fueled splendor. Synths spew acid, drums drown and distort under its own toxicity.

Yeat’s music calls for as much or as little analysis as you decide to give it. He borders on incoherent one second and harrowing the next. In one moment, he fans himself with money, ready to go shopping. In the next line, whether lamenting or manically bragging: “It ain’t been a day that I ain’t been high, bitch, percs I pop ‘em.” It only adds to Yeat’s mysterious persona that he’s carefully cultivated. His raps reveal deeply disturbing details about addiction and the dark depths that it takes him. But he’ll also answer the meaning of life with whatever the hell ‘Shmadonka’ means. These gargled raps about shopping sprees and drug benders reflect the current moment – a melting Earth obsessed with memes and excess. – Caleb Catlin

Rhys Langston ft. Fatboi Sharif – “Progressive House, Conservative Ligature” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

No two stylists in the game are as inimitable as the odd couple of Rhys Langston and Fatboi Sharif. On “Progressive House, Conservative Ligature,” Langston’s brain-melting acerbic wit is the unstoppable force and Sharif’s LSD-inspired wanderings is the immovable object. One of many standouts from Langston’s brilliant Grapefruit Radio,  this somehow melds their two disparate styles into a funhouse combination of their best qualities.

Langston kicks things off over the slightly spooky looped beat from Opal-Kenobi, spitting, “When caught up on the video/ short selling triplexes for shares of NVIDIA/ geothermal index on a rolodex/ in living rooms.” I’m not sure if Langston is FDIC certified, but I wouldn’t trust anyone else with stock advice. Whereas Rhys tries to fit as many ideas as he possibly can into a four-minute song, Sharif does just the opposite, painting heavy brushstrokes of hyper specific moments in time that standout for their vividness: “Swam in aquarium/ Golden Gate bridge/ Sheltered rocks/ At Shea Stadium.” It’ll take decades to unlock all the coded wisdom from these two MCs, but for a few blissful minutes, the enigma is the fun. – Will Schube

40. Lil Baby – “In A Minute”

Sometimes you have to stop yourself to think Lil Baby only started to rap at the wish of Young Thug and Quality Control Co-founder, Coach K. The lead single of the Atlantan trap supernova’s third album, “In a Minute” carries itself with the weight of declaring GOAT status and a year since the critical release of the chart-topping sophomore album My Turn.  Sampling Ellie Goulding’s “Don’t Say A Word” to an airy soprano laid over laser-sharp hi-hats, Lil Baby breezes us through the hot streets of Atlanta drifting with the confidence of a juggernaut. His thick Southern drawl coated in auto-tune declares “I’m the boss, pay all the bills, I’m the golden child for real” after riffing off being rapping on stage with Billie Ellish and dropping industry checks on ammunition, finding the pockets all over the Kaigoincrazy and Haze trap beat.

In a year where hip-hop caught more than its fair share of L’s (self-inflicted or unfortunate), Lil Baby is the American Rap Dream personified with street-wise observations and the consistency of dishing out hits like Luka Doncic’s no-look assists. Shortly after the release of “In A Minute”, the song became Lil Baby’s hundredth entry on the Billboard Hot 100, making Lil Baby the youngest artist to achieve 100 entries on the Billboard charts. Many hip-hop songs can take a pass of claiming GOAT status, but how many made history whilst doing so? — Ethan Herlock

39. Young Thug – “Metro Spider”

On Metro Boomin’s brilliant producer compilation, Heroes & Villains, Young Thug embodies a role similar to the Ol’ Dirty Bastard on Wu-Tang Forever.

The ODB showstopper, “Dog Shit” couldn’t be any more different than “Spiders.” But on the third, or fourth, or fifth time I ran through the album, the comparison stuck in my head and I couldn’t shake it. It isn’t so much the songs as what they mean in the context of the album, the way both singular talents are employed by their master arrangers. Both songs are solo spotlights on projects built on the magic of collaboration, climactic star turns in which a conductor, like any good and generous producer, cedes the reins and steps away.

“Dog Shit” is fucked up, unhinged, cathartic escapism. “Metro Spider” is an exercise that is cool and ethereal, Thug suspended by silken thread weaving a trademark elegant tapestry of complex melody. But both songs present masters of tone – seasoned artists with God-like control of their instruments, finding a cooked down, pure and distilled performance of what makes them two of the greatest rappers who ever lived. Thug takes his time over choral yearning and the somewhat morbid gong of a chapel bell and reverberation that never really ends. Like the end of Wu-Tang Forever’s second disc, Thug’s intensity builds until he’s sprinting through the finish line, a song under three minutes you wish would never end.

It’s also a reminder of Young Thug’s genius, one that, like ODB, we may be in danger of losing far too soon. – Abe Beame

38. Roc Marciano ft. Action Bronson – “Daddy Kane”

Toasted cinnamon-tinted windows descend on an idling, sandpaper beige Porsche 911 to produce a veil of purple kush indica smoke and the visage of Roc Marciano clad in a bandana, gold-rimmed aviators, and a deadpan of mingled reproach and indifference. An iPhone sits on a carbon fiber dashboard flashing missed calls from an R&B starlet, an Hermès model from September’s Italian Vogue, and an unknown number of Colombian provenance. The black cashmere joggers suggest today is an off day, so apprehensive spectators need not fear scuffles or bloodshed unless some enterprising scrub in fake Diors is foolish enough to make a move on the Swiss timepiece weighing down Roc’s left hand. Roc Marci’s muses are Michael Mann and Grand Daddy I.U., though today he welcomes two collaborators. One is a doyen named Alchemist from Beverly Hills with a psychedelic bent and a legendary reputation.

The other is distinguished by his Hell’s Angels beard and his encyclopedic knowledge of Guyanese eateries in southeast Queens. He’ll fracture your eye socket with a well-placed DDT at the slightest lèse-majesté assuming the camera isn’t rolling. He’s Action Bronson, man of taste. Unbidden, he spreads five styrofoam containers on the hood of the car, the first three containing honey shrimp, beef stir fry, and cucumber salad, the fourth containing duck fat fries, and the fifth a dollop of banana pudding. He has earned this repast, having just evaded capture in Francisco Scaramanga’s flying AMC Matador coupe from The Man With The Golden Gun. His heritage requires that he wear Timbs. He’s immune to character study. He and Roc are world historical in their achievements and yet anything but satisfied. – Evan Nabavian

37. EBK Jaaybo – “I Am Nightingale”

EBK JaayBo has always foregrounded his lost ones. That rawness was what made last year’s Letter 4 The Streets – a more introspective take on Stockton street rap – so special. By comparison, “I Am Nightingale” marks a return to open defiance. Jaaybo spits disgust for those that diss but never slide, and even in his moments of grief, he’ll never abandon his codes: “Casino died some years ago and I’m still crying / But you can ask that n**** daughter, Jaaybo still sliding.” It’s an anthem for his specific hood — southeast Nightingale, home of the killers — that oozes venom, sounding like a call to arms.

For the last year and a half or so, Jaaybo has been behind bars. He was jailed shortly after Streets’ July 2021 release, turning 18 and then 19 during his jail stint. In that time, Stockton also lost another of its most prominent torch-bearers, Young Slo-Be, in an August shooting. Too often, rap music is full of recurrent loss. You discover young and exciting artists who are spinning the genre forward in new and original ways, only to lose those artists before they get the chance to enjoy the fruits of their labor. In Stockton, decades of a lack of public investment have ensnared the city’s Black and Brown communities in cycles of poverty and crime. Everything about Stockton’s rap music — the paranoia, the trauma, the brotherhood and the bite — comes from navigating that neglected world. On “I Am Nightingale,” Jaaybo stakes his territory, reminding us that he’s still one of the best in his city even from prison. In tragedy, he doubles down on the Stockton rap ethos of staying dangerous, lest the conspiratorial forces of our age get him. – Kevin Yeung

36. Chicken P – “All Dawgs Go To Heaven”

Here’s a little peek behind the curtain for the POW audience. When our supreme overlord Mr. Weiss (we have to call him Mr. or he threatens to lock us in a basement with nothing but Post Malone albums to listen to) asks for this list, he recommends that the rap songs have videos to go with them. I won’t share all of the additional expletives that come with this request but what I will share is my willingness to go against that grain.

All jokes aside, “All Dawgs Go To Heaven” is a song so great, the video is essentially superfluous. For my money, Chicken P had one of the best years in rap, as he continues to hone the Milwaukee street rap sound by drawing from a unique well of influences. The production on this sounds like something DJ Quik might have cooked up if he was subjected to the harsh winters of the midwest instead of cooling in the California sunshine.

Chicken does not let the backdrop go to waste, either. With two excellent tapes, Chicken P’s 2022 has been an excellent culmination of all the work that he has put in to make the Milwaukee scene this exciting. He’s been dropping local hits for going on seven years now and the rest of the country is slowly beginning to take notice.

