The BARS still matter.
The year is at an end and it's time to celebrate some of unsung heroes. Amid cries that bars are dead, that lyrics no longer matter, it's easy to get swept up in the echo chamber. And yet some of the best lyricists in the game are steadily dropping new music, continuing to establish themselves and their dominance on the mic. In honor of their penmanship, we've assembled a list of the twelve best lyricists of 2019, in no particular order. Consider this a celebration rather than a competition, though you can feel free to offer your own perspective below.
Like the following emcees, no further words will be wasted. Here are the twelve best lyricists of the year.
Danny Brown’s status as a hip-hop auteur has never been contested. Nor has his pen game for that matter. Yet his penchant for losing himself in avant-garde and occasionally dissonant soundscapes have kept him in his own lane, where he has happily engaged in madcap worldbuilding unsupervised. On his latest, Danny linked up with the legendary Q-Tip for a back-to-basics clinic, culminating in the stellar uknowwhatImsayin? His most overtly traditional hip-hop album yet, Danny’s brilliantly rendered self-deprecation and clever imagery come alive across his various odysseys. From paying strippers with “actual change” to a disturbingly hilarious “perch-disperse” scheme, Danny’s filthy mind is quite possibly the most unique and quotable in the pantheon of greats.
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Rapsody’s Eve, like Laila’s Wisdom before it, solidified something we’ve already come to accept: the North Carolina lyricist stands, and comfortably at that, alongside today’s lyrical titans. Intellectual, witty, and savvy with the pop culture references, the density of Rap’s writing might prove daunting to some. Borderline academic, even. Yet for those who spend time unpacking her work, the reward is stimulating well beyond the typical. Poetic in its approach, Rapsody’s pen game often goes underappreciated when tallying the greats. And yet, on a purely bar-for-bar basis, it’s unlikely that many could hold a candle to her. Consider her emphatic turn on Funk Flex in which she rapped "I feel like Ava Duvernay, it's time to put a wrinkle in n***as who think they shit is straight / in the words of Nip the great, I learned you n***as out of shape / you can't manipulate the marathon just like my nipple weight / abrest of the situation, how ya'll gon' boo Drake knowing ya'll wouldn't have a boo without Drake?"
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Though Slaughterhouse has long since disbanded, the name still carries weight for those who value lyricism. And while the quartet’s most valuable player remains a contested topic, 2019 found KXNG Crooked making a pair of undeniable cases. For one, the hip-hop historian made it a mission to assert himself as the game’s most prolific contributor, his weekly drops cementing his work ethic as tireless. And second, his status as not only an elite lyricist but a wealth of creativity; the moment you might think Crook would lose focus, he returned with sharp imagery and even heavier punchlines. On the subject of bars, Crook’s mastery is that of an elder statesman, a quality occasionally mired by some of his songwriting pitfalls. And yet when it comes to the art of penmanship, there are few who can consider him equal.
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By his own telling, Westside Gunn is outclassed by both Conway and Benny The Butcher, at least where the bars are concerned. And yet, with the year he had in 2019, it might be time to raise the great orchestrator’s pedigree. Boasting an incredible run of Flygod Is An Awesome God, Hitler Wears Hermes 7, and the magnificent Griselda album WWCD, Gunn’s artistry and persona developed in tandem. Enter hip-hop’s swaggiest villain, decked out in the Balenciaga trench slash ski-mask ensemble. Lyrically, Gunn’s wheelhouse is in his detailed depictions of his environment, often plagued by visceral and borderline absurd levels of violence. His turn of phrase all but breeds quotables; look no further than “told Virgil write brick on my briiiiiick,” which ultimately led to Virgil doing exactly that. The starter pack: haute couture, street-level carnage, and a devil-may-care attitude.
It’s not uncommon to see people pining for “real hip-hop” to make a return. What is common, however, is the uncertainty with which such skeptics define “real hip-hop” to begin with. In reality, those espousing values and musical sensibilities borne from the golden era exist, and put out quality music, to this very day. Look no further than Harlem’s own Dave East, who kicked off a stacked musical campaign with his proper debut Survival. Deftly blending mainstream qualities with a lyricist’s attention to detail, East proved that there are still stories worth telling at a methodical pace; he might not be the flashiest, but for those looking for slice of life New York tales heavy on the grit, Dave East’s corner shop remains open for your perusal.
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There’s something about Young M.A. that harkens back to a simpler time. A time in which New York hip-hop was synonymous with the streets; a mainstream single was far likelier to be carried on the basis of bars, melody be damned. The mentality has remained active for M.A, who has yet to show any sign of sacrificing the integrity of her trade. And across her official debut HERstory In The Making, she does so with an effortless swagger, never hiding potential lyrical deficiencies with a flashy flow. Everything is laid bare, delivered entirely fat-free, serving her concisely penned tales at face value. One of the closest embodiments of the mixtape era wrapped in a mainstream package, Young M.A’s 2019 campaign all but solidified her presence as one of Brooklyn’s current Finest.
