Hip-hop has always mixed competition with collaboration, and nowhere is that more evident than on one of rap's most beloved traditions, the guest verse. Emcees appear on one another's tracks to show support and form alliances — but they're also engaging in a friendly battle of oneupmanship. Newcomers lend their bars in the hopes of seizing the spotlight; old pros drop by to reassert their relevance; and everyone, like skaters sharing a half-pipe, is eager to show off some tricks and earn the approbation of their peers.
Guest verses have produced some of the greatest moments in rap history, from Snoop's “G” thang arrival to Busta's dungeon dragon roar. But which cameos deserve canonization? We narrowed the field down to the 20 we consider the greatest, but encourage you to continue the conversation in the comments section. After all, the only thing hip-hop fans love more than the music itself is arguing about it.
20. Foxy Brown on Nas’s “Affirmative Action” (1996)
Featured on Nas’s sophomore album, It Was Written, this posse cut introduced The Firm, a supergroup originally made of Nas, Foxy Brown, AZ and Cormega (the latter of whom was replaced by Nature on The Firm’s album). The track is a sausage fest until Brown’s mathematical verse torches her cohorts. Her deep, sultry voice blankets the production like a bass drum. “Sittin' on top of 50 grand in the Nautica Van,” she raps. Calculating how “dope” she is, as she adds and subtracts, her elastic flow spirals, unfolds and demands a rewind, or a recount. Her verse could be part of a “stay in school” campaign if she wasn't using her math skills to count kilos. — Tracy Jones
19. Rakim on Jay Z’s “The Watcher 2” (2002)
A sequel of sorts to Dr. Dre's “The Watcher” from his 2001 album, this was supposed to be Dre and Hova's show. But one of the greatest of all time, Rakim, steals the whole thing with a third verse that, in under 40 seconds, serves as a master class in internal and compound rhymes. “My brain contains graphic thangs/It turn traumatic teens into addicts and fiends,” he spits, with cunningly deployed drug imagery that one can only hope sent many teens out in search of Don't Sweat the Technique. — Andy Hermann
18. Raekwon on Doom’s “Yessir!” (2009)
A short montage from a black godfather, Raekwon’s verse is like a character sketch from a Donald Goines novel. Some lines are narrative fragments that create a kind of contextual scene. It’s as if the listener gets dropped into the middle of a plot: “Heard the young policeman died,” Rae recalls. The Wu-Tang Clansman has made a career of reeling out audio gangsta flicks. Here, the Chef’s lyrical aroma pulls ears to his kitchen, while he’s jabbing, “Yo, get the fuck away from the ropes, man.” — T.J.
17. Andre 3000 on UGK’s “Int’l Players Anthem” (2007)
Three Stacks has murdered many a guest verse, so it's difficult to pick just one. But no one ever used his charismatic vocals more cleverly than Bun B and Pimp C, who cast him as a reformed player stepping to the altar as the ironic intro to their ode to pimp life. “I apologize if this message gets you down,” he texts to an ex-girlfriend, breaking the news that he's off the market. “Then I CC'ed every girl that I'd see-see 'round town.” Only Andre could make exchanging vows sound like the most pimpin' move of all. — A.H.
16. Jay Z on Dead Prez’s “Hell Yeah (Remix)” (2004)
In 2004, Jay Z was already lauded as a billionaire, and keeping-it-real Dead Prez were presumably averse to that. “We together on the same track now, baby, whatchu gone call us now,” Jay taunts. It seems like an odd couple collaboration, until Jay attacks systematic racism and white appropriation, and weaves a tale of going from selling crack to getting profiled in his wealthy suburban neighborhood. “Y'all don't like that do ya?” he asks his new neighbors. “You fucked up the hood nigga right back to ya.” — T.J.
15. Busta Rhymes on Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now” (2011)
Produced by Diplo and Afrojack, the slow, squiggly beat on “Look at Me Now” invites anyone rapping over it to play with multiple time signatures — even Brown has a go at some double-time bars. Then Busta blows by him like a Ducati passing a skateboard. After serving up a flop with his last solo album, 2009's Back on My B.S., Busta had something to prove, and he delivered with a flurry of motormouth rhymes so dazzling that most people don't even remember anymore that, oh yeah — Lil Wayne was on this track, too. — A.H.
