10 verses that put now-famous rappers on the map.
With many great rappers, you remember the exact moment you first heard their voice. Sometimes you're put on to artists by recommendations or buzz, but there's nothing quite like hearing a verse and wondering, 'Who is that?!'
Today we're compiling 10 verses that changed rappers' careers, either by being an explosive first punch, or else exponentially expanding their audience. Most of the time, this happens on guest appearances, as you're unlikely to be introduced to a successful solo artist off the strength of a single impressive verse (though there are exceptions). Mostly, it's established stars giving hungry up-and-comers 8 or 16 bars, and them knocking it out of the park, emerging from the moment with a solo career of their own.
For the purpose of this list, we're only including verses that exist on-record. We know a pre-teen Lil Wayne got his Cash Money deal off the strength of a freestyle left on Birdman's answering machine, but no record of that exists. And while the "Mayonnaise-colored Benz, I push Miracle Whips" line that allegedly curried Kanye's favor with Jay-Z exists on an early track, it was the bar, delivered in-person, not necessarily the verse on the song itself that made the impact.
We're also paying close attention to timelines. While some mainstream audiences may have heard of Kendrick Lamar for the first time on the "Buried Alive" interlude on the album version of Drake's "Marvin's Room," his commercial breakout, Section.80, had already been out in the world for a few months prior. Also important is the artist's overall trajectory. While his 2017 verse on Goldlink's "Crew" is his biggest to date, and probably the only one that entire audiences can recite word-for-word, Shy Glizzy has been putting out tapes since 2011 and already achieved some national acclaim prior. And while iLoveMakonnen absolutely murked his spot on Father's "Nokia" in April 2014, what actually blew him up was the single "Tuesday," released a few months later.
First off, here are a few that didn't quite make the cut, but we'd be remiss not to include.
Memphis Bleek on Jay-Z's "Coming of Age"
Buried at the back of Jay-Z's slow-selling debut, Reasonable Doubt, this song never quite got the shine that it deserves, which is why it's not in the top 10. But in terms of a rapper's first verse ever recorded, Bleek's on "Coming of Age" is up there with the best. The song's positioned as a seasoned hustler showing an aspiring youngster the ropes, which makes Bleek's energetic fire all the more fitting.
Gunna on Young Thug's "Floyd Mayweather"
This year, Gunna's exploded into one of the most in-demand and frequently-mimicked rappers in the game, but just two and a half years ago, no one outside of Atlanta had heard of him. Sure, he had one unsuccessful tape under the name "Young Gunna," but didn't release anything else until Drip Season surfaced just a couple of months after this 2016 spot on Young Thug's Jeffery. On "Floyd Mayweather," he's allowed to sit in with his mentor Thug as well as Gucci Mane, who played the same role in Thug's life a few years earlier (Travis Scott was added to a later version of the song). Hearing Gunna hold his own while trading bars with Thugger certainly made an impression on me.
Valee on Z Money's "Two 16's"
Chicago's Valee already made some fans with his two 2017 tapes, 1988 and VTM, but when videos of this breathless, seemingly impossible verse began to circulate at the end of last year, he blew the doors off. Three months later, he had a G.O.O.D. Music deal. Valee's not far along enough in his career yet to declare "Two 16's" a star-making moment, but it certainly put him on many peoples' radars.
10. Noname on Chance The Rapper's "Finish Line / Drown"
Chance's Coloring Book was a huge deal, becoming the first album to chart on streams alone (peaking at #8 on the Billboard 200). Before showing up for what's basically her own song on "Drown," Noname had been a poet who occasionally popped up on Chance songs. Two months later, she had her own mixtape, Telephone, out. At the end of the year, she was on Saturday Night Live to perform the show-stopping "Drown" verse. It was probably sometime around then when Noname realized she might want to be a rapper first, poet second.
9. Freeway on Jay-Z's "1-900-Hustler"
Unlike the Jay of the Reasonable Doubt era, circa-2000 Jay was a bankable star. His posse album released that year, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia went straight to #1, so many more ears heard what was the on-record debut of Philly's Freeway. Brought to Jay's attention by hometown pal Beanie Sigel, Freezer stunned on "1-900-Hustler." Not only was he awarded the coveted final verse, but he was given twice the space of Jay and Memphis Bleek's verses, 16 bars to their eight apiece. A few years later, he was all over the State Property soundtrack and saw his first album debut in a top-five position.
