The POW Best Rap Songs of 2023

We know the truth.
By    December 25, 2023

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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. – Ed

100. 310Babii – “Soak City”
99. Peezy feat. Jeezy, Real Boston Richey & Rob49 – “2 Million Up (Remix)”
98. K.E. – “Not Slowing” 
97. Vic Spencer/August Fanon – “Daily Bread, Pt. 6”
96. ShrapKnel/DJ Haram feat. billy woods – “Mescalito (Remix)”
95. City Girls – “No Bars”
94. Boldy James – “Dopey”
93. They Hate Change – “stunt (when i see you)”
92. ZAYALLCAPS – “$pree” 
91. Daniel Son/Wino Willy – “Uncle Pasquale”
90. Myaap/AyooLii – “On My Daddy”
89. StoneDa5th – “Death Inside a Mirror”
88. Ketchy the Great – “The Grim Adventures of Ketchy”
87. Rae Sremmurd ft. Young Thug – “Royal Flush”
86. Meyhem Lauren/Madlib/DJ Muggs feat. Action Bronson – “Szechuan Capital”
85. Lola Brooke – “Just Relax”
84. KARRAHBOOO – “Box the 40”
83. YN Jay/Sexyy Red/G Herbo – “Percs & Sex”
82. Quavo/Takeoff – “Patty Cake”
81. DJ Lucas – “The Climb”
80. Navy Blue – “The Medium/Pillars”
79. Aesop Rock – “Mindful Solutionism”
78. OT7 Quanny/G.T. – “New Money”
77. Kodak Black ft. EST Gee & Lil Crix – “Dirt McGerk”
76. EBK Young Joc/Big Sad 1900 – “Prada Steppin”
75. Popstar Benny with Tony Shnnow – “All The Girls <3”
74. Young Roddy/Trademark Da Skydiver – “Check Point”
73. ASM Bopster ft. 03 Greedo – “Choose Up”
72. Playerrways/GMoneyDT – “Air CNC”
71. YL – “The Proof”
70. Sayso The Mac/OTM/K7The Finesser – “Punk Rock”
69. BabyTron feat. Rico Nasty & Remble – “RIP Hutch”
68. Benny the Butcher feat. Lil Wayne – “Big Dog”
67. X4 – “Agent
66. Suga Free & Kokane – “Anotha Hoe Bites The Dust”
65. Larry June/The Alchemist feat. Action Bronson – “Solid Plan”
64. RMC Mike/Rio Da Yung OG – “Lucid Nightmare 2”
63. OG MarlynMonROLLUP – “Vox”
62. DB.Boutabag – “Chris Tucker”
61. WIFIGAWD – Pocket Watchin” 
60. Armand Hammer feat. Pink Siifu – “Trauma Mic”
59. Doggystyleeee & Big Sad 1900 – “My Weapon Shall Prosper”
58. Chito Rana$ – “All the Smoke”
56. B.Cool-Aid – “Brandy, Aaliyah”
55. Valee/Harry Fraud feat. Action Bronson – “Vibrant”
54. Scar Lip – “This Is New York”
53. Earl Sweatshirt/The Alchemist feat. Vince Staples – “The Caliphate”
52. Danny Brown feat. Kassa Overall – “Jenn’s Terrific Vacation”
51. Gunna – “Fukumean”

Kent Loon – “Kobe Bryant” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

“Kobe Bryant” is a flexing sizzle reel of everything popping in the Tampa of Kent Loon. A slow piano builds behind the pitter-patter of hi-hats as Kent crawls across the DJ Skum and Santiago Purp-produced beat with a withdrawn flow, letting threats fly (“Another opp dead, think he felt it in his gut”) alongside his odes to lean (“Lean, lean, so much damn red, need a kidney”).

The Bogota-born, Florida-raised Nü Age affiliate has always carried a penchant for these soft-spoken blends of psychedelic opiated trap. For the duration of “Kobe Bryant” Loon stays firmly in the pocket, serving bars with the consistency of the late Lakers great. – David Brake

50. Lil Vada – “Wop It”

In 1781, 44 settlers from New Spain (modern-day Mexico) traversed 1,000 miles north through harsh desert, as instructed by the Spanish Governor of Las Californias, Felipe de Neve, and founded the colony known as “El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles.” And on that day, to celebrate, legend has it that they danced around the bottle. Some even started crip walking.

Fast forward 242 years and the tradition is as strong as ever. Every year, there are a few dance-rap classics to come out of the City of Angels. This year, Lil Vada’s “Wop It” may hold the record for most shaken asses. And it’s not hard to see why. The mix of nostalgia from Usher’s “Yeah!” with a little extra West Coast thump to the beat turned it into a post-ratchet era banger with a real immediacy to the sound. Lil Vada first made a name for himself by popping out at high schools around the LA area, and you can tell his music still has that energy. But whether it makes it to the ears of anyone east of the Colorado river is a question for another column.  – Harley Geffner

49. Rx Papi – “On the Radar Freestyle”

There are moments when the light of the divine shines upon you, when you’re feeling yourself so hard that you cannot even remotely process the thought of your own downfall, and in those moments, you are Him. RX Papi was Him as fuck on this freestyle, so fresh out of Rikers that you can still see the price tag under the brim of his Yankee cap, rapping over the Roc La Familia intro like his life depends on it, so lost in his stream of consciousness that he sounds genuinely hurt when the DJ cuts the beat off.

Everything about this is perfect, even down to the post-verse shit-talk: He anoints himself Him Jones, Him Duncan, certainly not Them, whoever the hell they are. Alfred, fetch me more Him puns: He’s Him Furyk shooting 12 under par at the 2016 Travelers Championship. He’s Him T. Kirk setting phasers to stunt. He’s Jonathim Lethim on an extremely lit book tour. He’s Vladhimir Lenhim, hopping off his candy-painted train at Finland Station, wearing a Himberland on one foot and a Birkhimstock on the other. I could probably throw some more in here, but there’s like a million song blurbs on this list so I’ll stop here. – Drew Millard

48. YUNGMORPHEUS feat. Fly Anakin – “Cassava Bread”

With a nonchalant flow and a demeanor so casual that it could be mistaken for caustic world-weariness, it’s pretty easy to mislabel YUNGMORPHEUS as yet another West Coast bard paying homage to life’s comforts under a cloud of sativa. Much like his previous projects, From Whence It Came is awash with cautionary tales and advice about the importance of Black self-care amid working-class strife and the desire to rage against an oppressive American machine. However, it’s the topic of food that looms largest — both figuratively and literally — throughout his Lex Records debut.

Escovitch fish and crème brûlée get their own song titles, but it’s when he breaks “Cassava Bread” with his sous chef Fly Anakin that YUNGMORPH really gets cooking. He glides over a beat from the criminally slept-on Graymatter that wouldn’t sound out of place on a hazy Larry June project. YUNGMORPH doesn’t let up on using various foods as allegorical devices for the good and bad of everyday life. From the jump, he raps about making that “cracker” say please before spending time alone at the crib counting and “stacking the cheese.”

YUNGMORPH ramps up his love of fine cuisine on the video, which will probably make you hungrier than most cooking montages on The Bear ever could. A lit spliff in one hand and a sizzling pan or a steak knife in the other, the rapper/producer is clearly in his element, prepping delicacies in the kitchen as Carmy Berzatto would before having a blast with Anakin and their comrades at the dinner table. With “Cassava Bread,” YUNGMORPH gives us an enjoyable yet pensive address on getting what’s yours without having to sacrifice the finer things — such as good food and good times with the homies. –Oumar Saleh

47. Cash Cobain feat. Chow Lee – “Rump”

“Sample drill” isn’t a genre as much as it is a process. Take familiar samples, speed them up a few BPM, and pair them with the drum pattern du jour: Jersey club kick drums that stagger into syncopation in the last quarter of each bar. Bronx-born 25-year-old Cash Cobain has dubbed himself “sample god” for his ability to flip songs into new beats within 20 minutes, and his resume has grown from collaborations with local heroes like Shawny Binladen to credits on Drake’s latest album.

His producer tag “And this beat from Cash, not from YouTube,” alludes to his ubiquity with a hint of irony; all his beats start as lossy mp3 rips from YouTube. Despite the ballooning industry of investment firms hoping to maximize their returns via yet another rework of “Genius of Love,” Cobain and his peers would rather flip now, clear later if a single song blows up enough to warrant real money and legal attention.

Cash Cobain’s single “Rump” is a simple song about ass with a delightfully old-fashioned title. Rapping at the top of his register, Cobain wants a woman that makes him speak in onomatopoeia, like he’s so flabbergasted by her cheeks that he can’t help but think out loud.

It’s an appropriately bottom-heavy beat: he plucks the eerie harmonies from Jai Paul’s “BTSTU,” possibly inspired by a similar sample on Drake’s 2011 track “Dreams Money Can Buy” or Paul’s buzzy debut performances this spring. Cobain’s trebly vocals dissipate like Elf bar vapor amidst the kick drums and fuzzy bass. He’s boasted in interviews that his music “is about ho-ing, I just love being a ho,” but here he’s persistently paranoid that the girls flocking to him might sell him out to his opps.

Frequent collaborator Chow Lee makes the Eros/Thanatos connection explicit by emptying a clip and climaxing in back-to-back bars, his voice slathered in harsh effects like the garish furry beanie he wears in the video. It’s a new generation of “Party and Bullshit”. I wonder how someone will flip it into something new in a few years. – Jack Riedy

46. Remble – “Paint the Town Blue”

In 2021, the now-reclusive Remble aligned himself with Drakeo The Ruler and The Stinc Team. The San Pedro rapper released a genuinely excellent debut that took the whispers and mumbles out of Drakeo’s nervous music and injected it with an enunciated absurdism. Both “Gordon Ramsay Freestyle” and “Touchable” felt like genuine moments, showcasing a reinvention of LA street rap, with fans describing Remble’s matter-of-fact delivery as “rapping in Times New Roman.”

Since then, Remble went the Kendrick Lamar route, choosing to take time before his next release versus to sending out a new song every two weeks to satiate internet teens with ADD. Over the last two years, Remble has only dropped two official singles, the first of which being “Where’s Remble?,” a song which directly addressed his prolonged absence. The second is a YouTube-only remake of Doja Cat’s “Paint The Town Red,” produced by Earl on the Beat, Rubin, Jean-Baptiste, and DJ Replay.

Remble re-imagines Doja Cat’s triumphant album-opener as an ode to prison politics and smart pimping, tackling gangland topics with the knowledge and specificity of an insider. “Fight harder like you squabblin’ at Wayside, seen the county K10 a K9, watched a gangster referee a cage fight,” he says. The combination of the soulful Dionne Warwick sample mixed with Remble’s oddly specific musings on incarceration make for one of this year’s most replayable songs. – Donny Morrison

45. YoungBoy Never Broke Again – “B*tch Let’s Do It”

Since his release from St. Martin Parish custody in October of 2021, YoungBoy Never Broke Again has been living under court-ordered supervision in Salt Lake City. His time in Utah has reportedly been beneficial to the often-embattled superstar, who has used his time in his mountain mansion to continue his prolific output. “B*tch Let’s Do It” was his best cut of the year.

