Rap music has evolved from a local form of artistic expression in the ghettos of ’80s New York into a global sensation that is synonymous with popular music. In this article, we document the most famous rappers that have shaped this genre into what it is today. There are the names you’d expect (Jay Z, Eminem, etc.), but also some massively influential rappers who are just as good but not as mainstream (e.g., Nas, Booty Brown.)
Time to dive into the multi-faced world of rap. Here goes…
- Kanye West
- Nicki Minaj
- Lil Wayne
- Flo Rida
- Snoop Dogg
- Cardi B
- Mac Miller
- Post Malone
- Chris Brown
- 50 Cent
- J. Cole
- Missy Elliott
- Travis Scott
- Ja Rule
- Wiz Khalifa
- Dr. Dre
- Busta Rhymes
- Grand Puba
- André 3000
- Lauryn Hill
- Booty Brown
- Lil’ Kim
- Kendrick Lamar
- The Notorious B.I.G.
- Ice Cube
- LL Cool J
Raised as Marshall Bruce Mathers III, the artist known as Eminem transformed his challenging early life into compelling narratives that resonate widely through his songs. His major breakthrough arrived in 1999 with “The Slim Shady LP,” initiating a series of successful albums topped by hit singles, including the Oscar-winning “Lose Yourself” and the powerful “Not Afraid.” His duet with Rihanna, “Love the Way You Lie,” ascended to the pinnacle of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, cementing his status in the music world.
Eminem stands as the best-selling rapper to date, with over 220 million records sold globally. His trophy case is equally impressive, housing more than 100 awards, highlighted by 15 Grammys. His notable 2022 entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame demonstrates the enduring impact and breadth of his legacy. Does this make him the best rapper ever? He’s definitely a contender.
Born Shawn Corey Carter, better known as Jay-Z, this Brooklyn native emerged from a challenging early life in the Marcy Projects to become a heavyweight in the music industry. His ascent in the hip-hop world is marked by a series of critically acclaimed and financially successful albums, with a majority claiming the top position on the Billboard 200 charts. Notable works such as “Vol. 2,” “Hard Knock Life,” and “The Black Album” contributed to his impressive collection of accolades, including 24 Grammy Awards out of a total of 266 honors.
Beyond his musical prowess, Jay-Z is also recognized for his business acumen. As the founder of Roc Nation, an entertainment powerhouse, he extends his influence into artist management, record production, and music publishing. His keen interest in the digital domain is evident in his acquisition and management of the music streaming service Tidal, further solidifying his role as an entrepreneur.
Coolio, whose real name is Artis Leon Ivey Jr., made a significant impact in the music industry in the mid-1990s with his laid-back style and insightful lyrics. He became widely recognized with the release of “Gangsta’s Paradise” in 1995, a song that narrated the struggles and internal conflicts of a street hustler. The song’s thoughtful approach to illustrating the challenges faced by those entrenched in the gangster lifestyle resonated with a broad audience.
This track showcased Coolio’s ability to blend a smooth flow with keen social commentary, setting him apart from some of his contemporaries who were more focused on glorifying the gangster way of life. His music often reflected the harsh realities of life while also expressing a desire for personal growth and positive change. Coolio’s influence went beyond music as he ventured into television, film, and culinary arts, displaying his versatility and creative spirit.
Kanye West, often referred to as Ye, is a powerhouse in the world of music, with a plethora of best-selling records to his name. His keen interest in music, particularly the hip-hop culture of Chicago, led him to leave university and chase his passion for music full-throttle. He ascended to recognition after producing Jay-Z’s renowned The Blueprint in 2001, cementing his status in the music industry with his 2004 debut album, The College Dropout. This album not only received critical and commercial success but also earned him a Grammy for Best Rap Album, with its standout track “Jesus Walks” winning Best Rap Song.
Despite his impressive success, West has become equally known for his controversies, ranging from candid public statements to bold political aspirations and his unabashedly forthright personality. His influence, however, in shaping music is unequivocal.
Originating from Trinidad and Tobago, Nicki Minaj emerged as a formidable force in the domain of rap music. Overcoming adversity from early life, her struggles were an impetus and muse for her musical endeavors.
