Which Rapper Reached the Highest Apex?
Ranking the 10 Greatest Three-Year Peaks in Hip-hop History
One of the ways Hip-hop heads measure a rapper’s legacy is by the length of their prime; this approach separates good rappers, whose time atop the game is fleeting, from legends who’ve remained relevant for ten-plus years. That being said, a more accurate measurement of a rapper’s greatness is their apex — the period in which an MC is operating at the absolute peak of their powers.
Here are the ten greatest in rap history…
10. Ice Cube (1990–92)
Credentials: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990), Death Certificate (1991), The Predator (1992)
Ice Cube’s reign atop Hip-hop is commonly overlooked, largely because it’s sandwiched between two iconic movements — N.W.A’s explosion into the mainstream with 1988’s Straight Outta Compton; and Dr. Dre breaking down the doors of pop music with 1992’s The Chronic. In 1990, after his acrimonious split with N.W.A, Ice Cube became the most important rapper on the planet with his debut album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. The album received almost no radio play and still went platinum because Cube was making rebel music soaked in politically-charged lyrics. He avoided the sophomore slump with 1991’s Death Certificate, his most-acclaimed album, no less, before succumbing to the mainstream’s demands with 1992’s The Predator. The album would become his most commercially successful, featuring the chart-topping hits “It Was a Good Day” and “Check Yo Self.” When it comes to the best three-album runs in hip-hop history, Cube’s releases in the first three years of the ’90s match up against any rapper.
9. The Notorious B.I.G. (1995–97)
Credentials: Ready to Die (1994), Life After Death (1997)
Seeing Biggie ranked behind eight other rappers, regardless of what type of list it is, demands explanation, I know. Tragically, Biggie never experienced much of an apex, what with Life After Death — the album that would’ve served as the beginning of his peak — being released just over two weeks after he passed. Still, he dominated the year of 1997, not only by way of the many Life After Death singles that burned up the charts, but also with monster features on the biggest hits of P. Diddy’s simultaneous release, No Way Out.
8. Kendrick Lamar (2015–17)
Credentials: To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), Untitled Unmastered (2016), DAMN. (2017)
As soon his 2012 debut album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was unanimously certified classic-status shortly after its release, Kendrick’s ascent from up-and-comer to best-rapper-alive was inevitable; the only surprise was that it took longer than we expected. After spending the next two years on the sideline, Kendrick returned in March 2015 with To Pimp a Butterfly. Immediately praised as one of the best albums of the 21st century, the project made Kendrick the best rapper of his generation. Still, hip-hop was divided when it came to such labels, largely due to Kendrick’s recent lack of radio airplay, which was only made worse by his closest peer’s (Drake) dominance in that arena. And so, when his third studio album DAMN. dropped in April 2017, we expected Kendrick to continue indulging niche fans whose appetite geared toward lyrics, themes, and sequencing; instead, he went left, dropping the most mainstream project of his career. While it wasn’t Kendrick’s first №1 album, it was the first to experience widespread success on the radio, housing his first chart-topping single (“HUMBLE”), as well as two more that climbed into the top-ten (“LOYALTY” and “LOVE”). With that, Kendrick was not just the best rapper; he was now the biggest.
7. Drake (2013–15)
Credentials: Nothing Was the Same (2013), If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (2015), What a Time to Be Alive (2015)
Years in the making, Drake finally snatched the throne from Kanye in the fall of 2013 with his third album Nothing Was the Same. By the start of 2015, he was amidst a 17-month run atop the genre, if not all of pop music, yet his best year, a la his apex, was just about to begin. In February, Drake dropped IYRTITL, which, by featuring the best rapping of his career, silenced the “Drake can’t rap” camp; Then in July, Drake, embroiled in the biggest hip-hop beef of the decade by way of Meek Mill’s accusations that the 6 God uses a ghostwriter, ended the feud by releasing “Back to Back”, the best diss track since Jay-Z’s “Takeover”, and the first-ever to be nominated for a grammy; In September, Drake geniously attached himself to the hottest rapper alive, Future, for a collaborative mixtape What a Time to Be Alive; And, finally, when October rolled around, Drake’s SoundCloud loosie “Hotline Bling” had peaked at №2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, while its accompanying music video became a cultural phenomenon. If we were ranking the best calendar year for a rapper, Drake’s 2015 may top the list. Commercial success aside, the most impressive thing that year was Drake’s ability to cement his claim, not only as the most popular rapper alive, which he had been for years leading up to 2015, but, for the first time since Kendrick’s debut in 2012, the best rapper alive.
6. Kanye West (2010–12)
Credentials: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), Watch the Throne (2011), Cruel Summer (2012)
Initially, the launch of Kanye’s GOOD Fridays in the fall of 2010 was seen as nothing more than a ploy to promote his upcoming fifth album; in hindsight, the weekly free giveaway is the beginning of a 24-month run that saw Kanye transform into the biggest artist on the planet. GOOD Fridays culminated in the November 2010 release of his magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album which featured Kanye at his creative and lyrical peak. Even if it was his apex, it was only the beginning, though; the following summer, Kanye linked up with his idol Jay-Z to create the biggest collaboration album in rap history, Watch the Throne; and then, in the fall of 2012, Kanye’s starpower had reached heights so great that GOOD Music’s compilation project, Cruel Summer, even while featuring Kanye operating at 50% full capacity, was enough to dominate the culture, while kick-starting two careers (Pusha T and 2 Chainz) in the process.