The rougher edges of his more typical material have been sanded off to great effect. His delivery elevates lines that don’t exactly jump off the written page. Even something as simple as “I made a 50 off the couch, bro can vouch. No, we don’t fuck with pigs, rats, snakes or mouse” sounds positively anthemic . – Harold Bingo

35. Brian Ennals & Infinity Knives – “Death of a Constable”

You’re unlikely to hear another rap song in 2022 that praises the January 6th riot. In fact, if the motivation behind the storming of the Capitol was different, “Death of a Constable” might have been blasted as its rallying cry. Dripped out in a bathrobe, Brian Ennals would be standing beside the guillotine he’s been saving for, shouting “if every pig died, we’d be just fine” into a megaphone. Infinity Knives would be beside him, manning the synth and drum machine like a one-man Bomb Squad, pushing the song’s post-disco beat into the red until the speakers blow. The two would lead the sea of rioters in a thunderous chant of “Fuck 12! Fuck 12!” before bursting into the rotunda and singing “All we want is reparations” in unison.

A heavy, mid-album highlight from the Baltimore duo’s incendiary King Cobra, the song is another entry into the evergreen subgenre of anti-cop rap songs. It joins the ranks of classics like “Fuck Tha Police,” “The Day The N*ggaz Took Over,” and “Crooked Officer,” tracks whose caustic sonics and bristling rage reflect the barbaric treatment of Black Americans at the hands of the police. The scope of “Death of a Constable” is enormous: Ennals begins with an anecdote of being tear gassed for the crime of walking to work while Black, gives a brief history lesson about the slave-catcher origins of law enforcement, and ends with the abolitionist promise of destroying the institution once and for all. It’s an intense and thrilling two and a half minutes. Even as we enter the year 2023, there’s still a war going on outside no man is safe from. – Dash Lewis

34. Open Mike Eagle – “For DOOM”

Open Mike Eagle has never made a secret of his devotion to the masked villain, Daniel Dumile. It’s of little surprise, therefore, that the L.A.-by-way-of-Chicago MC dedicated a track to the fallen Viktor Vaughn on his latest album, 2022’s a tape called component system with the auto reverse. On the aptly named “For DOOM,” OME laments the loss of his hero before dipping into lyrical gymnastics that would have made King Geedorah proud.

Eagle opens the track remembering the two times he worked with DOOM (on the foreboding “Police Myself” and the spookily suspenseful Czarface/MF DOOM joint, “Phantoms”). While he admits to the disappointment he still feels over never having actually met his hero face to gas face, he also is quick to point out, “who the fuck ever gets to rock with they heroes?” From here, the track detours from respectful wake to inspired homage, with Open Mike seemingly donning the mask himself as he proceeds to spit lyrically dense verses that seemingly could have dripped from Dumile’s own pen. “I’m dadbod, Saved by the Bell-y, Kelly Kapowski” is one of this Gen Xer’s favorite lines of the year. I think it’s more than fair to say that from whatever distant realm the metal fingered one is dwelling these days, “For DOOM” has put a smile on the mug behind the mask. – Chris Daly

33. Chris Crack – “Therapy Don’t Work, Try Drugs”

I would trust Chris Crack with anything and that’s not only because he shouted me out on “Fap With The Good Lotion.” Even though that song title prohibits me sharing the blessed news with my family, the glory remains. Whether advising on masturbatory solutions or getting zonked because your shrink charges $300 bucks an hour, Chris Crack brings a near Yoda-like wisdom to his raps. “Therapy Don’t Work, Try Drugs” is classic Crack in a number of ways. The Chicago spitter released two stellar LPs in 2022, What Y’all Mad About Today and Growthfully Developed. “Therapy” is on the latter, and is both a staple for Chris Crack devotees and a good place to start for anyone uninformed.

The details are vivid and ridiculous. He’s eaten hibachi three nights in a row (shoutout Gilbert Arenas) and wanders aimlessly around Target when he’s got nothing better to do. The glamorous life of a rap star indeed. But for all of his clever jabs and quotables, Crack taps into a more emotional side of his repertoire, trying to measure the distance between a smile and frown and looking for someone in life who will keep it real with you. Crack knows all too well that there’s an exponential relationship between success and yes men. Here, Chris Crack takes a break from dispensing wisdom and begs for someone–anyone–to repay his efforts. – Will Schube

32. 42 Dugg x EST Gee – “Thump Shit”

EST Gee’s thunderous, cutthroat raps have led him to the frontline of post-Future grimeball trap in recent years. 2021’s Bigger Than Life Or Death solidified him as one of CMG’s best artists and hinted at his chemistry with peer 42 Dugg, a rapper who was still learning how to break free from the shadow of Lil Baby. The two forces came together again for 2022’s Last Ones Left, a tape laced with some of the most raucous tracks of the year including mean cuts like “Ice Talk” and “Free The Shiners,” but none which better cut through the playlist slop than “Thump Shit.”

Gee’s staggering menace is balanced with Dugg’s obfuscated carnal raps, his sharp teeth hidden behind ear-worming melodies. “Thump Shit” is piercingly simple (intro, verse, hook, verse, hook) but it’s anthemic in ways so few tracks have been in 2022; it’s a song which would be getting thousands of spins on radio if the general public’s collective taste wasn’t so bad. A swift punch up at the troves of stuffy critics and naysayers who want to suck fun out of Hip Hop, “Thump Shit” is for the kids banging their fists on metal tables in the cafeterias, the true arbiters of good rap music. – David Brake

31. Rx Papi – “First Day Out”

Rx Papi raps like someone who knows he could be sent back to jail at any moment. Indeed, just 11 days after he dropped “First Day Out,” Papi was back in court, having been arrested a few days earlier for an aggravated criminal contempt charge. An ex-girlfriend claimed that Papi—born Chester A. Roscoe—“repeatedly grabbed [her] by the neck, lifted her up, and dropped her on top of a heater.”

Papi double-tracks his vocals so that there’s almost no break between bars. “Breathless” is a music-crit banality, but it’s a fact in this case—I have no idea how he’d perform most of his songs live. Most artists adopt personas—they streamline, emphasize, elide, and conflate. Papi does not. When I say his music is “everything,” I mean it literally: in just over two minutes he careens from deep-pull references – Ted DiBiase and Johnny Cage – to shouting out his Dawg Shit record label to PTSD flashbacks to growing up poor, angry, and bloody in Rochester, New York. Fuck tone deaf, this is tone blind. (That’s a good thing.) It is unedited, uncurated, unabashed. It feels like if you jumped into Papi’s head at the moment he was recording, there’d be no difference between his inner monologue and what he was rapping. The membrane between his inner voice and the music he’s creating is essentially nonexistent. Every artist should be so lucky. – Jordan Ryan Pedersen

Unexplained Aerial Phenomenon ft. Kent Loon – “Mega Man” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

No matter how profound the realizations or beautiful the visuals, every psychedelic experience has a bit of an edge to it. The psilocybin makes you queasy; the acid gives you a searing comedown headache; the molly saps your serotonin. Unexplained Aerial Phenomenon, the lysergic trio formed by LA-based synth duo Pioneer 11 and Portland rapper Byron, the Alien, easily tap into the menace that lurks beneath transcendence. For “Mega Man,” the oozing track at Casual Abductions’ midpoint — its peak — the trio enlists South Florida trap surrealist Kent Loon to accompany them on their journey. No one’s trip sitting here, and things are getting weird.

Pioneer 11’s synth sounds are round, gooey, and drowned in reverb, disquieting and inviting in equal measure. The swirling beat sounds as if Bowery Electric were fans of Tony Seltzer. Byron raps in an urgent whisper, unsure of whether or not the stuff has kicked in yet. At times, his voice sprouts a pitched-down double, which feels as subtly unsettling as noticing your reflection’s pupils are just a little too big. He raps about whatever’s at the forefront of his brain, admonishing Tommy Boy for keeping De La Soul off DSPs right after realizing he “needs water like a houseplant.” By the time Kent Loon shows up, he’s in a heavy-lidded, paranoid haze murmuring about “the fuck shit in the air.” It’s a bizarre scene.

Once “Mega Man” is over, you’re left blinking, unsure of what you’ve experienced. There isn’t anything that sounds quite like this, but fortunately, UAP’s potency doesn’t have a half life. Running the track back takes you to that same otherworldly place. It’s alien, dangerous, and completely thrilling all at once. – Dash Lewis

30. Pink Siifu ft. Valee – “Griptape’!!”

Leave it to Pink Siifu to fully embody a vibe only to playfully make it his own. Militant punk? He’s got that. Wading into the waters of ambient jazz? Sure, why the hell not. Revisionist tributes to the Dungeon Family? Check. It’s Siifu’s ability to never be left satisfied with experimentation or the weight of over-genrefication that makes his partnership with Valee such a great fit on “Griptape’!!” – a song released back in March as one of ten welcome additions to his GUMBO’! (DELUXE’!!) project.