Prior to her breakthrough, Minaj had already assembled an impressive portfolio with three mixtapes, the third of which rose to the second position on the Billboard 200 chart. Her prowess in rapping had captured the underground rap scene in New York, setting the stage for her discovery by esteemed rapper Lil Wayne, which led to a deal with his record company.
Minaj’s inaugural album “Pink Friday”, released in 2010, skyrocketed her into stardom, particularly due to the single “Super Bass,” which became a global sensation. Throughout her illustrious career, Minaj has collected a staggering 413 awards, surpassed 100 million record sales, and has earned the title of the Queen of Rap, solidifying her legacy in the music industry.
Guru, best known as the frontman of the hip-hop duo Gang Starr, was an influential and acclaimed MC known for his intellectual lyrics and distinctive monotone delivery. Born Keith Elam, Guru teamed up with DJ Premier to form Gang Starr in the late 1980s, combining Premier’s jazz-inflected beats with Guru’s rhymes that thoughtfully explored topics like spirituality, personal growth, and social issues. Albums like “Step in the Arena,” “Daily Operation,” and “Moment of Truth” are considered hip-hop classics.
In 1993, Guru launched his Jazzmatazz project, collaborating with jazz musicians for a fusion of rap and jazz. After Gang Starr disbanded in 2003, he continued a solo career until his untimely death from cancer in 2010. Revered for his jazz-influenced flow and socially conscious lyrics, Guru had an understated but powerful impact on East Coast hip-hop. Guru’s distinctive voice and cerebral lyrics remain influential to hip-hop artists today, and his collaborative spirit also helped expand the possibilities of rap by bridging it with jazz.
Before Drake became a global music icon, he acted in the popular teen drama “Degrassi: The Next Generation” in the early 2000s. His journey into the music industry began in earnest with the release of his debut mixtape “Room for Improvement” in 2006. This foray into music marked the beginning of his meteoric rise.
In 2009 he signed with Young Money Entertainment, which propelled him to new heights. His first studio album, “Thank Me Later,” immediately topped the Billboard 200 chart upon its release in 2010. Drake’s success did not wane; he continued to astonish the music world with six subsequent studio albums, each securing the number one spot on the charts. His album “Take Care” even garnered a Grammy award for Best Rap Album.
Lil Wayne emerged from the Hot Boys ensemble to launch an exceptional solo venture. His first solo release, “Tha Block Is Hot”, achieved remarkable success, rising to the pinnacle of the US R&B charts and securing a high position on the Billboard 200. Boasting a prodigious output, Lil Wayne’s discography includes more than 200 singles and extended plays, with over a hundred entries on the Billboard Hot 100.
Not confined to solo works, Lil Wayne’s collaborative projects are equally impressive. His partnership with luminaries such as Drake, Kanye West, and Eminem birthed the potent track “Forever,” earning a place in the pantheon of iconic hip-hop collaborations.
Tramar Lacel Dillard, aka Flo Rida, began his rise in the music world as a teenager, collaborating with various rap groups in his local scene and contributing to their recordings. His dedication to music during these formative years was pivotal to his later success. Flo Rida’s watershed moment came in 2007 with the release of “Low,” featuring T-Pain. The single quickly soared to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, mesmerizing audiences and earning him a Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration.
Flo Rida’s success was not a one-time phenomenon. His discography boasts multiple chart-topping hits, including “Right Round,” “Good Feeling,” “Wild Ones,” and “Whistle.” Each track showcases his ability to create music that resonates with a wide audience.
Snoop Dogg initially gained notoriety with his collaboration on Dr. Dre’s “Deep Cover” and later on the renowned album The Chronic. With the release of his album “Doggystyle” in 1993, his unique West Coast gangsta rap style became iconic, solidifying his place in music history. The album’s success began a series of chart-busting music contributions, including albums like “Da Game Is to Be Sold”, “Not to Be Told”, and hits like “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” Apart from his music career, he ventured into acting, featuring in films such as “Training Day”, and “Starsky & Hutch”.