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Funny enough, the year’s best lyricists have also been responsible for the year’s best ad-libs. Look no further than Jim Jones, who recently blessed us with the wonderful and infectious cry of “SPOOKY!” And he didn’t stop there. El Capo found him once again solidifying himself as an arbiter of the streets, an OG summoned during a time of need. His Dipset pedigree serving as a badge of honor, Jones wasted little time in spazzing over Heatmakerz production, capitalizing on nostalgia while still bringing his A-Game in the process. Refreshingly self-aware of his era and the expectations that come with it, Jones flipped the script by keeping his original blueprint intact, resulting in one of the hardest hitting lyrical projects of the year.
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With so many modern-day rappers tackling similar themes, it’s always refreshing to hear a deviation from the norm. For Ghostface Killah, a genuine GOAT contender and one of the most imaginative minds in hip-hop, age has dulled none of his sharpness. Rather than chasing contemporary trends, Ghost has opted to remain creatively stimulated by seeking out like-minded individuals and building around them. Most recently, his unparalleled vernacular and kick-in-the-door styles of lyricism came to a head on Ghostface Killahs, an album that largely flew under the mainstream’s radar. And yet for anybody even remotely invested in the Wu-Tang movement, Tony Starks is forever worthy of attention.
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BENNY THE BUTCHER
The Butcher is coming. Never something you want to hear, especially if you’re set to be placed on the chopping block. And yet somehow, Benny’s arrival on a track is always a delightful affair. Arguably Griselda’s wisest general (keyword: arguably), Benny’s brand of ruthless patience makes him the perfect counterbalance to his groupmates. Between standout turns on tracks like “Dr. Birds” (the Timberland line comes to mind) and his lyrical toe-to-toe with Pusha T on “18 Wheeler,” Benny’s hard-hitting punchlines encapsulate hip-hop’s rawest form, born and bred on the East Coast streets. Between WWCD, The Plugs I Met, Statue Of Limitations and a collaboration with both Black Thought and Mos Def, Benny’s pedigree is no longer up for discussion.
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Mississippi lyricist Big K.R.I.T. quietly locked in an excellent year, delivering a warm-up EP in TDT before hitting with the piece de resistance, K.R.I.T. Iz Here. For whatever reason, it feels like the top-tier Southern lyricist has been overlooked all-too-often. Teetering in an interesting pocket of the mainstream, Krit has established himself as a cult hero, leading a gang of followers across his independent campaign. At this point, those who have pledged fealty have no questions about his ability. Time and time again, Krizzle has proven himself capable of holding his weight on all manner of instrumental, be it soulful or trap-inspired. Unlike some lyricists who struggle to find meaning on a track, K.R.I.T. has no trouble expressing himself conceptually, with a sharp vernacular and a globetrotter’s wisdom. Perhaps, in due time, people will begin to give K.R.I.T. his flowers for all he’s accomplished. Lest we forget, he hit “1Train” amidst a stacked cast and arguably secured the top verse - and he’s only gotten better with time.
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Given that Bandana was the album of the year, it’s no surprise to see Gangsta Gibbs sitting comfortably among his lyrical peers. Time and time again, Gibbs has proven himself to be one of the nicest in the entire game, arguably the most well-rounded emcee to be kept out of modern-GOAT contention. And yet when it comes to the bars, few can dispute Freddie’s dominance. Speaking with pure authority, Gibbs’ tales of his come-up and his imagery-heavy depictions of the drug game make him one of hip-hop’s most captivating writers. Between dropping the aforementioned instant-classic Bandana and absolutely slaughtering a freestyle on the LA Leakers, Freddie Gibbs made one thing abundantly clear: he can rap better than your favorite rapper.
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My personal pick for the lyricist of 2019, Conway The Machine continuously proved himself to be a bonafide heavyweight champ. Channeling a spirit evoking early-nineties Ghostface and Raekwon, Conway brought pure street energy to a modern-day audience, as formidable as he is clever with the lines. With a methodical and intense delivery, Conway’s depictions of violence play out like real-time ground reports. His bars hit with the force of a haymaker, as evidenced by a phenomenal turn on “Dr. Bird’s.” Where some rappers opt to prioritize flow over content, Conway strikes a graceful balance in his opening scheme, stringing together lines like “That’s just one zip, the drum rip, leave you rinsed / hide the body for a week and it's gon’ leave a stench / rappers come to my city, they gon’ need consent.” As prolific as his Griselda peers, Conway’s triumphant year has solidified him as one of gangsta rap’s key players -- if not the team captain, leading by example.