14. Notorious B.I.G. on Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear (Remix)” (1994)
It’s a 16-bar master class on how to abbreviate cinematically elaborate rhymes. It’s also the flash before the furious sound of Biggie blowing up. Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records dropped Ready to Die shortly after this track, leaving Craig Mack, Puffy’s other rising star, mostly forgotten. Some speculate that Big’s verse was dissing Mack when he says, “You're mad 'cause my style you're admiring/Don't be mad, UPS is hiring.” The “Flava” remix was instantly canonized as a posse cut classic. — T.J.
13. R.A. the Rugged Man on Jedi Mind Tricks’ “Uncommon Valor” (2006)
Sinfully slept-on rapper R.A. the Rugged tells a haunting story from his father’s perspective, Staff Sgt. John A. Thorburn. While fighting in Vietnam, Thorburn got exposed to Agent Orange. He survived the war, but the dangerous chemical’s lasting affects spread to his family. “Two of my kids born handicapped/Spastic, quadriplegia, micro cephalic/Cerebral palsy, cortical blindness — name it, they had it,” R.A. raps. It’s a harrowing account and an overlooked record that’s more relevant today than ever. — T.J.
12. Bun B on Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin’” (1999)
At the height of his Jigga Man powers, Jay Z was hard to upstage. But Bun B, arguably the greatest rapper ever to come out of Texas, has made a career out of making other emcees sound like guests on their own track, and he steals the show here with his Lone Star drawl as he scolds illiterate rappers to “step up your vocab.” Honorable mention to his late partner in UGK, Pimp C, whose own verse includes the immortal line, “No record 'til whitey pay me.” — A.H.
11. Q-Tip on Mobb Deep’s “Drink Away the Pain (Situations)” (1995)
As a crafty way of talking about the entertainment industry, Q-Tip’s abstract poetics turned clothing lines into people pulling off a heist. In 1995, black fashion brands like Karl Kani, Cross Colours and PNB were popping. At first, high-end labels Tommy Hilfiger and Timberland weren’t fond of getting adopted by the “urban” demographic, but by 1998, corporations successfully co-opted hip-hop culture, choking out most of the black clothing lines of that time. It gives new meaning to Tip’s prophetic verse, “Damn, all we want is a piece of the pie” and makes it all the more apt that, at the end of his tale, Guess takes the whole slice. — T.J.
10. Eminem on Jay Z’s “Renegade” (2001)
Even by Em's lofty standards, the internal rhymes on his verses on this Blueprint highlight are jaw-dropping. “Who's the king of these rude, ludicrous, lucrative lyrics?” he sneers. “Who could inherit the title, put the youth in hysterics?” Later he calls himself “a regular modern-day Shakespeare” and “the new Ice Cube,” earning both titles with his torrent of wordplay. No wonder Hova made Shady the only guest on what still ranks at the best album of his career. — A.H.
9. Nas on Raekwon’s “Verbal Intercourse” (1995)
Raekwon and Ghostface accused Biggie of biting Nas’s album cover. Biggie thought Rae and them were jacking his slang. “Verbal” came out in the thick of drama, but Nas kills it with, “Through the lights, cameras and action glamour glitters and gold/I unfold the scroll, plant seeds to stampede the globe.” His guest verse is full of internal rhyme schemes, Five-Percenter views, and ironic visuals: “Rooster heads profile on a bus to Rikers Isle/Holding weed inside they pussy with they minds on the pretty things in life/Props as a true thug's wife.” — T.J.
8. Nicki Minaj on Kanye West’s “Monster” (2010)
Onika Tanya Maraj had already been making plenty of noise before she showed up on Kanye's magnum opus; she delivered a standout verse on the Young Money posse cut “BedRock” and scored her own rap chart No. 1 in the summer of 2010 with “Your Love.” Still, no one was prepared for how hard she would come out on “Monster,” crushing her big moment with a verse that saw her flipping cadences and characters every couple of bars and silencing haters with career-defining lines like, “If I'm fake, I ain't notice cause my money ain't.” No one's dared called her fake since, even if her own music has never quite matched the fire of her 80 seconds here. — A.H.