Nas, born Nasir Jones, is widely revered in the hip-hop community for his intricate lyricism and the profound storytelling encapsulated in his music. Emerging from Queensbridge, New York, Nas garnered critical acclaim with his debut album, “Illmatic,” in 1994. The album is frequently lauded as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, setting a high bar for lyricism within the genre.
Nas’s music often explores various themes, such as urban poverty, politics, and personal struggles, giving listeners a vivid portrayal of inner-city life. He is also known for his smooth flow and the use of complex rhymes, which has influenced a generation of rappers. Throughout his career, he has released numerous successful albums and has been nominated for several Grammy Awards, affirming his place as a stalwart in hip-hop.
Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar, known professionally as Cardi B, her trajectory in the rap industry has been distinguished by historic achievements. She broke a nearly two-decade hiatus as the first solo female rapper to top the Billboard Hot 100 and followed up with multiple hits reaching the number one spot on this prestigious chart.
Her exceptional work on the debut album, “Invasion of Privacy,” earned her the distinction of being the sole female solo artist to secure a Grammy Award for Best Rap Album. Her accomplishments extend beyond the music charts, as Cardi B has attained multiple RIAA Diamond certifications, setting another record for female rappers.
Tupac Shakur, also known as 2Pac, was an influential rapper raised in a politically engaged household that valued equality and civil rights. These experiences endowed him with a profound social awareness. His music became a platform for amplifying the challenges and inequities faced by marginalized communities. Albums like “Me Against the World” and “All Eyez on Me” earned him a prominent spot in the annals of hip-hop. His impactful career, however, came to an abrupt end when he was fatally shot in 1996 in Las Vegas. Despite his untimely death, 2Pac’s music and societal impact have etched an indelible mark on the cultural landscape.
Mac Miller was a talented and influential rapper who emerged from the independent hip-hop scene in Pittsburgh. Miller started rapping as a teenager and released his first mixtapes under the name EZ Mac. In 2010, at just 18 years old, he signed with the independent label Rostrum Records and adopted the moniker Mac Miller. His debut album “Blue Slide Park” became the first independently distributed debut album to hit #1 on the Billboard charts since 1995. Miller gained a devoted following with his easygoing style, confessional lyrics, and melodic flows. He collaborated with numerous artists during his career including Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, and Ariana Grande. Tragically, Miller died in 2018 at age 26 due to an accidental drug overdose. His posthumous album “Circles” was released in 2020 to critical acclaim. Though his career was cut short, Mac Miller left an indelible impact on hip-hop with his signature style inspired many up-and-coming rappers.
Raised by a father passionate about music, Post Malone developed a rich and varied musical palate early in life. His distinctive approach broke the mold of contemporary music, blending elements of hip-hop, pop, R&B, and trap into a unique rap sound. Malone’s innovation led to a remarkable tally of eight Diamond-certified singles within just over a decade, setting the record for the artist with the most Diamond-certified tracks. His hit list includes crowd favorites like “Rockstar,” “Circles,” and “Sunflower,” featured in the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” film.
In 2004, a young performer named Chris Brown emerged on the scene with an undeniable charisma and a commanding stage presence, capturing the attention of Jive Records. By the age of 15, Brown had secured a record deal that set in motion his musical trajectory. The following year marked the release of Brown’s eponymous debut album, which showcased his considerable vocal range and quickly ascended to the #2 position on the Billboard 200 charts, later achieving triple Platinum status. His single “Run It!” conquered the charts, landing a coveted #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
Brown’s career is marked by numerous collaborations with prominent artists including Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, which have further cemented his standing in the industry with additional Platinum-certified hits.
Curtis James Jackson III, commercially known as 50 Cent, garnered attention in the music world through his groundbreaking debut single, which while humorous, was also surrounded by controversy. This ascent was nearly cut short when he suffered nine gunshot wounds in a violent confrontation. Defying the odds, 50 Cent made an impressive comeback with his album “Get Rich or Die Tryin’,” securing its place at the pinnacle of music charts and earning the coveted Billboard Music Award for Album of the Year.