A track with a contagious Louisiana bounce, fronted by YoungBoy’s charged delivery. A hype song seemingly built for Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies locker room, YoungBoy charges through the rolling keys of D-Roc, Juppybeats and Chasely, dishing out well-earned disses to Hip Hop’s most notorious vulture in the process. – David Brake

Rhys Langston x Pioneer 11 – “On My Own” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

Pioneer 11 and Rhys Langston have concocted a galaxy previously undiscovered. Out of thin air they’ve built a universe and the map is their debut collaborative LP, To Operate This System. The project from the space-rock peddlers and rap’s raffish working class philosopher is a stunning co-habitation of their two styles. Woozy synths and infectious melodies mingle with heady treatises on humanity and artificial intelligence, psychedelics, art, the gig economy, and commerce. It’s particularly prescient as American society allows itself to be eaten by domination-seeking AI corporations disguising their machinations as being “for the benefit of humanity.” Don’t say Pioneer 11 and Rhys Langston didn’t warn you.

On album opener “On My Own,” the duo cue up humming synths that sound akin to a digital orchestra getting ready for a performance. A bassline begins to walk the electronic dog as Langston’s half-sung chorus mirrors its melody. He asks, “And if the time capsule swallowed is a placebo, and so my shell is gone enteric/And if I cross dissolve and glower in between the folds, is my packaging generic?” It’s an intergalactic R&B anthem for the dispossessed and perennially skeptical. The delightful swing to the song is counterbalanced by Langston’s well-justified nihilism. “Epistemology is just a slow sink,” he concludes, ignoring the rabbit hole because the results are too scary to reckon with. – Will Schube

44. Papo2oo4 & Subjxct 5 – “Money & Greed”

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America and the greater Cooperstown area should probably pay out that invoice to Papo2oo4 – as the Hall of Fame’s credibility rusts with a breathtaking swiftness. The New Jersey rapper is maybe the only person keeping the debate relevant to barbershops and blogs in equal measure.

Pap on PEDs is one of this year’s most icy and self-assured projects, with space reserved on almost every track for fiery disdain for Bud Selig and Bernie Sanders. There is no shortage of visceral reference points for hip-hop’s decaying moral compass, but why would Papo bring back the Roc-a-Wear tracksuit or roll the White Owl when he could just remind us of how they did Barry Bonds.

The visuals for “Money & Greed” are grainy and uncentered; its beat is a katana blade splicing through the family’s stack of old soul records. Subjxct 5 isn’t trying to get your head bob, he’s trying to get you up off your ass. And Pap is rapping to get the money and bring that feeling back, but he’s not skipping the earthbound rewards of pork fried rice and chicken wings.

“The backstabbers never hate to your face/they’re all sizes, all colors, all shapes,” he raps before the unshakable mission statement: no days off, the finish line is death. If Nipsey Hussle’s Marathon is a sun-drenched treatise on how to beat the American Dream, this is an Andy Dufresne crawl through the Lincoln Tunnel amid a snowstorm. Don’t be surprised if your drug test is randomly ordered upon listening. – Steven Louis

43. KARRAHBOOO/Anycia – “Splash Brothers”

Let’s start off with a slightly controversial but very factual take. US female rappers have taken the belt in 2023. Sexyy Redd stole America’s heart and sexual libido, selling out stadiums and hopping on Drake songs.  New York’s Princess Diana, Ice Spice, captivated the internet with her it-girl demeanor and US drill meets Jersey Club production.

Below the surface, there’s a new wave of US female rappers tapped into regional scenes with their own style. Anycia and Karrahboo do this in “SPLASH Brothers”, mixing the Detroit off-kilter flows with an Atlanta bounce and mixing in heretically trappy 1st Class production like a drug cocktail.

Anycia first gained attention for her raspy Backwoods-torched voice. Concrete Gang’s Karrahboo achieved notoriety with her unbothered flow packed with punchlines and drug narratives. “SPLASH BROTHERS” is a back-and-forth adventure, where Anycia dodges club hobos and scrubs and Karrahboo makes a “hood nigga shy,” as she smirks before rolling onto the next bar.

If it’s not exactly groundbreaking, it’s catchy as fuck. Anycia and Karrahboo are in their Curry and Thompson 2013-14 run – not exactly winning rings just yet, but playing the game with the promise that they will eventually. – Ethan Herlock

42. Saviii 3rd – “3 aGAinSt thE wOrLd”

On “3 aGAinSt thE wOrLd,” Saviii 3rd raps in a pressurized growl, his delivery strained and triumphant. Maybe he recorded this while doing a set of weighted diamond push-ups. Maybe he shot a gallon of kerosene and chased it with lit matches. Maybe he connected with a supreme deity, who told him that eternal salvation would be contingent on how hard he ripped an S-tier Tupac beat.

“And forever I’m indebted/they can’t step in these 11s/know I need you more than ever,” he begins.

It’s not exactly rapped as much as it’s expelled from his soul, as if a lifetime of sacrifice and betrayal flew out on a top-down I-710 drive. The East Side Long Beach general has been elevating his pen since coming home from a burglary conviction in 2017. His output this year masterfully grafted dark alley feelings into the newly-earned panoramic suite.

As an album, 3 Against the World can be tough to take in, from the bouncing melancholy of “tHRu iT aLL” to the requiem of “mOm’s MeLoDy,” but its closing title track is perhaps the easiest point of entry to Saviii thus far. Old heads will recognize the spiritual and sonic reverence shown for the West’s all-time best paranoid poet; young folks will appreciate the tricky, slinking flow, its chest-out swag and super-boosted drums. The odds are distant, but comfortably bet on a Saviii 3rd with nothing to lose versus the rest of the field. – Steven Louis

41. Lavarr the Starr/Shabazz Palaces – “Mind Glow Radio”

This year was the 30th anniversary of Digable Planets’ verbose, but always slick, cool jazz sampledelic debut album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space). To celebrate, members of the band, Ishmael “Butter Fly” Butler, Craig “Doodlebug” Irving, and Mariana “Ladybug Mecca” Vieira have been on an extended tour since the summer.

Amidst the adulation and reflection on the past, Butler put out two short albums that show that he’s never drowning in nostalgia. In October, he and cosmic comrade Tendai “Baba” Maraire put out an album as their quietly influential (check the shout out on the new Earl record) afro-futurist psychedelic hip hop duo Shabazz Palaces, full of opaque whisper raps.

Earlier in the year, Butler quietly put out another album of murky, mysterious, afro-psychedelia as Lavarr the Starr, which is sometimes credited to include Shabazz Palaces. As Lavarr, Butler croons his heart out through layers of hazy ambiance and stacked harmonies, while still rapping as slick and cold as ever. The standout track on the album, “Mind Glow Rodeo,” sees Butler effortlessly whispering slick talk from deep in the crevices of a minimal chopped and screwed dirge of phantom piano notes and quietly crying soulful guitar licks.

When the chorus comes in, Butler barely raises his voice above the ambiance of the track, until all of a sudden a stuttering techno beat raises the tempo and his voice. Right when he’s getting into it, the track just ends. At 54, Butler is still innovating. – Sam Ribakoff

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

Chester Watson is no stranger to summoning apparitions. A Japanese Horror Film – his hallucinogenic samurai epic from 2020 – is littered with witch encounters, haunted forests, and ghostly forms of transportation. A self-described “Human Ouija Board,” Watson will often (graciously) serve as host for paranormal communication, which comes with its fair share of drawbacks. Take “Taxi Ghost,” where shortly after initiating a seance, Watson glances at himself in the mirror only to find no reflection staring back at him. This grim infatuation goes back to his teenage years. Watson’s video for “Kudo” from over a decade ago feels like a DIY episode of Ghost Hunters, only much more frightening and strange, with its devilish red hues and Blair Witch-style camera angles.

Watson’s latest LP, fish don’t climb trees, marks an earnest shift from supernatural treachery to familial spirituality. At 26-years-old, Watson has reached the point of quasi-adulthood where connecting with and learning about your lineage can prove therapeutic and motivating. When sitting down to write what would become fish, Watson channeled this ancestral bond, which in turn helped empower his words, guide his production decisions, and maintain a watchful eye over malevolent threats.

Much like the rest of fish, “Spirits” finds Chester rapping his ass off. The beat sounds like it’s covered in cobwebs, with a flickering keyboard melody tucked between bouncy percussion. Watson raps in his usual unbothered cadence, but with a measured assuredness in who he is and who came before him. “Heir to the throne, I’m on a mission,” he spits on the opening bars.

A known wanderer akin to the shepherd boy in “The Alchemist,” Watson has traveled the astral and material worlds in search of truth and inner peace. But on “Spirits,” Watson looks to the open sky, where unseen forces nudge his path toward new artistic terrain. – Ross Olson

40. G Perico – “Ask G4”

G Perico always feels like he’s on the cusp of something. In an interview with Bootleg Kev earlier this year, he hinted that he was working on a body of work that would make the tapes he dropped during a typically prolific 2023 look minor by comparison. “It’s that project that’s gonna be timeless,” he told Kev. Big singles, big features. The best is yet to come, he seemed to say.

But let’s say that album never drops. After all, G Perico has had his share of setbacks over the past few years: the dissolution of his So Way Out collective and his deal with Roc Nation going south. “I just turned down 2.5 Ms,” he raps on “Ask G4,” over fluttering saxophones. It’s a pretty blasé response to something that I know would have had me going to two-a-weeks with my therapist. But this is a guy who came up in South Central as a member of the Broadway Gangster Crips; who got shot, cleaned up the wound himself, and did a show that night. He is, to use the tiresome sports cliché, made different.

“Been going hard since I dropped G-Worthy,” he says, referencing his 2017 tape with Jay Worthy. Since then he’s put out an average of three projects a year, each one a rock-solid collection of neo G-Funk anthems. His discography is a testament to tenacity and consistency. I’m not saying that I don’t think the album will come out. But “Ask G4” is ample evidence that there are worse things than just watching Perico do his thing, magnum opus or no. – Jordan Ryan Pedersen

39. VINSON ft. Rhys Langston – “Lofi God”

“Lofi God” is an irreverent anthem voiced by a Detroit native who is tired of hearing Dilla repeatedly be compared to ChilledCow’s animated Lofi Girl. The critique of hyper-capitalists in the “underground” begins with a dusty guitar loop before the bouncing drum kit kicks in: VINSON brazenly shouts “Oh my god, it’s the Lofi God.” What follows is a torrent of tongue-in-cheek lamentations evoking Prozac, Terrence Malick, and Lenny Kravitz, culminating in L.A.’s Rhys Langston stimulating his Nirvana to summon the lofi deity himself in 240p. The video is equally witty and merciless, showcasing the two shooting some hoops around LA while piling on homework to the Lofi Girl’s seemingly endless stack.