The video features the first known instance of claymated ass clapping (that I know of at least) while a lime green Telfar bag guides your eye to keep up with the lyrics like Andy Kaufman’s funeral singalong. Devin Burgess’s production melds the echoes of a deep space radio transmission with vintage Nextel chirps, serving as the perfect backdrop for Siifu to set the scene with a verse that’s half-whispered and as dependent on the space in between the bars as the stream of consciousness occupying them.

Valee steals the show, though. That’s why “Griptape’!!” makes this list. His flow hardly keeps pace with the beat, as if taking a few extra Xanax gave him more time to pleasure-read the dictionary — his vocabulary is absurd. “I pulled off the lot precautiously/ Avoiding pothole abrasions,” he raps while asking off-beat rhetorical questions like “It’s a AMG Mercedes seat, massager chair?” Somewhere between the boasts about bluetooth elevators, leaning like a forward slash, and Valee’s pronunciation of Louis Vui-ton, you’ll notice that the song has already magically been pre-queued for a repeat listen. One has to wonder, what does Valee love more — alliteration or his car? – Patrick Johnson

29. Earl Sweatshirt – “Lye”

The world is still searching for the rumored full-length collaboration between the Alchemist and Earl Sweatshirt, supposedly buried deep within YouTube under pseudonyms. That such an album exists is not itself surprising; both artists have been known to hide their best work in plain sight (take Earl’s surprise Atlanta cameo as the most recent example), and the duo have been combining forces as far back as 2012, when Earl featured on a handful of cuts from the Alchemist-produced Domo Genesis classic No Idols. They have since gone on to shape much of the current underground sound, and every time the two have linked back up has been an occasion to celebrate, such as on collabs like “Loose Change” and “E. Coli” where Earl feasts on the Alchemist’s regal loops like microbes chewing through the sugars of a sourdough starter. So what’s shocking is that the Internet, which can channel stan energy into Congressional hearings and disrupting the surveillance state, has continually failed to surface this tape.

In the meantime, we have the duo’s public releases, and in particular, “Lye.” Another instant canon production that rekindles the soul from an old British rock instrumental, the Alchemist feeds Earl a simple one-two of horns in which to deliver his latest crisis-of-faith soliloquy. Like much of Earl’s simultaneously wide-eyed and weary SICK!, “Lye” is a reminder of how much fans have seen the now 28-year-old grow since he first earned his reputation as a foul-mouthed Faulkner at the age of 16. From the artistic triumphs to the familial tragedies, we have heard his perspective gradually harden into the steel-eyed and sober soul-searching of his recent music. “Callin’ out for Lord, lookin’ low and high/ Finally found it at the core of my dimming fire,” Earl raps at the end of a stunning matter-of-fact stream of consciousness. Compared to the disaffected remove of Doris or the blinds-drawn misanthropy of I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, Earl sounds newly unburdened by his burdens, like he’s made his peace with never quite being at peace. – Pranav Trewn

28. billy woods ft. Gabe ‘Nandez and Boldy James – “Sauvage”

A scene in La Haine from 1995 finds Vinz, Hubert, and Saïd in a public bathroom wrestling with issues of revenge, justice, and dignity. A middle-aged man emerges from a toilet stall, unfazed by the hot-blooded youths and their plans for a pilfered police revolver. Unsolicited, he tells the boys a story about his time in a Siberian work camp. The old man had a friend, Grunwalski, who died chasing after a train with his pants around his ankles, having taken too long to relieve himself behind a bush. The old man dries his hands and bids them adieu.

“Sauvage” pairs billy woods and Boldy James who come from different schools but complement each other to surprising effect. James is the listless but resolute drug dealer, gliding just beyond the reach of his demons. His city knows no loyalty or codes, only hard work and guile. His specialty is using quotidian particulars of the drug trade to evince chilling anxiety. Meanwhile, billy woods is the disaffected voyeur with vignettes that each stir a new kind of disgust. Grotesque violence, domestic abuse, psychosexual tics, and gross inequality linger long enough to disquiet suburbanites and paupers alike. Woods weaves in and out of the narrative as he pleases, a curator who shares a zip code with his subjects.

Aethiopes and the rest of woods’ catalog are awash in historical and literary allusions which make his music appear to reach for grander issues than the referenda at the ballot box this year. His music often casts an accusatory glance at Western civilization and the globalized economy. One might respond to this cynicism with a list of the gifts of the liberal world order: higher literacy, lower infant mortality, less extreme poverty, less hunger, falling costs (housing and higher education notwithstanding), and several subdued diseases. Those are good things. Woods might answer that those are of little comfort to the boy thrice cheated by history before he was born, whose circumstances amount to a farce. – Evan Nabavian

27. Gunna ft. Future & Young Thug – “pushin P”

Every day at my job in radio, I put on my headphones, fire up Pro Tools and listen to some of the most disgusting human sounds imaginable: wet lip smacks, gulps of saliva, ejections of phlegm. This is why, during Gunna and Future’s stiff performance of “pushin P” on SNL, I felt bad for the sound engineer, who had to deal with a volley of plosives, popped P’s, as the duo rattled off their sticky, alliterative verses and stood awkwardly on opposite sides of the stage. P this was not, a rather disappointing send-off for Q1’s defining rap hit and most inescapable phrase.

Maybe the show was so stilted because the mood of “pushin P” is, by design, hard to pin down. Sure everyone treated this like a silly thing and every major company jacked the slang, but are Future, Thug and Gunna actually having fun here? Why does Future practically let out a sigh as he’s saying the titular phrase? Why does Wheezy’s beat get so ominous only for Future to talk about “Pesbians?” What did Thug mean by “I just fucked a cup of water?” For a song this massive, this thing is really strange. Structurally, too, it’s vague and formless, a rarity in YSL’s more chiseled output of late. Gunna and Future float loosely through each other’s turns and quietly chant “pushin P” throughout Thug’s verse. 

“Pushin P” is the kind of eccentric performance Gunna has always had in him but has rarely broadcast in such a way. If Thug is the ringleader of YSL, then Gunna is its flagship artist, a workhorse dishing out an exacting, fine-tuned product. The label’s sound is clean, almost sterile, the New Atlanta distilled for RapCaviar. Out of the roster, Gunna has always served this vision best because he’s naturally locked-in and locomotive, almost hypnotically so. He is often cast as stylistically conservative compared to Thug. But as our brains sink deeper into the streaming era, I’ve found that his vision is impressively attuned to the wants and needs of a new generation, a background music that draws you into a Zen state and leaves you with new fits to aspire for and new words to chew on. When we least expect it, the stoned stream-of-consciousness of Gunna snakes into culture and turns the world on its head. That’s P. – Mano Sundaresan

26. SleazyWorld Go – “Sleazy Flow (Remix)”

“We don’t do the social tweet” is the perfect line to encapsulate 2022: the year the insufferable billionaire took over the addictive platform and forced us to reckon with ourselves. The fact that this line was in “Sleazy Flow,” a song which gained widespread popularity through internet virality, is as ironic as people publicly rueing the demise of Twitter in 280 character bursts. This year, like the past 16, everyone put their verbal glocks in the air and didn’t stop firing. The best moments in the blaze of pixelated bullets that is social media are not the arguments about vaccines or free speech or digital trading cards, but the [Drake voice] no-pain hits of music discovery like “Sleazy Flow,” rare obvious [TikTok voice] uncut gems from places we would’ve never looked before we latched permanently into [Agent Smith voice] you know where.

“Sleazy Flow” entered our devices via Kansas City via Grand Rapids. It follows the lineage of a rapper asserting a style to match their name. Sleazyworld Go’s flow is off-kilter, eclectic, unexpected, and, yes, kinda sleazy (perhaps why “Baghdad Flow” didn’t hit as big). In under two straightforward minutes, devoid of gimmicks or industry orchestration, he hooked us. The song spawned infinite remixes, including an official one with the biggest rapper in the world, Lil Baby. The labels saw the social tweets, Island signed him, and Sleazyworld Go’s year ended with a quality debut in Where The Shooters Be. The anti-posting street anthem was a rebuttal to the oversharing specificity of certain regional scenes and the modern internet at large. That message relayed in a sleazy flow resonated, and we couldn’t help but share. – Will Hagle

25. 03 Greedo ft. BlueBucksClan – “Pourin”

Whether it’s “Mafia Business” or “Slaving over Stoves,” the greatest 03 Greedo songs strike that fine balance between reaching a purple state of psych-gangsta rap nirvana and being fully immersed in a dark nervousness that makes you want to keep checking over your shoulder. Following on in this fine tradition, “Pourin” opens with the Watts’ crooner and emcee laughing warmly, clutching a “codeine martini” and flowing with the giddy charisma of someone who just made a million. Yet all the euphoric Nate Dogg-esque hooks and otherworldy confidence gleamed from Greedo having sex on ecstasy and “smoking on cake” quickly disintegrates.

I got some enemies, so I keep magazines” he spits, the murderous sentiment a little out-of-odds with the song’s chilled out, sugar trap vibe. It feels like Greedo is trying to show the world that the underdogs from Los Angeles’ gang-affiliated neighborhoods are always on edge, even during moments of relaxation and slumber.