His tracks “In da Club,” “P.I.M.P.,” and “Candy Shop” became anthems of empowerment, encapsulating his journey from a brush with death to achieving immense critical acclaim. The narrative of 50 Cent’s career is not just about his music, but his embodiment of resilience, earning him a spot as a cultural icon of survival and success.
J. Cole began his journey in hip-hop at the tender age of 12, honing his skills as a lyricist and rapper through his formative years. In 2007, his music career officially launched with the release of “Cole World: The Sideline Story,” which quickly soared to the top of the Billboard 200 chart, signaling his arrival on the music scene.
Cole’s discography is renowned, with albums like the lauded “2014 Forest Hills Drive” striking a chord with audiences, exploring themes such as love, celebrity, societal inequities, and emotional well-being. His work has consistently garnered praise, earning him top positions in the charts and critical acclaim.
Aside from his musical endeavors, J. Cole is a prominent activist and advocate for underprivileged youths. He established the Dreamville Foundation in 2011, dedicating resources to uplift and inspire young people in marginalized communities.
Missy Elliott, widely recognized by her nickname Misdemeanor, stormed into the music scene with her debut album, “Supa Dupa Fly,” in 1997, quickly earning Platinum status. She’s known for groundbreaking singles such as “Work It,” “Lose Control,” and “Get Ur Freak On,” which not only achieved Platinum and multi-Platinum statuses but also won her prestigious Grammy Awards.
As one of the best-selling female rappers, Elliott has sold over 40 million records across the globe. Her influence is affirmed by her stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and by her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, highlighting her significant impact on the music industry.
Travis Scott is an American rapper, singer, songwriter, and record producer. He first gained recognition in the early 2010s for his production work on albums by other artists. Scott is known for his distinctive vocal style and for fusing elements of hip hop, trap and psychedelic music in his productions. He has collaborated with numerous other artists including Kanye West, Drake and Kid Cudi.
Scott is also known for his high-energy live shows and has headlined several major music festivals and tours. Among his numerous hits, “Highest in the Room” and “Sicko Mode” captured audiences globally, the latter bringing home a Billboard Music Award for Top Streaming Song.
Ja Rule emerged from the urban scene of New York City to achieve prominence in the hip-hop industry. His initial foray into rap came in 1994 with Cash Money Click, but his true ascendancy began with his 1999 solo album “Venni Vetti Vecci,” which earned Platinum certification.
Ja Rule solidified his reputation as a formidable artist in the rap genre with subsequent albums like “Rule 3:36” and “Pain Is Love.” These records generated chart-topping tracks including “Put It On Me,” “Always on Time,” and “Livin’ It Up,” propelling him to widespread acclaim. Despite adversities including a notorious rivalry with 50 Cent, Ja Rule maintained a significant presence in the music world.
Wiz Khalifa emerged in the music scene with his series of mixtapes in the mid-2000s, his initial release being “Prince of the City: Welcome to Pistolvania.” This led to his first album, “Show and Prove,” in 2006, which while not breaking sales records, drew significant attention to his work. His career scaled new heights after he joined forces with Atlantic Records in 2010, from which point onwards, he delivered a series of albums that dominated the charts and garnered multiple Grammy Award nominations.
Among his notable tracks, “Black and Yellow” stands out, soaring to 6x Platinum status and earning him a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Performance. The track “See You Again,” created in collaboration with Charlie Puth for the movie “Furious 7,” achieved Diamond certification and won eight awards over two years, cementing Khalifa’s place in the music industry.
Dr. Dre emerged from the West Coast’s vibrant rap scene to become a defining figure in the genre’s history. His work with the iconic group N.W.A. laid the groundwork for a legendary solo career. In 1992, Dre released his first solo project, “The Chronic,” which received acclaim for its production and enduring impact on hip-hop. His subsequent albums, “2001” and “Compton,” continued to set benchmarks in the music charts.
Renowned for his collaborative spirit, Dre has left a lasting legacy alongside other major artists. His joint efforts with Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and 50 Cent have yielded some of the most timeless tracks in rap music.
