I'll be taking in account fame, library, influence, albums and overall talent. With that, here goes my list of my personal Top 10 MCs of all time.
1. 2pac (Tupac Shakur) - Arguably, this one is a bit personal. Pac is the West Coast through and through, thus he represents the state where I started in. Along with that, he has a large library of songs that cover a large spread of themes. The themes that most associate him with is him time in and right after jail that discusses many of the struggles of THUG LIFE, but also highlights the gangsta rap he became known for with him times in Death Row. Many of these songs are vicious in representing gangster life, nasty sexual escapades, and grandizing. On top of that, his production was top notch during this time which would help to add to his poetic flow of lyrics. However, this contrasts his earlier tracks like So Many Tears and Brenda's Got a Baby which deal with the deeper struggles of poverty and growing up in the hood that many of his peers faced. As such, he is an odd entry in that I personally believe he is one of the best writers in hip-hop, but I do acknowledge his schizophrenic themes (Hit Em Up v. Dear Mama?!) that make one wonder of how far off the deep end he was before he left us. Lastly, I find 2pac a much stronger sum of parts as with the except of All Eyez on Me and maybe Makavelli his hits are stronger than his albums.
2. Rakim (of Eric B. & Rakim) - Rakim imo is the most influential MC for lyricism. He moved in the late 80s from a simple or slant rhymes to multisyllabic and internal rhymes. Take a listen to Paid in Full to fully appreciate his flows and how calm he delivered his lines. While, I am not the most knowledgable of Eric B.'s production besides his influence on sampling, I acknowledge and recognize the talent of Rakim that pretty much changed the way MCs wrote and freestyled with their music. Nearly any amazing lyricist you can think of owes debt to Rakim as he continues to create wonderful rhymes today. While I think Paid in Full and Don't Sweat the Technique are some of the best examples of his influence and style, any track with Rakim is special.
3. Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie Smalls) - I think BIG is the best freestyle MC that ever entered the game. I'm of the belief that he can beat nearly any rapper in a freestyle rap battle. The reason for this is his flow and ability to place words using unorthodox slant rhymes to create a story from the darkest recesses of BIG's life. BIG also has two of some of the most critically acclaimed albums ever created Life After Death and Ready to Die. The former is an album that is more intact than most rock albums, while Ready to Die has all the hits that everybody loves and knows. Of course, I have to acknowledge how much love and thoughts I have on BIG and Pac even though the East v. West Coast ended up in such tragedy. While we, the consumers, were spoiled by some of the best music in years it also ended up in tragedy. Note: The difference of love of the two stars is very different. NYC really does love BIG and LA really does love 2Pac you can note this at bars, clubs, friends, radio and even stores.
4. Nas - So if you haven't figured out already that most of my list will come from NYC as I believe there are very few artists outside of this city that can be considered hip-hop legends. Nas is basically the second coming of Rakim and the extension of BIG. However, he maintains his own talent with his album library. Nas has without a doubt the best set of hip-hop albums of any MC as nearly all are phenomenal. From the original hard hitting essence of 90s NYC Illmatic to its just as good sequel Stillmatic. Couple that with It Was Written and you've got some of the best albums of hip-hop in existence. Also, Nas has one of the nastiest flows around and is not afraid to use for day in the life, gangster ways, deeper thoughts and most importantly critique. Beefing existed long before Nas, but I think he is a master duelist at critiquing known rappers (Jay-Z I'm looking at you) and even hip hop itself (Hip-Hop is Dead). Lastly, Nas is the first on the list who I have seen live and with that I can attest that the man is brilliant live and therefore solidifies himself at #4.
5. Andre 3000 (Andre Benjamin, Outkast) - Taking a break from the city and into the South, comes the master of metaphor Andre 3000. I love Outkast in all that they did differently towards the end of and beginning of the 21st century. They are one of the few hip-hop artists of color to truly break into mainstream success and still maintain phenomenal lyrics and production. As such, while I give much credit to Big Boi, I think Andre has some of the most brilliant metaphors ever known to hip-hop. Take a listen to Aquemini and note how outside of the box his thoughts are, or note the flows of Southernplayalisticadillacfunkymuzik, or the innovation of Stankonia and the ultimate metaphor of the Love Below (a whole album dedicated to the love a lady, sex and vaginas). You can argue that there are better writers, flow, and raw lyricism than him, but I would be the first to use his songs in a literature studies class to analyze all the meanings that come from his songs. All you need to really listen to is Ms. Jackson a few times and really think about what discussions he brings up in the song.
