Why Rapper Rankings Are Silly — And Why We Can’t Get Enough Of Them

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If you’ve been on Twitter at any point over the past 48 hours, it’s likely you’ve noticed an unexpected name on the trending topics list. If you did, it’s also likely you wondering just why so many people were tweeting about Joe Budden. No, he wasn’t dead and he didn’t get arrested. It seems that many users were tickled, flabbergasted, and just downright confused by his placement on the latest rapper ranking, courtesy of an indie podcast called The Brew.

The curators of the podcast, which has just under 200 subscribers on Soundcloud, apparently posted the list to prompt debate and garner attention for their show, a double objective that they only half completed. While social media rules more or less dictate that other users were guaranteed to crop the post to boost their own engagement figures, the post certainly did spark discussion as only controversy can — particularly with its placement of Joe Budden at No. 3 on a list of greatest rappers of all-time (maybe 2003, but all time?).

It was a smart gamble on the whole, though. Despite having the engine of their debate prompt hijacked from under them in relatively short order, The Brew‘s podcasters knew one thing about rap fans that could have — and did — skyrocket the discourse straight to the top of the trending topics list: Rap fans can’t resist a list. In a slow news week, the one item guaranteed to generate engagement is a good, old-fashioned ranking because as hip-hop evolves, grows, and reaches a broader audience, it’s a sure bet that everyone will instinctively react to any sort of definitive list since they have their own, driven by a number of factors.

One of those factors is, of course, the popularity of a given record or artist when we are exposed to them during our “discovery” phase — namely, from our middle school years to the end of high school. A previous study explained how songs that dominate the radio become the songs by which listeners continue to judge newer songs as they age. That explains why The Brew, who appear to be right around their late-20s/early-30s, curated a list that appears to be mostly made up of rappers who appeared on BET during the early-2000s heyday of Rap City: Tha Basement and 106 & Park with high placements for names like Jadakiss, Fabolous, and yes, Joe Budden.

That time frame also, unfortunately, likely explains the lack of women on the list that some users noted. Despite the relative wealth of new female rappers during that era’s assumed dearth of talent, the fact that women rarely topped charts back then likely contributed to their invisibility in nostalgic hindsight. Even though City Mob’s Diamond and Princess, Ebony Eyez, Eve, Jacki-O, Lil Mama, Ms. Jade, Remy Ma, Shawnna, Trina, and others had their hits, they rarely monopolized radio or MTV countdowns in their day the way Jay-Z did with his singles from The Blueprint or Nas with “I Can,” “Made You Look,” or “One Mic” — let alone the beef between the two that had audiences clamoring for the next diss record.

That competitive nature is likely the reason for all the debates and dissent among rap fans whenever the latest ranking hits the net. Since the earliest days of hip-hop’s existence, battles have been ingrained in its DNA. Whether b-boys competed to see whose dance moves were most impressive or MCs clowned each other’s swag or lack thereof in rap battles, fans of all of hip-hop’s forms have been conditioned to wonder who the best of each is. It’s only natural that rankings have grown out of that impulse.

The aspect that causes debate is the open, unstructured nature of such lists. The rules are hazy; what defines a “great” rapper? Is it lyricism? Is it sales? Because the question is framed in such a vague way, it allows each participant to impose their own set of criteria over their personal lists and where lists deviate, give plenty of room to argue for one or the other as the “definitive” take. Then there’s the fact that some names are so widely considered to be sacrosanct — a Top Five must include Jay-Z, Nas, Tupac, and The Notorious BIG, or its considered “invalid” by purists for whom those names came to define two separate generations of rap’s superstars (the fifth name is almost always interchangeable, but depending on the fan’s age, can include any name from Rakim to Eminem to Drake).

Of course, the real fun of debating these rankings is that there really are no correct answers. Maybe Wale makes your personal Top 50, but he may not make anyone else’s in your circle. This opens the door for you to defend Wale as one of your favorites, talking up his qualities you like, making recommendations of songs you think will change your friends’ minds, and ultimately, sharing and growing our collective experience and enjoyment of hip-hop music. As long as that’s the end result, bring on the lists. Just remember not to react to them the same way Joe Budden did the last time he ended up on one of these things — no ranking is worth catching a black eye over, definitive or not.

And just because if feels weird to talk about these lists without making one, here’s my stab at my top 50 rappers.

  1. Black Thought
  2. Jay-Z
  3. Kanye West
  4. Common
  5. Snoop Dogg
  6. DJ Quik
  7. Missy Elliott
  8. Q-Tip
  9. Phonte Coleman
  10. Drake
  11. Busta Rhymes
  12. Rakim
  13. Big Daddy Kane
  14. CL Smooth
  15. Heavy D
  16. Posdnous
  17. The Notorious BIG
  18. Tupac
  19. Rapsody
  20. T.I.
  21. Ludacris
  22. Kendrick Lamar
  23. Eve
  24. Lil Kim
  25. Ice Cube
  26. Lil Wayne
  27. Talib Kweli
  28. Nipsey Hussle
  29. Twista
  30. Tech N9ne
  31. Will Smith
  32. Queen Latifah
  33. Method Man
  34. Ghostface Killah
  35. Jean Grae
  36. Rick Ross
  37. Pimp C
  38. 2 Short
  39. E-40
  40. 2 Chainz
  41. Big KRIT
  42. MC Lyte
  43. Foxy Brown
  44. Big Boi
  45. Andre 3000
  46. KRS-One
  47. King Tee
  48. Blu
  49. J. Cole
  50. Mibbs