“Rap isn’t lyrical any more.” You hear it enough that it becomes an ugly kind of common sense. It becomes received wisdom, taken as truth: It’s 2013, and rappers are gimmicky. Personality has won out over bars.
This list is an argument that lyricism is still very much a part of rap music. As hip-hop’s audience has expanded, the rules of what makes a rapper “lyrical” have broadened as well. A fan of Southern street rap might have a different idea of “lyrical” than a fan of underground hero Tech N9ne, who in turn has different values than a traditionalist from New York. The one constant: an artfulness to how each rapper creates his work.
Sure, “lyrical” can be misused in hip-hop, ascribed to the dry technical aspects of MCing. At its worst, calling a rapper “lyrical” makes their art sound more like a math problem. But the term is still useful, because it distinguishes hip-hop from pop music more broadly.
That doesn’t mean that rap artists who subvert, mutate, or even undermine that tradition are less hip-hop, or that they don’t make good music. In fact, it’s their relationship with the “lyrical” that makes “lyrical” something even worth discussing in the first place.
The best rappers, whatever their relationship to “lyrical” rap, make verses that have you hanging on every word, punchline, narrative, image, and/or bit of knowledge. We’ve taken a look at the last half decade of hip-hop to figure out what “lyrical” rap looks like in 2013. These are The 30 Most Lyrical Rap Songs of the Past 5 Years.
Click here to see who made it in the top 30.