Jay-Z once said the best emcees leave words knocking around in your head long after you’ve heard them. True lyricists in Jay-Z’s conception, will have you catching hidden rhymes, meanings, metaphors, people, places and ideas on the fourth or fifth listen, and sometimes, try as you might, you might not fully understand those words until you grow up a little and revisit them a couple years later. It is the hip-hop head’s ultimate and unrelenting quest to decode these lyrical treasures.
Following Old Dirty Bastard’s lead, the first decade of the 21st century has seen a batch of new emcees more centered on drawl, theatricality, melody, and highly idiosyncratic flow than the above described “traditional” spitting (Spitta excluded). Not that today’s crop of emcees are any less lyricists, but there is an added level of experimentation and diversity with flow and delivery, like Yelawolf and Wiz Khalifa for instance, whose distinctive voices are more the central focus than their lyrics are (it’s Wiz’s “hehhemhhehh” snicker and easy-bake oven drawl that gets me, not his lyrics). Wiz, Yelawolf, KiD CuDi, Waka Flocka, Lil Wayne and even Nicki Minaj, are perhaps better suited for a “Flow of The Year” category than for the traditional “Lyricist Of the Year.” After all, do snarls, barks, squeals, belly trembles, throat snarls and helium voices really work as lyrical criteria?
We’ll tackle this trend in the next decade. But for now, our selective list comprises what we see as the very best of both new and old school emcees. Honorable mentions go to Nicki Minaj, who spat the verse of the year on “Monster” and pushed the envelope more than a few times with her alter ego Roman Zolanski; the un-fuck-wittable Yelawolf, whose flat out skills behind the mic put to rest anyone unsure over his tats and light colored skin; Jay Electronica and his always-cryptic illuminati talk; and MellowHype, a couple young Californian kids from OFWGKTA whose free album BLACKENEDWHITE contains freakishly well-written shit about rape, drugs, and satan that is sure to tumble around in your cranium for a while, just like Jigga said it would.
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“Gorgeous” ft. KiD CuDi & Raekwon from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [2010, Def jam/Roc A Fella]
Ye has always been an entertaining emcee. But this year, Kanye took his lyricism to a whole other level, the kind of level where he is nearly in the position to drop an entire album with Jay-Z (early 2011)– and he’s not just the producer this time. Kanye’s pull as an emcee stems from his uncanny ability to shock and entertain, and genuine inability to shut his mouth when he probably should. The words that tumble out of Kanye West’s mouth when he’s not in the recording booth or stage, have probably put him up in the news more often than for being a musician (the George W. Bush vs. Ye episode a case in point). But rather than winding up in a heap of trouble, Kanye’s tendency to speak his mind has only roused more fanatic adoration. In 2011, the outspoken Kanye West has become a person to look up to.
When faced with the opportunity to redeem himself at the 2010 VMA’s (from the previous year when stole Taylor Swift’s limelight), Kanye took the higher road and proposed a “toast for the douchebags”. Later, in “Monster”, he “put the pussy in a sarcophagus”, and during his killer G.O.O.D Friday cypher, he pointed out that there are “too many Urkels on your team that’s why your Wins low”. I could go on and on with these golden one-liners, Kanye is full of them. But this nifty little rhyme from “Monster” seems to sum of Yeezy (in 2010) philosophy pretty well: “I’m living in the future so the present is my past. My presence is a present, kiss my ass.” (Gossip Gossip.. niggas just staap it…) –K-Lis
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“Children of the World” from K.R.I.T. Wuz Here [2010, Direct Connect]
“Yea I’m countrier than a motha’ fucka, but my lyrical content is crazy” says K.R.I.T. in “Viktorious”, one of the most unstoppable tracks from Meridian, Mississippi’s newest hometown hero. It’s easy to hear how K.R.I.T’s abilities as a lyricist (and his classic soul-sampling production style) caught the ear of Def Jam records, who came knocking on K.R.I.T’s door just a month after he released his free online album K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. When K.R.I.T. tells stories of holding his head high and keeping focused in his poverty stricken Mississippi (“The rap game is high school and life’s a hallway”) or addresses damaging preconceptions of country folk in the Southern drawl he unfolds over his cinematic beats, his music is anthemic and inspiring. Yet beyond his attractive story as the Mississippi unsuspected, there are other traits that make K.R.I.T. one of the year’s most compelling emcees.