An underrated tenet of 03 Greedo’s legacy within West Coast rap has been how he’s always rushed to embrace the next guys from Jordan Downs Projects and beyond, something reflected with the appearance of South Central duo BlueBucksClan. Threatening to German suplex their enemies like WWE’s Jon Cena and complaining about some fake friends who recently stopped being fans, the pair, DJ and Jeeezy, effortlessly fit into Greedo’s world of conflicting extremes.

Yet there’s also something tragic about “Pourin,” especially Greedo lyrics like: “Better ride the wave, now I seize it!” It’s nearly 2023 and 03 Greedo is still stuck inside a Texas jail on a non-violent drug charge, unable to hug his daughter or prove to the masses why he’s one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. Arguably, the wave he should be riding has been invaded by other artists. It’s a modern tragedy. But if you close your eyes for a second while bumping “Pourin,” Greedo still sounds free, floating around Grape Street without a care in the world. Hopefully that will soon be a reality. – Thomas Hobbs

24. Freddie Gibbs ft. Musiq Soulchild – “Grandma’s Stove”

The title suggests the Blaxploitation snap of Freddie Gibbs’ Madlib-helmed masterworks Piñata and Bandana. And that’s how “Grandma’s Stove” begins, with Kane over the stove, draining a pot to extract the precious white powder, a blunt in his mouth to take the edge off life. The scene runs counter to the big-hearted sections of $oul $old $eparately, an engrossing concept album about a Las Vegas casino with calls recorded by an automated phone service at reception helping to tie together the narrative thread.

The dreamy production throughout the project locates the loneliest corners of Sin City, like a dim hotel bar well away from the Strip, serving seven weary salesmen in town for a conference. And “Grandma’s Stove” is a lovely song: delicately produced, expertly rapped, with additional solumness coming from Musiq Soulchild’s soft crooning. But it’s also a messy confessional. Truthfully, there’s writing here that will not rank among the best things Gibbs will ever do: he calls out one of his baby’s mothers by name, essentially charging her with being a gold-digging groupie. (In a response that reached a fraction of the number of people, the woman in question accused Gibbs of manipulation.)

I wrestled with that element of the song when asked to summarize its value—these things shouldn’t be ignored for straight hagiographic literature about one of the greatest rappers of his era. But history teaches us that broken hearts and bruised egos can manifest as something as intoxicating as “Grandma’s Stove.” Gibbs sounds like a man wounded by his portrayal as rap’s “deadbeat daddy,” a hurtful sigh deflating his bars. As ever, he shirks nothing, not even when baring the most polluted corner of his soul. – Dean Van Nguyen

23. Bandmanrill – “REAL HIPS”

The ascent of the Jersey club and rap crossover in the public eye has been rapid — were there really just 5 months between the “Shake Dhat” music video and people asking what the bed squeaks were on Honestly, Nevermind? Newark’s Bandmanrill is one of the movement’s most prominent homegrown stars, and over the past year and change he’s helped coin one of the genre’s most recognizable formulas, feeding 2010s pop-rock hooks through particle accelerators before battering them with kick triplets at heart-racing BPMs.

Many of club rap’s biggest hits over the last year treat menace as their currency, staccato plinking keys evoking the apocalyptic — culminating its biggest mainstream moment, Uzi’s “Just Wanna Rock.” And in fairness, beats like these truly feel testing, and the effect of the technical excellence they demand generally feels akin to some test of short-term endurance (like how long someone can hold their breath). These songs do not feel sustainable, and accordingly their unstable atomic union only holds momentarily before entropy wins out and they explode into a fever of squeaks and gunshots.

“REAL HIPS” channels that formula into a more recognizable and stable euphoria, exactly the type embodied in its video. It’s the canonical summer day on the beach boardwalk, the type of day in July that seems to stretch into infinity. This is a celebration, and when it eventually ascends into its basest form – its sample chopped into oblivion, everyone losing their absolute minds to the breakdown – it’s not just a dissolution but a release. Dancing is not a suggestion but a requirement; all you can do is move. – Sun-Uni Yum

22. Black Thought ft. MF DOOM – “Belize”

Despite what rap Twitter says, “lyrics” never died. But “Belize” feels special in 2022 because it’s straight-up bars by some legends who could have taught a syllabus on flipping verbs. Thought takes the crown for being Most Likely Candidate to cram an exotic term like “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” into a rhyme about how he’s Herman Melville crossed with Heavy D. Meanwhile, DOOM, rest his soul, still sounds stellar from the Great Beyond. Having blazed his freestyle on Funk Flex, Black Thought received a boost to his already esteemed profile, making him the fave of a new generation, or at least, the average Jack Harlow stan. When “Belize” dropped, Thought wowed both professors who rock elbow patches on their blazers and serial YouTube commenters in bootleg Mike Amiri jeans. What better time to introduce the deceased author of “All Caps” to both Luddites (whose SMS typography knows no chill) and the kids who popularized “no cap”?

Any song referencing Edward Snowden and the Last Poets gets instant kudos. Thought has been mainlining this kind of variegated vocabulary for years now. But it’s refreshing to hear him with DOOM, who practically invented this style. While younger wordsmiths in 2022 took on the algorithms, or themed club bangers around the Buffalo Bills, these vets kept it hella loopy: no quirky concepts or addled hooks; just bar after mind-bending bar. Black Thought dubs himself the Black Colin Farrell circa the 2015 indie, The Lobster, before invoking all the sacred dictionaries (“the Cambridge, the Websters, the Oxfords”). And DOOM closes things out with lines referring to Erik Estrada and a certain Lewis Carrol character. It’s not even sprezzatura; it’s space-and-time-defying. – Will Dukes

21. Pharrell Williams ft. 21 Savage & Tyler, The Creator – “Cash In Cash Out”

A four-count overture echoes over the hills and valleys as woodland creatures greet the dawn with stank faces: Pharrell is making rap beats again. After producing half of fellow Virginian Pusha-T’s latest coke rap opus, the superstar dropped “Cash In Cash Out” in June to tease next year’s Phriends compilation. The production is so spare it’s impossible to timestamp to a particular era, just compressed drums, a wordless vocal sample, and 808s gigantic enough to test the limit of car stereos worldwide.

The two young stars on “Cash In Cash Out” treat the skeletal beat like a royal fanfare and deliver two mammoth 40-bar verses of gloating. 21 Savage brings the above-it-all cool of Pharrell’s Clipse compatriots. He shops for Richard Milles like a teen scrolling through Depop and sends side chicks home in Porsches, but he knows he could still make a million in the streets even if he had to start over in a foreign country, a pointed flex from someone who has topped the charts while his immigration status remains in legal limbo.

Tyler, The Creator earned his place on the song via voice memo when his inspiration-turned-collaborator asked who else might fit the track, and he attacks the beat with a fanboy’s vigor. He isn’t just rich, he’s cool like a fur trapper hat on the beach and established enough to turn down arena shows if the stages don’t match his artistic vision. “Cash In Cash Out” is an inspired cross-generational collaboration in a year full of them (see also: DJ Premier feat. Slick Rick and Lil Wayne, DJ Muggs feat. Scarface and Freddie Gibbs) with a hook brilliant-stupid enough to crack Top 40. Money can’t buy taste, but after two decades of hits, Pharrell happens to be rich in both. – Jack Riedy

Chester Watson – “Mirrors” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

In Greek mythology, Narcissus peered into a clear pool of water and stared at a mirror image of himself for the rest of his life. When Chester Watson stands in front of a mirror, he covers his eyes, leaving room for his third eye to open with clarity. Chester grumbles: “I see through this shit.” Superficial love and disdain are pointless in his world; he seeks mental liberation from the demons within that cloud his vision.

Chester Watson is monotonous, with a voice that elicits tranquility akin to the spirit guides in A Japanese Horror Film. However, neither Viri that Chester met on “Witch Hunter” nor Glinda the Good Witch from “Wicked” are anywhere to be found on “Mirrors.” This is the beginning of a new adventure. Whisked away by a flutist, sampled in the background, Chester delicately embarks on a journey of self-actualization. This time around, preluding his next album, he’s searching for answers about the great unknown – what happens to his spirit and lineage once his physical form turns into stardust? “What does it all mean in the end?”

Chester flashes between images of himself in combat, practicing “wild muay thai,” and flying in a boundless dreamscape. Once again, he’s limitless. Chester won the Teenage Engineering #10YOP1 Beat Contest last year, and now he’s returned with a meditative, self-produced track that leaves just enough room for his ancestors to tune in. As Chester Watson deliberates on principles and ethics, his predecessors weep to the woodwind instrument that floats through the track. – Yousef Srour

20. Certified Trapper – “When I Sneeze”

There’s been renewed attention to the unique rap music coming out of Milwaukee, but nobody from the city has been as singularly unique as Certified Trapper. He raps, directs and edits his own music videos, and produces his own beats, most of which seem to have been made using the most basic tools available, and most of which have the same basic ingredients: plunking single piano key hits that approximate a melody, rudimentary 808 bass, and digital hand claps that mechanically hit every single beat. If you squint, you can see some traces of Bay Area hyphy, or southern snap music, but really, it’s Certified Trapper™.