VINSON sees the underground as a place for artists to experiment with the art forms they love and respect. With two uncles who were singers in Motown, and another who used to rap with Chuck D, the Motor City-bred, LA-based rapper and songwriter has a supreme reverence for his musical influences and history. “Lofi God” is a defense of that tradition. The current face of lofi has stripped the music of all culture, replacing it with an easily digestible and endless stream to “study/chill/relax to” that is more concerned with profit margins than with the history. VINSON wants you to know that “Lofi God” isn’t lofi: it’s raw hip hop shit. – Kevin Crandall

38. Ken Carson – “Jennifer’s Body”

At the apex of young-and-turnt music in 2023, there is only Ken Carson. Growing up in Atlanta in the early 2000s, the Opium lieutenant is a product of his lineage: Carti’s hyper-kinetic palette, Future’s spitfire brevity, 808 Mafia’s percussive blitzkrieg. You can tell Ken grew up with iPods full of Hoodrich Keem and DJ Esco-hosted trap bangers with “bass-boosted” written in parentheses. Today, the kids are basking in his own bloodbaths of electricity, suffocating themselves in each other’s arms to the clipping 808s that engulf his wretched symphony.

When you open your eyes after the stuttering kickstart to “Jennifer’s Body” swallows you whole, the flesh-eating synth trills are already gnawing away at your surface. Allow yourself to succumb to them and you’ll be born again rabid and bloodthirsty. KP Beatz and Lucian have birthed a mutant of an instrumental here, so opalescent and enticing, but equally haunting and inclement. The opening 20 seconds build a dire, wanton sense of urgency that set up the best line delivery of Ken Carson’s career thus far: “Two things I ain’t ever seen / A nigga beating a gun and a bitch I need.” Listen closely as his slurred, unhinged cadence bleeds over what sounds like sirens from an ambulance from hell. Every declaration made by Ken is succeeded by one that’s more heinous and deplorable. Regardless of where you stand, “Jennifer’s Body” is a fireworks show impossible to look away from. – Olivier Lafontant

37. Open Mike Eagle feat. Young Zee – “BET’s Rap City”

Where do you go after the bottom falls out? In the wake of 2020’s confessional Anime, Trauma and Divorce, Mike Eagle scaled his unsparing portraits into oblique tributes. 2022’s Component System With the Auto Reverse and 2023’s Another Triumph of Ghetto Engineering are companion pieces, rigorous appraisals of hip-hop culture featuring unsung ‘90s heroes. Even in his more charitable, celebratory moments, Eagle bypasses rose-tinted nostalgia in pursuit of critical objectivity. As in his diaristic work, love is conditional and judgment well-informed.

“BET’s Rap City” co-stars Outsidaz luminary Young Zee, a consummate rambler with shock-jock instincts. He is 52 going on 23, and could always use the work. Illingsworth’s bright production centers around a children’s incantation, yet Zee’s dirty-old-man jokes (“I got fans like R. Kelly, please pee on me/I’m solo now, bow to the new king Young Zee”) make a mockery of the whimsical loops. Here, Eagle says, is hip-hop in all its brilliance and vulgarity — Wu-Tang may be for the children, but Outsidaz are X-rated. And if Eagle’s a realist, his ideals remain intact. He is constitutionally averse to sanctimony, making space for priceless art beside low-rent smut. This is music by and for the people, elevated by its vibrant imperfections; above all else, Eagle asserts, art should be human. – Pete Tosiello

36. Young Nudy feat. 21 Savage – “Peaches & Eggplants”

2023 was arguably defined by women claiming the rap sex romp, but never forget the bros did not go down without a fight. Gender essentialism aside, it was hard to have more fun in three minutes and change this year than you did turning up to the East Atlantans Nudy and 21 Savage’s horny emoji anthem.

Is it possible for a wobble to be sinister? Can a song sound like the blue gel filter on a head light illuminating the bar at Pumps? Did they time the snare hit to- let’s move on.

Nudy punches into every bar on his covetous verse that plays like a torrent of drunk 3 a.m. texts that rhyme – throwing out all the innuendo Slim once artfully designed to ensure 112’s sex anthem with “Peaches” in the title played on the radio. They get into all the graphic detail and evoke the great Akinyele at his most bricked. For a moment, you almost forget that guys got whipped in the sex rap gender war this year. And then, Nudy wisely released a remix with Latto and Sexyy Red. – Abe Beame

35. Maiya The Don – “Dusties”

Influencers-turned-rappers rarely, if ever, come as good as Maiya the Don. After the beauty TikToker became a burgeoning rap star last year with the viral success of “Telfy,” the Brooklyn-born Maiya Early established herself within the borough’s hard-charging drill scene by utilizing the very promotional techniques she’d perfected as short-form videomaker: posting behind-the-scenes exclusives and track snippets to build up anticipation, shouting out and teaming up with peers like her fellow Brooklynites Ice Spice and Lola Brooke, introducing her countrywide fans to her hometown slang, and always, always reminding her followers to check out her latest drop, no matter how many days have transpired since release.

Of course, it also helps that Maiya’s a helluva songwriter, with a knack for addictive hooks and tight verses blurted out with relentless bravado and heart-pumping rhythmic dexterity. This is demonstrated in “Dusties,” an early-year follow-up to “Telfy” that pays tribute to Maiya’s idol Lil’ Kim, throwing back to horns on “Magic Stick.”

But what is a “dusty,” you ask? Per the writer, it’s Brooklyn slang for “a crusty, nasty, funky, busted boy” lacking in both clothes and funds. Pliznaya and Derrick Milano—the latter a frequent Megan Thee Stallion collaborator—contribute a spare, stark beat of a just a few low-octave piano notes and kick-heavy drums, allowing Maiya the Don space to rapidly jump between boasts (“I just put my ex in this blunt”), puns (“He say he a big dog, so I made him fetch for me”), and sneering insults at these dusties (“Even though we used to fuck, it’s better with your bro”) without losing timing or momentum. If you needed proof that “Telfy” was no fluke and that Maiya can really rap, “Dusties” should do just fine. – Nitish Pahwa

34. KP SKYWALKA – “Inna Mix”

In a DC street rap scene that has gathered a fair amount of attention for its more tense and frenetic sound and subject matter, KP Skywalka emerged as something of an outlier. His taste in samples is catered to children of the 90s and early 00s, making him a simple entry point for the uninitiated. It would be easy to attribute his appeal to the production and call it a day. 

The beats aren’t doing the heavy lifting, though. KP’s grounded, detailed writing elevates the production instead. Women are the subject of most of his writing but they’re given an equal amount of agency. They’re given names (this is a recurring motif in his catalog), jobs, backstories. There’s a sincerity and warmth that makes it all feel very lived in. 

“Inna Mix” is the purest distillation of that formula. KP explains his need for personal space to a girlfriend but also acknowledges her need for personal space, even offering to send flowers to her job. He’s buying them matching Silenzio sweaters. She’s warned against the idea of lighting a blunt at his grandmother’s house, lest they be asked to leave.

The tastefully chosen soul sample is just icing on the cake. It’s rare that you get to refer to any street rap as easy listening but if anyone qualifies for that descriptor, it would be KP. To paraphrase Jadakiss, he doesn’t use beats for help, he helps the beats. – Jeff Castilla

33. Ralfy the Plug ft. 03 Greedo – “Real Life or Fictional”

In mid-April, just a month after releasing his first official post-prison single (“Bacc Like I Never Left”), 03 Greedo linked back up with an old friend, Ralfy the Plug, the ever-prolific Stinc Team associate and brother of the late, great Drakeo the Ruler. Greedo and the Ruler, two of L.A.’s finest, had recorded multiple tracks together in 2017, with the hopes of eventually releasing a joint mixtape. Sadly, their respective entanglements with law enforcement left them to languish behind bars for years on end. Greedo remained in prison as Drakeo walked free in late 2020 and got stabbed to death just a year later. One can only imagine what the two could have pulled off had they ever been given a proper chance to work together.

Still, it’s clear that 03 Greedo, like all of Drakeo’s family, peers, and fans, holds the late rapper close to his heart. With Ralfy carrying the Stinc Team name forward through nonstop new mixtapes, with his memorials to brother Drakeo and cousin Ketchy the Great omnipresent throughout that music, it’s no surprise Greedo sang a heartful “rest in peace the Ruler” on his April post-release collab with Ralfy.

“Real Life or Fictional” isn’t the first time these two have joined forces—Ralfy landed verses on two pre-prison Greedo tapes—but it’s a particularly meaningful occasion. Here, Ralfy and Greedo celebrate their resilience and stature in the rap world (“When it come to L.A. shit-talking, Stincs did it first”) while dissing those who are “tough on the ’Gram but in real life he a different person.” Greedo also marvels at the fact he’s been away so long that audiences are “calling me a clone”—the rappers who came up while he was away listened to his tapes and now “sound like the old me.” Greedo’s voice may have changed over time, and the kids may be picking up on his style, but his auto-tune riffs sound as heartfelt, vibrant, and singular as ever. He and Ralfy still have much to say. – Nitish Pahwa

32. Phiik/Lungs – “Don Quixote”

Halfway through the first verse of “Don Quixote,” amidst a flurry of surrealistic one-liners, Lungs paints a harrowing portrait of a collapsing American family. “Out in Suffolk, Italian kids headbutting walls, all bumping Cage / Their parents upstairs, f*cked up, doing bumps of Jimmy Page.” He zooms out a little further, noting that the streets near this horror house are unpaved. Weird CBD products and the sales prowess of the late Billy Mays briefly occupy his attention. Still, he returns to that moment of bedroom community despair, watching as suburban moms plaintively weep, baffled by their children’s upsetting decisions.

Phiik picks up the thread of desperation, rapping like a paranoiac sweating bullets: “Everything starts to click when you see them dots connecting.” He ends by ominously repeating “Hold on a minute, hold on a minute,” sounding as though he knows it’s too late to stop what’s coming. It’s moments like these that make its host album, Another Planet 4, so compelling.

Like most of the songs on the tape, “Don Quixote” initially reads as a teeth-gritting psychedelic bit of gonzo rap. It loosely weaves strings of obscure references and bonkers non-sequiturs into a disorienting whole. Lungs supplies a tense, drumless loop that sounds lifted from a 50’s sci-fi B-movie, while the two rappers speedrun through as many syllables as they can – like over-caffeinated hackers scanning code.

Spend enough time with it, and you realize the New York duo’s observations aren’t as warped as they seem. Each line is a document of the violence and pressure that spills into every corner of American life. A new atrocity, outrage or absurdity will inevitably pop up before we can begin processing the last one. Suddenly, another planet feels really familiar. – Dash Lewis

31. BLP KOSHER – “Jew On the Canoe”

Even if you haven’t heard his music yet, social media has probably shown you BLP Kosher’s punim. Porcelain white with deep set stoner eyes, a star of David medallion on his chest, and two large wicks extending horizontally from his head like a furry porcupine. Kosher looks like a YouTube prankster begging you to like and subscribe. Add in that his central conceit is references to his Jewish heritage and it might seem like a recipe for some meme music tomfoolery.

