The Rundown: The Greatest MCs Of All-Time

Above (clockwise): The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Eminem and Jay-Z
Above (clockwise): The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Eminem and Jay-Z

Kendrick Lamar delivered a monster last week, releasing To Pimp a Butterfly, the follow-up to his major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d. city.

It’s a diverse, adventurous album that affirms the Compton MC as one of the best in the business right now and has people talking about where the 27-year-old currently stands and could possibly stand in the pantheon of all-time greats once his days on the mic come to a close.

Those conversations got me thinking about who makes my list of the greatest MCs of all-time and even though it’s risky, I share it with you below. But first, a couple disclaimers:

1) Only 10 spots, so plenty of talented people are getting left out.
2) This is in no particular order – just a Top 10, not 1 through 10
3) Our lists don’t have to be the same, that’s the joy of this; different opinions make these things fun.
4) Tandems like Run the Jewels and OutKast are better together than apart, so they’re excluded even though all four MC are terrific.
5) Did we mention only 10 spots? Getting it down to 10 is harder than it looks.

Ready? Cool. This is The Rundown: The Greatest MCs of All-Time.

The Notorious B.I.G.

Gotta start with an obvious one so people don’t go crazy right out the chute. Christopher Wallace was taken from this world far too early. It’s a tragedy that he didn’t get to make more music, but the two studio albums he delivered were classics. The singles were strong and the album cuts you had to discover by keeping Ready to Die and Life After Death playing through were even better. Biggie is one of those guys that if he’s not on your list, you’re doing it wrong. Favourite Track: “Kick in the Door” from Life After Death.

Tupac

Biggie and Tupac are forever connected because of their friendship, the East Coast/West Coast rivalry and both of them being tragically gunned down in their primes. Even if you’re not a big Tupac fan, you can’t flip through his portfolio without acknowledging how diverse and talented he was. He could do it all – diss tracks, party records, thoughtful songs, everything. Not many MCs can cross all those realms and the few that can stand out. Favourite Track: “Keep Ya Head Up” from Strictly 4 My Ninjas* (not actually ninjas)

Jay-Z

The leader of Roc Nation has enjoyed a long, illustrious career. Reasonable Doubts dropped in 1996 and even though it wasn’t a great album, Magna Carta Holy Grail came out 17 years later. He’s closing in on 20 years strong as one of the best in the business and while there have been dips, the total collection is far greater than the few missteps along the way. Favourite Track: “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…)” from American Gangster

Slick Rick

Hip Hop’s greatest storyteller, period, plus he rocked massive gold chains and an eye patch. And he has a British accent. And he and Doug E. Fresh dropped “La Di Da Di” which is one of the best tracks ever. So is “Children’s Story.” So yeah. MC Ricky D makes the list. Favourite Track: “La Di Da Di” which was the B-Side to “The Show”

Nas

Illmatic is still one of the greatest albums to ever be released and even though there has been an ebb and flow to Nas’ career since his debut offering, how that album changed things up at the time and how incredible he can be when he’s locked in and on-point earns him a place on this list. Favourite Track: “One Love” from Illmatic

Eminem

This one shouldn’t be up for debate, but there are still people out there that don’t want to accept that Marshall Mathers III is one of the best to ever do it. The Marshall Mathers LP changed things up when it dropped and showed off the diversity of Eminem’s abilities as a lyricist and storyteller. After a little dip with Encore and Relapse, the proud, sharp Eminem of old returned on Recovery and last year’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2. Favourite Track: “The Way I Am” from The Marshall Mathers LP

Rakim

There are very few MCs that are universally recognized as being amongst the best to ever do it. His first two albums with Eric B. – Paid in Full and Follow the Leader – were classics and the way Rakim delivered complex lyrics stood apart from many of his contemporaries. Rakim has kind of faded into the background with current generations and that’s a shame because he’s one of the greatest ever and influenced a ton of the artists on this list and most of your favourite rappers. Favourite Track: “Paid in Full” from Paid in Full

Talib Kweli

“If skills sold, truth be told / I’d probably be, lyrically Talib Kweli.” When Jay-Z references you in a lyric talking about skills, you know you’re legit. If you needed further proof, Kweli followed up that mention with one of his own on “Ghetto Show” off The Beautiful Struggle: “If lyrics sold then truth be told/I’d probably be just as rich and famous as Jay-Z.” Brilliant. Favourite Track: “Get By” from Quality

Lupe Fiasco

Much like Talib Kweli, the Chicago native could probably be a bigger commercial success if he were so inclined, but he’s not and that’s part of what makes him stand out. What’s funny about it is that he’s delivered a number of songs that follow piece of the blueprint for commercial success – recognizable sample, female singer on the hook – but the lyrical content feels too pointed and controversial to top Billboard’s Hot 100. Favourite Track: “Words I Never Said” from Lasers

Black Thought

Just go and run through The Roots’ discography. Sit down and listen to how consistent and clean Tariq Trotter is one track after track, album after album, year after year. Because he’s part of a tremendous group, Black Thought doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but he’s lone MC in the Philadelphia-based outfit and he’s as smooth as anybody in the game. Favourite Track: “The Seed 2.0” from Phrenology

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte is a freelance journalist based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife and dog. In addition to his work here, he writes about sports for Complex Canada and covers the UFC for various outlets. His mom also still tells him what to do on a regular basis, even though he’s nearly 40. He tweets from @spencerkyte.

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