8. Lupe Fiasco on Kanye West's "Touch The Sky"
Lupe was ping-ponging around in label purgatory in 2005, having been dropped from Arista before dropping a debut album and not yet having signed to Atlantic on a deal brokered by Jay-Z. He had released his first Fahrenheit 1/15 tape, but it wasn't until Kanye West got wind of his "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" remix that he caught his big break. "Touch The Sky" was a successful single on Late Registration, and a year later, Fiasco was finally able to put out his acclaimed debut, Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor.
7. Earl Sweatshirt on "Earl"
The only verse on this list that doesn't come on someone else's song, "Earl" got similar increased-attention because of his Odd Future affiliation. In early 2010, Tyler The Creator had already popped off with the previous Christmas' Bastard, which featured Earl on one track. He only had one other verse before his debut tape arrived the following March, and it was on a relatively unmemorable (by comparison) Mellowhype track. As soon as he opened his mouth on the opening title track of Earl, you couldn't forget him. Barely a month over 16, this kid's grisly lyrics were overshadowed by his tightly-wound flows, which is saying something. By the time he was all over OFWGKTA's collective tape Radical that summer, everyone knew he was a problem.
6. Big L on Lord Finesse's "Yes You May (Remix)"
Prior to this, Big L had only recorded demos. His first official release was this B-side to a 1992 Lord Finesse single, which doesn't sound like a vehicle for mass appeal, but it was what started him on the track to becoming one of the most revered lyricists in New York. Having only released this and another guest verse on a Showbiz & AG album, Columbia signed him in 1992. Off of two. Recorded. Verses.
5. AZ on Nas' "Life's A Bitch"
This is always a popular choice for best guest verse of all-time, but the thing that keeps it down in the middle of our top ten is the fact that AZ is also a popular choice for most under-appreciated rapper of all-time. He came out guns blazing on Illmatic, making his on-record debut with an incendiary verse that overshadowed Nas' on "Life's A Bitch." To date, it remains his best-known accomplishment.
4. Nas on Main Source's "Live at the Barbeque"
Another track that wasn't exactly a hit single, but is still wildly impressive for an on-record debut is Main Source's "Live at the Barbeque," which was a 17-year-old Nas' first taste of wax. A good old-fashioned posse cut, the least seasoned of the spitters actually gets to go first here, and with good reason. It's easy to see why Nas secured a deal with Columbia one year later and went on to produce a classic debut in '94.
3. Nicki Minaj on Kanye West's "Monster"
By the time "Monster" hit in October 2010, Nicki had far more music and clout than any other rapper on this list did, at the time of their career-making verse. She was already co-signed by Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane, signed to Young Money, and had around 10 charting singles, but all of that combined still didn't make half the dent this verse did. She comes on the biggest rap album of the year, alongside Jay-Z nonetheless, and completely sucks the air out of the room. Using more accents and deliveries than most rappers do in their entire careers, she immediately became recognized as a force to be reckoned with on the mic.
2. Busta Rhymes on A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario"
Speaking of popping up on an established act's song and making it your own, Busta's breakout moment was his complete domination of the second half of "Scenario." Appearing as a member of Leaders of the New School (the two other members also appeared on this song, in case you forgot), he made his case as the most talented rapper of the posse, Tribe included. LotNS had one mediocre-selling album out at the time, but it would only be a year after "Scenario" that the group broke up on-air during Yo! MTV Raps, allegedly due to Busta stealing the spotlight. Years, later no one remembers Charlie Brown and Dinco D, and everyone remembers Busta as one of the most talented, successful rappers of the later '90s.
1. Snoop Dogg on Dr. Dre's "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang"
It was tough to decide between this and "Deep Cover," the Dre song on which Snoop made his actual debut, but then I was reminded that "G Thang" was a #2 hit nationwide (hilariously enough, the song that kept it off the top spot was Snow's "Informer"). That makes it easily the biggest hit on this list, with Kanye and Lupe's "Touch The Sky" trailing distantly behind at #42. The world was introduced to one of the best rappers ever all at once— rap fans had no doubt caught wind of the buzz off of "Deep Cover," released nine months prior, but this was as quick as a coming-out party a rapper's ever had. Who else has seen their second-ever song hit #2 in the country?