Ranking the top 5 rappers of all time

From its late-1970s birth in the Bronx to becoming the number-one selling genre in the world, hip-hop has come a long way throughout its 40-year history. 

Whether you are a fan of the genre or not, you’ve more than likely heard an argument based around the question, “Who are the top five rappers of all time, dead or alive?” With thousands of rappers to choose from, how does one narrow a list down to just five rappers? 

The most important aspects of rap music include rhyme, delivery, flow and lyrical content. For this reason alone, all-time great artists like Kanye West and Dr. Dre will not be included, as they are good at rapping but their skills mostly fall under production. 

Because we’re limited to only five rappers for this list, many of the most popular and talented rappers will not be included. Some honorable mentions include the California legends Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg; the rhyming genius MF DOOM; the megastar Drake; the storytellers Scarface and Slick Rick; the incredibly talented Lauryn Hill; OutKast duo Andre 3000 and Big Boi; street kings like Kool G Rap, Ice Cube and KRS-One; and members of the greatest rap group the world has ever known, the Wu-Tang Clan, which includes Raekwon the Chief, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, GZA and ODB. 

The most controversial snub from the list is “the real slim shady,” Eminem. While Eminem is the highest-selling rap artist of all time, he has yet to release a good album since “Encore” in 2004. Every album since has been mediocre at best, and his stuff as of late is just plain bad. However, one cannot deny that “The Slim Shady LP,” “The Marshall Mathers LP,” and “The Eminem Show” are all masterpieces, with songs like “Without Me” and “Till I Collapse” racking up billions of streams across platforms. 

Now, without further ado, here are the top five rappers of all time: 


Number Five – Jay-Z

If longevity is what you crave in an artist, look no further than the business mogul Sean Carter aka Jay-Z himself. With 13 studio albums spanning across 25 years, Jay has cemented his position as one of the best rappers to ever live. Starting in 1996 with one of the best rap albums of all time, “Reasonable Doubt,” Jay-Z ushered in a new era of rap: mafioso. Because of his history as being a drug dealer, Jay-Z would sing about a life similar to that of a mafia member, describing drug-dealing, killing and other mafia-like actions. “Reasonable Doubt” is also home to arguably Jay’s four-best songs, and they just so happen to be tracks two through six (“Brooklyn’s Finest,” “Dead Presidents II,” “Feelin’ It,” “D’evils”). Jay-Z has enjoyed success in three different decades, with over 80 Grammy nominations and 22 wins. Thanks to the most easily recognizable and unique voice in rap history, Jay-Z set himself apart from the competition and made one of the most successful careers of all time. 

Notable Songs: “The Watcher 2” (2002), “Empire State Of Mind” (2009), “D’evils” (1996)

Notable Albums: “Reasonable Doubt” (1996), “The Blueprint” (2001), “Kingdom Come” (2006)


Number Four – Rakim

Often called the “God MC,” Rakim is perhaps the most influential rapper of all time, as he transitioned rap into the “golden age.” With his debut album “Paid in Full” featuring producer Eric. B, Rakim didn’t just raise the bar; he was the bar. Despite coming into the rap scene at a time when artists like KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane and Run-D.M.C. ran the industry, Rakim would quickly set himself apart from the pack. “Paid in Full” ushered in a new generation of rap, featuring profound lyrics, crazy rhyme schemes, and a laid-back flow, unlike the loose technicality and weird production that existed before Rakim’s reinvention of hip-hop. Without Rakim, some of today’s most popular rappers would not have had the foundation to propel them to success

Notable Songs: “When I B On Tha Mic” (1999), “Paid In Full” (1987), “Guess Who’s Back” (1996)

Notable Albums: “Paid In Full” (1987), “The 18th Letter/The Book Of Life” (1996)


Number Three – 2Pac

At a time when mafioso rap was at its peak, 2Pac was rapping about politics, and he did it really well. 2Pac’s songs were similar to those of the legendary rap group Public Enemy, discussing racism, poverty, segregation, police brutality, broken families and other important matters in African-American communities. His feud with former friend The Notorious B.I.G. was perhaps the biggest feud in rap history and was only fueled more when Tupac signed with Death Row Records in 1995. This started the historic East vs. West Coast rivalry between the Los Angeles-based Death Row Records and the New York-based Bad Boy Records. The feud would end with 2Pac’s murder by drive-by shooting in 1996, with Biggie being killed in the same fashion almost a year later. Despite dying at 25, 2Pac leaves behind a historic legacy, capped off with his 1996 album “All Eyez On Me,” a 27-song masterpiece that is often regarded by critics as one of the best rap albums of all time. 

Notable Songs: “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” (1996), “Dear Mama” (1995), “Do For Love” (1997)

Notable Albums: “All Eyez On Me” (1996), “Me Against The World” (1995)


Number Two – Nas

New York City rapper Nas received a Grammy nomination for Rap Album of the Year with his 2020 album “King’s Disease.” Had this award existed 26 years ago, his 1994 album “Illmatic” would have won by a landslide. “Illmatic” doesn’t need a Grammy award to certify its greatness, however, as Nas’s debut album is often regarded as the greatest rap album of all time by fans and critics alike. With nine 5-star tracks, Nas single-handedly revived the East Coast hip-hop scene, paving the way for the Wu-Tang Clan and The Notorious B.I.G. So, how does one follow up the greatest rap album of all time?  Nas’s sophomore album, “It was Written,” did a pretty good job, making appearances in the top 20 of “best rap albums of all time” lists. Although Nas is often criticized for releasing some mediocre albums throughout the 2000s, his first three albums will go down in history as some of the greatest projects the music industry has ever seen, regardless of genre. 

Notable Songs: “N.Y. State of Mind” (1994), “Ether” (2001), “The Message” (1996)

Notable Albums: “Illmatic” (1994), “It Was Written” (1996), “I Am…” (1999)


Number One – The Notorious B.I.G.

When a musician tragically passes away, they are often elevated to superstar status following their death. Biggie was an exception. At the time of his murder in 1997, New York City rapper The Notorious B.I.G. was already a legend. Some may ask, how can one be called the greatest rapper of all time if they only released two albums? Well, one listen to Biggie’s debut album “Ready To Die” will show you why. Few have ever come close to Biggie’s storytelling skills, with hip-hop legends Scarface, Ghostface Killah, Slick Rick, Kendrick Lamar and Eminem being the closest to rival Biggie’s skill. From telling a rags-to-riches story while it was happening in real life in “Juicy,” to playing two different characters (young Biggie and current-day Biggie) with two different voices scheming to commit various robberies on “Gimme The Loot,” The Notorious B.I.G.’s storytelling on his debut album is scarily good. Somehow, it progressed to be even better with the release of his sophomore album “Life After Death,” just two weeks after his death. A bit ominous, no? Biggie’s songs always play out like movies for the ears, and “Life After Death” is no different. “I Got A Story To Tell” and “N****s Bleed” are both five-minute roller coasters that everyone needs to listen to at least once, while “Hypnotize” and “Mo Money Mo Problems” are two of Biggie’s most popular songs to date. One can only assume that Biggie Smalls was on his way to becoming perhaps the greatest musician the world has ever known had his life not been cut short. 

Notable Songs: “Juicy” (1994), “Big Poppa” (1997),“1970 Something” (2005)

Notable Albums: “Ready To Die” (1994), “Life After Death” (1997), “Duets: The Final Chapter” (2005)