There aren’t many people who can rap, “You wanna stop the violence? Get the fuck out my face!” and make you feel it — let alone then be able to bark and make you feel it just as viscerally. Darkman X, the physical embodiment of getting your pockets run at the Tunnel, is one of them.
After a generation of deep- and/or raspy-voiced rappers helped put the South on the map, T.I. came through with a more refined swag. World-beating confidence filtered through silky rubber band man delivery. It’s no wonder the day-one Biden booster was able to crown himself King of the South.
7. Kevin Gates
When Mavado hit the reggae world, no one had heard anything like him: haunting, melodic, menacing. And while Baton Rouge’s finest may not have had so seismic an effect, his voice — from the minute midflow calibrations to the minor-chord intervals in his singsong hooks — isn’t so much a curveball as it is an unconditional canon.
6. Nicki Minaj
There’s no question that women like MC Lyte and Salt had voices with timbre, tone, and talent. Onika Maraj, though, changed the game by turning the booth into a Broadway stage. She stole the show on “Monster” not just for the ceaseless hammer of her flow, but for an acrobatic display that veered from performative innocence to patois to an around-the-way Queens swagger—and kept that elasticity going for multiple albums (and personalities).
5. Busta Rhymes
Hip-hop has always had the low-end boomers — Lord Have Mercy, Chali 2na, Rock of Heltah Skeltah — but no one has worn out more rewind buttons over the course of a career than the original dungeon dragon. Dancehall reggae didn’t just influence his cadences, but also his ragamuffin permagrowl. Who else could make nonsense sound so good?
4. Rick Ross
You think that Smoking Gun report outing the Miami rapper as a former corrections officer would have slid off him if he sounded like Joe Struggle? Not a chance. It’s not that anyone believed he had them pretty things flyin’ ’cross the Atlantic — it’s that he sounded so damn good saying it.
Granted, DJ Premier beats could elevate otherwise middling rappers to great heights (cough GroupHome cough), but there was nothing midtier about what Premo’s Gang Starr partner brought to the table. Few other rappers would’ve had the gall to make a song called “Mostly tha Voice” — and no other rappers could’ve backed it up.
2. Method Man
Back when there was still an air of mystery around the dude, Meth had people shook off the White Owl rasp and razor-in-the-cheek respiration. Nearly every original Wu-Tang member could be on this list, from ODB’s psycho-killer theatrics to Ghostface’s keyed-up tenor, but when there can be only one, it’s Johnny fuckin’ Blaze.