Christopher Brian Bridges, more widely known as Ludacris, embarked on his musical journey as a young rapper at age nine and rose to global fame, selling over 24 million albums. His initial work as a DJ was short-lived, as his star began to shine with his 1999 album, Incognegro. The following year marked a significant spike in his career with Back for the First Time, which achieved triple-Platinum status and cemented his position in the music industry.
Ludacris captured audiences with hits like “Stand Up” and “Money Maker,” with both tracks reigning at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and “Money Maker” clinching a Grammy for Best Rap Song. His artistic flair wasn’t just limited to music; he also made a name for himself as an actor, most notably as Tej Parker in the Fast & Furious series, where his portrayal was met with great enthusiasm.
Trevor George Smith Jr., widely recognized as Busta Rhymes, has had a profound impact on the hip-hop scene, inspiring celebrated artists like Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. His impressive journey in music includes a significant history with the Leaders of the New School and a solo career that has produced ten albums and countless singles. Among his works, the tracks “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check,” “Dangerous,” and “Touch It” stand out, having earned him Grammy nominations for Best Rap Solo Performance. Busta Rhymes continues to make waves in the music industry.
Maxwell Dixon, better known by his stage name Grand Puba, is a prominent figure in the hip-hop community, widely recognized for his role as the lead emcee of the group Brand Nubian. Originating from New Rochelle, New York, Grand Puba gained substantial acclaim in the early 1990s with his clever wordplay, socially conscious lyrics, and smooth flow that contributed to the unique sound of Brand Nubian’s albums. His debut solo album, “Reel to Reel,” released in 1992, further solidified his position in the rap industry with hits like “360 (What Goes Around)”.
Grand Puba’s influence in hip-hop extends beyond his music. He’s credited with bringing a sartorial sense to the culture, popularizing the trend of wearing Tommy Hilfiger. His infusion of fashion and music during the “golden age” of hip-hop played a significant role in shaping the genre’s aesthetic and its relationship with the fashion industry.
André 3000, celebrated for his innovative contributions to music, is most recognized as a key member of the revolutionary duo, Outkast. Their dynamic album “The Love Below” crossed musical boundaries by blending hip-hop with R&B, funk, and jazz, earning rave reviews and prestigious accolades, including a Grammy Award for the chart-topping single “Hey Ya!”
In 2007, André ventured into a solo endeavor, collaborating with high-profile artists such as Frank Ocean, Kanye West, and Erykah Badu. His artistic versatility extended to cinematic scores, notably contributing to “The Great Gatsby” soundtrack. Despite a quieter presence in recent years, André 3000’s influence in music continues to resonate powerfully throughout the industry.
Lauryn Hill emerged as the leading voice of the hip-hop group, the Fugees, before embarking on a highly successful solo career. In 1998, Hill released her debut album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” which quickly climaxed at the number one spot on the Billboard 200 and achieved Diamond status, marking it as one of the highest-selling records by a female rap artist.
She achieved an unprecedented feat in 1999 by winning five Grammy Awards in a single evening, with her solo album earning the prestigious Album of the Year award. This achievement underscored Hill’s influence and underscored her musical prowess.
Booty Brown, also known as Romye Robinson, emerged as a unique voice within the hip-hop community as a member of the alternative rap group The Pharcyde. He played a crucial role in the group, contributing to its distinct sound which was characterized by playful, whimsical lyrics, and intricate rhyme schemes. The Pharcyde gained significant attention with their first album “Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde” which included the hit single “Passin’ Me By.” Throughout the years, Booty Brown has continued to express his creativity both as part of The Pharcyde and later, through his solo endeavors and occassional appearances with Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz.
Lil’ Kim emerged on the hip-hop scene in 1994 with the group Junior M.A.F.I.A. and quickly ascended to a solo career that redefined genre expectations. Her initial solo endeavor, “Hard Core”, was a monumental success, earning widespread critical acclaim and achieving double Platinum certification. This strong foundation led to subsequent albums that consistently ranked within the top 10 on the Billboard 200 chart, affirming her influence in the music industry.
