I've been involved in a few discussions on social media over the last couple of months, years, whatever, about favourite verses in Hip-Hop. I find my answers sometimes change, depending on my mood. Furthermore, I also noticed that I tended to list verses that were the general consensus answer (Cappadonna on Winter Warz). But, when I really had to think about a verse that really resonated with me, whether it be emotionally or it just struck a chord, I found I tended to veer completely away from the tried and tested answers. So anyway, here's my top 20 verses that truly capture what I love about Hip-Hop, and it's connection to language, words and poetry. Certain demographics will always try and play down Hip-Hop's place in the literary/artistic world, even though an absolute ton of Hip-Hop pisses all over a lot of what is considered lyrically great in the Pop/Rock world.
20: Melle Mel
The Message (Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five)
Release date: 1st July, 1982
"A child is born, with no state of mind
Blind to the ways of mankind
God is smilin' on you, but he's frownin' too
Because only God knows, what you'll go through
You'll grow in the ghetto, livin' second rate
And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate
The place, that you play and where you stay
Looks like one great big alley way"
Where else to start but one of the most important records in Hip-Hop history. It's a common misconception that Hip-Hop was all about "peace, unity, love and having fun". In the early days, the Hip-Hop movement was a violent place to be, a product of its environment. Before The Message, Hip-Hop, in the commercial realm at least, had an almost disco feel to it. I mean, "Rapper's Delight" and "That's the Joint" sampled heavily from disco records ("Good Times" and "Rescue Me"), and while "The Message" still had that slight disco feel in sound, it was a million miles away from other Hip-Hop records of the time in terms of lyrical content.
Melle Mel painted a no holds barred, bleak picture of what 70s/80s ghetto life was like in inner city New York. A track that still resonates to this very day. Absolute masterpiece.
19: LL COOL J
JACK THE RIPPER
Release date: 27th January, 1988
"How Ya Like Me Now?" I'm getting busier
I'm double platinum, I'm watching you get dizzier"
Ouch! Before bunk tracks with J-Lo and all the lip-smacking, LL was a fierce opponent for anyone in the battle rap stakes, certified by his dismantling of Kool Moe Dee, himself a beast in that realm. LL's swagger and brazen attitude were all part of his repertoire at a young age, and he didn't shy away from any confrontation on the mic. "Jack the Ripper" is one of my favourite diss tracks of all time.
Paid in Full: Eric B & Rakim (Paid in Full)
Release date: 7th July, 1987
"Thinkin' of a master plan
'Cause ain't nothin' but sweat inside my hand
So I dig into my pocket, all my money is spent
So I dig deeper but still comin' up with lint
So I start my mission, leave my residence
Thinkin' "How could I get some dead presidents?"
I need money, I used to be a stick-up kid
So I think of all the devious things I did"
Rakim. The God MC. The absolute G.O.A.T. in my opinion. I say that because I genuinely believe he was, pound for pound, the most impactful emcee in any era, the next generation of emcee at that time. He elevated the art form like nobody before or after him. I could have chosen any number of verses, but I’ve gone for the one that is instantly recognisable from the very first line. You’ll even read it in his iconic voice. I bet ya.
17: Ice Cube
Parental Discretion Iz Advised: NWA (Straight Outta Compton)
Release date: 8th August, 1988
"I be what is known as a bandit
You gotta hand it to me when you truly understand it
Cause if you fail to see, read it in brail
Would it still be funky, so what's next is the flex
Of a genius, meander stutter stepping, if you seen this
Dope, you hope that I don't really mean this"
Straight Outta Compton had numerous verses that could have made it into my favourites, such is the impact it made on me as a young kid, but, my favourite has to be Ice Cube's verse on the criminally underrated "Parental Discretion Iz Advised". Seriously, put this track on, and tell me Ice Cube's flow doesn't stand up to anything released in 2021/22. His flow is pure butter!. It's like he came back from the future, a future where Jheri Curls are still acceptable. He probably wrote 75 percent of this track anyway, but yeah, his verse is the huge standout.
