It’s no accident that it’s called the “rap game.” No art form has been so infamously fraught with rivalry, absurd rankings and infighting among fans, critics and artists. The fifth element of hip-hop is bickering. Ask Jay Z, who indelibly described himself as being from the block where they “argue all day who’s better, Biggie, Jay Z and Nas?” (B.I.G. was the right answer.)
This isn’t a “Best of” list. It’s a “power ranking,” rooted in ever-shifting metrics including music quality, influence, lyrics, beat selection and popularity. It matters if you’re “hot,” but that’s certainly not the most important parameter. Anderson .Paak isn’t here because he’s more singer than rapper.
Rankings were solely determined based on music released in 2016. So no Earl, Freddie Gibbs or Suga Free, who will remain in any Top 10 “Best of” as long as he’s still silky in white linen.
Effortlessly switching from post-ratchet party rap to ride-out-on-your-enemies gangsta music, the lanky ex–basketball star from 89th and Normandie dropped Ommio 3, signed to YG and Mustard’s 400 Summers imprint, and finally got rich.
9. Cam and China
The Inglewood twins had a far better year than the Rams and continued their reign as the best identical siblings since Tia and Tamera Mowry. Aside from A Tribe Called Quest, the Cam and China EP was the best from a rap group in 2016.
8. DJ Quik
David Blake already has the key to the city of Compton, so what’s left? After his gleaming, lowrider-gliding Rosecrans with Problem, they need to just name the avenue after America’z most complete artist.
7. Schoolboy Q
TDE’s Groovy Tony continues to make paranoid, opiated gangsta rap that should be too dark to play at functions, but his raspy bounce keeps it afloat. Bonus points for the line “Three different pagers blowin’ up because I’m crackin’” in a song named after Sierra Club founder John Muir.
6. Open Mike Eagle
The best Mike from Chicago since the great crying one released Hella Personal Film Festival with Paul White, another brilliant record about nightmares. In a year riven with noxious hatred and political tumult, Mike Eagle asked all the right questions, even if he’s too smart to offer simple answers.
5. Vince Staples
In just under 20 minutes, Chris Paul’s greatest rival delivered an EP that felt like what you’d expect an Andre 3000 solo project to sound like. Or maybe Ian Curtis if he grew up on Suga Free’s Street Gospel.
4. G Perico
Just when you thought all the gangsta rap stories had already been told, along comes G Perico from 111th and San Pedro, the Jheri-curled heir to DJ Quik and Too $hort — a winner of several honorary street Pulitzers, who brilliantly rhymed “Jan Brady” with “stop hatin’.”
3. Isaiah Rashad
Blending Larry David–level neuroses with the Southern bounce of someone raised on Boosie and Webbie, Isaiah established himself as a modern prophet for people who don’t believe in prophets.
2. Kendrick Lamar
Untitled, Unmastered redeemed the Wu-Tang credo: If ain’t raw, it’s worthless. K. Dot also killed so many features this year that it somehow made up for that Maroon 5 musical massacre.
The “only rapper to make it out the West without Dre” delivered the best G-funk album since Doggystyle. The Compton native’s “Fuck Donald Trump” became a battle cry on par with “Fuck tha Police.” Sold Suge Knight shirts at his Fairfax pop-up store. Revolutionized the English language to practically make the letter “C” obsolete. That’s success.
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Nipsey Hussle, Boogie, Daveed Diggs (clipping.), Zeroh, Snoop Dogg, Blu, Dumbfoundead, Nocando, Jonwayne, AD, TeeCee 4800, Problem, Warm Brew, Ab-Soul, Domo Genesis, Drakeo.