But “Jew on the Canoe” showed that Kosher can really rap. Kosher enlivens a pretty standard Broward County by way of Stockton and L.A. beat with a quietly mixed looping brass line. He is funny, yes, but also astute when he raps about the cultures of skating and South Florida while interspersing biblical references, great word choices (hogwash, swashbuckle, and alopecia are standouts), and a quick diss of a certain proudly anti-semitic MAGA figure who got ejected from Skechers.

He raps in a smooth, mealy mouthed flow seemingly inspired by fellow Floridian Kodak Black. The music is funny in the sense that Kosher is a witty dude, but you can tell that his intention is not to satirize or clown his people, but to sincerely make music in the style of the place that he’s from and add his own style and perspective to it. What does letting “the Jew on the canoe” mean? He’s too good of a songwriter to spell it out for you. It’s more like a Talmudic koan for the listener to unravel. – Sam Ribakoff

Fatboi Sharif ft. Bruiser Wolf – “Po Pimpin Do Or Die” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

Please enter church, it’s time for service. A Roper Williams-produced synth swells and contracts, lulling in the congregation. Little plucks of strings poke through beneath the looping tape fuzz. Bruiser Wolf emerges as an alien minister, spitting a twisting tale like Slick Rick narrating Alice’s descent into the rabbit hole. As Wolf’s unsettling cartoonish delivery subsides, Fatboi Sharif’s gruff voice wafts in, delivering esoteric insights “Discuss Marvin late night Malcolm with a shotgun” which unspool into mantric refrains: “Malcom with the shotgun / Malcom with the shotgun.”

Sharif’s raps are like a director crafting a scene in storyboard. Sharp, visual vignettes fly in rapid succession: “In the midnight swimming pool, edible arrangement,” “More bodies than Eyes Wide Shut,” and “Pulsed raised and they’re sellin’ propane.” Sharif’s “Po Pimping Do or Die” highlights what makes the New Jersey rapper so special – he’s an auteur propelling visual images through an audio format. – David Brake

30. R3 Da Chilliman/03 Greedo – “Like It’s His”

When Drakeo passed, he left a black hole in his wake. It has sucked every sub-style of LA rap into its vortex, with imitators and enemies alike getting pulled in closer, but never reaching the true center of his universe. But there are some ascendant rappers who are getting pretty close. R3 Da Chiliman, out of Moreno Valley a little over an hour from LA, is one of his sharpest disciples. His bars are slick and incisive, with an edge that cuts right to the heart of what it means to be a hood trophy. It’s like if the devil himself went to a shootout in the flashiest diamonds that souls could buy, then bragged about it in the studio the next day.

“Like It’s His,” from his debut album, is the song that marked his ascension. Him acting as a foil to Greedo’s booming vocals was the closest anything has felt to Greedo and Drakeo’s magical collabs. Over the icy keys that frost the tips of the hollowed out bass, R3 snipes in each syllable like a sharpshooter with a hypnotic lilt. He taunts his enemies about the contents of their juice (it’s water-whipped), their lack of high speed chases with the police, and how he’s ready to “let him have it, like it’s his.”

All of this leads into one of the most massive verses in recent memory. Greedo hums through the last few lines of R3’s hooks, like a rumble to signal the big quake is coming. It rolls up your spine and envelopes your entire being when he opens “Bitch I’m on parole, but I still tote a pole.” His presence on the track is a freezing cold gust, sweeping through entire cities and leaving a layer of permafrost. This is what it sounds like to creep through the streets of enemy territory at night. – Harley Geffner

29. Young Thug feat. Future – “Cars Bring Me Out”

A few days ago I decided to go for a run by the ocean near my apartment in Playa Del Rey, a sleepy beach town tucked away on the westside of Los Angeles. I’m not much of a runner, but after being hunched over at my bedroom desk for nine hours working my corporate job, I suddenly had the aspirations of a long distance Olympian.

Once I made my way down to the boardwalk, Young Thug’s “For My People” came bursting through my headphones. With its themes of fierce loyalty and commitment toward the prosperity of your loved ones, “For My People” is Thug at his most spastic and unpredictably potent. Shortly after deploying at least three different flows in just over a minute, Thug yelps on the first verse “Man I get so fly like a seagull. And I’m ready to die for my people.” As this bar sat in my earphones for a second, I glanced up and saw a seagull soaring above my head about 60 feet in the sky. The gull’s wings were fully stretched while its body remained gracefully still as it glided over the sand on this cloudy winter day.

Normally these types of coincidences wouldn’t elicit an emotional response out of me. But given Thug’s current predicament awaiting trial in Georgia on RICO charges, the image triggered a profound sadness within me. The twisted forces of the justice system have thwarted the ascent of another singular talent by using his lyrics against him in a court of law. Much like an eagle descending through open horizons, Thug approached sonic terrain with similar freedom and lawlessness. 

Listening to “Cars Bring Me Out” only compounds this melancholy. Wheezy’s beat – with its magnetic guitar loop and punchy bassline  – first belonged to Drakeo the Ruler, another transformative stylist who laid the foundation for West Coast nervous music. The DA’s office of Los Angeles similarly tormented Drakeo and his family, first by jailing the late rapper for a crime he didn’t commit, and now in refusing to investigate the circumstances surrounding his tragic death. A tinge of anger and wistfulness will always color both rappers’ versions of the song. It could have been Drakeo’s entry point to the vast Atlanta trap scene. It could have been the latest in many more Thug and Future collaborations, not potentially the last. As our rap idols continue to die prematurely, are targeted by prosecutors, or reveal themselves to be morally bankrupt, sometimes the only thing to do is live within the confines of whatever song is bursting through your earphones. Ross Olson

28. EBK Jaaybo – “Apocalypse”

When Young Slo-Be was killed in August of last year, EBK Jaaybo sat idle in the pen, grieving the loss of the Southeast Demon. It wasn’t until February of this year that Jaaybo was finally let out. Although the song was released in August, the Stockton rapper was placed back into custody from mid-April through late-September, marking the record with the same resentment that he was forced to hold back when he heard of Slo’s death.

“Apocalypse” seethes with malice. Before Jaaybo begins the song’s singular verse, he fumes 15 “ayes” into the microphone, each more exasperated than the last. There’s not an ounce of remorse in his voice as he embellishes every two measures with four pops of a Glock.

Bitterness underscores each line. With Slo-Be gone, and EBK Mad Maxx and EBK Lil Sleaze locked up, EBK Jaaybo raps like he has nothing left to lose. The grim, low-octave grand piano keys bleed into each other, oscillating the distant cries of a hidden R&B sample.

Jaaybo’s lyrics capture the rapturous few minutes before setting off on a drill in search of vengeance. There’s no going back. It’s too late to excise the disdain from his mother’s eyes, he’s too many lines deep to kick his double cup, and the last thing he needs is a whiff of indecision: “You hoppin’ in or hoppin’ out? You actin’ like a b*tch.” – Yousef Srour

27. Nef The Pharaoh feat. LaRussell – “Furley Goat”

Nef the Pharaoh has never hesitated to compare himself to his Vallejo forefather Mac Dre—and, to be fair, neither have the rest of us. But geographical links can only connect you to a true legend to an extent. Fail to live up to those historic standards and you’re on the wrong side of the Tiffany Pollard “Beyoncé?!” meme. It helps Neffy’s case that his affinity for Dre is authentic. On a recent appearance on the Dregs One podcast, he discussed meeting Furl himself at a gas station and the impression it left: “It made me, like, want to be a people person,” said Neffy. “It made me wanna fuck with my fans.” The streaming version of “Furley Goat” opens with an audio clip of Dre speaking about his origins, setting the tone for Neffy’s latest séance. The bass-heavy, skunk-weed funk beat is a classicist take on the West and Neffy uses the space to detail various dalliances with girls.

Nabbing fellow Vallejo rapper LaRussell for the final verse proves to be a smart piece of business. His laidback voice evokes classic Eazy-E and Snoop to enhance the throwback appeal. But this is Neffy’s (thizzle) dance. After suffering some awful tragedies in recent years, his hijinks are as strong as ever. And nothing asserts how much Mac Dre is missed more than the fact that a true disciple like Neffy has been making songs like “Furley Goat” for a decade and nobody would have it any other way. Dean Van Nguyen

26. Luh Tyler – “First Show”

Seventeen year olds aren’t supposed to sound this good this fast, but we live in prodigious times. Luh Tyler’s teenage wunderkind profile here is a bit different from what rap ha’s brought us in the last decade or so, though, absent of the Earl Sweatshirt shock value or the Lil Tecca breakthrough mainstream smash: the magnetism is quiet.

On the other hand, that impossibly languid quality is what makes it all tick. There are a few easy comps for Luh Tyler’s impossibly languid drawl. There is the prevailing “Detroit” flow that’s been popularized over the the past few years, or even Drakeo the Ruler’s signature mumble, but those have some inherent precision in how the lines are displaced from the beat. Instead, Luh Tyler is dotting i’s in the next line with syllables drawled in from the last. We may have seen the culmination of that vision embodied in his first full-length from earlier this year, an album so airy it seemed to evaporate in real-time, more similar to early, MexikoDro-core plugg than the music of the Florida or Detroit rappers like (Loe Shimmy, Trapland Pat, and BabyTron that) he’s often adjacent to.

“First Show” flips that dynamic on its head, propelled by an unfamiliar urgency. The dialect and demeanor are still the same — cool, calm, collected — but they take on a different gravitas at a higher MPH. “Luh Tyler snapping on the beat, you feel the energy,” he says.: Whatwhat a concept! And this new framing also underlines that unteachable quality that the best writers of today have, part Veeze and part SZA: the ability to write long-form prose in short-form snippets. Every other line could be an Instagram caption, and while “First Show” technically has a hook, in reality it feels like the moments that’ll really dig themselves into your brain are instead buried within verses, jumping out to you between bars. And like those elite NBA prospects who seem to arrive in the league with veteran footwork off rip, the microscopic quality of the craft is a real sign we’re watching a future master at work. – Sun-Ui Yum

25. TisaKorean – “uHhH HuH.mp3”

Artists are still mining the styles and aesthetics of the ’80s. These efforts always end up as vague approximations of the era, congealing Reagan-era evils and neon glows into edgeless, familiar sludge. To some degree, everyone is just trying to assemble and sell some form of nostalgia—the less effort put into it, the better. But that only serves to compartmentalize an entire decade into something far too neat and convenient. TisaKorean, by contrast, succeeds in examining the culture and music of a different but no less sinister decade—the 2000s—and compacting their differences into one whole.