In a notable collaboration, Lil’ Kim joined forces with Christina Aguilera, Mya, and P!nk to produce the hit track “Lady Marmalade,” featured in the film “Moulin Rouge!”. This song received multiple accolades, most notably securing a Grammy award. Her musical legacy is peppered with such high-profile team-ups that showcase her dynamic range and staying power as a distinguished artist.
As the frontman of acclaimed hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip played a pivotal role in the alternative rap movement of the 1990s. Q-Tip first rose to prominence as part of the collective Native Tongues, known for their positive, good-natured Afrocentric lyrics. With A Tribe Called Quest, he garnered praise for his unique conversational flow and adventurous approach to production. Their first three albums are considered classics of jazz-influenced, socially conscious hip-hop. Both a rapper and producer, Q-Tip crafted layered, melodic tracks that incorporated eclectic samples and established him as a hip-hop innovator. His lyrical talent and musical experimentation made him a leading figure of alternative rap’s golden era. Over three decades since his debut, Q-Tip’s legacy as a pioneer in lyricism and production remains strong. His innovation and influence pushed hip-hop into new sonic territories and opened the door for future artists to stretch the limits of the genre.
Kendrick Lamar emerged onto the music scene with a mixtape in 2003, showcasing his talents alongside other established West Coast hip-hop artists. His official entrance into the industry was marked by the release of “Section.80” in 2011. Lamar’s reputation soared with his 2012 album “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City,” which dominated the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and garnered him critical acclaim, including Grammy nominations for Album of the Year and Best Rap Album.
In 2017, Lamar’s album “Damn” further cemented his status in the rap genre, earning a Grammy for Best Rap Album. The album’s single “Humble” took home awards for Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Song, and Best Music Video. With over 70 million records sold in the United States, Lamar stands as one of the genre’s most revered figures, influencing artists and fans alike.
The Notorious B.I.G.
Christopher George Latore Wallace, known to the world as the Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls, emerged as a pivotal player in the rap music scene. With his 1994 debut album, he captured audiences with the hits “Juicy” and “Big Poppa,” which solidified his place in music history. His storytelling prowess and distinct flow left an indelible mark on the hip-hop culture. Despite his premature death in March 1997, his legacy continued to resonate, as evidenced by his posthumous album, Life After Death, which soared to the top of the charts and secured a Billboard Music Award. His influence remains evident in the artistry of subsequent hip-hop musicians.
Ice Cube emerged as a defining voice in rap music during the late 1980s as part of N.W.A., a group that broke new ground in hip-hop with their intense focus on urban social issues. His split from the group in 1989 marked the start of a noteworthy solo career, with his first album “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” launching in 1990. A year later, he solidified his reputation with “Death Certificate,” reaching number two on the Billboard 200 chart.
Branching out into acting, Ice Cube showed his versatility across a range of films from the poignant drama in “Boyz n the Hood” to the comedic charm of “Are We There Yet?”. He demonstrated action prowess in “Three Kings,” which earned him a Blockbuster Entertainment Award for Favorite Action Team.
British rapper Michael Ebenezer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr., known as Stormzy, began his ascent in the music industry in 2010. By 2017, he had gained profound recognition with his debut album, “Gang Signs & Prayer,” which soared to the top of the UK Albums Chart and garnered widespread critical praise.
Stormzy’s influence in the British music scene was further cemented at the 2018 BRIT Awards, where he was honored as the British Male Solo Artist and his debut album was celebrated as the British Album of the Year. His ensuing successes were marked by his 2020 Brit Award for the hit single “Vossi Bop,” a track from his subsequent album, “Heavy Is the Head.”
LL Cool J
James Todd Smith, better known as LL Cool J, skyrocketed to hip-hop eminence after his initial album “Radio” hit the scene in 1985. His follow-up album “Bigger and Deffer,” and especially the trailblazing single “I Need Love,” showed the world a new dimension of rap; tender and emotive—characterizing him as one of hip-hop’s first artists to capture hearts with rap ballads.
Alongside his musical achievements, LL Cool J also carved out a significant acting career. Audiences widely recognize him for his portrayal of Special Agent Sam Hanna on the small screen, where he co-stars in “NCIS: Los Angeles,” demonstrating his versatile talent.