When cultural figures spark a conversation concerning the best rappers of all time, most know that there is a list of about seven names you can pick from. Although there are a slew of artists within the scene that all offer something different, or maybe something better, prominent musicians and radio personalities insist on repeating the same names over and over, and those acts have been set in stone since the turn of the millennium. Jay-Z, Eminem, Nas, 2pac, Biggie Smalls and Lil Wayne, these names appear almost every time.
However, no one has questioned whether or not all of these names are there because of their lyrical talent or supposed greatness. For many, an artist’s wealth, empire, image and hits determine what constitutes greatness. However, there are many lyricists in hip-hop who are better than all of the previously mentioned individuals by a long stretch.
Concerning golden-age hip-hop artists and real lyricists addressing harsh and unformable truths, KRS-One once told an interviewer, “Hip-hop produced, Public enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, KRS, X-Clan, it produced everyone who was actually out there on some blackness. Now we didn’t get the money, we didn’t get the fame, we didn’t get the Grammy. But we got the soul!”
Many of the underappreciated and underrated MCs in hip-hop possess artistic integrity and tenacity concerning their music to such an extent it makes it impossible for them to integrate with labels looking to commodity their art. Whether it’s Common, Joey Bada$$, or Talib Kweli, some artists are too gifted to enter hip-hop’s commercial race to the bottom. Below we have compiled the most upstanding yet underrated rappers of all time.
The five most underrated rappers of all time:
5. Azealia Banks
Azealia Banks is one of hip-hop’s most unappreciated talents, although her situation is unique and complex. Most known for her 2011 smash-hit ‘212’, the rapper, who can sing and act as well, was one of the only performers in the world who could rap over house music without sounding inauthentic or disingenuous. Moreover, she could run rings around any female in the industry.
Not only was Banks’ material game-changing, but it also showed what hip-hop could be when someone with ingenuity used it in a new and interesting way. The approach to the music, the attitude and the aesthetic, everything about Banks was hip-hop. Although her delivery was debatable at times, like many other artists, her engagement in political and racial issues led to her demise. Nonetheless, her music was phenomenal.
4. Camp Lo
Camp Lo is a South Bronx duo comprised of Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede. The group was considered a one-hit wonder; only their 1997 single ‘Luchini’ managed to break into the Top 50 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reach number 5 on the Hot Rap Singles chart. However the duo’s catalogue is phenomenal, but it is understandable why they are still barely known about and extremely unappreciated.
Since its commodification, hip-hop has been adverse to extremely technical and complex lyrics. Following in the footsteps of Rakim, a lot of New York artists began to become highly lyrical. However, the clean-cut, palatable and less technical style of Bad Boy Entertainment was far more profitable than underground artists such as Talib Kweli and Camp Lo. The number of lyrical geniuses left by the wayside in the ’90s is unfathomable. Aside from Camp Lo, acts such as Digable Planets and Black Star were also ignored by the culture.
3. Black Thought
Black Thought is very much a figurehead within the older hip-hop community. With his career origins in the mid-’90s, Black Thought is known for his lyrical ability and extremely conscious lyrics. He is also renowned for having a very soulful and jazz-inspired type of sonic. The rapper is also a known poet. Born and raised in Philadelphia, the rapper (real name Tariq Trotter) was born to parents who were both part of the Black-Islamic religious movement, The Nation Of Islam. As a result, his music is extraordinarily Afro-centric and politically controversial.
Black Thought did not come up through mixtapes but put out a series of albums independently that did very well in Philadelphia and New York on an underground level operating in the same space as artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Common. Behind the commercial Gangsta and Mafioso rap movements in the ’90s was a more underground, conscious and soul-based form of hip-hop. Trotter is one of hip-hop’s most unappreciated talents.
A duo comprised of Tek and Steele, Smiff-N-Wessun, also known as Cocoa Brovaz, are another highly unappreciated act, and although they were frequently supported by mainstream acts such as the Wu-Tang Clan and Pete Rock, the culture was too pre-occupied with the East and West Coast war to support up-and-coming acts.
Smiff-N-Wessun originated in Brooklyn, and at the same time as their affiliates, the Wu-Tang Clan released quality music. The duo’s debut album, Dah Shinin’, peaked at number 59 on the Billboard 200 but was a hit on the hardcore underground hip-hop scene. The duo’s sophomore project, The Rude Awakening, featured a slew of artists, including Raekwon, on its lead single ‘Black Trump’. The album reached 21 on the charts, but in comparison to their peers, the duo were unheard and non-factors in the culture.
1. Pharoahe Monch
Pharoahe Monch is one of rap music’s most unappreciated and underrated gems. Inspired by the likes of Rakim and KRS-One, the Queens emcee is one of the few New York artists that didn’t receive notoriety during the 1990s for his gritty style and exquisite lyricism. Monch (born Troy Jamerson) is a wordsmith who focuses on fundamental issues. Devoid of the meaningless materialistic nonsense that has captured the hip-hop genre, Jamerson’s music was so potent and presented such a harsh reality it, most likely, would have never crossed into the Top 40.
Just like a Mos Def or Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch’s lyrical complexity is too much for label executives who want the dumbed-down version and too politically and racially charged for any corporation to want their hands on it. Golden-age hip-hop fans and fans of conscious Afro-centric music will know that artists like Pharoahe Monch epitomise hip-hop. However, their lack of success shows what type of rap music they want to push. Jamerson is by far the most underrated hip-hop artist ever.