The monumentally successful Hova, whose career rise was surprisingly gradual for such a massive star, broke through in 1998 with the LP and accompanying single "Hard Knock Life", and he’s churned out hits ever since. He rapped with Biggie, created his own clothing line, became the minority owner of an NBA team in his home borough of Brooklyn, and, in perhaps his greatest accomplishment, wed the hottest woman in music. His 2011 collaboration with Kanye West spawned a massive hit in “Niggas in Paris,” and “Empire State of Mind” will be nightclub mainstay for the next few centuries. It’s a career whose list of milestones in music and business is unparalleled in the rap game, and Jigga shows no evidence of decline. It’s success on an almost unimaginable scale, and born—true to his boast—of a “hustler’s spirit, period”.
Only 30, Lil’ Wayne is remarkably young for someone who’s been in the game for so long. A precocious teenage rapper, Weezy joined the Hot Boys in 1997 and has continued on his startling, upward artistic trajectory ever since. He released his first solo album at only 17, but it was the three iterations of Tha Carter that made him one of the most popular figures in all of music. This December he’s set to put out I Am Not a Human Being II, and Lil’ Wayne’s name alone should ensure that it’s commercially successful. Still such a youthful artist, it will be interesting see what direction he decides to takes his career in since—if the careers of other hip hop veterans are suitable guides—he has at least ten more years of rapping ahead. Weezy is certainly creative and intelligent enough to continue delivering fresh material, and the greatest battle will perhaps be with himself, and whether he wants to remain a public figure given the astonishing amount of time he’s already spent in the spotlight.
2012 has been a strong year for Nas, who released the LP Life is Good in June. It’s first single, “The Don,” is evidence that the Nastiest has retained his exceptional lyricism and flow. The rapping pride of Queensbridge first burst onto the scene in 1994 with the classic album Illmatic, and ten albums have followed. At once disenfranchised with the state of genre, which he lampooned in Hip Hop is Dead, Nas continues to carry the mantle for MCs of a bygone era. Between feuding with Jay Z, his personal trials, political activism, and an acting role in the Hype Williams film “Belly”, God’s Son remains an industry titan. Rapping with the same passion he demonstrated almost twenty years ago, Nas can still turn out impeccably timed verbal eruptions like this one in “The Don”: “Rocking Roberto Cavalli no shirt on convertible Mazy/My Colombiana mommy riding beside me.” His verse on the seminal song “Verbal Intercourse” with fellow A-listersGhostface and Raekwon remains one of hip-hop’s greatest.
Marshall Mathers became a household hip hop name in 1999 with the release of The Slim Shady LP, and what’s followed has been stratospheric: several number one albums and singles, a successful foray into film with “8 Mile,” and various outstanding guest appearances with the likes of Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, and most notably with Jay-Z on the classic song “Renegade.” Eminem’s latest album, Recovery, was a commercial success, but it’s critical reception was only lukewarm. He is expected to release his next album next year, and like Lil’ Wayne his name alone will ensure it receives ample interest. For those hip hop fans awed by his verbal wizardry, let’s hope on his next effort there’s less brooding and more sharp commentary, like on this fabulous verse from the aforementioned “Renegade”: “See it's as easy as cake, simple as whistling Dixie / while I'm wavin’ the pistol at sixty Christians against me / Go to war with the Mormons, take a bath with the Catholics in holy water no wonder they try to hold me under longer.” Clever and devastating, indeed.
Some rap fans might be upset with the inclusion of Snoop, particularly given his surprising recent foray into Reggae as Snoop Lion, but the man’s enduring popularity is undeniable. He has an upcoming LP planned, titled Reincarnated, and only last year released his eleventh studio album, Doggumentary. Snoop, whose appearances on songs like “California Girls” has drawn the ire of some rap purists, doesn’t excite people the same way he used to, but the objective of this list is to determine relevance, not critique artistic merit. Accordingly, it’s been an interesting, if deliberately commercial career arc for the former Crip, and one would have a difficult time arguing that he did better work late in his career than he did early on. Nevertheless, the one-time murder defendant has survived three decades in an industry that devours its young, and he doesn't appear poised for an exit anytime soon.
Raekwon’s career, which began as a leading member of Wu-Tang, has spanned three decades and includes a consensus rap classic’s in 1995’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. In 2009 he released OB4CL...Pt. II to great success, and followed that up with 2011’s Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang. Equally formidable at the business side of hip hop, in 2012 Rae also founded Ice H20 records, which even expanded to include a Canadian office in Toronto. OLB4CL...pt.IIIis apparently in the works, and it will be interesting to see if Raekwon can retain the momentum he’s built as a solo artist after only modest returns with LPs like Immobilarityand The Lex Diamond Story. His influence on the hip hop genre cannot be underestimated, whether it be through one of his classic verses, like his deeply personal turn on “Can It Be All So Simple,” or by way of a stylized crime tale, which he spins so adeptly. Nas, after all, only became Nas Escobar when Raekwon decided to become Lex Diamond.
Memphis’ Juicy J has taken a long road to solo stardom. He made his name in the 1990s as a half of the successful rap duo Three 6 Mafia, which won the 2005 Oscar for the single “It’s Hard Out There for a Pimp,” a track prominently featured in the hit John Singleton film “Hustle and Flow.” In 2011 he signed with Taylor Gang Records, and has since worked with hip hop wunderkind Wiz Khalifa. In 2012 Juicy J released the solo album Stay Trippy with positive results, and his strip club anthem “Bandz That Make her Dance” with fellow veteran Lil’ Wayne has been a resounding success. The hit is a fine example of a rapper not straying from the source material that made his first success possible: it has a beat that’s easy bump your head to, lyrics that glorify sexuality, and a hook that remains in your head long after listening to the song. Success in any profession is a function of knowing how to adapt and remembering what you’re good at. Juicy J doesn’t seem to have forgotten.