It’s a sound that he’s used to release 15 albums, 36 EPs and singles, and innumerable YouTube videos, this year alone. “When I Sneeze,” is one of the best. To the trademarked formula, Certified Trapper adds in a whining reed sound that sometimes floats in and out of the track, seemingly at random, accenting his nonchalant, monotone, totally unbothered by convention or “taste,” flow. What’s the song about? Are there any good lyrics in the song? It doesn’t really matter. It’s an experience.

Watch the video, wherein Certified Trapper, decked out in rose colored glasses too big for his head, occasionally raps along to his song, but mostly just has fun with his friends outside of a gas station, doing silly dances to his own music that he produced himself, in a video he directed, which he probably quickly edited and threw online, and then got started cranking out the next track. That’s the DIY spirit. – Sam Ribakoff

19. Cash Cobain – “SLIZZY LIKE”

Once considered an off-shoot of Chicago’s trailblazing movement, New York drill became its own mutation characterized by its breakneck tempo, gliding 808s, and blunt force bass and snares. Though given how it’s modeled after the macabre aesthetic of UK producers such as 808 Melo and AXL Beats, it seemed ready for a creative expansion. Cue “sample drill”, a colorful innovation that paired the tenets of drill music with samples of R&B and pop hits. While rising talents like Kay Flock, Shawny Bin Laden, and B-Lovee saw success with this fun new approach, it was Cash Cobain who picked up the baton and led the charge.

The Bronx-born producer/rapper made his name by flipping vintage Mary J. and Lauryn Hill into viral anthems before hitting his stride in 2022 with “SLIZZY LIKE”. Ramping up the BPM on a Stevie Wonder classic, Cobain channels Jersey club’s unrelenting groove by lacing the track with a barrage of double-time drums and timely soundbites. It’s the kind of beat that’ll leave you in a trance but still make you go loose on the dancefloor, and it’s infectious as hell. The accompanying video also demonstrates Cobain’s mission to make drill “sexy”. Despite being on demon time, shaping one hand like a glock while musing that “if [he] sees an opp, [he’ll] keep blowing”, the other’s holding a bottle of Henny and he’s surrounded by ladies and liquor. He’s ready for war, but isn’t leaving the party anytime soon.

It’s not difficult to see why Cobain christens himself as the “Sample God”. With the smarts to source anything from Ray Charles to J Holiday to the Plain White T’s, he’s the catalyst for drill’s most seismic revamp, also opening doors for like-minded beatsmiths who too care little for sample clearance nor breaks between releases. With how sample drill has exploded so quickly, it won’t be long before “And this beat from Cash, not from YouTube” becomes a tag as instantly recognizable as the songs he loves to loop. – Oumar Saleh

18. stoneda5th x R3 DA Chilliman – “Rock & Roll”

The Inland Empire is typically overlooked as a far-out, Amazon warehouse-blighted exurb of Los Angeles. Its unofficial capital is San Bernardino, aka “The Dino,” which experienced a substantial increase in migration in recent years from Black and Brown families leaving comparatively expensive South Central real estate.

S5 and R3 DA Chiliman are from Moreno Valley, which is the second largest city in Riverside County and is one of the IE’s main population centers. With “Rock & Roll,” they stake their claim as among the faces of this generation of rap east of the 10-5-101 interchange. Both artists have found separate lanes solo, but together they sound like the IE’s answer to BlueBucksClan. An amalgamation of Flint, Michigan’s punch-in flow and the nervous, brooding minimalism of the New West, “Rock & Roll” is simply catchy as hell. The beat, which BeatsByAngel claimed in a YouTube comment to have been made in his room one day, is simple and easy to sway to, but it’s the natural chemistry of S5 and R3 that’s most memorable. And together with artists like KINGSMOSTWANTED and MCM Raymond, they seem poised for a 2023 breakout, hoping to finally make the IE taken seriously in the expansive L.A. rap ecosystem. – Donald Morrison

17. Future – “PUFFIN ON ZOOTIEZ”

I’ve never understood why a genre as preoccupied with authenticity as rap has been for most of its history is so comfortable with endorsements. Jay said some truly gross things about Nas over whether his past was real or invented, but he didn’t think to clown on him for being in a Sprite ad? Yes yes, I know that Sprite is an integral part in the development of the culture—you read POW, you’ve read The Big Payback—but still, “Firm comes first/obey your thirst”? Corny.

Then again, the concept of “selling out” was always much more central to me, a white kid from the suburbs who grew up listening to punk—actually make that *pop punk,* an even hotter hotbed of sellout talk than its DIY forbear. In hindsight the idea that you would refuse to make a decision that would make you financially secure because of your “ethics” seems like some white nonsense. But it was a real thing! Reel Big Fish made a song about it and everything.

Still, there is something about the perfunctoriness of Future’s call-out of “Zootiez” in its eponymous song that warms my cynical, “punk”-fired heart. “Zootiez” would seem to be central to the song—it’s in the title!—but it’s not. You could substitute any two-syllable colloquialism for weed—my first thought was “ganja” because I am a 36-year-old dad who lives in rural Indiana—and the prosody comes out the same. The song isn’t “about” Zootiez in any meaningful way, Future isn’t breaking press releases down into triplet form—“Zootiez disrupting the cannabis industry/high-terpene strains that you can smoke blissfully.” All he does is mention the brand.

No matter though: “PUFFIN ON ZOOTIEZ” became the biggest solo single of his career, and not for nothing it was the best song on I NEVER LIKED YOU—see also: perfunctory. Who knows if it actually increased the sales of Zootiez. Either way, I’m sure the Zootie family is satisfied.

Nas could rap about Sprite and not seem corny because it was 1997, and Nas could do anything he wanted in 1997. Future is pushing 40, he hasn’t put out a particularly great album since 2017, and he’s still bulletproof. That’s the height that Future has climbed to. He does a collaboration with a cannabis company with a brandmark that looks like a 14 year old kid trying to knock off the Metroid emblem, and it becomes a top 5 single. He transcends corny. Why isn’t it corny? Because Future did it. Championship championship: that’s how you win. – Jordan Ryan Pedersen

16. Pusha T ft. JAY Z & Pharrell Williams – “Neck & Wrist”

Detractors tend to lament over Pusha T’s solo discography following the same tried and true formula. They say that his trademark coke-fueled escapades are starting to grow tiresome. While It’s Almost Dry is hardly a break in thematic philosophy, “Neck & Wrist” stands apart as one of the most casually-dynamic songs in the Virginia rapper’s arsenal. Here, Pusha tinkers with vocal style and melody, deploying a modern lackadaisical flow on the verse and chorus that stretches the second half of a bar up an octave.

Whether inspired by his signature signee of GOOD Music, the oft-imitated Valee, or out of a simple desire to try something different, Pusha’s embellished vocal performance works in heightening the lavishness of his boasts; sleek Ferraris tinge with matte black paint jobs, Narcos plotlines occur in everyday life. Even Cartier bustdowns may as well be G-Shocks in Pusha’s universe. The knee jerk reaction to a rap veteran experimenting with an atypical delivery can be jarring to the traditionalist’s ear, but when paired with Pharrell’s brand of blown-out cosmic backdrops, the results are dizzying.

The maximalist production toes the line between cavernous and spacey, equipped with boisterous 808s and a beaming synth melody that sounds like a transmission from Area 51. JAY Z stops by to safeguard against his legacy, wielding subliminals at the likes of actor Faizon Love and others who’ve tried to diminish his street acumen. Hov’s rhyme scheme brushes off the jabs easily. “Neck & Wrist” finds the three rap titans – whose respective careers have spanned multiple decades – executing a contemporary style that would humiliate MCs their age, proving their primes are not yet past due. – Ross Olson

15. Veeze – “Let It Fly”

Amidst the hysteria of funky Michigan rap basslines inflecting music scenes all across the US, Detroit hero Veeze opts for a different approach. He’s not typically rapping over the ENRGY-style bounce with outlandish punchlines like his peers – he instead picks beats with electricity coursing through them, and finds the central power lines to ride with his signature slick-talking. On “Let It Fly,” Veeze puffs out his designer-clad chest to rap about money laundering, his pull with the mob, the price of his jeans, and his passive income schemes. His flow is comatose, but the music still feels animated. It’s not just what he’s talking about that gives it that animating charge though, it’s the way he leaves inklings of imbalance to keep the listener on edge while doing it. He omits words the third or fourth time through a repetition, changes the age of his “old ass money” throughout the song, and is shifty with the angles he slides his raps in from.

