The ?Best Rapper Alive? title belt isn?t passed from one MC to the next unless it?s taken, convincingly. The transfer of power can take place on a verse, song, or album, but you know once it?s happened. In an instant, a new King is crowned, and the throne is his until a successor decides otherwise.
Since 1992, which, with the release of Dr. Dre?s The Chronic, serves as the beginning of modern hip-hop, 14 rappers have occupied the throne: Snoop Doggy Dogg, Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, DMX, Jay-Z, Eminem, 50 Cent, T.I., Young Jeezy Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Drake, and Kendrick.
Of this group, four rappers had short reigns atop the rap game: Nas (April 1994 to August 1994), DMX (May 1998 to October 1998), T.I. (November 2004 to July 2005), and Young Jeezy (July 2005 to May 2006).
The other ten MCs, though, held the title belt for much longer. And so, which rapper had the longest reign? Let?s find out.
Reign: February 1996 to March 1997
Tupac began serving his prison sentence on February 14, 1995. By the time he was released the following October, hip-hop?s pecking order had been restructured, with ?Pac on the outside looking in on Nas and Biggie?s then-shared ?Best Rapper Alive? title belt. Two months after being bailed out by Suge Knight, ?Pac made his return with ?California Love,? the Dr. Dre-assisted single from his upcoming Death Row debut, All Eyez on Me. With the first line of his verse ? ?Out on bail, fresh outta jail, California dreamin? ? ?Pac announced to the rest of the game that he was back; and, by the time the song was over, had placed rap?s crown firmly placed atop his head.
9. Jay-Z ? 1 Year and 2 Months
Reign: September 1998 to November 1999
The back-to-back deaths of Tupac and Biggie left the rap throne vacant. Their worthy usurper, Jay-Z, was expected to capture the torch with his sophomore album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, scheduled for release in November 1997, seven months after Biggie?s death. Instead, it failed to resonate commercially and critically, with Jay suffering from the age-old sophomore slump. Making matters worse, by the summer of 1998, an unlikely peer, DMX, had become the biggest rapper alive. Jay-Z returned that fall with ?Hard Knock Life,? the first single from his upcoming third album, Vol 2?Hard Knock Life. The single sold five million copies, confirming Jay-Z?s Best Rapper Alive status; he would hold the title for one year and three months, before another unlikely foe transformed into his closest competitor.
8. Snoop Doggy Dogg ? 1 Year and 5 Months
Reign: November 1992 to April 1994
The day of November 19, 1992, for me, is hip-hop?s birthday. It?s the day listeners were blessed with ?Nuthin? but a ?G? Thang,? a song so iconic that everything that came before seems ancient. As soon as Snoop burst into our stereos with, ?One, two, three and to the four,? hip-hop was never be the same. He grabbed the mantle before he was even done with his first verse, confirming his place atop hip-hop?s Mount Rushmore for the foreseeable future. The Best Rapper Alive belt was his for the entire calendar year of 1993, and didn?t change hands until Nas dropped the greatest hip-hop album of all-time in the spring of ?94.
7. Kanye West ? 1 Year and 6 Months
Reign: May 2010 to November 2011
Kanye spent the first six years of his career just missing out on the Best Rapper Alive title. When he catapulted into the mainstream with 2004?s The College Dropout, the throne was then-occupied by rap?s new King, T.I.; his follow-up, 2005?s Late Registration, had crowning-potential, but didn?t resonate on the same level as Jeezy?s recent offering, which had made him the hottest rapper alive; in 2007, while Graduation made him a pop-star, it wasn?t enough to wrestle the Best Rapper Alive title away from Lil Wayne. And so, by 2010, Kanye couldn?t be held off any longer. After spending the previous nine months in Hawaii, recording his long-anticipated fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he gave us the first taste of the project with its first single ?Power.? Finally, Kanye West was King. He would maintain the title until Drake captured it, in November 2011, with Take Care.