“uHhH HuH.Mp3” is a brilliantly textured synthesis of baggy white T’s, clumpy drums, and early internet aesthetics. Fitting that TisaKorean repurposes the 106 & Park logo into his own branding for the song’s video, because the whole thing sounds like a Terrence J and Rocsi Diaz transition after Freestyle Friday. It’s also fitting that the Houston rapper spotlights Pharrell’s In My Mind album along with the “Drop It Like It’s Hot” black-and-white filter and the grated Hell Hath No Fury synths. It is deceptively intricate for a set of crunk raps and ultra-primitive ad-libs.

Whereas some artists are in the business of swag-biting and extracting the entire essence of one idea, TisaKorean’s studious applications yield an endless hypnotic package of aughts excess. Eventually, others will catch up, trying to imitate the iconography of the 2000s with much more limited success. By the time they get there, TisaKorean will either have moved on to his next muse or will be grandfathering the next generation. – Caleb Catlin

24. Rio Da Yung OG – “Talkin Crazy”

A lot has changed since Rio Da Yung OG entered prison in 2021. The punched-in flow that he helped popularize—and in many ways perfected—has all but gone mainstream. The rap scene in Detroit has finally broken out more widely in the regional conversation. In Flint, just an hour’s drive north, Rio’s comrades RMC Mike, Louie Ray, and YN Jay have each carved out unique fan bases while never forgetting to shout out the man who made it all possible. As it is, Rio will be exiting prison under some of the best circumstances possible for a rapper doing five years. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ inmate locator tool, Rio’s expected to be released on June 15, 2025.

Rio’s incarceration for a nonviolent drug crime (along with a guilty plea for firearm possession) hasn’t stopped his team from releasing music that rivals anything else coming out of Michigan. Rio’s the only rapper out making songs that practically force me to rewind them for a closer listen. Everything he says is genuinely surprising, laugh-out-loud hilarious, and somehow head-scratchingly deep at the same time. He would be the perfect protagonist in a Quentin Tarantino movie set in Flint—perhaps one based on the exaggerated exploits of Rio’s dizzying street tales—because there’s something inherently cinematic about the world Rio and his cadre of Flint brethren have created.

“Talkin Crazy” consists of nearly four minutes of scathing quotables; the song’s replete with such breathless recitation that I find myself only singing along to the last two words of every line. Rio’s conversational flexes feel too real to be fiction, yet too absurd to actually be fact. That humor and specificity separates Rio from most other rappers on this list. With that, I’ll just leave you with this:

“I ain’t gon’ lie, I take Percocets ’cause I be cummin’ fast
You tryna spend ten thou’ right now? I’m comin’ fast
If I see an opp out and I ain’t strapped, I’ma punch his ass
The pint of red was talkin’ back to me, I drunk his ass
I’m still tryna f*ck big booty Ari, with her ugly ass.” – Donny Morrison

23. Killer Mike – “Motherless”

Losing a parent, no matter what stage in life you’re in, is hard. After my mom passed away this year, I played “Motherless” for two months straight. Killer Mike’s opening words (“My mama dead”) immediately pierced my heart, sending a wave of sadness through me. The next few lines about feeling scared, not being prepared to lose someone so soon, and thinking about her death constantly—they all felt like scars being reopened for me. I understood why this was the last song he wrote for Michael, mainly because it took almost six years for him to write “Motherless,” to accept that Druzella Denise Clonts, aka OG Mama Niecy, is no longer here. Grief, for Killer Mike, has no time limit.

Produced by No I.D., “Motherless” is a personal vignette about a universal feeling: the precious love of a mother and grandmother. The song’s musical backdrop fuses gospel, soul, and hip-hop, granting the Atlanta rapper a more vulnerable space to share his emotions, contrasting with the bombast of his Run the Jewels outfit. Listening to some of these lyrics, it feels like he’s speaking directly about my life. “I got an altar in my home to honor both of ’em,” he raps, supporting the ritual of talking with Betty and Niecy’s spirits through prayer, to help give him strength. “Motherless” also perfectly captures the paranoia that comes with losing a loved one, as Mike questions God’s decisions and why he took her away: “Is this a blessing or a curse, or just some other shit?/ No matter what, I’m numb as f*ck, ’cause I’m still motherless,” he raps, the hurt coursing through every word.

Gracing his first solo album in 11 years,“Motherless” is the heart of Killer Mike’s origin story, rooted in pain as well as the pride of knowing that his mother is looking down upon him, smiling. – Eric Diep


This song is more than five years old, but it’s only now making its way across year-end lists. On one hand, this is an unmitigated flex—ICECOLDBISHOP’S s old stuff was more compelling and provoking than 90-something percent of all music released this year. But maybe that’s to be expected from a meticulous craftsman making his living in an age of insatiable content-mining, headstrong creative who felt misdirected while navigating the major-label labyrinth.

The release date is largely unimportant, because “THE GOV’T GAVE US GUNS” is an everlong battle hymn from an unending war. “Genocide sponsored by the government” is certainly a ringing, gutting meter in the ongoing wake of exactly that, but that same sentiment could have been expressed any prior year. The disease of imperialism has a residual infectiveness that ends up quarantined in a select number of fallout zones, perhaps none as famous as South Central L.A.

Here, a lawnside cup of lemonade goes for $1, a Glock can be added for $500, and an AK will run another $750. Bishop reports live from a freshly discovered crate of guns down by the train tracks—to invoke The Chronic 2001, we make all these military-grade weapons, do you really think we sold ’em all? The raps are stilted and pitched all over the place, allowing Bishop to assume multiple characters across his hood. The beat, sourced by Dallas’ Kal Banx, is an amphetamine trip through the shrapnel. And the video drills through a discomfiting but increasingly unavoidable truth: The quick money stickup and the capital city reelection are both enforced by the same 9 millimeters. – Steven Louis

21. Chris Crack – “How They Find Dinosaurs and Not Jesus?”

This correspondent still doesn’t fully understand “Girl Math” and why folks were talking about it all year, but allow us to run some quick “Crack Math” through rap’s most perverse sophisticate since Prince Paul. We have enough fully intact skeletons of reptiles 230–240 million years old to fill up cold, glass temples across the world … yet we can’t find anything from the most clouted human ever (non–Zack Bia division)? Like, not even a scrape of resin, and we’ve had 2,000 years to look? The math isn’t adding up. Either Big Dino continues to have a stranglehold over public opinion, or there’s something the universe is hiding from us.

Chicago’s Chris Crack has been unpacking our generation’s empiric crises this year: Are flax seeds just glorified water bugs? Do white people use washcloths? Can your dick get wet in space? All noble explorations, but the dinosaur/messiah question had particular staying power. Over a percussion-less flip of Nate Dogg and Warren G’s “Nobody Does it Better,” Chris raps for precisely one minute, with just one rhyme scheme, but covers an inspired cadre of grievances. The posers are still posting on social media; the 9-to-5 is a criminal scam; the coke is moving by the hand of wannabe kingpins and fake bosses. In short: The game is all fucked up, and we must all bear responsibility. Delivering his revelations with leopard-print hair and gold fronts, he shops for wigs and vinyl before ceding his final seconds to The Wash, a 2001 movie with an insanity-per-minute quotient truly worthy of a Chris Crack intro. Don’t short the Jesus artifacts market in 2024. – Steven Louis

Gabe ‘Nandez – “Louis XIV” (Unranked: POW Recordings Release)

In a year with no shortage of introspective bars delivered over stripped-back samples, Gabe ‘Nandez stood out with his raspy, unwavering flow on “Louis XIV”. The rapper wrote the lyrics for the song – off his newest album, H.T. III – while chain-smoking cigarettes in his Manhattan apartment. His voice comes off like a quiet growl over Tel Aviv producer Argov’s chunky blues sample, both in synchronized motion as he devotes his first eight bars to a single rhyme scheme.

That’s smooth enough on its own; then ‘Nandez paints a picture of a bloody dethroning. “I just shot the king,” he says, matter-of-factly, “Shot him in the brain, ba-da-bing,” he spits with efficiency. “Yet, ‘Nandez raps like he could go for hours,”I’m a lot to take/Those who can’t tend to run away,” he says later in the song, returning to his original rhyme scheme. Although he invites more vulnerability on H.T. III, “Louis XIV” is a royal portrait, hanging slightly above reality. – Miguel Otarola

20. Flyana Boss – “You Wish”

The “self-empowerment anthem” is an oxymoron. How are you going to call it self-worth if you’re drawing it from someone else’s words? Nevertheless, pop music is built on the idea of external affirmation. Our idols must be otherworldly, sure, but also attainably aspirational. The result can be demoralizing; if you find yourself turning to Lizzo to pump yourself up, it is almost certainly not “bad bitch o’clock.”

Flyana Boss do away with the bullshit. “Get like me? Nah, you wish / You could never, ever, ever be that b*tch.” They justify their logic with two minutes of outrageously airtight quotables, delivered with the type of world-conquering charisma that you’d be delusional to think you could replicate. Bobbi begins this bulldozer of a breakthrough single with “Crop-top, li’l waist, tiny titties in your face / Drop-top, big subs, I’m like Nicki, ‘Super Bass’,” with a sound more fired-up than anything on Pink Friday 2. Then, bestie-in-crime Folayan delivers an instantly iconic second-verse salvo—“Hello, Christ? I’m ’bout to sin again”—in a charged but flirtatious cadence that bounces atop the taut, low-end production.

The Detroit-and-Dallas duo never let up from there: “I’m made of sugar, spice, Kanekalon, and cinnamon,” “Invested in this pussy and this shit is payin’ dividends,” “Slap a b*tch, b*tch slap back ‘cause I’m feminine.” “You Wish” flies through just two eight-bar verses and many rounds of that record-straightening chorus—ideal for TikTok, yes, but also as an unstoppable jolt for a morning commute, a post-workday workout, or any other quotidian errand beyond Bobbi and Folayan’s stars-in-the-making pay grade. Flyana Boss gifted this smash for you to do with as you please, but don’t get it twisted and sing along like it’s about you. – Pranav Trewn

19. Jay Worthy & Roc Marciano – “Wake Up”

*taps microphone* I’m not going to use my time today to talk about the rapping on “Wake Up,” cleverly twisty though it is. May all gangster rappers aspire to threats as sharp as “My hitters is on go for me, smoke the homie, he need a GoFundMe.” I’m not even going to talk about the beat, a smoky blaxploitation bouillabaisse to rival anything by the Alchemist.

Instead, I’d like to announce the forming of my super PAC, the “Construct the Real Mount Marci PAC.” It’s funded by the Koch brothers in collaboration with the Mario brothers, along with proceeds from my new beverage venture Lean Lemonade, the only lemonade you need a prescription for. But we’re not there yet. I come here today humbly to ask for your help in building the real Mount Marci.

People! Do you enjoy Griselda? The more astral wayfaring of Earl Sweatshirt? Essentially the entire A$AP sound? *slams fist rhythmically onto lectern* You. Can. Thank. Roc. Marciano! Is he universally acclaimed among hip-hop luminaries like Questlove, Jay-Z, our own Jeff Weiss, and Tommy DeVito’s agent? Of course he is! *slams fist* But. He. Deserves. More!