Keep Ya Head Up (Strictly 4 My N****z)
Release date: 16th February 1993
"And all I had to give her was my pipe dream
Of how I'd rock the mic, and make it to tha bright screen
I'm tryin' to make a dollar out of fifteen cents
It's hard to be legit and still pay your rent
And in the end it seems I'm headin' for tha pen
I try and find my friends, but they're blowin' in the wind
Last night my buddy lost his whole family
It's gonna take the man in me to conquer this insanity
It seems tha rain'll never let up
I try to keep my head up, and still keep from gettin' wet up
You know it's funny when it rains it pours
They got money for wars, but can't feed the poor
Said it ain't no hope for the youth and the truth is
It ain't no hope for tha future"
This is the part of the list where all the XXL Underground, hard rock Hip-Hop elitists will be unlacing their Timberland boots to throw at their computer screens. “He was overrated”..."he rhymed Hennessy with enemies too many times", "he wasn’t very technical". Oh, shut the fuck up!. Please. However, as true or not them statements are, the fact is, 2Pac could write a fucking good song. None more evident than on “Keep Ya Head Up”. The track is simply beautiful and shows a more sensitive, thoughtful and conscious side to him as an artist than all his later career gangster posturing as part of Death Row Records. 2Pac spoke to generations of people. No amount of complex lyricism and forced muti-syllable rhymes could ever resonate with me more than someone pouring their heart out, genuinely, on record.
15: Queen Latifah
U.N.I.T.Y (Black Reign)
Release date: 16th November, 1993
"I hit the bottom, there ain't nowhere else to go but up
Bad days at work, give you an attitude then you were rough
And take it out on me but that's about enough
You put your hands on me again I'll put your ass in handcuffs
I guess I fell so deep in love I grew dependency
I was too blind to see just how it was affecting me
All I knew was you, you was all the man I had
And I was scared to let you go, even though you treated me bad
But I don't want my kids to see me getting beat down
By daddy smacking mommy all around
You say I'm nothing without ya, but I'm nothing with ya
A man don't really love you if he hits ya"
However some may try to play it down or sweep it under the proverbial rug, Hip-Hop has always had an uneasy relationship, to put it mildly, with misogyny. I don’t need to go into great detail here to prove a point. Anyone who knows anything about Hip-Hop couldn’t last 10 minutes in a debate trying to prove otherwise. But that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to give you my favourite verses. This is definitely one of them. A teenage, semi-impressionable me, would have given no second thought to rapping along to any number of songs that contained sexist, misogynist lyrics, I may have even found them funny at that age, but I distinctly remember hearing “U.N.I.T.Y.” on Yo! MTV Raps and the lyrics really hitting home to me. They made me check myself as such. I wonder how many young girls and grown women heard that track, resonated with it, and felt empowered? The beauty and importance of tracks that talk directly to a demographic that may sometimes feel slighted are apparent on “U.N.I.T.Y.”
Life's a Bitch (Nas: Illmatic)
Release date: 19th April, 1994
"Even though we know, somehow we all gotta go
But as long as we leavin' thievin'
We'll be leavin' with some kind of dough
So, until that day we expire and turn to vapors
Me and my capers will be somewhere stackin' plenty papers
Keepin' it real, packin' steel, gettin' high
'Cause life's a bitch and then you die"
This is one of those verses I mentioned at the start of the blog. One that is regularly picked, across the board, as one of the best verses of all time in Hip-Hop. There’s no reason for it not to be on my list. I remember hearing it for the first time, and rewinding it for a couple of hours straight. On an album packed to the hilt of absolute top tier verses, this still stands out. Legendary.
Git Up, Git Out (Outkast: Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik)
Release date: 26th April, 1994
"I admit, I've done some dumb shit, and I'm probably gon do some mo'
You shouldn't hold that against me though (Why not?)
Why not? My music's all that I got
But some time must be invested for this to be manifested
I know you know but I'm gon' say this to you I
Get high but I don't get too high
So what's the limit 'posed to be?
That must be why you can't get your ass up out the bed before three
You need to git up, git out, cut that bullshit out
Ain't you sick and tired of having to do without
Damn, what up with all these questions?
You act as though you know something I don't
Do you have any suggestions?