6. Wu Tang-Clan (The RZA, GZA, ODB, Raekwon, Master Killah, Ghostface, U-God, Inspectah Deck, and Method Man!!!) - The whole set of them are all talented for a variety of reasons and therefore I had to include the whole group. While I personally think Tribe Called Quest is the better group, I think Wu-Tang has more talented rappers and overall producers too. Raekwon and Ghostface are in a league of their own, while the RZA has produced so many well known beats it's hard to deny his skill, while the GZA, ODB, Inspectach Deck and Method Man are also talented individuals. There is so much talent in this group it's amazing how connected they've been and how little of a large feud has existed between them. Enter the 36 Chambers is one of the most influential albums created for the 90s and Wu-Tang Forever is legendary in its production (violins!) and lyricism. I would also say they have several hits together and individually. I've also seen them live and the weirdest thing with them is that they have so many microphones lol, but they are a lot of live together or solo. Lastly, they are one of the few to have several movements in other media outlets (RZA in particular) and C.R.E.A.M. is the anthem of the city.
7. Chuck D - Chuck D is one of the few artists I've seen live and met (I guess for film I would have to relate this to theatre and in person hmmm). With that, I can say that he is truly a great man, while I think the artists here are more influential talent wise, I think Chuck D is influential movement wise. Chuck D was very big on black power (Fight the Power, Black Steel) and for bringing hip-hop outside of America in the late 80s. While his right hand man, Flava Flav, is beyond bizarre and not that talented, Chuck D holds his own with a slew of songs and albums (It takes a Million, Welcome to the Terrordome) that transformed a good bit of conscious movement in hip-hop. After all, Chuck D helped usher in the S1Ws (Security of the 1st World), who I would see as the second coming of the Black Panthers. Before him, MCs were thinking about issues, he actually started talking about issues to pave the way for De La Soul and Tribe.
8. Common - Once again we're going outside of NYC. At first, I disagreed on Common, but then again I thought about how much of a fan I was of him in the freshmen/sophomore year of my time in college and the fact that I have seen him live. I realized that Common is an introspective lyrical genius, who also visibly enjoys his work. While is his later albums are hard to fathom, it's because he started off in Chicago with albums like Resurrection and Like Water for Chocolate which add neo-soul and socially conscious flows to sumptuous beats. I argue that Resurrection is one of the best albums in hip-hop ever and that the Light is so smooth. I probably played Common out (I'll be real I rarely listen to 2pac, BIG and/or Nas songs anymore), but I think he combines a lot of the above into a great flow and style that works very well. I encourage everyone to take yourself back to when Used to Love H.E.R. Side note he is one of the best of the MCs turned actors around.
9. Blackstar - I have seen Mos Def and Talib separately and have also seen them together twice and I have to say that they are the best duo of MCs ever. On their own they have a variety of great hits (Umi Says, Get By) and cameos. However, to understand their greatness besides their great live shows is the album Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star. This album highlights the foundations of their alternative hip-hop, their lyricism & writing and their socially conscious flow of the ups & downs of Brooklyn in the 90s. They don't have many collaborations outside of this album, but it and their solo careers (and free styling talents) are so good that I feel that they deserve all the accolades of the #9 spot.
10. Ice Cube - I honestly switched Black Thought and Q-Tip to Ice Cube several times before I really had to realize that Cube deserves this spot. While I'm forever upset that I had a business midterm when he performed at USC, I know how much history Cube has. While I think he is different person than where he used to be and that comes with maturity and age, he is one of the rawest people on this list and has a hardcore flow and message that the other artists rarely bring out. Whether it's NWA, solo or his own creation of the Westside Connection, Cube knows how to work the game and also has so many lyrics and messages that represent gangster life and the angry at the government black man that he and NWA inspired several black youth (and some other races) to stand and get angry over injustices. It may not have always been socially conscious, but it was still well done and Today Was a Good Day is one of the best LA anthems ever created.
Black Thought/Q-Tip (I can't decide) by extension the Roots and A Tribe Called Quest. I had a very hard time picking between these two and while Q-Tip is another NYC native, Black Thought is a Philly native and brings with a little bit of different social conscious to his flow. However, I find both of these artists the talented part of their very talented groups. Black Thought has hard hitting flows and soul that explain metaphorically many of the socially conscious hip-hop that Q-Tip spins so well. Furthermore, Tribe is my other big favorite hip-hop group you can listen anywhere and are so much fun live. While The Roots are pure fun and spin jazz improvisations on their amazing live shows (seen them be the band for Nas). I think both of these MCs hold their own and have groups that are some of the most well-respected in hip-hop and for that I had to mention both.
Note: Who you won't find on this is Jay-Z, I have music from him, I have some respect for him, primarily for all the artists he's helped and work with, but where Black Star needed one album to hook me, not even 10 albums of Jay-Z could hook me. While I respect his lyricism and freestyle flow, I don't like most of his messages and his overall lack of influence in hip-hop versus his commercialism.