Did XXL put him on its list of best producers of 2023? (Crowd: NO!) What about HipHopDX? (NO!)
Since 2010, Rahkeim Meyer has been one of this country’s chief exporters of surrealist pimp raps backed by church-mouse drums. Give. The man. His due! Say it with me, people: “I BELIEVE. IN MOUNT MARCI!” (Crowd: I BELIEVE IN MOUNT MARCI!)

We’ve already secured the land, a capped landfill in Yaphank, Long Island, just a stone’s throw away from Marci’s hometown of Hempstead and conveniently located down the street from the SpringHill Suites by Marriott. But we need your help! Write to your member of Congress! Start a petition! But most importantly, DONATE.

Say it with me:

I BELIEVE. IN MOUNT MARCI. – Jordan Ryan Pedersen

18. MudBaby Ru – “Bezzal Land”

In theory, “Bezzal Land” is a remembrance for Mudbaby Ru’s departed friend Bezzal, but the mood of the song is far from funereal. Off rip, it sounds like a war call. The background horns summon a deep and ancient bloodlust, like something that would unlock the mysteries behind the sacrificial ceremonies of the Aztecs. Except instead of from the Yucatán Peninsula, Mudbaby Ru is summoning his soldiers from West Memphis, Arkansas—an area just across the Mississippi River from the one you’re thinking of, with a violent crime rate almost four times greater than the national average.

But Ru’s calls to represent Bezzal Land are triumphant and victorious rather than downtrodden, like most rap about departed homies tends to be. Bezzal’s spirit is powerful, and Ru makes it sound like his death was more of a call to arms than anything else. Through a slurred Southern drawl, Ru foretells the grand victory at their feet. He riffs on where they came from, heating water on the stove to take a bath, to where they made it now, regularly doubling 20’s to 40’s. Mudbaby has this aura about him that feels inspiring, reminiscent of a literal war general. It’s a natural charisma that can’t be taught or learned, and the confidence manifests through his slippery flows, which whizz quick, catchy phrases right by your ear, much like whistling bullets whistling.

This song alone probably enlisted a full army to represent the flag of Bezzal Land. What a great way for Ru to coronate Bezzal as the king of West Memphis, the Alexander the Great of Arkansas, with his gilded Alexandria. – Harley Geffner

17. Tyler, The Creator – “DOGTOOTH”

Tyler, the Creator deserves all the credit for getting listeners to reminisce about their favorite Gangsta Grillz mixtapes in the 2020s. His 2021 collaboration with DJ Drama, Call Me if You Get Lost found Tyler vocally attacking with relentless precision, and approaching each song like he was hungry for validation. The sing-song nature of Igor evolved into a style focused more inspired by the blog-era classics and DJ Drama’s mixtape legacy that Tyler grew up listening to.

As part of a slew of deluxe albums in 2023, Tyler tacked eight new songs on to Call Me if You Get Lost, calling the additions an “estate sale.” Normally, that process involves paying for items you no longer want to keep, and Tyler is in a space where these shelved songs are rare finds for diggers. The Estate Sale flows like a post-album EP, enhancing the listening experience by mirroring the long lengths of In My Mind: The Prequel and the Dedication series. What makes “DOGTOOTH” stand out is how confidently Tyler hits the typical rap tropes—boasting his riches, expressing his beauty, and trying to woo his love interest—without sacrificing originality. “I’m out here livin’, y’all on the feed / My girl look like Zazie Beetz and Kelis / I pull up in the ‘What the f*ck is that, dog?’ / It’s Mr. Peculiar, that’s who I be, who I be,” Tyler Baudelaire raps.

Tyler is also a master of expanding the lore of his world, especially through visuals. To be a rapper, producer, director, and fashion designer means that his critics will judge the execution of all those things. In the video for “DOGTOOTH,” set at an industrial construction site, these elements work together harmoniously—Tyler’s expectational taste in flexing his car collection with GOLF le FLEUR merch on. “DOGTOOTH,” The Estate Sale‘s lead single, reminds me of prime Pharrell during his Skateboard P days, from the breezy thrills in T’s production to his notable wit, as he curates a lifestyle with technicolor flair. – Eric Diep


Now and again, when a well-meaning rap writer peddles upon me the latest Michigan rapper absent of light behind the eyes, I can’t help it—I miss RiFF RAFF. Say what you will about the Rap Game Richard Simmons, who emerged from the dregs of late-aughts reality programming with a billboard torso, dilated pupils, and a penchant for seven-and-a-half minute freestyles recorded in studio apartments littered with Four Loko cans, but he kept you on your toes, starting with a familiar template and bringing it somewhere psychotic. Look inside your soul and ask yourself an honest question: When was the last time a rap song surprised you?

I’ve been working on a theory that, while life continued, time stopped in 2013. The video for “Stars in the Roof of My Car” (one of a few great vehicular tracks RiFF RAFF released this year) would seem to confirm this thesis: Where did he pull these blue-lipsticked women, the line outside 285 Kent? To which I say, cool; write what you know. It’s one of those mournful RiFF RAFF songs, the ones where you hear, as Mark Fisher once described it, “the sobs in the heart of the 21st-century pleasuredome.” “Who opens up new realms with kiwi key and turns the wheel?” the 41-year old rapper asks. Good question. – Meaghan Garvey

15. Wiki/MIKE/The Alchemist – “Mayors A Cop”

Mayor’s a cop. Say it out loud, and all of society’s misery starts to make sense. Of course the world is shit when the self-interested yuppies who infested Williamsburg’s bars in 2009 have grown into a complacent middle age where voting in a tough-on-crime sheriff for mayor is fine as long as they can refer to him as a mayor of color. Against this inequity stand Wiki and MIKE: the children of old New York (and their weird Angeleno unc’) here to remind you that it’s like a jungle sometimes, in so many words.

Wiki sets things off with a furious indictment of mis-used city budgets, lamenting his city’s unlimited funding for douchebags with Punisher bumper stickers and complete disregard for the working poor. MIKE mirrors his frustration, turning inward to contemplate his mental health and the toll his absent mother takes on his sanity. They continue back and forth over Alchemist’s best beat of the year, all funerary Serpico horns, jazz harps, and boom-bap drums boiled down and condensed to a sub–trip hop crawl with the occasional dub flourish spicing things up.

Most protest music inspires the listener to anger, pushing you to shout, to scream, and to demand change. “Mayor’s a Cop” isn’t that: It’s the weary sigh of a generation realizing it’ll need to deal with Eric Adams, and the pieces of shit like him, for a long long time. But it’s also a reminder that we’ll be alright … and if we won’t, the whole damn city will boil over, and city hall won’t be able to do shit about it. – Son Raw


On one hand, flipping Diddy’s “I Need a Girl Pt. 2” on the most r/HipHopHeads-core collaborative album this side of Run the Jewels may seem like a curveball. But squint, and you’ll find an unexpected but reasonable waypoint on the path that Danny Brown set himself on in 2016, signaled by Atrocity Exhibition’s traversal through ’60s and ’70s alt-rock.

Danny Brown’s core gambit has always been to ask listeners to unmoor themselves from context and blur the typically binary line between “alternative”, “abstract” hip-hop and its more traditional counterparts. Is this guy allowed to scream like that over Black Milk and Quelle Chris boom-bap revivalism? Is the guy who used to rap with G-Unit allowed to scream like that over AraabMuzik and Rustie trap beats? Can he roll that register back into a growl and sample Joy Division? And now, can he smash the clanking, buzzsaw industrial sound that JPEGMAFIA mastered into early-aughts R&B?

At first, the lead single off SCARING THE HOES seems to live up to that titular promise. By the time JPEGMAFIA rips into his verse, Mario Winans and Ginuwine’s smooth radio croons have been distorted into background chitters, and before Danny Brown can lay in, the song’s vibe swarms and shapeshifts again into a powerful series of stop-start horns. Taken holistically, all that freneticism resolves into a surprisingly precise vision, ticking like cogs in fine machinery. As a lead single, “LEAN BEEF PATTY” is tasked with carrying an important message: There’s a method to the madness. – Sun-Ui Yum

13. Babyface Ray feat. 42 Dugg – “Ron Artest”

Ron Artest belongs to the same apostolic tradition as hustle defenders Dennis Rodman, Draymond Green, and Tony Allen. They all have an unorthodox drive in their playing style that comes with occasional inconsistencies and extracurricular features. But there was a haphazard poetry to Artest’s game, even if he looked like he was running through Play-Doh on the break.

Babyface Ray has constructed songs in a parallel fashion since “Who Beat Is This” first graced the internet. Later contextualized as the nonchalant Detroit star’s “breakout”, the song features no hook, acknowledges the disconnect from its producer, and today has nearly 8 million YouTube views. The only thing larger in Ray’s world back then was the number of stacked coffee cups. Everything else—his frame, the bundles of cash, the pendants, the attention—was thinner in 2015. So were the expectations.

Ron Artest trafficked in moments and so does Babyface Ray—those brief captures of time that leave inalterable effects even as they fizzle out before they should. Ray has always been a stronger single/EP artist than an album-builder, and that’s no insult when you produce something as breezy and crisp as “Ron Artest.” Like the defender’s self-maligned name change, the track’s Jin Kirigaya sample sounds cheesy on first listen, though it will force itself into your brain. Ray occupies the bulk of the song, with 42 Dugg coming in for only a few bars to add a garnish to his friend’s track.

While Ray is on the mic, he pines about nosey neighbors, calls out “deer” lost in the streets, and shouts out the name of his booking agent. His rapping has a genuine effortlessness that betrays its true brilliance. He’s at his best when the stakes are low and he’s free to play with assumptions. As the song’s opening notes, Artest had the chance to define his career in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. In 2023, Babyface Ray proved once again, like he did back in 2015, that you should never doubt what he can do with two-and-a-half minutes. – Miguelito

12. Niontay feat. Earl Sweatshirt, El Cousteau & MIKE – “Real hiphop”

This is indeed real hip-hop, but the modern kind. With help from El Cousteau, MIKE, and Earl Sweatshirt, Niontay offers a tutorial in the new tradition. Niontay slurs his way through Florida lingo, trench-baby motifs, and Plantar fasciitis punchlines without having to force shit,. Instead of scratching your head at the bars you can’t make out, you end up laughing and scrunching your face at what sticks (“Shuttin’ the fuck up and mindin’ yo business do a lot for you” is as hilarious as it is true).

El Cousteau weaves himself in with sandpaper rasp and a proclivity for young-and-turntisms: making money, spending money, flexing just to flex, and juggling pretty girls. He’s a wildcard, building momentum off of Niontay’s stop-start flow before steamrolling into rapidfire word vomit. And then come MIKE and Earl, almost like camp counselors grabbing the ball mid-scrimmage to show the kids how it’s really done. The pair are masters of rumination in their songwriting, often canvassing their underlying inhibitions through metaphors and allegories. This is not that. MIKE finds his pocket and builds a home in it, cheerfully going through the motions without thinking twice. “My lil heart runnin’ out of love in this shit” is characteristically morose, but when he says it with a toothy grin, you smile back, bopping your head and hanging on for the next line.