Obviously a sports fanatic, K.R.I.T. often writes in extended conceits that paint the successes and tribulations of life through the lens of sport and athleticism as in “Hometown Hero” or “No Wheaties”, the latter which features fellow 2010 young-hitters Curren$y and Smoke DZA. But K.R.I.T is equally a reflective thinker as he is an offensive emcee, on edge, impatient and pressing. In his own hallway of the rap game, he may be exactly what he claims: a super-hero in the flesh. –K-Lis
“Back To The Topic Freestyle” from Friday Night Lights [2010, Roc Nation]
Over the past decade, I don’t think I have been more excited to watch an artist grow. Chedo once said that he felt he was watching history unfold when speaking about the success of Jermaine. I completely agree with his statement, and really think most hip-hop heads can concurr. Cole is definitely the next contender for G.O.A.T., and if you disagree that’s okay. But listen to Cole’s entire catalogue and tell me he’s not a grown ass rapper in his lyrics, content, flow, punchlines, references, and on and on. From dropping “Hey Gary Coleman just passed, life is short” to “Should I admit that a slutty bitch was my first smash?”, J. Cole has bars for days and isn’t afraid whatsoever to be personal on his tracks and still crack jokes (even if they were weeks after Gary’s death).
I chose J. Cole as Lyricist Of The Year because nobody reminds me of Jay-Z, Nas, Andre 3000, Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G. and every other great rhymer all combined in one with an added touch of new school personality and attitude. “Back To The Topic” is the perfect example of why he was signed by Jay-Z (who is Jay gonna sign hip-hop wise and not be absolutely dope?) and also why he’s my choice Lyricist Of The Year. –J.R.
“That’s All She Wrote” (T.I. ft Eminem) from No Mercy [2010, Grand Hustle/Atlantic Records]
Awards don’t necessarily speak for the talent a musician might have. But when MTV, BET, Billboard, AND the Grammy’s are giving you high praises, you know you’ve done something right. Recovery isn’t only the name of Eminem’s seventh studio album — it is also the latest chapter in Eminem’s career. With songs like “Not Afraid”, his verse on “Airplanes Part II”, and “That’s All She Wrote”, Eminem was undoubtedly back. The delivery, the emotion, and the HUNGER in his music made me swear we were back in 2001.
What else did he accomplish? Recovery sold over 740,000 in the first week. This crowned Eminem as the first artist in Soundscan history to have four albums debut with sales of over 700,000. Recovery was also Eminem’s sixth consecutive number-one album in the US and topped the Billboard charts for seven weeks. He was ranked by MTV as the 7th biggest icon in pop music history, the #1 Rapper in the 21st century by BET, Received ten nominations at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards including Album of the Year and Best Rap Album. And he shared his tour stage with two of rap’s most respected icons. Jay-Z and Dr. Dre to sold out shows. “I’m back, Rap was my drug,” Eminem told Vibe magazine earlier this year. “It used to get me high and then it stopped getting me high. Then I had to resort to other things to make me feel that … now rap’s getting me high again.” Welcome back, Eminem. — Chedo.
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“Keep Shining” from TSOL [2010, Black Box]
When I opened up TSOL to discover Shad had included a lyric booklet with his record, it was like receiving a gift from the gods. I had a pretty decent idea of the lyrical feast I was in for since I had heard TSOL before forking over the bones for my own copy, but let me just reiterate: TSOL really is a poetic masterpiece. That booklet is there for a reason.
It’s increasingly rare to find an artist, particularly of Shad’s generation, that doesn’t blog or twitter or myspace, or facebook, or whatever, like social media is their job. These days it is assumed that these media are necessary in order to make it as an artist these days, and admittedly, in some cases, these tools are invaluable (just think of what twitter has done for Kanye’s career). But in Shad’s case, his online absence is anything but damaging. Not only has it created an intrigue of inaccessibility, but he has clearly used the time that would have been spent on “lol”s and “hahahaha”s to write some really phenomenal rhymes. As a cerebral emcee with legs, Shad is at his best on TSOL when he wraps timely cultural and political topics in humorous wordplay: “Like Raaah Raaah/ Glen Beck better duck like fois gras/make shots poke his face like GaGa” and brings an under-represented viewpoint in hip-hop that isn’t misogynistic, crude, vulgar, nor hood. It’s Shad, “the coldest spittin/Rakim-North Pole edition.”–K-Lis