'Cause every job I get is cruel and demeaning
Sick of taking trash out and toilet bowl cleaning"
Waaaaay before CeeLo Green was wailing on that “Crazy” track with Danger Mouse as part of Gnarls Barkley, or when he was telling love rivals “Fuck You”, he was part of The Goodie Mob, who were part of The Dungeon Crew, who also count OutKast as their members. So, the first time I heard CeeLo was on OutKast’ debut album, which I’ll shorten to “Southern...” for obvious reasons. Poignant, self-loathing and self-reflective. The lyrics bounce between feeling sorry for himself to getting on his own last nerve. CeeLo could be on this list for his verse on Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy” (but every now and then, I wonder if the gate was put up to keep crime out or keep our ass in) but I’ll go with this one because it was my first introduction to him on record.
Time's Up (Word...Life)
Release date: 18th October 1994
"You lack the minerals and vitamins, irons and the niacin
Fuck who that I offend, rappers sit back I'm bout to begin"
The easiest pick for a lyric sample, but, this whole track is a quotable. O.C. is in my top 5 and for me, owns the crown of underrated. HOW is he so underrated? As soon as you hear that familiar Les DeMerle sample kick in, you just KNOW it’s time for wack emcees to take a seat, this is high level business. I don't wanna waffle on, just click the pic, choose ya listening platform, and hear what top tier lyricism sounds like.
11: Masta Killa
Da Mystery of Chessboxin' (Wu-Tang Clan: Enter the Wu-Tang) (36 Chambers)
Release date: 9th November, 1993
"Homicide's illegal and death is the penalty
What justifies the homicide, when he dies?
In his own iniquity it's the
Master of the Mantis Rapture coming at ya
We have an APB on an MC Killer
Looks like the work of a Master
Evidence indicates that his stature
Merciless like a terrorist hard to capture
The flow, changes like a chameleon
Plays like a friend, and stabs you like a dagger
This technique attacks the immune system
Disguised like a lie paralyzing the victim
You scream, as it enters your bloodstream
Erupts your brain from the pain these thoughts contain
Moving on a n***a with the speed of a centipede
And injure any motherfucking contender!"
One of the least talked about Wu members, for me, has the best verse of any Wu-Tang member's verse on 36 Chambers. That’s a BIG call, but, the imagery and metaphors within Masta Killa’s razor sharp verse is off the scale. I didn’t want to pick one small part to show its greatness, that wouldn’t have done it justice, so I put the whole thing up. Sublime.
10: Andre 3000
Da Art of Storytellin’, Part 1 (Outkast: Aquemini)
Release date: 29th September 1998
"All of the bullshit we on our back staring at the stars above (aww man)
Talking bout what we gonna be when we grow up
I said what you wanna be, she said, "Alive"
It made me think for a minute, then looked in her eyes
I coulda died, time went on, I got grown
Rhyme got strong, mind got blown, I came back home
To find lil' Sasha was gone
Her mamma said she with a nigga that be treating her wrong
I kept on singing my song and hoping at a show
That I would one day see her standing in the front row
But two weeks later she got found in the back of a school
With a needle in her arm, baby two months due, Sasha Thumper"
Oh man. THIS track. THIS beat. THIS verse. I’ve shed a few tears to this verse. Andre 3000 tells the most heartbreaking tale about a girl called Sasha Thumper. Young love, bad life choices, and drug abuse are intertwined, his verse lasts little under a minute, but I’m not overselling it when I say, it’ll be forever imprinted in my psyche. It will never fail to hit me in my heart. Genius.
09: All featured emcees (M.A.R.S, Black Thought, Dice Raw, Malik B)
The Roots: Illadelph Halflife
Release date: 16th July, 1996
"Dice Raw the juvenile lyricist corner store terrorist
Block trooper, connoisseur of fine cannabis
Focus never weak, blow up the spot like plastique
Leave a n***a shook, to the point, he won't speak
Never half-assed, always live and direct
On bitches try to punk smell the panty and raw sex
Mad lights I had to black out, when fake n****s act out
Or step out of place, they get slapped in they face"
It’s that “corner store terrorist” line that always amped me. Dice Raw was a problem! The thing is, this track features Black Thought! How can I leave him off ANY favourite verse list? I succumbed to my self-imposed pressure and added everyone on this track, as it’s just a heavy slab of no-nonsense, cypher style goodness. M.A.R.S intro to the track sets the tone perfectly: First of all let's talk about these ill capers, and fly ass frontin' bitches that now caught vapors/N****s run up on you with guns, snatchin' papers/Outlined body chalk, is how they would scrape ya”.