Earl at his most monotone was once a vessel for harrowing melancholy; now, he’s using this delivery to run circles around dudes. He raps here like an evil scientist in his lair caressing a bald cat in his lap: unperturbed, but calculated and mischievous. It’s a victory lap of all victory laps for him and MIKE, but more importantly, it’s a wholehearted testament to the breathable, free-flowing nature of the rap landscape. – Olivier Lafontant

11. 03 Greedo x Drakeo the Ruler – “No Free Features”

03 Greedo and Drakeo the Ruler’s legacies will forever be intertwined. The South L.A. rappers congruent rise led to a litany of street classics best heard through cracked iPhone screens. Greedo’s loose audacious flexes, paired with Drakeo’s measured quiet scoffs, served as the secret sauce for the defining records of L.A.’s late-2010s rap scene. Yet like many regional heroes before them, they were persecuted by the carceral system, hounded in their prime years, and robbed of their full potential. Both received a second chance and were eventually released. But sadly, Greedo would never get to reunite with his evil twin—Drakeo was senselessly murdered in December 2021.

As Greedo reacted to the loss of his fallen comrade, posting a heartfelt tribute from his jail cell, he made one key promise: “I’m going to keep that movement going and I’m going to forever keep your name ringing.”

“No Free Features” makes good on that pact, showcasing what made the duo the best rap tandem since Big Boi and André 3000. Greedo’s raw warbling vocals dance with Mike Free’s twinkling production, both of which are juxtaposed with Drakeo’s menacing whisper. As Greedo brazenly rejects anyone trying to come up off his name, hitting the opportunists with a sledgehammer (“Hangin’ with you ain’t beneficial/ who the slickest n**** in the city?”), Drakeo chooses to bring his clout chasers in close, slicing them apart with an ice pick (“Raw keesh, so I don’t do wrestlin’/ I’ll execute him if he catch me stupid”).

Like “Ion Rap Beef,” “Let’s Go,” and “Out The Slums,” “No Free Features” follows a lineage of iconic material from the most prophetic team in modern L.A. rap, standing as another pivotal moment that defines the special bond between the Wolf Of Grape Street and Mr. Mosely. – Josh Svetz

10. BigXthaPlug – “Texas”

The twanging guitars that open “Texas” set the scene. They snake around each other, like two neighbors sitting on a wide porch settling into a pleasant conversation. Instead of a sweating pitcher of iced tea, each holds a styrofoam double cup. A candy-painted slab sits low in the front yard. With the boom of the first 808, the sky turns a cool purple and BigXthaPlug, rising star of the Dallas rap scene, lumbers into view. “B*tch, I’m from Texas,” he explains, unspooling a vivid sociological description of the Lone Star State. He lists his homegrown influences, indelible Texans like Pimp C, Z-Ro, Beyoncé, Sauce Walka, and Yung Nation, all of whom have helped define the sound of Texas hip-hop. Fittingly, there are multiple mentions of firearms—if you didn’t notice the first three reminders that his weapon stays tucked, BigX stresses during the midtrack breakdown that “everybody ’round this b*tch got guns.” The main point he wants you to remember is that his home state is nothing to f*ck with.

Despite the assertions that Texans will always stand on business, the song isn’t dark or intimidating. It’s warm and inviting, with BigX’s rich baritone bouncing across the screwed-down beat, loose samples curlicuing like mesquite smoke. At its heart, “Texas” is a love song, an affectionate look at what makes a place feel like home. There’s an unavoidable mythology that comes with being from there—at one point in the video, BigX stands in the middle of a football field, holding a horse’s reins, a giant cowboy hat perched atop his head. He’s well aware of the legacy he’s a part of and is now carving out his own lane, filling it with rattling trunks. – Dash Lewis

9. Certified Trapper – “Trapper of the Year”

2023 was a monstrous year for Milwaukee’s Certified Trapper. He’s the frontman of the city’s rap scene, consistently delivering a steady stream of funny dance moves to match his idiosyncratic one-liners; both of those characteristics have become synonymous with the region and its rapidly ascending artists. Expressing the complications of street life in Milwaukee while making room to deliver quirky flexes over his signature low-end beats (complete with a relentless clapping rhythm)—this is the vibe that Trapper’s music captures. A few months after signing to Signal Records, he released Trapper of the Year, marking a shift in the increased influence of and appreciation for Milwaukee’s off-kilter scene. The tape led off its eponymous lead single, setting the tone for the rest of his year and silencing any doubt that CT is the universally approved trapper of the year.

Certified Trapper drops music at a breakneck pace, in a manner reminiscent of fellow internet music weirdos like prime Lil B. So the fact that “Trapper of the Year” stuck and maintained its popularity is a testament to the song’s unique, catchy qualities. I think this track in particular is so effective because it’s just Trapper embracing his stature through a bright, melodic flow and playful confidence. What further makes this track stand out is its combination of simplicity and nonchalance—CT’s clearly not trying to do too much with his vocals, but he’s practically squealing when he delivers the hook, stretching out the statement to really get it across. The video shows him performing onstage, dancing and performing the song while rocking slides and sporting a neck pillow around his neck. It’s this level of spontaneity and witty creativity that have gotten him this far. “Trapper of the Year” is Certified Trapper coming to terms with his success in his own mischievous way. – Isaac Fontes

8. Ice Spice – “In Ha Mood”

From the first seconds of the opener to her debut EP Like?, Ice Spice delivers provocative bars with an enigmatic nonchalance. Zingers like “If I was bitches/ I’d hate me a lot.” Bold boasts like “He a rapper but don’t got a chance/ stuck in my ways so I’m lovin’ my bands/ like a million views in a day /it’s so many ways to get paid /I tried dippin’, he bеgged me to stay /Bae, I’m not stayin’. I just wanna play.”

Those latter bars were likely a swipe at the flirtatious taunts from Memphis rapper NLE Choppa, but the Bronx rapper’s clever wordplay and vixen flexes don’t stop there. She proceeds to clap back at a misogynistic diss from Drake and the fake friends who’ve exploited her for fame and money. After the dust settled, she even sent Chance the Rapper spiraling to the point he had to ask on Instagram, “Is this a diss or a shoutout @icespice.”

Isis Gaston has every reason to brag. Over the past year, she’s clocked 10.5 million followers on Instagram, thanks to TikTok virality from her singles “Munch (Feelin’ U)” and “Bikini Bottom.” She’s linked up with Taylor Swift (“Karma”), Nicki Minaj (“Barbie World”), and PinkPantheress (“Boy’s a Liar Pt. 2”), and even joined Doja Cat on tour. Beyond all of that, Ice Spice has racked up gargantuan clout from the industry, emerging from the underground to the embrace of the masses at a time when the popularity of woman-led hip-hop has reached new heights. A dexterous performer with undeniable rap skills, Ice Spice is officially too hot to handle. – Tracy Kawalik

7. Veeze – “GOMD”

Is it possible for Detroit rap to extend beyond the the boys club that dominates rap culture? Despite the undeniable fact that I belong to that club, I’ve recently been wondering about the limits that the music has. Call me mature now, but I’m starting to realize that there is more to cultural life than message boards, videos with guns in them, and obscure references.

Lucky for me that Veeze landed back on my internet wire from his musical hiatus. (Seriously, 2019’s Navy Wavy feels like it happened 10 years ago.) On “GOMD,” the fifth track off this year’s Ganger, Veeze raps like he’s a snake slithering to his prey as the other sounds in the jungle subdue his raspy and sneakily menacing voice. His references (to Pooh Shiesty, Justin Timberlake, and more) are rewarding, and there’s plenty to chew on throughout the stanzas without the sense of mystery eroding. The personal is a part of the braggadocio; the braggadocio is an appetizer for Veeze’s maniacal taunting. If Ghostface is in the corner not speaking, then Veeze is mumbling in the corner mad because he’s been put on time out.

The best art reveals itself to people—with a half-hug in case the person is a wolfish huckster. In October, I took this Hinge date to his show at Gramercy Theatre in Manhattan. She wasn’t fluent in rap. The stage name Veeze may have seemed like the ghetto version of Vaseline for all she knew. When “GOMD” came on, she saw how exuberant I got. I was smiling as wide as a kid watching his dad come home from war. “GOMD” reached her consciousness despite her not understanding half the things Veeze said. You don’t need to change your style to get people to notice; it will travel because of the passion your fans have for it. – Jayson Buford

6. billy woods & Kenny Segal feat. Danny Brown – “Year Zero”

On the opening bars of “Year Zero,” billy woods reaches the type of conclusion that can only be drawn when every last bit of hope has been exhausted. Woods approaches societal collapse, crumbling institutions, and his own problems in the same way Travis Bickle would—through the procurement of arms. “I quit looking for solutions/ bought a pistol, and learned how to use it/ You can’t fix stupid,” woods deadpans with a grim sense of urgency.

Maps, woods’ second full-length project with producer Kenny Segal, documents the arduous touring lifestyle of an independent musician who lost two years to the pandemic. Woods, one of the most descriptive writers in any genre of music, logs his observations from the backseats of Ubers, park benches, parapets overlooking vistas, and, crucially, the street level. The latter sets the scene for “Year Zero,” where hellish conditions permeate every corner of this dystopian war zone. Unrelated shooters infiltrate the same public places as the narrator, humans are trafficked across state lines with little resistance, and ordinary citizens front the cost of police brutality lawsuits. Amplifying this sense of danger is the airy production from Segal, who commandeers a soundscape of ascending guitars, beams of synths, and muffled frequencies like a puppeteer would a marionette.

Before checking himself into rehab earlier in the year, Danny Brown stumbled into woods’ Brooklyn studio in a drunken stupor and laid to wax a two-and-a-half minute diatribe he doesn’t remember recording. The verse feels more like a shapeless canvas of shit-talking (“broke like the ice cream machine, you n****s rubbish”) with deranged cackling sprinkled throughout. Simply put, it’s the most gloriously unhinged rap verse of the year.

Segal deftly arranges the beat to dramatize Brown’s rambling, whether by inserting synths directly after punchlines or layering horns to texturize the vocals. But when Segal pulls back the curtains in the track’s closing seconds, leaving Brown alone onstage, the rapper’s left pondering a simple but universal question capable of restoring basic human empathy: “I ain’t worried ‘bout the hate. I just wonder where the love gone?” – Ross Olson

5. That Mexican OT feat. Paul Wall & Drodi – “Johnny Dang”

That Mexican OT delivers Texas incantations. He is the Lonestar Luchador, an upstart with the weight of his Tejano hip-hop heritage on his back. His ultimate come-to-hip-hop moment involved running from cops in the backcountry while covered in piss. The artist born Virgil René Gazca, who grew up on the living-room battle-rap circuit in his family home, faced depravity but chose artistry. His story is gripping, if only because everything is a matter of making the most of your decision space. That night—the urine and the cow shit mixing together as he was running from law enforcement—proved to Gazca he could choose better. He had to.

