Getty Image/Ralph Ordaz
Rap gets compared to basketball a lot, but I think it’s probably because the sport provides some of the aptest one-to-one comparisons to the art form. For instance, a lot of practice goes into both, and the most skilled practitioners make each look easy, even though the average person might find what they do incredibly hard. For another, fans of both love to debate who the “best” of each is, even though we all use different criteria to determine what “best” means.
For me, the best rappers aren’t the ones who rap the fastest or drop the most explosive, tongue-tying cadences, although that’s part of it. Nor am always impressed by the cleverest punchlines, which are in essence just dad jokes that rhyme. They can be pretty amusing though. I like rappers I can relate to, but I also like the ones who give listeners something to aspire to. Storytelling and concepts are important, too.
Overall, though, the best raps give some sort of insight into the person reciting them, then use that insight to reflect something true about the world, something universal. It’s a quality that’s a little difficult to explain, but it’s a little like Ted Lasso’s description of the offsides rule in association football: You know it when you see it. Each verse here has that quality, that thing that makes your ears prick up, that sets off sparklers in your brain, that makes you reach for the rewind button because you know something special just happened. These are the best verses of the year so far.
21 Savage on J. Cole’s “My Life”
21 Savage returns the favor J. Cole once paid him on his own hit single “A Lot,” popping in with a verse that shatters the myth that he only has one mode. Sure, he starts out there, justifying his homicidal tendencies with the trauma of watching his friends lost to street life, but then he slings some wicked wordplay (“I disrespect you respectfully”) and juxtaposes his menace with a mean sense of humor (“I got a good heart, so I send teddy bears every time we make they mommas cry”).
Chika on “Save You”
The Alabama rapper’s March EP Once Upon A Time was shamefully overlooked, especially as a document that explains exactly why she is who she is. While the first verse is a masterclass in petty, it’s the second verse that impresses, summing up Chika’s sense of betrayal at one-way relationships and the dangers of her anxiety and workaholism. Yet, she still ends on a positive note, reflecting the steely optimism that sustains her — and setting the example for listeners to snap their own metaphorical chains.
Guapdad 4000 on “Stoop Kid”
This might be cheating, but from the extended “porch” conceit that extends throughout the song, I’m going to consider both verses here as one verse that was broken in half for song construction purposes. Taken in this way, it may very well be the best verse of the year — or at least my favorite kind, one that sets a scene in vivid, glowing detail. It’s a concept that is fully written through and contains every spectrum of emotion, from warm nostalgia to brokenhearted paranoia.
Jay-Z on “Sorry Not Sorry”
Maybe it just sounds cooler in contrast to Nas’s nerdy Bitcoin boss talk, but Jay’s verse is a study in casual intricacy as he weaves multiple meanings throughout its repeated opening lines, juxtaposes his rags to riches, compares himself to a Messiah figure, and advocates fad diets all over a glittering Street Runner production that evokes the luxuries settings and items he describes. I know we’re all supposed to frown at such materialistic delights (pandemic’s still on, y’all) but damn if he doesn’t make them sound cool.
J. Cole on “Applying Pressure”
Here’s a controversial take: I really like when J. Cole raps over old-school beats about regular-guy things. The character he describes here isn’t just a straw man; it’s him, it’s me, it’s every disgruntled late-’90s backpacker who thumbed their noses at the popular kids and the Hot 100 hits, thinking his condescension made him cool. Here, Cole subtly admonishes that jerk we all used to be (or still are), reminding him/them/us that hating is bad for their/your/our health.
Lil Baby on “Pride Is The Devil”
I know a lot of these verses are coming from the same album but when the whole point of that album was getting bars off… I mean, mission accomplished, right? Here’s where I make a concession to the mainstream; Lil Baby’s verse here provides a strong argument toward defending his current placement in the upper echelons of hip-hop royalty, which I frankly never really understood. But I got an inkling here. Anyone who can make “schedule” rhyme with “forever” and “negative” is thinking on a different level.
Megan Thee Stallion on “Thot Sh*t”
In a song full of gems (“I walk around the house butt-naked / And I stop at every mirror just to stare at my own posterior,” “I’m the shit per the Recording Academy”), it’s the third verse that really unloads and showcases all the traits that have endeared Meg to her legions of loyal supporters. There are the unsubtle boasts, the clever punchlines, the unabashed self-confidence, the assured sex appeal, and the sort-of wholesome kernel at the center (Meg’s kind of a good-girl geek, what with her collegiate ambition), and that’s just in the first eight bars.
Nas on DMX’s “Bath Salts”
The Queensbridge veteran redeems himself on this gritty cut from DMX’s posthumous album, switching from his Escobar persona (which has always been kind of corny) back to Nasty Nas (a mode he should find himself in more often) for a braggadocious, pseudo-intellectual spin through some of the slickest sh*t talk he’s delivered in a decade. “I’d still be this fly if I worked at Popeyes,” he boasts and for once, he sounds — and I cannot stress this enough — utterly, completely believable.
Skyzoo on “I Was Supposed To Be A Trap Rapper”
For the past decade, Skyzoo has been one of the most consistent, creative, and criminally overlooked rappers in hip-hop. Even so, longtime fans can’t help but hold out hope for a breakthrough, when music listeners at large realize there isn’t that much of a difference between supposedly high-minded lyricists like Skyzoo and the more straightforward appeal of the dominant trap rap genre. Sky makes as much plain on this standout from his latest, All The Brilliant Things.
Tyler The Creator on “Lumberjack”
Sometimes, it’s more the context than the content that makes a verse stand out. Ty is more confessional on “Massa,” more observant on “Manifiesto,” and more unhinged on “Corso,” but “Lumberjack” was the first indication of what his new album Call Me If You Get Lost would be and it was a world-stopper. It’s Tyler in his bag, utterly confident, totally self-possessed, swaggering, cool. Plus Jasper and DJ Drama’s ad-libs just accentuate some top-notch, traditional “look at me”-ass rap.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.