The result is way more than the sum of its parts. Out of all the many talented Detroit rappers, Veeze stands singularly outside the pack this year with his mix of loosies and leaks that, put together, could be one of the album’s of the decade. – Harley Geffner

14. Ice Spice – “Munch (Feelin’ U)”

Pity the olds who discovered their irrelevance through the word “Munch” – that’s a hell of a way to realize you’re a dinosaur. Across her breakthrough single, Bronx rapper Ice Spice relentlessly castigates the pussy-eating object of her derision over a diamond-hard drill beat, instantly earning acclaim from the wider rap world and sending both sex-positive polemicists and boom bap purists into apoplectic fits. The specifics of the word “Munch” – a man only good for eating pussy – is besides the point, as Spice’s single is ultimately less about the power dynamics of sex than it is about updating the age-old musical battle of the sexes for a new generation: artists have been talking breezy about fucking and puffing their chest out since before music was ever recorded on wax.

What’s truly interesting about “Munch (Feelin’ U’)” is that it serves as a marker of just how fast New York drill is evolving. Just last year we were bombarded with tired sample flips and prior to that, NY’s hometown sound was almost entirely dependent on ideas first explored in the UK. “Munch” though, belongs to none of those paradigms, keeping Drill’s shifting hi-hats and extreme tempo, but cutting out practically every other adornment, content to wrap Ice Spice’s arrogance in little more than bass and the occasional kick. Is it a boundary pushing sonic template? Yes. Does it also unexpectedly harken back to the hoodies and Timbs era minimalism of The Beatminerz or Ced Gee? Way more than Spice’s aging detractors would like to admit. – Son Raw

13. Quavo x Takeoff – “HOTEL LOBBY”

In hindsight, “HOTEL LOBBY” seems like both the conclusion of the Migos era and a callback to what made them such a hot group. The early-year tease of the single, credited only to uncle Quavo and nephew Takeoff, appeared to confirm that Offset was out, and the Migos as we’d known them were done for good. Yet when “HOTEL LOBBY” was actually released, it was an irresistible reminder of Migos hit making at its best: a two-minute, unsophisticated, repetitive, triplet-dense anthem you could spin over and over, like the party tracks from the Y.R.N. era. “It’s basically taking it back to the ‘Bando’ days,” Quavo said in a promotional video. “This song important because it’s a summertime vibe, and right now, I feel like everybody needs to let go and feel free.” Little wonder that the track became a hit, accompanied by Murda Beatz production reminiscent of “Bad and Boujee” as well as an appropriately batshit music video that pays tribute to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

There’s another, obvious end that the song represents in light of Takeoff’s tragic death. If you believe, as Quavo did, that Takeoff was secretly Migos’ best rapper, “HOTEL LOBBY” provides an apt showcase—and a bittersweet ode to the creative future he still had ahead. Takeoff’s opening verse launches the listener right into his enviable lifestyle, with a 16-passenger G5 jet (a “big one,” as clarified in an ad-lib) and heavy partying. It also shows off one of his best qualities as a writer: his ability to conjure up picturesque boasts while leaving just enough detail out to make the listener work through the implications (“I go in the jungle and I ain’t got a coat, I bet I come out with a mink”).

Of course, Quavo doesn’t slouch, and his wordplay remains a marvel (“Get a cup for the drip, I’m a muhfuckin’ faucet”). But if the YouTube comments are any indication, it’s likely “HOTEL LOBBY” will be remembered most as a memorial to Takeoff, a mark of his low-key greatness. Rest in peace, Rocket.Nitish Pahwa

12. YoungBoy Never Broke Again – “Like a Jungle (Outnumbered)”

After seven months locked away in the cold confines of St. Martin Correctional Center, tucked in the rural town of St. Martinsville, Louisiana, Kentrell Gaulden, BKA as the prolific, controversial, and complicated YoungBoy Never Broke Again, was finally free to exhibit his full potential. The Baton Rouge rapper is used to releasing mixtapes at the pace of prime Gucci Mane, but in 2022, the quality of those releases reached a new apex. Toiling away on house arrest at his residence in Utah, YoungBoy embarked on a seven-project whirlwind including: a Gangsta Grillz tape, collabs with Quando Rondo, and making DaBaby sound bearable. But his most intriguing move was paying homage to the music that made him.

YoungBoy’s best songs play out like a gripping therapy session where he fearlessly speaks his mind to process his life in real time without the worry of perception. “Like a Jungle,” a remix of C-Murder’s harrowing classic, features the breakneck information dump his raps are known for, continuing to teeter the line between unapologetic gangsta rapper and misunderstood lost soul, sounding like he’s calling up the incarcerated C-Murder for advice on the GTL line.

YoungBoy and C-Murder are kindred spirits: two outlaws trying to survive in a world that wants them never free again. Whether it’s the feds, (”They don’t wanna see me ball, dawg, they did you that,”) his baby mama, (“She a fan of most of my opps, it seemin’ wild,”) or C-Murder’s own brother, (“He wanted to charge me, that shit cap,”) YoungBoy feels the pressure, searching for anyone to understand his plight. And for once, he finds someone who can understand him, an OG who went under, trying to steer YoungBoy away from the same fate. – Josh Svetz

11. CEO Trayle – “Song Cry”

Late pioneering and revered French film auteur Jean-Luc Godard was once famously quoted saying: “I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.” Yeah a straightforward story is smoother than taking the non-linear route, but if the latter is pulled off correctly there’s a gravity that sucks audiences in and leaves them clinging to every minuscule detail. For the last few years, CEO Trayle has embraced this philosophy to the fullest. His off-kilter plots have formed the backbone of a steady catalog that rotates through uneasy events and heavy emotions at random intervals. Women come and go, family members fade away, enemies are dealt with and hopes are renewed. All of these narratives muddle together and culminate in HH5, the final chapter of his storied Halloween album series — a homage to the day that he proclaims is the only time he can be himself.

“Song Cry,” a teaser dropped a little more than a week before HH5, is CEO Trayle at his rawest. Rapping like he has a clenched jaw, bars are spit with such a rigidness and nonconformity that Section 8’s chilling instrumental built around the JAY Z original is just a nice accessory to have. No situation is left unscathed as Trayle barrels through memories like he’s received a visit from the Ghosts of Christmas. He travels to the fateful night he was shot seven times, circles back to point fingers at leeches, and fast forwards to an alternate reality where he returns to the streets and leaves his son without a father. The mood’s in a constant cycle: starting off sentimental and ending with a smug exclamation. Before he can linger on any single moment he’s already pivoting to the next as if he can only reflect on them in spurts, and as soon as you’re done digesting all of it Trayle runs off the screen. It’s impossible to pin him down for that long. – Serge Selenou

WiFiGawd – “God of War” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

This is what music from the most pot-perfumed corners of the internet sounds like. SoundCloud rap has been a frequently misused term, especially by critics and old heads who would rather take shots at young artists instead, but for WiFiGawd it isn’t something that takes the place of rap’s regionalism or upends genre tradition. He’s a student of the game, raised on golden age hip-hop and DatPiff in equal measure. Regional styles and rap history are his playthings, and he spends more time reviewing beats from producers known and unknown than he does laying a verse. In 2018, New York underground superproducer Tony Seltzer was one of the first to put on for WiFiGawd and get him in a real studio. His music is what happens when you cross the hyperactive music discovery of a stoner on the internet with pure rap genius.

Earl Sweatshirt knows the truth. A dedicated listener for years, he brought WiFiGawd out in his hometown of Washington, D.C. in February to perform “God of War,” his chest-thumping single from this year’s Chain of Command. WiFiGawd has always bucked the mainstream — he’s too ahead of the curve, his tastes too wide-ranging for any algorithm to synthesize — but on simple merit, he deserved a moment like this anyway. Now more than ever, he deserves to talk his shit.

Over a Seltzer beat with a synth pattern that nearly gave me vertigo when I heard it for the first time, WifiGawd spits triumphant about how he stays dropping heat. His voice is like weed smoke, permeating into every crevice of the beat. He makes the most challenging beats sound like kickback music. The internet democratized music, allowing greater access and in turn creating new arcane underground scenes of its own, but there isn’t anyone doing it like WifiGawd. He sees the future, how the arc of rap’s history can most ambitiously influence its next turns. In some dank and esoteric circles, it’s been said that he’s the greatest rapper alive. Shout out to the great Lucas Foster, who got me hip. – Kevin Yeung

10. Boldy James – “Power Nap”

There is the twilight glow of anesthesia, sheep leaping over fences, the dreams of children corrupted by a creeping familiarity with RICO law; men wake up in parked cars with half-empty soda bottles discolored by cough syrup and rotting in the cup holders. “Power Nap,” the final song on Fair Exchange No Robbery—Boldy James’s excellent album with the Montreal producer Nicholas Craven—imagines sleep through all these lenses. And others: the Detroit rapper conjures snooze-button high school tardiness and compares body bags on a taped-off front lawn to sleeping bags at a slumber party; he remembers lullabies and rocking chairs; there are anti psych meds used for off-label purposes and bricks of cocaine that look like Sleeping Beauty. (Boldy’s plug for the latter, he notes as if jotting in a dream journal, was “half-Black and Lebanese.”)