6. Biggie ? 1 Year and 6 Months
Reign: August 1994 to February 1996
Biggie?s 1994 debut was released in the shadow of fellow New Yorker Nas? Illmatic, an album which, only four months old at the time, was already considered the best rap debut of all-time. No matter, though. Biggie?s Ready to Die, a radio staple that was also critically-acclaimed in its own right, helped him unseat Nas as the Best Rapper Alive. His reign coincided with the most competitive era in hip-hop, not to mention highlighted by the greatest year in rap history (1995) ? Biggie spent it sitting atop the throne, without having to release an album.
5. 50 Cent ? 1 Year and 8 Months
Reign: February 2003 to November 2004
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, laid claim to the biggest song in pop music (?In Da Club?), while Get Rich or Die Tryin? became one of the best-selling albums in history. He rode this wave throughout 2004, before succumbing to T.I, then-the hottest rapper alive.
4. Eminem ? 1 Year and 10 Months
Reign: November 1999 to September 2001
The greatest testament to Eminem?s greatness is that, at a time when the GOAT (Jay-Z) was at his absolute apex, Eminem spent almost two years as the consensus Best Rapper Alive. You can go further and argue that, during Jay-Z?s five-year peak (1998?02), Eminem was superior every year. His breakthrough album, The Slim Shady LP ? released five months after Jay-Z?s career-altering Vol 2?Hard Knock Life ? wasn?t enough to overthrow Jay, but it at least confirmed that Em had next. While most point to his 2000 album, The Marshall Mathers LP, as the moment when Eminem supplanted Jay in rap?s hierarchy, it actually happened six months earlier, in November 1999, when he appeared on two tracks off Dr. Dre?s sequel to The Chronic, 2001. Eminem?s scene-stealing verses on ?Forgot About Dre? and ?What?s the Difference? were, more than anything, his coronation. In September 2001, he was forced to relinquish power to Jay-Z, on the heels of The Blueprint.
3. Drake ? 2 Years
Reign: March 2013 to March 2015
Drake grabbed the throne from Kanye, fittingly, three months after Watch the Throne dropped, with the release of his sophomore album Take Care, in November 2011. One year later, though, in September 2012, he was usurped by Kendrick, whose Good Kid M.A.A.D City was being praised as the best debut since Illmatic. Knocked from the ?1 spot by a younger peer, who was unanimously considered a superior lyricist, to boot, Drake made sure to come back hungry. Boy, did he ever. On March 7, 2013, as Kendrick was busy basking in the success of his debut, Drake announced his arrival by leaking ?5 AM in Toronto? on his SoundCloud. It?s best to imagine Drake prefacing the track by asking, ?You thought I couldn?t rap with the best? Noted. Here?s my response.? And Drake made sure to come correct. He sent a warning shot to the rap game, as well as anyone else who still doubted him, spewing ammo over a three-minute, chorus-less verse. With just one track, Drake reclaimed the throne, and would cement his occupancy six months later with Nothing Was the Same.
2. Kendrick Lamar ? 3 Years and 2 Months
Reign: March 2015 to Present
Kendrick watched Drake hold the belt for two years, knowing full-well that it was his for the taking. Two and a half months after the release of Good Kid, he returned, in March 2015, with To Pimp a Butterfly. While hip-hop expected Kendrick to re-claim the throne with a project showcasing his unmatched mic-skills, he went left, submitting a thematic masterpiece. That alone, was enough to claim the ?Best Rapper Alive? title; and he?s held it ever since, with last year?s DAMN. proving that, lyrically and artistically, he has no peers. The reign continues.
1. Lil Wayne ? 3 Years and 8 Months
Reign: September 2006 to May 2010
In the last few weeks of 2005, Lil Wayne dropped Tha Carter II. The album featured a cut called ?Best Rapper Alive,? which saw Wayne claim sole-occupancy of the throne. It felt like an empty boast, but Wayne knew before the rest of us. 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.