5. Jay-Z (1999–01)
Credentials: Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter (1999), The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (2000), The Blueprint (2001)
Hip-hop’s search for the rapper to fill Biggie’s void came to an end in 1998; it was the year that Jay-Z became a pop-star, selling five million copies of his third album Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, backed by the success of the title track. And yet, Jigga’s next two releases — Vol. 3 and the Roc-A-Fella compilation album, The Dynasty — didn’t so much as cement his claim as the ‘best rapper alive.’ It wouldn’t happen until 2001, a banner year that saw Jay-Z forever separate himself from Nas, dismantling his peer during the biggest beef since Biggie/’Pac, before releasing his career-defining fifth album The Blueprint.
4. 50 Cent (2003–05)
Credentials: Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003), Beg For Mercy (2003), The Massacre (2005)
In 2003, 50 Cent’s rise reverberated throughout hip-hop as the world witnessed the up-and-coming rapper transform into a true superstar. Everything — from his backstory to the iconic cover of his debut album — felt like it was orchestrated in a lab; if you were creating a global rap icon, 50 Cent would be it. He dominated the year unlike anything we’d ever seen, possessing the biggest song in pop music (“In Da Club”), while Get Rich or Die Tryin’ became one of the best-selling albums in history. From there, If we were ranking the best one-year apex’ ever, he’s your №1.
3. 2Pac (1995–97)
Credentials: Me Against the World (1995), All Eyez on Me (1996), The Don Killuminati: 7 Day Theory (1996)
After being released from prison in October 1995, 2Pac began an eleven-month tear through hip-hop and pop-culture at large, ending in his untimely death. By December, “California Love”, the first single off of his forthcoming album All Eyez On Me, was the biggest song in the world; the album dropped the following February, charting atop Billboard’s 200, with another №1 single (“How Do You Want It”), to boot, turning ‘Pac into the biggest and most recognizable rapper, if not artist, on the planet. By that point, he had transcended hip-hop, transforming into a generational icon. When it comes to the best apex’ in hip-hop history, while 2Pac my not be number-one, his impact on the culture puts him in a league of his own.
2. Lil’ Wayne (2006–08)
Credentials: Lil Weezy Ana Vol. 1 (2006), The W. Carter Collection (2006), The W. Carter Collection 2 (2006), Blow (2006), Dedication 2 (2006), Like Father Like Son (2006), Da Drought 3 (2007), The Drought Is Over 2 (2007), The Leak (2007), Tha Carter III (2008), Dedication 3 (2008)
Lil’ Wayne’s meteoric rise began in the final weeks of 2005, as the New Orleans native dropped Tha Carter II — at the time, his best studio album — and The Dedication — the first mixtape in the career-defining, six-part Dedication/Gangsta Grillz series. From then on, it was Wayne’s world. Over the next three years, he released 12 projects, including: nine official mixtapes, an EP of songs recorded during Tha Carter III sessions (The Leak), a collaborative album with Birdman (Like Father, Like Son), and his sixth studio album (Tha Carter III). He was the first MC to claim the ‘best rapper alive’ title belt purely off the strength of mixtapes: 2005’s The Dedication was a warning to the rest of hip-hop; 2006’s Dedication 2 solidified his superstar potential; and 2007’s Da Drought 3 placed him atop the throne. Everything culminated with the crossover success of Tha Carter III; it was Wayne’s victory lap, an album which saw him become a true pop-star. By then, it was a foregone conclusion — Lil’ Wayne, having just submitted the greatest three-year run in hip-hop history, was rap’s undisputed King.
1. Eminem (2000–02)
Credentials: The Marshall Mathers LP (2000), The Eminem Show (2002), 8 Mile Soundtrack (2002)
At the turn of the century, the ‘Best Rapper Alive’ title could no longer be argued. With the release of his sophomore album The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem was no longer just the best lyricist, but also the biggest pop-star on the planet; the album sold more than 1.78 million copies in the US in its first week alone, becoming the fastest-selling studio album by any solo artist in American music history. In 2002, Em dropped The Eminem Show — his third-straight commercial (1.3 million copies in its first-week, and 7.6 million by year end) and critical success. While the record didn’t top his previous effort creatively, it may have been more important, in that it showed the rapper coming to grips with his place atop hip-hop.
At that moment, Eminem would’ve exited hip-hop as a considerable candidate for Mount Rapmore; instead, perhaps his greatest accomplishment that year came five months later with “Lose Yourself.” Unfathomably, Eminem, who at the time was operating at his absolute apex, sounded as hungry as ever, with the track capturing the pressure to survive and the urgency to become the star he’s destined to be. “Lose Yourself” became the best song of Eminem’s career, if not one of the greatest in hip-hop history; simply, it was his ‘Jordan-over-Russell-in-the-98-Finals’ moment; and that, no matter how many misguided pop ballads he keeps churning out into his 50s, is something that will never be taken away.