This would all be very impressive if it were a writing exercise. But Boldy moves beyond wordplay, tapping into a terrifying weariness about the permanence of death—even the ones he threatens to bring himself. Craven’s mournful, drumless beat moves in long, slow pulses like a heavy eyelid. – Paul Thompson

9. OTM ft. Drakeo the Ruler – “Cliff Hanger (Remix)”

Like almost every meaningful LA rap song of the last half-decade, OTM’s “Cliff Hanger” seeds itself into your brain and refuses to let go. It’s a portal into a one-dimensional universe where time is an abstract concept, the type of song best understood in an infinite loop. Skeletal and dense, the song is the Stinc Team approach distilled to its most fundamental primitives, just verse-verse-verse for five minutes. Just 13 days into the year, it was an unforgettable opening salvo.

Drakeo and the Stinc Team’s pocket of LA rap is now the progenitor of several notable acts (including a bonafide major label star in Remble), but the Off The Mussle duo represents a different branch of that legacy steeped a half-generation younger. Drakeo is a model first rather than a peer for BluePesos and Duffy, and it’s exhilarating to watch them reflect back their mentor’s fundamental instincts: the conversational whisper, the expansive vocabulary, and the sharpest of pens. Here, OTM manages to tap into that rarest of duo dynamics, spiritually aligned in their tone and timing but instantly distinguishable as units.

“Cliff Hanger”  bears an eerie finality in the literal nature of Drakeo’s baton pass. When the trio filmed what would ultimately become Drakeo’s final video before his murder, it was impossible to know the gravity that his “Tell God save a bed for me, coming soon” line would hold. It’s fitting, then, that the entire song is structured almost as a challenge: Drakeo sets the stakes, raising a bar that OTM is challenged to meet, before bookending the affair by turning to the camera and turning his sneer onto “marks, blogger, posers.” Fearlessness was always a core part of the Drakeo ethos, deeply intertwined with his creative eccentricity and vocabulary. It feels right that he went out extending that same nonchalance to death in the same song he introduced his legacy. It is a moment that feels right to mythologize. – Sun-Uni Yum

8. Kodak Black – “Vulnerable (Free Cool)”

Kodak Black exists both at the periphery and the center axis of the rap ecosystem. For years, he’s been denied press coverage due to an onslaught of legal battles and damning sexual assault accusations, and can seem nearly invisible in mainstream discussions (for understandable reasons). Yet just this year, over a decade into his career, he had an album hit number one on the Hip-Hop chart as well as a single that peaked at number 3. He’s dominated the global YouTube charts, and secured a feature on most critics’ choice for best rapper alive, our friendly red-pilled Kendrick Lamar. The two spectrums he occupies are hard to hold in your head at the same time – he’s one of, if not the most, talented rappers alive, and his numbers reflect that, but he’s largely absent from discussions on these sorts of lofty topics, despite him spitting some of the most self-conscious, searing, and fun rap of his career.

With the hardened perspective of a veteran who’s seen war crimes from one of the poorest public housing projects in the states, Kodak has spent the whole year speaking on the emotional weight of loss, betrayal, addiction, loneliness, and his mental health in a way that’s danceable rather than depressing. On “Vulnerable (Free Cool),” he lays it out very plainly: “I need anybody.” He feels the loss of so much around him – his brother in prison, his love for himself, a woman whose affection he’s so desperate for that he’ll compromise his own morals, and the ability to trust in others – that he feels vulnerable and out of touch with himself. In short – he’s lost. He writhes and contorts both his body and his voice, so full of pain that it’s visible, as he sings about how he taught this woman all the ways to hurt him. The real stinger, and the central thrust of this song, is that he can’t even talk to his brother about how to deal with all these feelings. So he resorts to his music.

The breakthroughs in his catalog this year rival some of the most poignant and self-aware things that could come out of an intense therapy session. Even after dealing with so much loss and the lack of guidance resulting from that, he still comes to the conclusion that there’s much to be grateful for, singing about how he’s thankful for both the “gains and losses on this journey” that have helped shape his perspective. Nobody else is able to effectively emote such intense feelings and conflicting thoughts as fluently as the kid from Pompano Beach, and “Vulnerable (Free Cool)” is emblematic of not only his mental state, but the plague of loneliness that, according to the former Surgeon General of the U.S., is a bigger killer than smoking, heart problems, or gun violence. Yet as heavy as the topics are, it’s still something that can make you want to get up and dance. – Harley Geffner

7. GloRilla – “F.N.F. (Let’s Go)”

For most of 2022, the “F.N.F. (Let’s Go)” music video acted as the purest accessible form of immediate serotonin. GloRilla and her friends forego the glitz and glamor of luxury locales for Memphis’ and intersections. Instead of stoically posturing in the club, the Memphis native twerks atop of affordable mid-sized sedans, screaming her own lyrics at the top of her lungs, doing donuts in the parking lot like they’re playing hooky.

But the visuals alone didn’t earn this track the de facto title of “song of the summer.” GloRilla, along with producer and fellow Memphis native Hitkidd, armed herself with the core tenets of the city’s crunk tradition to create a celebratory, post-breakup anthem for the ages. The crashing piano chords and pounding bass merge with GloRilla’s intoxicating and gruff vocal register, making her feel like a direct descendent of Gangsta Boo’s elite stylistic lineage.

With every line, GloRilla finds the missing link between Hypnotize Minds and crunk: the echoing chorus of “Let’s goooooo” and the sauntering, sing-song delivery when she spells “free” and “single” could be ripped straight from 1998. All that’s missing is a Project Pat feature. On “F.N.F,” GloRilla taps into a vein that modern rappers grasp for their entire careers. The faintest remnants of the genre’s golden years combine with her infectious personality and intensity, capitalizing on a form of nostalgia that people didn’t even realize they yearned for. – Matthew Ritchie

6. Babyface Ray – “Sincerely Face”

After a breakout 2021, Babyface Ray somehow topped himself, releasing “Sincerely Face” within the first month of the new year. As Ray mutters, “It is what it is.” This is a memoir where the central figure dreams of rocking Fear of God against the leather interior of an army green Maybach, deciphering the true meaning of MOB (i.e., “Money Over Bitches.”)

Sitting inside his Range Rover parked on a New York City rooftop, Ray contemplatively looks into its side mirror. The dissertation is told against a singular piano chord that rings over and over again like a church bell, with bass drum kicks and rim shots filling in the gaps.

Ray briskly explains dope prices and having no remorse for modern-day incarnations of Bishop from Juice; he might have a baby face, but he won’t hesitate to throw you off the roof if you cross him. These fleeting moments of morality define Babyface Ray as Detroit’s greatest anti-hero. He’s no longer sleeping on leaky air mattresses. This is heaven as glimpsed after going through hell and back. – Yousef Srour

5. Azealia Banks – “RULE THE WORLD”

After the release of Beyoncé’s RENAISSANCE – an album sonically indebted to house music – Azealia Banks made headlines for claiming Queen Bey was stealing her trademark sound without credit, calling her a “fucking creep” on Instagram Live. It’s the kind of behavior we’ve come to expect from Banks, who likes to take a smidgen of truth and morph it something not entirely wrong but not 100 percent accurate either. It’s entertainment. Azealia Banks is a master at delivering a hot take amid a flurry of insults and bad faith critiques in a way that renders her original argument moot. Sure, Beyoncé is biting her style, but is she a fucking creep for doing so and, more importantly, does anybody even care?

It’s a shame that Banks’ outspokenness gets more press than her music, because some of her best songs in recent years were released in 2022. But as compelling as Banks’ irreverence is, it’s not nearly as interesting as “RULE THE WORLD,” an impossibly catchy bilingual ode to runway models that sounds like the best of Lil Kim meeting Missy during the filming of Paris is Burning. A YouTube-only loosie released in February, Azealia returns power to the women in fashion, the backs of which the industry was built upon, despite the riches going to often male executives and pig fashion scouts and designers.

Beyond the ability to merge 4/4 handbag house with graceful slanged out raps and a beautiful natural singing voice, Banks really is the sine qua non that larger artists are striving to emulate. At the end of the day, she doesn’t have anything to worry about. Her music might sound like someone else, but it always sounds better. – Donald Morrison

4. Lil Yachty – “Poland”

Lil Yachty’s entire career has led up to the melody-disguised-as-Wok travelogue, “Poland.” Over a F1thy beat that sounds like the theme song to the 2022 version of the SSX Tricky video game, Yachty moans (“I took the wooooock to Poland”) like he is dozing off in a public street from drinking too much dirty Slivovitz.