In 2011 Philadelphia’s The Roots released their twelfth solo album, Undun, a conceptual LP that details the tragic narrative of a character whose life is beset by poverty and urban decay. The Roots have earned the right to be this experimental, having established themselves all the way back in 1996 with the excellent debut album IlladelphHalflife. Instead of cheaply valorizing violence as an avenue to commercial success, like so many of the lesser rap lights of the 1990’s, The Roots—drawing from the drumming and leadership of ?uestlove and the tremendous rapping of Black Thought—forged an identity as an intelligent and talented group. 2010’s How I Got Over was an accomplished LP that, like much of their output, managed to find commercial and critical favour. They continue to serve as the house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” which by itself will sustain their relevance so long as Jay Leno doesn’t try to sabotage the show in some way. Hopefully their own original work won’t be hampered by having to serenade Fallon’s opening monologue.
PharoaheMonch’s debut LP Internal Affairs might have come at the end of the 90s, but that shouldn’t disqualify him from earning a spot on our list. It spawned the hit “Simon Says,” which, to those unfamiliar with to his distinctive style of rapping, showcased him as an MC with exceptional verbal skills and complex, polysyllabic lyrics. In terms of his individual output, PharoaheMonch hasn’t been as busy as most of the other rappers on this list, having only released three solo albums, once in each decade of his career. His 2011 release W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) received much critical adulation, and demonstrated his ever-present wit and verbal dexterity. On the outstanding “Evolve,” Pharoahe shows off the skill and ingenuity that has earned him so much underground respect: “Take the bullet for Barack on the balcony and vanish/ Extinguish the sun when I drew/ Play pool with the planets.” These are the words of one of the most intellectually sophisticated figures in rap.
Along with Raekwon and the rest of the RZA’s troupe, Ghostface made his debut on the iconic Wu-Tang LP 36 Chambers, and throughout his career he’s been one of rap’s most productive artists. He guest-starred on Rae’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, released his own classic LP with Supreme Clientele, and then experienced similar critical and commercial success with 2006’s Fishscale. In 2010 Ghost put out another worthy album in Apollo Kids, which garnered positive critical reviews and includes an exceptional collaboration with The Roots’ Black Thought on “In Tha Park.”He has a concept LP slated to come out this year titled Twelve Reasons to Die, and is supposed to deliver a new version of Supreme Clientele, called Blue and Cream, in 2013. Ghostface has long been one of the most reliable performers in the game, and his distinctive voice and emphatic, lucid delivery have earned him the respect of fans and fellow MCs. So long as he remains committed to releasing albums, his awesome work ethic will ensure that the appetite for his music is consistently nourished.
Like Juicy J, Bun B established his considerable talent as one half of duo, that being the great Texas-based Underground Kingz (UGK). UGK, which was formed in the 80s (the sheer length of time Bun B has been rapping testifies to his commitment to the art form), enjoyed tremendous success with the 1996 LP Ridin’ Dirty. The subsequent arrest and imprisonment of UGK partner Pimp C spurred Bun B to begin his own solo career, which led to several successful collaborations, including his verse on Beyonce’s 2005 hit “Check on It,” which helped bring him closer to the mainstream and endear him to a new generation of listeners unfamiliar with his previous work. To date he’s released three LPs of his own, the last being 2010’s Trill OG, which received a rare ‘5 mic’ rating in The Source. He has a follow-up album scheduled for 2013, and, while it’s unlikely Bun B’s fame is set to explode to unprecedented heights, he remains a viable and talented artist worth following.
Atlanta product Big Boi’s rap career began as a member of Outkast, whose first LP was 1994’s wonderfully titled Southernplayalistikcadillacmusik. Outkast, of course, became phenomenally successful post-millennium with the release of their 2003 LP Speakerboxxx/The LoveBelow, which raised the profile of both rappers, particularly Andre 3000. While Andre has yet to put out his own solo album (he’s set to release something in either 2012 or 2013), Big Boi showed his own artistic independence on 2010’s highly acclaimed Sir Lucious Left Foot: Son of Chico Dusty, an album whose first single, “Shutterbug,” demonstrated the synergy that made Big Boi’s work in Outkast so interesting: an innovative beat coupled with his distinctively precise and frenetic lyricism. Big Boi announced via Twitter that his next album will be called Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, and it will supposedly drop sometime in late 2012. With his longstanding record of hip hop ingenuity, it’s one to keenly anticipate.
HNHH takes a look at rappers who have withstood the test of time and maintained prolific careers from the 90's until today.
The 1990’s was the most crucial decade in the mainstream acceptance of hip hop as a viable art form. The genre’s fresh, energetic sound, coupled with an explosion of talent and one very tragic feud, allowed for rap music to assume a dominant position in popular culture. Some of the legendary acts that created the foundation for this success are still emceeing, and rapping with the same creativity and skill that was so instrumental to the genre’s breakthrough. To pay tribute to their longevity, here is our list of 90s era rappers who are still relevant in the second decade of the 21st century.
To make this list, the artists had to have 1) established themselves in the 1990s, 2) released a new album within the last two years, and ideally be working on new content right now. This, admittedly, is an imperfect rubric, but one that had to exist lest some disgruntled fan erupt over the absence of a rapper like 2 Chainz, whose career began in the 90’s but whose fame arrived only recently. Success, therefore, had to occur over three decades. As a final caveat, given the highly subjective nature of making lists our definition of success leans towards favourable commercial and critical reception. This is not a ranking of talent, only relevance.