8 Steps to Perfection (Company Flow: Funcrusher Plus)
Release date: 22nd July, 1997
"Look out my way you pull your breath out to battle
Breaking your double helix, and now the shit is single
Not mono, I burn the needle out your vinyl
El-P the third gunner on the grassy knoll
Stroll, keep the seventh seal of heaven in my pocket
You're faggot like sprockets, motherfuck the Houston Rockets"
Company Flow (El-P, Bigg Jus & Mr. Len) helped usher in one of my favourite eras in Hip-Hop, the Rawkus/independent era. Funcrusher Plus sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. The eerie, almost industrial sound that plays before El-P opens with “rugged like Rwanda” is mesmerising. Sort of like some weird, Sci-fi B movie you’d rent from the video store as a kid. El-P went on to form Def Jux record label after his time with Rawkus and of course went on to even greater success as part of Run The Jewels with Killer Mike, but in the 90’s, he was part of one of the most innovative and boundary pushing crews in the scene.
** Side note: I wanted to include El-P's verse for "The Last Huzzah" remix, but went with 8 Steps to Perfection as it was my first introduction to him as an emcee.
07: Lauryn Hill
Lost Ones (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill)
Release date: 25th August, 1998
"Now, now how come your talk turn cold?
Gain the whole world for the price of your soul
Tryin' to grab hold of what you can't control
Now you all floss, what a sight to behold
Wisdom is better than silver and gold
I was hopeless, now I'm more hopeful
Every man want to act like he's exempt
Need to get down on his knees and repent
Can't slick talk on the day of judgment
Your movement's similar to a serpent"
“See you might win some, but you just lost one”. Man, that thudded in its barbaric simplicity. Wyclef took the L, literally. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” was a multi-Grammy winning behemoth but left Hip-Hop fans clamouring for more of the ferocious mic skills she exhibited on “Lost Ones”. Either way, L. Boogie is one of the finest ever emcees in Hip-Hop, period. If we could just get more output from her. Nevertheless, this is high up on my list of my favourite verses.
06: Pharoahe Monch
Rape (Internal Affairs)
Release date: 19th October, 1999
"To hell with 1980 remixes, fuck disco
Turned on the 3000, stuck my dick where the disc go
Yokonaz, ripped the sexy MPC 60, buyin' a ticket to hell
Verbally dickin' the 12 down, sound shitty
I knew she used to be gritty
Too many impotent emcees in this God forsaken city"
Excruciating title aside, this is a track packed with metaphors about how emcees aren’t “fucking her right”. Not subtle. Not pleasant to listen to. But it still oozes high-level writing. Pharoahe Monch is one of the greatest with the pen. That’s simply not up for debate at this point.
Trilogy (Souls of Mischief: Trilogy: Conflict, Climax, Resolution)
Release date: 24th October, 2000
"Mass appeal in the battlefield will have you killed
You get lit up right in front of your buildin'
For tellin' lies to children and sellin' homicide
Come and get some real killers who won't let you walk on by
Or that drama slide
Man get ostracized
Daughter cries cuz her father dies before her eyes
Watch what you talkin' or you might see the same demise
Dangerous times this ain't them kill rhymes"
Souls of Mischief are one of the most respected Hip-Hop groups of all time. Hieroglyphics as a crew have some of the best emcees Hip-Hop has to offer. There's a plethora of verses I could have picked, but I'm going for Opio's verse on Trilogy. It just stood out to me. The cautionary tale of how street life bravado can backfire and how artists need to be accountable for the lies they tell in their rhymes. At least that's what I got from it. A very deep and meaningful verse.
Reality Check (Binary Star: Masters of the Universe)
Release date: 31st October, 2000
"We don't get down like them clowns and the kids
I'm use to being indegent, who said its all about the Benjamin's?
I wanna fortune, I wanna make music and hit the lottery
Fortunately my music is never watery
That's how its gotta be, as far as I can see
Maybe you should grab a telescope to see my veiw its like astronomy
It aint all about economy
so the fact that these wack emcees is making G's don't bother me
Honestly, my number one policy is quality
never sell my soul is my philosophy
High velocity, lyrics like Nastradamus make a prophecy
I told you cats a long time a go it ain't no stoppin' me"
This is one that's all about flow and cadence. It's a verse packed full of sound bites, and half of the verse could be written on a T-shirt as a slogan. It's quotable upon quotable, rapped with such elegance. Always a go to that I recommend.