Once upon a time, Yachty was a strawman for the degradation of hip-hop culture. Ebro devoted entire Hot 97 segments to challenging Yachty, born Miles McCollum, about his lack of knowledge of canonized immortals like 2Pac and Biggie. Yachty’s response was disarming. He remained gleeful in the face of finger-waving traditionalism. But despite his red hair, schoolyard sing-along melodies, and general affability, the teenaged Yachty had yet to become a fully fleshed out artist. Lil Boat had flashes; Michigan Boat Boy uplifted a regional subculture to national attention, so much so that Kevin Durant started tweeting about Michigan rappers.

But it seems that Yachty was waiting for this recent moment all along. “Poland” is like Yachty’s younger music with the decadence and inner conflicts reserved for adulthood (“Phone still ringing, battling all my demons”). It takes a formula – Playboi Carti’s lean-added leaks mixed with Lil Uzi Vert’s androgyny – and mixes them up like a psychedelic chicken noodle soup. Rap that realizes that nothing the adults say matters – only the weird originality that might seem ugly at first. And so there is the trip to Poland without ever having to leave Soundcloud. – Jayson Buford

3. Ralfy the Plug – “The Truth Hurts”

“The Truth Hurts” was released mere weeks after Drakeo the Ruler, Ralfy The Plug’s older brother and one of the most original, unique, and independent rap stylists to come out of L.A., was murdered in cold blood beside Ralfy in an ambush involving over 100 assailants at a music festival last December. It came only a year after Drakeo was finally released from prison, following three years of being subjected to the cruel and inhumane torture of solitary confinement – after being targeted by L.A.’s former District Attorney on the flimsiest of Kafkaesque claims. The Drakeo’s homicide came months after the death of Ralfy and Drakeo’s Stinc Team brethren Ketchy the Great who was a unique rising star in his own right. That amount of pain, grief, trauma, and injustice is hard to fathom.

“The Truth Hurts” is Ralfy beginning to reckon and reflect on what happened, while also being a dedication to Drakeo and a reminder to all, especially enemies and would-be clones, of his massive, singular, influence on musicians in L.A. and nation-wide. It’s also a statement of purpose, to keep moving forward and to keep developing his own sound by keeping Drakeo’s independent spirit alive in his own music.

Over a G-Funk L.A. noir nervous music beat, Ralfy combines his slippery, Suga Free-style flow, with the determination and conviction of a veteran battle rapper. It’s his sound and determination that allowed him to release seven albums this year, innumerable music videos, and a U.S. tour, building his own style and legacy – all while keeping the truth alive. – Sam Ribakoff

2. Young Slo-Be – “Don’t Kome 2 My Funeral”

When will it end? How many burgeoning street rappers must fall to their knees in the cities they carried on their shoulders? Bris was shot in 2020 while labels flooded his DM’s. Drakeo was slain just before his performance at a massive (and egregiously run) 2021 festival where he’d received top billing. And Young Slo-Be, just one year shy of 30 and still enjoying the aftermath of organic TikTok virality (“I Love You”), was gunned down in early August.

Collaborators, friends, and stylistic kin, the deceased were masters of hushed slick talk, couching flexes, frontline dispatches, and extreme prejudice for the opposition in slang and wordplay inscrutable to the uninitiated. They became regional stars in Sacramento (Bris), LA (Drakeo), and Stockton (Young Slo-Be), teetering on the verge of national fame just before their tragic ends. Like we’ve done with Bris and Drakeo, we must now celebrate Slo-Be’s catalog while weighing the power of his extant music against the promise of all he’ll never record.

During his nearly six-year career, Slo-Be went from virtual unknown to the MVP in his city’s first rap renaissance. He rapped in a forceful half whisper as though sliding each syllable down the length of a Cookies-filled blunt. His nonchalant, almost conversational delivery was deceptively athletic. Like the hall-of-fame Laker he idolized (and paid homage to in his Young Slo-Be Bryant series), Slo-Be moved with an effortlessness that might seem lazy to the unschooled. Backed by a hybrid of Bay Mobb Music and LA “nervous music” — rearview rattling drums, car crash percussion, synth bass sourced from swamps — he moved between couplets and his signature ad-libs (“ooh wee” and “ah-ah”) as if shaking the opps with ankle-breaking crossovers.

“Don’t Kome 2 My Funeral” is the final song on Southeast, the final album Slo-Be released before his demise. A nominal tribute to the Stockton region that includes his 2100 block of Nightingale Ave., the album is a coded yet unsparing account of gang life, pimping, and out-of-town trips that carry maximum sentences. “Don’t Kome 2 My Funeral” submerges a chipmunk-pitched sample between that bi-regional knock, Stockton’s answer to the Heatmakerz.

Slo-Be tells you the street broke his heart a thousand times before offering you the pieces. Garnering pride and PTSD from the same block must create a crushing cognitive dissonance, but he carried it with the same ease he rapped every bar. Slo-Be asks for forgiveness while carrying his weapon, praying for his thugs’ freedom yet resigning himself to early death and eternal damnation for sins he committed in the Southeast. “Don’t Kome 2 My Funeral” should’ve been a cathartic airing of justified fear and understandable repentance, not prophetic. Between Slo-Be, Drakeo, Bris, Nipsey, Dolph, and too many departed rappers to list, it feels like we’ve gone through this a thousand times. But my heart still breaks. – Max Bell

1. Kendrick Lamar – “Rich Spirit”

Over the last one-thousand, eight-hundred and fifty-five days, Kendrick Lamar achieved the new American dream: he lived successfully without a phone. Like Prince before him, the Compton recluse traveled to the mountaintop and discovered nothing there. Or more accurately, he found a tedious congregation of celebrities without integrity, clout chasers, lawsuit-happy relatives, and an Audemars Piguet watch historian known only to Robb Report subscribers (apparently, he’s a cool friend).

This is where the falloff typically begins. The artist in his mid-30s, aged out of the easily conjured lightning of youth to find himself in an unfamiliar, swiftly changing world, unreflective of the original values that raised him. No world festivals left to conquer. Yes men surrounding you. The rutted path is right there: he can coast eternally by placating the masses with the unseasoned and expected. But rather than repeat himself, the erstwhile K.Dot risked it all to avoid stagnancy, cliché, and the death of his soul. Did you think he was going to move to Calabasas?

In a world that rolls its eyes at 20th Century conceits, K. Dot is a paradoxically radical traditionalist – who seeks to apply the old-time aphorism about being regular in your life to be fierce and original in your work (give or take a trip to Copenhagen on the good kid, m.A.A.d. city tour.) “Rich Spirit” is a song about searching for a set of beliefs to sustain you. A syncretistic philosophy that doesn’t lazily graft ancient parables to a modern world. It’s about the desire to find balance, to seek enlightenment without acquiescing to passivity, the awareness of when it’s valuable to be mighty and when it’s necessary to be modest. It’s the sum of Kendrick’s gnostic wanderings: fasting four days out of the week, becoming an aloof Buddha, a peacemaker, but not naïve. His backstory and upbringing taught him to kill or be killed, but that mentality is incompatible with the world he now inhabits.

Kendrick wants it both ways, and he’s the rare artist able to succeed. He distances himself from the messianic hype, but quietly preaches a unitarian gospel. He would never live his life on a computer. He abhors the performative judgements of context-free critics and hypocritical social media mobs. The false prophets offering empty “thoughts and prayers” for likes and retweets. This is a song filled with contempt and love, Top 5 dead or alive hubris and humility. It’s a hero’s journey to reclaim his spirit in a corrupted world, where the distractions are maddening, never-ending, and disconnecting.

These aren’t proverbs on parchment, these are the latest dispatches from a fire-and-brimstone MC who evolved into a virtuosic musician. For reasons of politics and pride, no one would ever admit it, but it’s almost certainly inspired by Drakeo’s “Impatient Freestyle.” The beat from Sounwave, DJ Dahi, Jahaan Sweet and Frano unmistakably channels Mike Will’s original, which the Ruler repurposed into a stocking masked prowler’s anthem. Kendrick might be searching offline, but from his mudwalking reference on “Purple Hearts,” to the way he says “ugh” here, he’s inevitably responsible for at least several of the 37 million YouTube plays where Drakeo preaches the word like Creflo. As Tyler said, this is the most Los Angeles that Kendrick has ever been.

Unlike most of Mr. Mosely’s disciples, Mr. Morale (or is that his father’s name) doesn’t misuse the influence. This isn’t imitation, but rather, a launching pad for an oblique levitation. His flow is slower and looser – a sneak attack rather than a trap that’s been laid out for the victims. If Drakeo was the Cold Devil recreating The Exorcist, Kendrick is the savior with a shooter, filming his own Last Temptation of Christ.

At a time where everyone needs everything to be explained, every last ounce of nuance dissected and destroyed, Kendrick refuses to give in. This is as subversive as anything this popular gets, the best song from an album that refuses to bend to the whims of the omnipresent algorithm truncheon clubbing us over the back of our heads. He gave no interviews, barely did any promo. Instead, he summoned the whispers heard in the wind during a spell where he was able to clear away the toxins and pollution, personal commandments revealed from high and low. – Jeff Weiss

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