Some rappers are known for being great lyricists, while some are known for their delivery, their stage presence, or their beats. No matter what they’re known for, the written word has always been a major part of hip-hop, and sometimes it goes underappreciated for certain people.
Here are 10 rappers who really should be known for their lyrics, but just aren’t as loved as they should be.
Lyrically or otherwise, Slug is one of the most underrated rappers of the past couple of decades. Atmosphere is one of the most important rap duos to never really break into the mainstream, and Slug’s lyrics are a major part of that. Personally, we like When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, but you really can’t go wrong with any Atmosphere record. Everyone’s got a different favorite.
Historically speaking, KRS-One might be the most overlooked rapper in history. Since the '80s, he’s been a New York rap legend, but when people list the greatest MCs of all time, he’s rarely on the list. While most of the legendary lyricists were busy rapping about fighting their enemies and murdering police, KRS-One was preaching to stop the violence.
8. Ice Cube
The only reason Ice Cube isn’t higher on this list is because he’s generally regarded as a pretty dang good lyricist. Frankly, he’s one of the most important lyricists in music history — not just hip-hop, but all of music. He’s generally the least beloved member of the main trio of N.W.A, and until Straight Outta Compton was released earlier this summer, much of the under-30 crowd knew him as much for his terrible kids' movies as his phenomenal rhymes.
Remember when Nas dropped Illmatic and it didn’t include any major guests or features except for that one other dude on “Life’s a Bitch”? That dude is one of New York’s best lyricists of all time (as is Nas), but he often gets overlooked when mentioning the Empire State’s rap legends. Sure, his legacy will always be connected to Nas, but eight albums and two decades into his career, it’s time to recognize the legendary wordsmith for his talents on the mic.
6. Ghostface Killah
Of all the members of Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface Killah is almost definitely the best lyricist and storyteller. Unfortunately, unlike RZA and ODB, Ghostface isn’t as appreciated outside of the group as he really should be (neither is Method Man). Even Raekwon gets more love than Ghostface a lot of the time, even if Ghostface helped make Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… as amazing as it was, and Supreme Clientele is among the best rap albums of the early 2000s.
5. Immortal Technique
If you’re looking for rap’s political lyrical genius, listen no further than Immortal Technique. The Peruvian-born rapper doesn’t spend his time spitting bars about sex and violence; the poetic mastermind drops rhymes about everything from poverty to socialism, governmental issues (far beyond the standard police brutality) to societal warfare. Immortal Technique is the kind of rapper who’ll make you smarter and teach you about the world you live in while jamming out.
4. Andre 3000
OutKast is always considered one of the greatest hip-hop duos of all time, but they’re usually more highly regarded for their beats and their ability to craft a song than their lyrics alone. In actuality, Andre 3000 is about as good of a lyricist and rapper as you’ll find (Big Boi’s no slouch, either). Beyond the poppy megahits the duo became known for, much of OutKast’s early work is among the best hip-hop you’ll ever listen to. Even the lyrics for a song like “Roses” are so expertly written that it transcends a simple pop hit into something almost anyone can like.
3. MF Doom
Who’s the most underrated lyricist to consistently perform in a metal mask? Well that pretty much goes without saying. Also the best rapper to have a clear Marvel villain reference in his name, MF Doom has proved time and time again that he’s as good a producer and lyricist as has existed in the past 15 years. As if his solo works weren’t enough, projects like Madvillainy, DANGERDOOM, JJ DOOM, and now DOOMSTARKS prove that he’s able to collaborate with the best in the business and still keep his unique sound and wordplay.
Realistically, all three of the Beastie Boys could be on this list. That didn’t seem fair to everyone else, so we only included the best of the best. MCA dropped some of the greatest lines of all time and should be remembered for them. Although it’s easy to remember the Beasties for the catchy choruses of their most prominent hits, don’t overlook the amazing verses of singles and deep cuts alike. After all, MCA’s like both a lemon to a lime and a lime to a lemon.
Ask a fan of ‘80s and ‘90s rap music who the top five lyricists of that era are, and Rakim is almost guaranteed to show up on the list. He was the wordsmithing part of one of the most influential hip-hop duos of all time, and showed his phenomenal rhymes can continue without a partner in his solo work. While he's known for his lyrics, Rakim tends to get lumped in with the rappers of his time, as his seminal work Paid in Full is almost 30 years old. But Rakim's flow and style did more than just pave the way for a generation of rappers to follow; his meticulous rhyme schemes and deft word play remain top-notch to this day. Seriously, young rappers should be listening to Rakim (and Nas) if they want to learn how to write world-class hip-hop lyrics.