7. 2Pac on Scarface’s “Smile” (1997)
Released just a few months after 2Pac's murder, “Smile” had the eerie feel of a message from beyond the grave, as the fallen West Coast icon seemed to directly address his grief-stricken fans. “You gotta be able to smile through all this bullshit,” he declares on the intro, before later rapping, “Why shed tears? Save your sympathy.” (The video, in which a body double dangles from power lines in a Christ-like pose, played up the 2Pac-as-martyr angle to an almost gratuitous degree.) Though he's been even more prolific in death than he was in life, none of Tupac Shakur's posthumous output has ever topped the emotional impact he made here. — A.H.
6. Eminem on Dr. Dre’s “Forgot About Dre” (1999)
Marshall Mathers would eventually go on to become the highest selling hip-hop artist of all time. On “Forgot About Dre” for Dr. Dre’s 2001 album, a newly famous Em, deploying his signature double-time flow, sounded possessed by the holy ghost of not giving a fuck. At the end of his verse, as perhaps evidence of dealing with new-found fame, he tells his daughter to go with Dre, like an abrupt admission to feeling sadly unstable. — T.J.
5. Busta Rhymes on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” (1992)
When Busta Rhymes roared like a dungeon dragon, it was the closest hip-hop heads got to wailing like punk kids. Every rapper on here bodied their verse, with Busta closing out the record with easily the most memorable part. After this track, getting paid for roaring features became the vibrant rapper’s calling card. He was the last member in Leaders of the New School, all of whom were featured on “Scenario,” anyone expected to have a successful solo career — but his debut album, 1996's The Coming, made people respect his pen game as much as his flow. — T.J.
4. AZ on Nas’s “Life’s a Bitch” (1994)
Not for nothing was longtime Nas cohort Anthony “AZ” Cruz once ranked the most underrated rapper of all time. His guest verse on this stone-cold Illmatic classic — the only feature on the entire album — doubled as his studio debut, and in just 16 bars painted a vivid picture of the grim realities of ghetto life that, as AZ succinctly put it, turn Five Percenters to sinners. “Until that day we expire and turn to vapors/Me and my capers will be somewhere stackin' plenty papers,” AZ rapped with an urgency that cut against the grain of L.E.S.'s laid-back beat. — A.H.
3. Nas on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque” (1991)
“When I was 12, I went to hell for snuffing Jesus,” is one of the illest lines of all time, Amen. Nas’s debut classic, Illmatic, came out April 19, 1994. On Mother’s Day, weeks later, my pops gave me $20 to buy moms a present. My boys and I went to the mall. When I saw Illmatic I bought it, strictly off the strength of “Live.” I was leaning into my boombox, head bopping, when pops came into my room and asked, “Did you get your mother something?” — T.J.
2. Kendrick Lamar on Big Sean’s “Control” (2013)
No feature in recent memory rattled more cages than K-Dot's gauntlet-throwing guest verse on “Control,” on which he calls out virtually every emcee in the game, from Drake to Tyler to Jermaine Cole and even the man on whose track he's appearing, snarling, “I got love for you all, but I'm tryna murder you niggas.” Such ferocity, coming from the introspective rapper of Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, seemed to catch everyone off-guard, and sent radio, bloggers and other rappers into a flurry of debate over whether he had gone too far. (Snoop Dogg had the best response: “One thing about the West Coast, we ain't never been friendly. I don't know why y'all thought this nigga was gonna be friendly just 'cause he has a backpack. He may have a motherfuckin' AK in that backpack.”) Looking back now, it's clear that the “Control” verse was a turning point for Kendrick, when he went from being just another talented up-and-comer to being a throne-seeking world-beater, determined to bring competitive fire back into hip-hop and take everything to the next level. — A.H.
1. Snoop Dogg on Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” (1992)
Could it have been anything else? No guest verse in rap history is more iconic than Snoop Doggy Dogg's star-making turn on Dre's chart-topping classic. Even casual rap fans can bust out Snoop's easy-rolling cadences with a, “One, two, three and to the four/Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the door.” It's the song that introduced both Snoop and G-funk to the world, put Long Beach on the map, and made “It's like this and like that and like this,” part of hip-hop holy writ. If you haven't listened to it lately, Snoop's verse is still straight fire from beginning to end. — A.H.