Prior to linking with Paul Wall and DRODi for the fly “Johnny Dang,” That Mexican OT had released a grip of promising mixtapes and singles, none of which had the built-in star power of this breakout, Billboard-charting moment. “Johnny Dang” is a flossy example of natural talent zipper-merging with raw charisma. The flows from Mexican OT and DRODi waterfall down the rockface of the sparse beat. And, yes, a cheesing, effortless Paul Wall is present, not exactly passing a torch but definitely stamping approval.

There’s choppers, there’s money. “Everything flawless,” as Paul Wall explains. But the real meat of the song arrives hardly one minute in, when OT slickly delivers, “I’m just rhymin’ words/ I don’t even know how to rap.” It’s nothing short of comical. One of the biggest arrivals of 2023 for a rapper, and he doesn’t even know how to rap? What more can I say? This man gets it. – Donna-Claire

4. Sexyy Red – “SkeeYee”

Mid-July, I was sitting on a stoop outside of Lover’s Rock in Bed-Stuy, drinking with a friend, when we got into a debate over what the song of the summer was in New York. My choice was “Talibans” by Byron Messia, a dancehall lullaby that sucks you in from the moaning intro, and that played everywhere in Flatbush for a few months. My friend, who is from St. Louis, insisted on an unspeakably raunchy rap/punk anthem off a brief mixtape by a fellow Missourian, with a hook that was barely English.

We conducted a straw poll, asking late-night passersby for their picks. I had all the sampling errors in my favor: We were in the unofficial Caribbean capital of the United States, outside a Caribbean bar, half a country away from Missouri. The song my friend was advocating for is listed in Wikipedia under a genre called “Dirty Rap,” something I was not aware existed before researching for this blurb. Check out this “(SUPER CLEAN RADIO EDIT)” on YouTube. It just sounds like an instrumental. How could this odd, seminal fluid–drenched two-and-a-half minute audio porno clip compete? In the responses we elicited, in the music blaring out of the passing cars, in every end-of-the-year song and album list on the internet, well, I got my ass beat.

That was the moment I realized this would be the year of Sexyy Red, as odd yet confident a vocalist we’ve seen since Kodak Black, since Gucci, since Joan Jett. Over producer of the year Tay Keith’s DJ Paul–inherited horror-core, she shouts in her repetitious, dispassionate, dull, atonal, arrhythmic, amusical monotone, bludgeoning the track relentlessly and leaving her audience numb and twitching. “SkeeYee” and Hood Hottest Princess redefined, reclaimed the female gaze in rap—and, as it turns out, it’s way hornier than the bars Biggie wrote for Kim. My friend won our straw poll, but it wasn’t a fair fight. I was advocating for a song; “SkeeYee” is a Trinity Test. – Abe Beame

3. Baby Keem/Kendrick Lamar – “The Hillbillies”

There is a specific yet recognizable memory that rushes from the hippocampus when Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar ditch the shackles of artistic expectation in favor of some ol’ fashioned tag-team rapping. Their voices tingle with boyish excitement, as if they can barely subdue themselves enough to present their grand performance to the adults at the family reunion. Once their showing kicks off, it’s hard to tell where their priorities actually lie: executing the special song they worked so hard at, or making each other break out in laughter with jokes and quips until their sides split, leaving the song itself on the cutting-room floor.

“The Hillbillies” arrives as the perfect distillation of this mischievous energy, shedding the biblical seriousness of “Savior” and the vaunted overproduction of “Ranger Brothers” and “Family Ties” to drill directly into the goldmine that is Keem and Kendrick’s undeniable chemistry. You don’t need the grainy music-video footage of them doing pushups on the London Eye and footwork in Dodger Stadium to know they’re having a blast. It’s the perfect storm: EvilGiane concocts a delirious mixture, from a Bon Iver sample and a set of blistering Jersey club drums, that feels as though it’s perpetually on the verge of flying off the rails.

The heightened entropy—and his cousin’s presence—helps unleash a rarely seen side of Kendrick, one that encourages the impish, intrusive thoughts that slides over the beat. What else could prompt him to exclaim “that twat!” after Keem rattles the line “That’s a deep, deep, deep, deep, deep ocean?” The duo’s extended riffs sound like expansive inside jokes, their self-comparisons to Messi and Neymar and fit checks with Wales Bonner and Martine Rose rolling off the tongue without a second thought. Is 150 grams of protein even a lot? No clue! I’m inclined to not read into it all and to let them have their fun instead. – Matthew Ritchie

2. RXK Nephew – “Yeezy Boots”

You never believe that you’re in a personality cult. It’s only after the leader does something truly deranged – invite a federal siege, dispatch a team of feral assassins to murder a perceived rival, try to manifest the fourth Reich – when people start to question their allegiances. For the few of us who have long been incredulous about the “I am Steve Jobs and Pablo Picasso and Walt Disney” genius of Kanye, its been a particularly insufferable two decades. That’s not to say that Kanye didn’t make some of the best music of his generation. It’s more that his zealous disciples wielded their power to forgive a never-ending litany of embarrassing corniness, messianic delusions, and aesthetic crimes. And they happened to be a fundamental component of the millennial Hypebeast internet.

I can’t argue that Kanye isn’t one of the most creative producers of this century. For all of the megalomania, the Yeezus tour date at Staples remains one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. No amount of Donald Trump bootlicking, 13th Amendment revisionism, or Mein Kampf book clubs, can alter his impact on music.

But it’s worth re-examining the signs that always lay just under the surface in a man who eventually found kinship in genocidal dictators, oligarchic ghouls, convicted sex offenders, and the most spiritually deadening aspects of consumerist culture. The man who All City Jimmy once described as “2Pac for only children.” A shallow power-obsessed tyrant who swore by Mr. Hudson, Big Sean, and Desiigner, whose sense of humor mostly amounted to repeating Will Ferrell and Austin Powers punchlines, whose ugly and overpriced clothed line brought to life the Derelicte bit from Zoolander.

To extend the analogy in terms that he can understand, sometimes you are so hot that you can take a crap, wrap it in tinfoil, put a couple fish hooks on it and sell it to Queen Elizabeth as earrings. But eventually, Queen Elizabeth dies, you lose your billion-dollar Adidas deal, your ex-wife disavows you, and you make largely unlistenable music for nearly a decade. Finally, you receive the executioner you deserve, RXK Nephew.

It’s easy to attack Kanye for the conspiratorial mania of the last seven years. The live Karaoke performances of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Mar-A-Lago play dates with white supremacists, the failed religious academy deemed “unsafe, unregulated, unsanitary” and that only served sushi to children. Each publicity stunt and nonsensical rant is more pathetic and stupid than the last. But it’s pretty clearly the mania of a deeply unwell man who needs serious psychiatric care.

This is also one of the reasons why “Yeezy Boots” is so devastating. Neph isn’t tripping about the “shit that he said.” He’s tripping about them dumb ass “Yeezy Boots.” Forget the contemptible politics and unforgivable racism, he’s demolishing the premise of the false idol.

Let’s check the scoreboard:

“G.O.O.D. Music made bad music:” largely accurate and if you don’t believe me, I have a used GLC CD to sell you.

“All Kanye’s raps mediocre:” 93.9 percent true, with the principal exceptions of the “New Slaves” verse, the second verse of “No More Parties in L.A., and maybe a dozen others where his charisma and presence defeat a clumsy flow and tinny voice. It’s also worth noting that there’s something inherently fraudulent about building a religion around your beliefs when you aren’t even writing the testament. And look, Rhymefest is no John the Baptist.

“Remember when he had that dumbass haircut?”:


Kanye performed with his ass out/How you gon’ tell me it’s not about clout?: Even ardent zealots can’t argue here. There can only be one Prince. And Prince never needed to be this desperate to drum up attention. He only had to be Prince. Kanye will always be the insecure dork with braces desperately trying to freestyle for TGIF Fridays waitresses in Times Square.

The name Yeezy was never cool: Unequivocal.

“You look like a fool with them big ass boots. That’s why Jay-Z don’t even like you.” I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons why Jay-Z doesn’t like him, but this seems as good as any.

I won’t you tell you that everything in “Yeezy Boots” is a fact, but it’s probably the best music criticism of 2023. Like B.I.G., even when he’s wrong, Dr. Neph gets his point across.

Here is validation for those “free thinkers” who never would have subscribed to Kanye’s YouTube. It’s an all-time great rap diss, equally hilarious and devastating, caustic and absolutely fucking absurd. A reminder that artists aren’t deities to worship, they’re flawed and temperamental mortals. And it’s okay, you don’t have to delete those old photos of you looking stupid in Stunner Shades. It’s just worth remembering that there’s a difference between what’s cool and what’s trendy.

Skepticism is necessary, lest you wind up making your personality a mirror image of a tragic figure and cautionary tale that embodies the worst of American malfunction. All those years where you were being called a hater – maybe you were just being honest, maybe you just didn’t like it. – Jeff Weiss

1. Earl Sweatshirt – “Making the Band (Danity Kane)”

It’s uncomfortable to think about, but people tend to change gradually, if at all. Plenty has been written about the minor mutations Earl Sweatshirt’s music has undergone since he and his friends’ Tumblrs blew up 13 years ago: the hyperverbose horrorcore melting into weary introspection, then into roiling anger, then something more sedate. But the math has always been the same. Earl’s best songs are writerly, but not cerebral—filled with finely-tuned word puzzles and considered images but functioning primarily as an extension of his gut, not his brain, a perfect artisanal watch fighting for space with three others on the same twitching arm. And so to characterize I Don’t Like Shit I Don’t Go Outside as an outburst and Some Rap Songs as a retreat is to conflate the message with the method of delivery, which has simply been growing more elastic, more attuned to whatever’s happening just beneath the surface of all that pyrotechnic writing. “Making the Band (Danity Kane)” pairs Earl with Clams Casino and Evil Giane—fitting, because its 105 seconds sound as if they contain within them generations of angst and emptiness filtered through incrementally accelerating internet connections. The kinetic verses are an extension of those on SICK!, darting and rolling through shallow pockets. And here, again, we have that tension between method and message, a show of total technical control that feels, despite the vocalist’s composure, like the panicked dispatch from a man slipping through cracks in history—through the Sistine Chapel and onto the couch at 106 & Park. By invoking a group created on a reality show that was dated by the time the footage was edited (and a movie by Tony Scott, who became an auteur only after his style had fallen out of vogue) Earl makes the slow drip of time look instead like a pool on the floor that will one day swallow us all. Tolstoy wrote that “there is only one important time and it is Now.” The image of “Diddy dancing in the rain” reads a little differently today—though maybe, if you go back and read the contracts and between the lines of The Source, not that much. – Paul Thompson

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