03 Aesop Rock
Take me to the Basement (The Opus: First Contact 001)
Release date: 7th April, 2002
"Take me to the basement
Lets remove the costume you escaped in
Hold up your legacies, I'll tell you which one's my favorite
Hold up your alacritive innocence
I'll teach you about the perks of patience in seminar format. (What?)
I've worn that hat for seven years
That's why it's discolored, ragged and shitty
I ain't about to toss it when its been through all these dream wars with me
I'm an undercover prophet, thrift shop garb
I'd rather starve then sit inside this gridlock until it parts
This tailor-made routinē ain't suitin' me
It's tight around my neck like 13 loops, rafter, an apple box
Heartless harvest of mine, I'm tired of pissin' benediction
Maybe it ain't healthy, but sometimes I'd rather burn then let you help me"
Not my favourite Aesop Rock track. I have many more. But the 2nd verse is just a masterclass in metaphors and abstract imagery. To be honest, it's nowhere near Aes' more abstract lyrics, and it may be that the toning down and subtlety on "Take Me To The Basement" that made it more accessible to me. Still, there's lots to unpack on this track. Penmanship of the highest calibre.
02 Royce Da 5'9
Shake This (Street Hop)
Release date: 20th October, 2009
"Now picture me fallin, all the way to the bottom
and I'm layin and callin, somebody come help me
find my strength to stop drinkin this poison
'fore I drown my gift, and yeah it's probably unhealthy
Cause I went so hard and woke up sober
I lost my good friend and broke up soldiers
Loco, goin hard as a locomotive
Self-loathin like I ain't chosen
Chose to bless souls, get exposed
Just know that I ain't foldin, huh
I gotta shake this"
Royce is still on top of his game. He was always an emcee that I thought made great songs but not great albums. That's changed with his last couple of albums. "Shake This" may not be the obvious choice for a Royce verse, but this is so cinematic in sound (helped by one of DJ Premier's most underrated productions) and content. The build-ups in the beat are accentuated by Royce' change in vocal tone. It's the sound of a man who's struggled with all manner of issues and is coming out the other side, walking with a spring in his step and fire in his belly. A lesson on vocal tone, delivery, and how to be in sync with the feeling and vibe of the production. Being an emcee is a lot more than just rapping on a beat.
Be There (Tangible Dream)
Release date: 17th December, 2013
"But when things rough, just know I'm there
A liver, heart or kidney know that you've got a spare
I hope to be your role model, a best friend and brother
From the bottom of my heart, you know I love you
The world is yours but I'ma hold it till you're ready
And hand it over to you when your situation's steady
Just finish your college, live a little, and make some mistakes
The type you bounce back from, no permanent aches
And I got you if it's ever more than you can take"
This track hit me in the feels. Right away. Oddisee is one of the most talented, all round artists there is. His natural sincerity and humbleness make tracks like this seem even more heartfelt. He talks about not having enough time with his brother as he's on the road a lot but puts it on record, that he will always "Be There" for him. It's such a sweet track that strikes a chord with me, as I have 5 brothers myself. I'm sure it'll strike a chord with many more people too. The production is beautiful and is a perfect accompaniment for Oddisee to do what he does best, make great songs.
So, that's my list. As I say, I look for more than ultra complex lyrics in music. I'm not impressed by rapping a million syllables in a minute, or forcing punchlines and multis in a verse to make middle class nerds gush with pride. I mean, I love high level rhyme structure. I love great lyricism. I just need a human element to it too. I need feeling, soul, emotion. I'm aware that the list stops in the year 2013, that doesn't mean I'm one of those "Hip-Hop is dead" bores, far from it. I could do another list with a ton of favourite verses, right up to today's date, but, these are the ones that have resonated with me for a long time.
Hopefully I've introduced some of you to some music you haven't heard before. If you've enjoyed the article, go ahead and subscribe to my blog list below. A share wouldn't go a miss either.
Cheers - DJ Alkemy